Legends of the Wawel Dragon and Nowa Huta

In a cave at the bottom of Wawel Hill there once lived a terrible fire-belching dragon. This dragon roamed around the countryside and did whatever he wanted to. He ate sheep and cattle and scared the farmers so much that they didn’t let their animals graze in the field near the Vistula River. Many brave knights had tried to kill the monster, but before they could close enough to him, he blew fire on them and they were burned to death.

The king wanted this dragon destroyed. He invited knights and noblemen to come and slay the dragon, promising that whichever one killed the dragon could marry his beautiful daughter and become king when he died. Many tried to slay the dragon so that they could marry the princess, but the dragon killed them. The people became even more frightened; they were afraid to leave their homes and the country became poorer.

One day, a young, handsome but poor shoemaker’s apprentice named Krak asked the king if he could try to slay the dragon. The king said he could try, but noted that he had no armour, no horse and no sword. The apprentice had only his shoemaker tools and a plan. He didn’t need armour, a horse, or a sword.

Krak bought a deed sheep from the butcher and some sulphur (a powder that is used in making matches) from a miner. Then he cut the sheep open with his sharp shoemaker’s knife, stuffed it with the powdered sulphur and then sewed the sheep up with the shoemaker’s thread. He put the sheep by the dragon’s cave and waited behind a rock for the dragon to come out.

After a while, the greedy dragon came out from his cave. He saw the dead animal and greedily ate it. The sulphur caught fire, like a match, and the dragon felt his stomach burning. He ran to the river to quench the fire in his stomach, but drank so much water that he filled up like a balloon. He kneeled down and was very sick.

Krak came out from behind the rock, and began to throw stones at the dragon. The monster tried to blow fire at him but because of all the water he drank, all that came out from his mouth was steam. The dragon kept trying to breathe fire, but because he was so swollen, he exploded and died. At last the people were free of him.

Krak and the princess married. After her father, the King, died, Krak became King, as promised. He built a castle on top of Wawel Hill and for hundreds of years it was where the Kings of Poland lived. Around the hill, the people built a city which they named Krakow, after their new king.

This fire-breathing dragon lives below the walls of Wawel Castle, overlooking the banks of the Wisla River, and despite having a pair of black bras slung over one of his claws, is a prickly creature to behold.  You can take a lift down from the grounds of Wawel Castle or follow the footpath outside the Caste around to the river, past vendors selling plush or metal dragons, plastic knight masks, wooden swords and Polish bread snacks.

The castle grounds themselves are quite lovely with colourful flower beds adorning them, shady trees and cobblestoned pathways.  It’s nice to be here early before too many tourists arrive.

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For the remainder of the day, we had wanted to visit the Jewish Quarter, most notably Oskar Schindler’s Factory, but here’s where we discover that there’s not really any Wow factor in the Hop On bus.  The bridge to the area is closed for repairs to the large sightseeing bus, but they didn’t tell us.  When we pulled up outside one of the sights in the Jewish quarter, the small sightseeing bus was in front of us (they didn’t explain there were two busses and that only the small one would be going to the Jewish quarter).  Instead of saying “Hey, we aren’t going to the Jewish Quarter today but you can transfer to the small bus in front of us right now and it will take you there”, they said nothing.  It was only when we arrived back near our hotel that we realised what was happening and by that point, we would have had to repeat the route to get there.  So we had a quiet afternoon, and I was able to buy a suitcase to replace my backpack, so I could start buying a few souvenirs and bits and pieces.

After a bit of a rest, it was now time for some fun.  This evening we are catching up with Crazy Guides to do a Communism Tour with dinner followed by an 80’s style disco!  Our crazy guide is Cornelia and she speaks really good English, which she says she learnt from watching ‘Friends’.

Stalin apparently said “imposing communism on Roman Catholic Poland was as absurd as putting a saddle on a cow”.  But he went ahead and imposed it anyway, where it lasted from 1945 until 1989.  Crazy Guides have built up quite a reputation for their communism tours, and have even been recommended even by Michael Palin.  Their website is a crack up showing the crazy guides pulling crazy Russian style faces – check it out at www.crazyguides.com.

Picking us up in one of their vintage trabants which are renowned for constantly breaking down, our tour starts with a visit to the main square of Nowa Huta.  Driving in the trabant is like sightseeing on the back of a giant lawnmower, as we ‘over’rev our way through the streets to Nowa Huta.  We are told about some of the ‘gifts’ that Uncle Stalin gave to Poland, one of which was Nowa Huta.  It was meant to be a showcase of the communist regime.  A perfectly symmetrical community situated near a large scale steelworks, built in the 1950’s.  The steelworks accounted for nearly half the national iron and steel output and the suburb became an urban sprawl occupied by over 200,000 people.  It was an experiment, more or less, to inject industrial workers as an antidote to the strong aristocratic, cultural and religious traditions of Krakow, and it was of no interest to the planners that all of the raw materials would have to be transported from great distances in order to be produced.  On top of that, the steelworks caused catastrophic pollution.  Operations at the steelworks have been scaled down since communism topped (and in a more environmentally friendly way) and they can’t be visited, but you can still see the bland streetscapes.

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Outside the steelworks, I was given the opportunity to drive the trabant and I soon realised why Cornelia drove it the way she did – it’s nearly impossible to brake without the car stalling!

Next up, we visited an authentic communist apartment, where we were plied with cherry and lemon flavoured vodka and ‘forced’ to watch a propaganda movie about how wonderful life was in Nowa Huta and what a great city was being built for the people.  Over zealous smiles and everything just A-OK.

Welcome...
Welcome…
...to our warm and friendly apartment!
…to our friendly apartment!

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Vacuum cleaner or small rocket?
Vacuum cleaner or small rocket?
You know things are bad when the biggest deal in your life is collecting cans!
You know things are bad when the biggest deal in your life is collecting cans!
Queuing for the basics - in the 1980's!
Queuing for the basics – in the 1980’s!

Fully converted to a wonderful life in Nowa Huta, we return to the city centre to enjoy a VIP reservation at a Nowa Huta restaurant which has remained unchanged since the 1970’s (hey – back in my time!) and get a tasty Polish dinner of pork filet with mashed potato and cabbage – good old fashioned comfort food.  And we don’t have to go far to enjoy our 1980’s style disco because we are sitting right next to the dance floor!  When I booked this tour, I wasn’t quite sure what this part of it would entail, or how I would ever be able to sell it to my father, but with a smirk on his face, he agreed without any argument, so I booked it.  And it turns out the locals like a good disco too because in no time, the dance floor is crowded with couples waltzing around to Polish 80’s synth tunes and we all manage to have a dance (probably helped along by the vodka).

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I’m so glad Crazy Guides are making sure we get home alright…well, at least as far as the petrol station down the road, because this is where the trabant breaks down and we have to hail a taxi.  Hilarious!  We really, really enjoyed this tour.  It was eye opening to say the least and our guide was great.  It’s always great to see another side to the way things are or were.

By the way, if you are wondering what life was like under Communist rule – how about a game of Kolejka? Kolejka, which means ‘queue’ or ‘line’ was created by Karol Madaj who works in the Bureau of Education at Warsaw’s Institute of National Remembrance and aims to recreate communist shopping hell. Sold out on its first day of sale, this a monopoly like game where players have to line up to purchase a shopping list of items such as ham, bread and toilet paper.

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