“Please Don’t Eat the Help” ― Tyrion Lannister, Season 6, Game of Thrones
The Legend of the Kraków Dragon
It was not only the ancient capital, Westeros, which was associated with dragons; the ancient capital, Kraków, was also called the city of dragons. Kraków, a non-fictitious city in Poland, was founded over the cave of an ancient dragon – or so the legend goes.
Prince Krak who is sometimes called King Krak depending on which legend you read, killed the dragon. The city, Kraków, is tribute to his name. The old dragon cave remains beneath the castle, called Wawel, which is set high on a rocky limestone outcrop over the river Wisła (V-slaw) or Vistula River in English. One of the tours inside the Wawel castle takes you down narrow staircases winding between rocky walls to the depths of this dragon cave. Tourists climb down, wander the cavern, and then pop right out into the sunlight near the banks of the river, with the castle walls towering above. The statue of the dragon stands there outside the mouth of the cave, in effigy, spouting real fire in arbitrary intervals. Kids climb nearby on the limestone cliffs that support the castle walls. It is idyllic.
The Wawel Hill has archaeological remains as far back as the 4th century but when the dragon lived here is unclear. He was named Holophagus (means ‘man-eater’), and purportedly was one of the last surviving dragons of the world. The dragon was a murderer and so he was murdered. Prince Krak had some oxen filled with sulphur and tar. The poisoned oxen were fed to the dragon along with his daily dose of cattle, sheep and possibly a girl or two. His stomach developed a very uncomfortable burning sensation, which compelled him to drink the river water. He expanded far beyond his ‘full’ setting and he exploded just like a big dragon balloon. And the villagers rejoiced to be rid of him. No fire and sword battles for the kill, just some tainted beef and some rotten eggs. And so it goes.
When Prince Krak, the Dragon Slayer died, the peasants erected a monument to him by engineering a grand, very tall, hill which still stands today a way off from the old city center. It is called the Krakus Mound. Once the mound was erected and secured, a huge funeral pyre was built. These were pagan times and pagan customs ruled the day. The peasants had a banquet and partied at the mound in honour of their noble, brave Prince Krak.*
*Some of this legend can be found in the book “Tracing the Dragon” by Mariusz Wollny. There are many variations of the legend, but at its core the legend of the Kraków Dragon and Prince Krak endures.
Today, when you walk the markets and shops of Kraków, you can find many souvenirs featuring dragons in plush, keychain, magnet, figurine, t-shirt, and mug. The dragon is one of the many iconic symbols of the city seen in gargoyles and sculpted into archways over beautiful old doors. Hanging next to the Wawel cathedral’s entrance are the said bones of the Smok Waweleski (Polish for the Wawel Dragon). Even if they might be only whale bones, they have been imbued with mythological powers.
The Festival of the Dragon – 2017
A Dragon Festival is held in Kraków every year on the first weekend of June. It starts on Saturday with the Dragon’s Family Picnic (the irony!) which takes place on one of the long promenades that edge the Wisła River right below the towering limestone cliffs and red brick walls of the Wawel castle and the dragon cave. The picnic is one big fun fair with lots of vendors selling food, treats, crafts, balloons, and toys for the kids. It is a very kid-friendly event; much of the venue is dedicated to small-scale fun rides, bouncy houses, carnival games, and characters designed to delight the small fry.
Fairs in Poland are noted for the uniquely Polish crafts and food. As you stroll to the fair, the air is full of the aroma of open fire grills roasting sausages, kebabs and pig’s knuckle, called gołonka (go-wonka) alongside taters, mushrooms, and sauerkraut accompanied by big slabs of grainy rye bread. How old Dragon Holophagus would have enjoyed those open grills! And I’m sure his introduction to Polish pierogis and Belgian waffles would have been interesting and terrifying. However, Holophagus, with his exploding belly, might steer clear of the summer beers, seasonal varieties that are sometimes enhanced with the flavor of fruit or citrus. And the villagers might cheer for the legacy of the never-ending party to honor Prince Krak and his dragon.
Here are two links for the real deal on traditional Polish kielbasa and pierogi: http://culture.pl/en/article/polish-food-101-kielbasa and http://culture.pl/en/article/polish-food-101-pierogi
In the evening, as the sun went down, which in itself is a beautiful event when you are on the historic shores of the Wisła River crowned by the towering grand, old castle, the dragon festival readied for the dramatics of evening. The pre-show featured aerial events by the Flying Dragons, a para-sailing acrobatics group, who came drifting in over the water and our heads like very large soaring mosquitoes under full sail. They used motorized accelerators to perform their stunts. The artistic formations and decorative smoke circling the crowds of waiting, cheering spectators were awesome. I loved the low rattling hum they produced as they maneuvered overhead, very reminiscent of humming, thrumming dragons surveying their territory.
