By Shannon Nicole Shreve
From the moment you step off the train into the misty morning air of Krakow, you are surrounded by a city steeped in just as much legend as it has history. For each worn cobblestone in the bustling Market Square, there is a matching tale of magic or mystery that has been passed down through generations. Even the name of the city itself was handed down from the name of a valiant prince who once ruled over the city from atop Walwel Hill.
At Walwel Castle, a statue of a dragon stands guarding the entrance to an underground cavern where he is said to have lived hundreds of years ago before he was tricked into drinking himself to death at the edge of the Vistula River. Across town, in a tower of St. Mary’s Basilica, a lone trumpeter plays every hour as a real-life reminder of a trumpeter who died while warning the city of approaching invaders.
Though there are rumors of hidden jewels under the city streets, the true treasure is the people of Krakow who have told and retold their stories with pride for centuries. The hospitality of Krakow’s residents is enormous. At any number of cozy underground taverns, visitors can mingle with natives to learn how the customs of today are interwoven with the traditions – everything from the candles on the tables to the vodka at the bar – of long ago.
Yet not all of the city’s history comes from the distant past. One can easily take a walk into Krakow’s Jewish neighborhood to experience a heritage that was culturally rich, but also overwhelmed by tragedy. Nearby, the factory where Oskar Schindler helped save several Jewish lives and the former Auchwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where thousands of lives were lost bear witness to the positive and negative sides of humanity.
The life stories of these people touch and educate well into the 21st century. And they are not alone. The modern residents of Krakow continue to add their own chapters to the city’s vibrant history. In the past few decades, Krakow has seen the fall of communism and has been recognized as one of the top ten European cities of culture. It is the former home of Pope John Paul II and may soon become a member of the European Union.
One day of strolling the streets of Krakow will submerse you in a seemingly bottomless well of tales walking a fine line of fact or fiction. However, as any Krakovian would tell you, over a smooth vodka or warm spiced wine, one day is not nearly enough. Stay longer and find your own legend.