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Kings, Grand Dukes, Town Councils and Tsars 1: Krakau

POLAND | Sunday, 5 June 2022 | Views [99]

King and Dragon, Wawel Hill

King and Dragon, Wawel Hill

Kings, Grand Duke, Town Councils and Tsars: A Brief Excursion to Historical Northeastern Europe

 Originally, I had planned on including Lviv and Kiev in my itinerary to medieval cities in Northeast Europe, but the war in the Ukraine changed my plans in a number of ways.  The original focus of the tour was to see if I could find remnants of the ancient goddess traditions, but given the current situation, I wanted to understand how dramatically the war is affecting Ukraine’s European neighbors and the Baltic countries that were also under Tsarist Russia and Soviet control.  In this light, the short trip was well worth it as I learned more than I could have imagined from the people as well as the museums and places of worship.

 Not having ever looked into the history of this region, other than how it affected the Austrian and Habsburg past, in my mind I had lumped all three Baltic nations, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into one intertwined entity, divided by individual traditions and language, but basically one shared historical perspective. Poland, to my mind, was more associated first with Prussia and then with Russia rather than its neighbor to the north, Lithuania. This turned out to be incredibly false and once again a telling reminder that first one should try to understand local historical contexts before making any assumptions, especially when making political, social or economic decisions. While there appear to be a number of overlaps between Poland and the Baltic nations, there are historically two distinctly separate alliances, namely Catholic Poland with Catholic Lithuania and the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights and Hanseatic League Lutheran Latvia with Protestant Estonia, although Estonia had a more troubled struggle towards independent nationhood that any of the others. Poland and Lithuania were joined through marriage, family ties and political alliances from 1316 to 1795 when at the Union of Lubin, Prussia, Russia and Austria divided up the former Commonwealth. During the same period Estonia was tossed and bartered back and forth among Denmark, Sweden, the Teutonic Order, and Muscovite Russians. As a child of the Cold War growing up in the U.S., in my mind these countries were grey colored by Soviet occupation with their individual traditions buried under Soviet control. In the thirty years since independence, the cultural and ethnic traditions and languages are flourishing. The fear of losing them given Putin’s invasion of a similar independent nation is palpable. The three capital cities that I visited on this trip, Krakau, which was historically the capital of the Kingdom of Poland, Vilnius and Tallinn showcase their pre-1944 histories in the museums different ways, yet all have museums dedicated to the atrocities committed by the former tsarist regimes and the Soviet KGB. Solely, Tallinn showcases the grandeur that Peter the Great’s era brought to the Baltic region with the palace he commissioned at Kadriorg and its surrounding gardens. The garden and palace, however, in no way mask the abhorrence for the atrocities committed by the Tsars and Soviets on the people of Estonia.


The city was first associated with the Bohemian state under Boleslaw the Brave. In the 10th C., the Bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert, visited him in Cracow and had the first church built, perhaps on the spot where his namesake’s church now stands at the corner of the Market Square.  Old Town Krakau lies on the banks of the Vistula River beneath the Wawel Castle on the Wawel Hill. The Kings of Poland and Grand Dukes of Lithuania lived and ruled from the castle on the hill for centuries. The townspeople lived in the former walled city with its focal point the Market Square with the Sukiennice, the market hall, and St. Mary’s Church. The church is a spectacular Gothic structure with amazing architecture inside and out. There is a fee to get up close to the Veit Stoss 1481 altar, and it was interesting to see how Stoss’ northern Germanic style is different from the South Tyrolean Michael Pacher altar in St. Wolfgang from the same year. Both are beautifully carved and painted winged altars highlighting the crowning of the Virgin Mother Mary.  St. Mary’s is just one of many incredible churches in Krakau. As the city has suffered through fires and plague, during which most of the former wooden structures were destroyed, many of the churches now display a variety of architectural styles.  The Gothic exteriors often clothe Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo interiors. A few have Neo-Classical exteriors.  Some of the most visually vibrant were St. Florian’s, just across from the statue celebrating the Polish-Lithuanian victory over the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The statue is just outside the Barbican fortress which functions as a gateway to the Old Town. St. Florian’s Rococo interior is spectacular and a complete contrast to the Flamboyant Gothic 1222 exterior of the Holy Trinity Church with its traditional Gothic interior. Going from huge to smaller interiors, the Poor Claire’s are responsible for the very Baroque altar in St. Andrew’s next door to the more Renaissance Saints Peter and Paul Church.  An even more opulent Baroque altar is in Bernardynov at the foot of Wawel Hill.  The main Cathedral for the royals is at the Castle and photography is not allowed inside. Outside the Old Town walls in what is predominantly the Jewish section is the Basilica of St. Sebastian of Skalka. Annually, the relics of St. Sebastian, a local saint, canonized in the 13th C., are carried in a procession from Wawel Castle Cathedral to the Skalka Church. During the reign of the Polish kings, there was also a tradition of their making a pilgrimage to the Skalka Church prior to their coronation to ask for forgiveness for their predecessor’s sins.

Legends abound in Krakau and the Ethnographic Museum, the undercroft in St. Florian’s, and plaques in the castle tell of tales of people and dragons.  The one at the castle of a dragon is very similar to the Salzkammergut legend of the Dragon of Lauffen.  In both, a dragon was terrorizing the people of the city but none of the officials or soldiers could overcome it. A young man/boy came up with the idea to offer the dragon a bull filled with lime or sulfur. When the dragon ate what he thought was a feast, he became very thirsty and drank lots of water. The water caused the lime/sulfur to solidify and explode, thereby killing the beast.  There is a dragon’s lair passage in a series of caves below the castle. A recent bronze sculpture of the dragon has been added near the exit towards the river.  One legend I especially liked, was the one that said that the birds in Market Square were knights who were turned into pigeons when Prince Henry IV Probos needed funds to travel to Rome to ask the pope to crown him. The prince made a deal with a witch who made the funds available, but held his knights as collateral until he returned. She turned them into pigeons to keep them in the center of town. The princely wastrel started out on his journey but got side-tracked by wine, women and song and never made it to the holy city. The pigeons still greet those who arrive in the square faithfully awaiting their prince’s return.

Krakau is home to the oldest university in Poland, Crakow University was founded in 1364 by King Casimir the Great. The original university had three faculties: philosophy, medicine and law. The first university ended with the death of its founder, but was reborn as the Jagiellonian University by King Ladislaus, the originator of the dynasty by that name. in 1400. They added theology to the original three faculties.  Today tours through the facility are available, including through the Copernicus Room, in which he probably didn't study, but may have in the library next door. 

Krakau traditionally had a large Jewish population. Schindler’s Factory as well as Auschwitz and Berkinau are not far from the Old Town.  The main Jewish section was Kazimieriz with the oldest synagogue in Poland. The synagogue is now a museum.  On the way to the synagogue one passes a couple of plaques on the walls that provide interesting tidbits of information, including that Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph II visited the area and the street to the synagogue is named after him, and that more recently Helena Rubenstein of Rubenstein cosmetics fame was born in Kazimierz.

Krakau is a fascinating and beautiful city. It is no wonder the Kings of Poland chose this location as their capital.

From 1316 until 1564 The Kings of Poland were from the Geminidas Dynasty that was founded in Vilnius by the one King of Lithuania, King Geminidas.


Tags: churches, cities, history, medieval towns, museums


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