I have a confession to make. I’m slightly obsessed with castles, and I knew that we had to visit Wawel Castle in Krakow. (Long term readers won’t be very surprised – I have form in this area – exploring them, staying in them, insisiting my family stop at them on car trips etc.)
Wawel Castle is a sprawling patchwork of history – personal and political stories that you can explore on foot. I learned that the Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill constitute the most historically and culturally significant site in the country.
Pratically speaking its about a 10-15 minute walk from the Krakow Old Town, and well worth leaving an hour or two for, especially on a sunny afternoon like the one that we were lucky to have.
The Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) is a famous dragon in Polish folklore. His lair was in a cave at the foot of Wawel Hill on the bank of the Vistula River. It was defeated during the rule of Krakus, by his sons according to the earliest account; in a later work, the dragon-slaying is credited to a cobbler named Skuba.
This hill is where the castle sits, proud above the city, with a litany of architectural odes to the fierce marauder – from gold patterend tower scales to the way the buildings sinuously stretch. Oh, and a fire breathing statue down nearer to the river.
Fun fact – the castle, being one of the largest in Poland, represents nearly all European architectural styles of medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. In fact, in 1978 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the historic centre of Kraków.
Our tour guide told us (fairly bitterly) how Hitler wanted to use the castle as a base of action, so it was spared a lot of bombing during the world wars, and that a good portion of the newest buildings are Italianate in style, rather than typically local. (See below.)
As the political and cultural heart of Poland through the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle is a potent symbol of national identity. It’s now a museum containing five separate sections: Crown Treasury and Armoury, State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Lost Wawel and the Exhibition of Oriental Art.
Each requires a separate ticket. Of the five, the State Rooms and Royal Private Apartments are the most impressive, but to be honest, the best part is just wandering around the castle grounds – open 6am to dusk.
Each pathway is a walk back through a different chapter of Polish history and if you’re very lucky you’ll find the fire breathing dragon nearby!
Fun fact #189,003 – the dragon has seven heads, but frequently people think that it has one head and six forelegs. To the amusement of onlookers, it noisily breathes fire every few minutes, thanks to a natural gas nozzle installed in the sculpture’s mouth.
Wawel Castle is somewhere definitely worth seeing when you’re on a city break in Krakow – even with the other tourist crowds.
What’s your favourite castle?
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