‘I am summer, come to lure you away from your computer… come dance on my fresh grass, dig your toes into my beaches.’ -Oriana Green
A Midsummer Reverie in Kraków aka Cracow
Unloading my grocery cart this morning in my tiny kitchen in our tiny apartment in Kraków, a cornucopia of colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables spilled over my counter. Just a 4-minute walk from our building, is one of the bigger outdoor farmer’s market, called a targ in Polish. Here you can shop for your fix of splendid summer produce that is so indigenous to the Polish diet. In June, the aisles of the crowded market stalls are alive with the aroma and color of fresh strawberries and cherries being scooped from their wooden trays with a large plastic paddle. On the advent of summer, we overdose on the manic strawberries and the prolific cherries but they will soon be gone and followed by the next wave of bounty from the July garden.
The early summer garden is an ambrosial precursor to the Summer Solstice. Although the Solstice actually occurs on only one night, June 21st followed by the longest day of the year on June 22, it is celebrated with a weeklong festival in Kraków. In origin, it is a spiritual celebration with a potpourri of heritage from the Celtic, Slavic, and Scandinavian. Deep roots in old pagan customs, folk traditions, and church calendars create a labyrinth of modern and ancient celebratory practices.
The shortest night of the year is called Noc Kupała (kno-cy cu-pa-wa). The night’s ritual celebrates the elements of fire, water, the moon, the sun, love and fertility. At the Krakus Mound (Kopiec Krakusa), in the Podgórze section of Kraków, mysterious rites are performed derived from ancient, non-Christian liturgy. The curious Krakus Mound is a tumulus or burial hill thought to be the resting place of Kraków’s mythical founder, King Krakus. According to one hypothesis, the mound, which was once ringed with four smaller mounds, is of Celtic origin dating from the 1st or 2nd century BC, a perfect setting for midsummer madness.
About the Krakus Mound: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krakus_Mound
In the 21st century, bonfires, chanting, prayer, dancing, and revelling are carried on into the night. People jump over flames to cleanse and protect against evil and bad fortune. Young women, dressed in white with wreaths of flowers in their unbound hair, go down to the river and float lit candles set in flower wreaths in the slowly moving waters as twilight and candlelight reflect in their faces. Another tradition involves searching for the fern flower, a legendary flower that only blooms on this one night. Under the pretext of searching for the elusive flower, young women head into the woods followed by young men. If the young man comes out of the forest wearing the young lady’s wreath, it is a sign that the two are joined and committed.
The Christian St. John’s Day Eve, initiated by the Catholic Church, overlaps the old pagan revelry by proclaiming that St John the Baptist, the patron of the feast day, baptized followers with water which is why on this evening, water is consecrated to protect against evil. In Polish cities, events are organized on St. John’s Eve (June 23) and in Krakow, they include the annual Wianki celebration a unique cultural extravaganza of music, theater, and pyrotechnics.
The Concerts, The Fireworks, The Wianki
On St. John’s Night, Kraków holds a magnificent citywide celebration called Wianki (Vee-on-key). Wianki means wreath. The festival is named after the tradition of weaving wreaths from the available flora of the fields, meadows, and woods and then either wearing them all day or floating them down the Wisła river. During Wianki Weekend, beautiful wreaths worn on your head are a fashion statement. On the crowded lanes and parks, you will see girls, young and old, wearing all manner of wreaths, from simple paper flower headbands to beautiful blowsy flowered wreaths tied with lovely satiny ribbons that trail down the back. Many wear the naturally constructed wreaths of wildflowers, ferns and grasses that are endemic to the old ways. There is a wreath-making workshop and a contest for the most beautifully designed wreaths as worn on the heads of some beautiful women, old and young.