Next, what appeared to be water skiers were lifted into the air over the river by powerful sprays of water. They hovered, danced, cavorted and dived. This display became even more dramatic when it was lit by laser lights and spotlights with musical accompaniment. Unfortunately, we were at one of the opposite edges of the castle, and were only able to view snippets of this show as it weaved and wound its way through the river at the main stage area. We were a bit disappointed and a bit bored. There were hundreds of people lining the castle wall and hilly lawns that were also not in the center stage. I wonder how much of the show they were able to see.
The rest of the evening’s entertainment was designed as more of a theatrical stage show attended by fireworks. Unfortunately, the grounds around the castle are wider than a theatrical stage by a few football fields. The Wawel castle complex vies for 4th place in the list of largest castles: 55,932 square meters within the castle walls, and that does not include the outer perimeters, cliffs, lawns, and tiered walkways. It is a massive venue to produce a show for viewing by hordes of people.
The whimsical, artful dragon balloons were in their holding pens directly across from us on the river. We were on the top deck of a moored river boat and were able to watch them being inflated in the daylight. The dragons twisted and cavorted in the early evening breezes. Then under the cover of night, they were boarded onto their barges. Once it was time for the fireworks/laser show and the battle of the dragons, they sailed by us in total darkness to their stage entrance just down wind. We could see only their silhouettes on the barge as they gently swayed to the wind and wave and floated to the wings of the river stage to make their entrance.
If the barges had been lit as they carried their dragon cargo, all spectators could have had a role in the viewing of the dragons as they became battle-ready. But alas, they were not lit. Dark as a dragon’s cave it was across the river where we stood.
During the performance, the dragons did not fly to any great height above the barges. I wanted to yell “higher, higher!” as they drifted in the easy air at center stage to the strains of music, lights and fireworks. The fireworks were visible above their dragon heads along with flashing waves of laser light. This was the dance of the dragons, not very large dragons, not very high-flying and a little crowd-shy. There were about a dozen different monsters, each a different color and design, each a set act accompanied by many brash, harsh, soundtracks that could make an eardrum burst. I was wishing for the buffering to fly in for those speakers or for some sound technician to magically create some balance and soften up those hard acoustic edges or maybe ear plugs would have solved the problem.
The fun was in being with friends on a boat that served food and drinks, watching fireworks, in spite of being too far from the action. The off-stage barge activity kept us guessing, the crowds in front of this vast castle and lawn were magnificent, the soundtrack was none too comfortable but at least a dragon would not eat us.
Festival Parade Day
On Sunday, the parade of dragons marched throughout the Old Town. There were many dragons to follow. Sweet yet terrifying dragon puppets and the balloons from the dance of the dragons show marched to the accompaniment of beating drums. Some dragons had been designed by professional puppeteers from the Teatr Groteska. But others were designed by hundreds of participating children from all over Poland. The children’s dragons were competing in a contest for best, finest, and most creative dragon.
The entire populace was vested in this extravaganza as it completely dominated the Old Town. Within what were once the Old Walls of the medieval city, adults and children cheered the colorful dragons as they flounced and strutted.
When Greg and I were living in the United States and were making our plans to move to Kraków, this was one of the events we used to follow on the Internet. With a good deal of excitement, we would talk of the day when we would view the dance of the dragons on the Vistula River. For us, 2017 was finally our year for the dragon festival, a weekend of good weather, good friends, and good frolic with dragons in Kraków. It was apropos in the spirit of the medieval heart of the city with its grand Italian renaissance buildings, cobbled ways, and most beautiful market square. Long live Kraków, Hail to Prince Krak!
“When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who have wronged me! We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground! Turn us away, and we will burn you first.” ― Daenerys Stormborn, Game of Thrones
The dragon festival is organized and designed by the Teatr Groteska of Kraków. This theater company is a longstanding venue for kids’ and adults’ puppetry shows. They are avant-garde in theme. Their website is entirely in Polish. I’m including the link here: http://www.groteska.pl/
For more of Greg Spring’s photos from our life 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.