Thursday, January 17, 2013

Polish Memories: Wawel Castle, Part 2

depiction of historic Wawel in Krakow which hangs in a medieval restaurant on the central square.

What century does Wawel date from? That, like all questions of Polish history, is a complicated matter.  There have been settlements, stone and wooden, time out of mind on Wawel hill, and a matter of historic discussion as to who built what, when.  But the current buildings are variously dated, with the oldest going back to roughly the tenth century AD.  So what sort of period would you ascribe to a place that has been built onto for centuries?  It's sort of a Roman-Gothic-Renaissance style of castle?

Of course there must needs be a cathedral at a royal residence, and there must needs be tombs of princes, curiosities, and heads of state on grounds.  But I can't say as I much care for looking at sarcophagi (can you imagine, that is really a word!), or pondering the bitter grudges or worldly pomp that accompanies such folk even in their graves.  My favorite by far was the bell tower.
  There are several bells housed in this tower (baptized, no less: with usual perfunctory Polish Catholicity, all sorts of things are baptized and thereafter commissioned to ward off evil spirits, including bells.)  The largest of these is the Bell of Sigismund, or Zygmunt Dzwon.  

My husband is royally afraid of heights, and the narrow, steep flights of steps, in a tower with plenty of opportunities of staring out over the city or feeling the wind blow through, made him feel rather ill... he and his childhood friend who was hosting us clung to the skimpy wooden rails as to life and grimaced frequently.  But I by the odd turn of fate, who happen to have so many irrational fears (beginning and ending with dentists and large toothy fish), was born almost entirely without a proper regard for heights.  I love them.  The higher the better.  It has always made me fancy all sorts of wild things to feel myself swaying in the wind above the ground... I used to frighten my mother by climbing to the tops of trees on very windy days and feel the branches moving and tossing below and above and around me... and never yet have I given over climbing.

Consequently I found the tower exhilarating rather than otherwise.  The views from all the landings were simply breathtaking!!   And chief of the sights was one that is near and dear to my husband's heart: the sweet, red roofs one sees everywhere in Poland.  For him, they signify all he loves and misses from that land, and when he sighs for Poland it is often in the form of sighs for those red roofs... red roofs and hay fields full of poppies.

The bell of Sigismund takes its common name from one of Poland's famous kings, Sigismund I, who commissioned the bell in 1520, and dedicated it to God, Mary, and himself in that order.  Unlike our American Liberty Bell, which has seldom been rung, the bell of Sigismund is routinely rung on many occasions throughout each year.  It requires twelve men to ring the bell, which weighs thirteen tons, and the bell ringers are often lifted by the ropes.  There has been at least one death associated with ringing Zygmunt Dzwon, when one of the ringers was flung out of the tower by the bell.  -Perhaps not so enviable a post, but one could do worse than to have died ringing a bell.

View of Kraków from the Wawel Bell Tower.


  1. Lovely! I hope to visit there one day in the not so distant future!!

    1. Thank you! I hope you do get to visit Kraków! It's a wonderful old city! I'm going to post about the food next... another of the great highlights of Poland. ;)

  2. Oh, this is just so neat. I believe I see the spire of St. Mary's church in that last picture, where the Trumpeter of Krakow did his famous deed. I got to go up in that tower but not the Wawel Bell Tower. I as you know don't like heights unless I'm in an airplane, but climbing the narrow, twisting wooden steps up to that tower and seeing the view was terribly exciting so I didn't mind.

  3. I believe you are right about the spire. However, even though it is such an easy landmark in Kraków, I'm not positive because I am directionally challenged. ;) I didn't go up the tower of the church, but I loved to listen to the hejnał from the Cloth Hall. It seemed such a romantic tradition! One can almost see the Tatars coming in the distance... of course like all traditions it is something of a Janus.

  4. Lovely! my grandparents were Polish Americans, I'm always interested to see where they came from. :)

    1. Thank you! Poland is really amazing, and thanks to its turbulent history, we have benefited in America by many Polish immigrants, including my husband. ;) I only wish I'd learned more about it growing up. The British historian Norman Davies has a wonderful book on Poland entitled "Heart of Europe," and I couldn't agree more!