The Right Musical Venue
On Wianki Saturday, there were eight different stages set up for the public to enjoy music and culture. They were scattered widely throughout the city. And there were to be fireworks on the river under the castle walls at about 10.45 pm. How to choose? Homework and planning was done online but a course in bilocation was in order. The programs at each venue were in different styles of music. And although I love jazz, that program was held in Nowa Huta; way outside the Old Town and a tram ride too far when you want to be back on the river for the fireworks.
So it was off to explore a street fair on Stolarska Street which is a sort of Embassy Row here in the Old Town. The U.S., French and German embassies all stand on that lovely old street. The embassies had booths set up with informational literature, little plastic country flags and of course, bookmarks. Wow, plastic and paper handouts from the embassies! Tacos were being served from a food truck a la Americaine. There was an American band: Stan Breckenridge and His Boys, which was kinda hip-hop, blues, and 3-dog night. I felt compelled to leave when I heard the lead singer trying to get everyone to join with a request for syncopation. When he repeated the word ‘syncopation’ in what he thought was “Polish”, that youthful American became a little too ‘condescending’ to engage my enthusiasm.
There was also a tag football team in motion wearing gold ‘Kings’ uniforms and fully padded regalia. They were actually passing and throwing a football on this busy street and they were missing the passes. I ducked in time but I was Gone Girl from Stolarska Street.
In the Main Square, the Rynek, there was a very big stage and a very large security component screening and enclosing the audience behind fencing. Performing there was a band called the “Sorry Boys”. They have a very talented female lead singer. The band is Warsaw-based and very popular in Poland. I actually like their music. But not wanting to clear security left me standing so very far from the stage. After a few minutes, I buckled and went over to the smaller Sczepanska Square to check out the action there.
Listen to “Evolution” with the Sorry Boys:
A classical concert was in progress in this little square back of the main action. There was a complete chamber orchestra known as the Sinfonietta Cracovia, the Orchestra of the Royal Capital City of Krakow. The music, a Paderewski concerto, was drifting across the square as the old Italian Renaissance buildings looked down on us under a blue sky. The conductor, Jurek Dybał, was a delight to watch. The audience was a mix of young and old, relatively quiet and very attentive. I was lucky to find a spot in the shade leaning on the security fencing and continued to be entranced by a piece called Orawa (Wojciech Kilar).
Then the featured pianist entered, a tall young man with a shock of dark hair, and there was a little buzz that moved through the local crowd: a kind of assurance of “now you will hear something fine”. The pianist was Szymon Nehring, a 21-year old superbly gifted musician who studied at the local music academies here in Kraków. There was a brightness and clarity in his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor even in this outdoor venue. Mesmerized, I stood at attention through the whole concert and my sciatica did not complain. Thanks for the music in June, dear city of Kraków. And thanks for introducing me to Szymon Nehring.
Szymon Nehring received the Gold Medal at the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master competition in May 2017. He also won the International Chopin Medal in 2016. This video is of Nehring performing the Chopin Piano Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0DW4YOHBf8
That same evening, we joined some friends at a restaurant on a boat on the Wisła under the Wawel castle. A very lovely setting on a very lovely evening. Kraków has a talent for providing some daring and amazing pyrotechnics. We arrived around 8.30 and together watched the day fade so slowly. At 10, it was still light. At 10.30 the sky is darkened but not enough for fireworks. At 10.45, comments circle round that they will start soon. At 11.00 a burst of light and everyone shouts and jumps from their seats to watch from the railing as the display opens up right above our heads and fills the sky from one end of the castle to the other. I looked around and everyone was either smiling with their faces to the sky or holding their phones aloft. As the layers of the performance worked through with the music in perfect syncopation, the air filled with smoke and bits of ash fell on our heads and on our eyeglasses. When the last wave of lights cleared, the sky was dark but filled with smoke and after the thunderous explosions, the applause sounded stifled in the abrupt silence. We shared our videos afterwards. But in truth, the beauty and excitement of it could not be captured on a Smartphone. Kraków never fails to amaze us. Best firework display ever!
