Poland is a country rich with a history at once both dark and inspiring. From the days of the country's separation at the hands of its European neighbours and the well-known harrowing wartime years, to the ancient legends and medieval stories that inform the identity of its people, Poland is never short of a story to tell. When it comes to the latter - the legends and folk tales of old - there is perhaps no city with more to tell than Kraków, historical seat of Poland's kings and home to the Wawel dragon that slumbered in the cave by the flowing Vistula. True or no, it's worth spending some time reading the tales surrounding this great city, so when you next stand on the Rynek Głowny and glare up at the those two dominating gothic spires, you'll know why one is taller than the other, or why the trumpeter stops his song a little short.
The Tale of Smok Wawelski
As far as legends go this is a pretty good one. It involves a sheep, a shoemaker, some sulphur and, of course, a dangerous fire-breathing smok (dragon). The legend goes that there was a dragon, known as the Smok Wawelski, living under what's now the Wawel hill in Kraków. He terrorised the local farmers, eating livestock and damaging crops the whole year round. The King invited knights to slay the dragon, offering the rather attractive double award of his daughter's hand in marriage (she was of course bardzo piękne [very beautiful]), and the throne (after he died of course).
Unfortunately none of the knights were up to the task, and the dragon got the better of the lot. But, the legend goes that one day, a young shoemaker apprentice called Krak came up with a cunning plan to defeat the dragon. He got the carcass of a sheep and filled it with sulphur. This, he placed outside the entrance to the dragon's cave (there's a small inlet at the foot of the Wawel hill today, where the Smok Wawelski supposedly lived), and the dragon – as dragons do - quickly came out and devoured it. The flammable sulphur ignited and sent the dragon into a painful spasm, culminating with him drinking excessively from the nearby Wisła River. So full of water, the dragon exploded and Krak was successful.
In many ways this is the most important legend of Kraków, because it accounts for how the city got its name; it's Poland's Romulus and Remus if you will. But it is by no means the only legend native to this medieval city.
The Legend of the Bazylika Mariacka Towers
As you stand underneath the towering structure of the Bazylika Mariacka, on the Rynek Głowny below, you'll notice the obviously uneven height of the two gothic towers that dominate its facade. Surrounding this architectural nuance is a legend known to most all Cracowians: The legend of the two brother builders.
Supposedly, one brother, jealous at the comparative height of the opposite tower, stabbed and threw his brother from it, on to the Rynek below. There are numerous ending variations here, some tell of a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ style remorse suicide, others end with familial guilt, but the important thing is that the untimely demise of one brother is the cause of the Basilica's uneven tower frontage. (Also, see if you can spot the hanging dagger in the Sukiennice, supposedly the very instrument of fratricide.)
The Legend of Lajkonik
This is one of the city's madder and best-known traditions. It involves an eccentrically dressed, seemingly madman called Lajkonik, who crashes through the streets of the Stara Miasto (Old Town) once a year, clubbing innocent Cracowians as he goes. Supposedly, Lajkonik was the leader of a group of Cracowian sailors who managed to pre-empt an attack on their city from Tatar raiders in the pay of Ghengis Kahn. Their triumphant return to the city, decorated with the spoils of battle, is mimicked once a year with a marked intake of alcohol and flamboyant eccentricity.