For more on Krakow feasts and festivals: http://www.inyourpocket.com/poland/Midsummers-Night_72214f
The Lajkonik, Another Festival Uniquely Kraków
The Thursday after Corpus Christi*, called Bożego Ciało* in Poland, is followed by the Lajkonik (lie-con-ick) party. Lajkonik? Yes, here comes another legend from the old history of Kraków. The city resisted a Tatar invasion in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Lajkonik is a man dressed up as a Tatar warrior from the east. He wears a black beard, a pointed hat, a very fancy frock, carries a golden scepter, and rides a white hobbyhorse. Through the day, he weaves the city streets from the Norbertine Convent in Zwierzyniec to the Main Market Square in the Old Town. People in Mongol folk dress accompany him. It is a frolicking, jolly procession followed by musicians, children, and revelers. On his merry way, the Lajkonik touches people with his golden mace that is said to bring good luck. At the Town Hall, the mayor of Kraków presents the Lajkonik with a pile of ransom money which pleads, “Be nice and don’t invade us”. They drink a toast to the well being of Kraków. Music and dancing continues on a special stage erected at the Old Town Hall on the Main Square. The Lajkonik trots around on the stage with the dancers and singers who are dressed in the special regional folk costumes.
This festival is uniquely Kraków, bound in the city’s history of invasions from the East. One version of the folk tale which tells how the Lajkonik came to be, has the Tatars arriving at the city gates at night, but choosing not to attack the city until morning. They camp along the river where local citizens spy them. They decide to play a joke on the city and steal some clothing from the Tatar camp, dress up and enter the city gates faking it as Tatars on horses. They bounded about and scared the populace until their true identity was discovered. The Lajkonik is kind of a bogeyman. Children in Kraków are warned: “Be good or the Lajkonik will come for you”
* The feast of Corpus Christi is a religious holiday, a moveable feast tied to whenever Easter, another moveable feast, has occurred that year. It is a big holiday with outdoor processions, priests in white and gold vestments, children dressed in white, rose petals thrown into the path of the procession and outdoor altars erected for stops along the way.
The weather has finally deigned to be consistent with the concept of ‘SUMMER’. The Lajkonik is prancing in and out of farmer’s market stalls and bopping people on the head with a mace. Girls are wearing and floating wianki (wreaths) down the Wisła. Followers of the old religion are building bonfires near ancient hills. All day music binges on huge outdoor stages are wafting melodies into the old architectural eaves where swallows are flushed out to fly in the evening skies. The little birds take to the sky with their own harmony and song. People assemble for fireworks on the riverbank under an old castle where children chase each other with illuminated Jedi sabers. And on Sunday afternoon, there is an air show at the Aviation Museum, if you still have strength left. Yes, June is the month to be in Kraków. And, while you are in Poland, make time for Wrocław, Sopot, Gdansk and Warsaw, cause who the heck knows what might be going on there. One thing I’m sure of: Poland really knows how to welcome and celebrate the summer. Happy Solstice from a couple of pagans in Poland!
This was when the whole world measured time
This is when the light would turn around
This is where the past would come undone
and the spinning earth will mark a new beginning
Let’s go back in time, to when it all began
To the breaking of new dawns
Where moments bright with fire, would light the chanting song
Where pagans worshipped sun, and danced among the trees Wore strange masks of covered straw, and blessed cold ash with awe Wreaths hung upon the door against all spirit’s, dire
and when the winter’s grasp let go, the sun reversed the pyre
This was when the whole world measured time
This is when the light would turn around
So that spring arrives, and seeds will sprout and grow
Oh, radiant sun, stretch the day, shorten night
Return earth’s darkness into light
This is where the light will turn around
And this was where the past has comes undone -Carrie Richards
My husband, Greg Spring is a photographer and most of the photos are his work.
For more of Greg Spring’s photos from our travels in Europe, see Assignment 2017 at the following link: http://bit.ly/2oGmtX6
Wanderlusting Dreams is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2017. Please let us know how you like our travelogues.