Wawel is an architectural complex erected over many centuries atop a limestone outcrop on the left bank of the Vistula River, at an altitude of 228 m above the sea level. It is a place of great significance to the Polish people. Polish Royalty and many distinguished Poles are interred in the Wawel Cathedral, where also royal coronations took place.
According to archaeological studies, the oldest settlement on Wawel Hill dates back to the Middle Palaeolithic era. The earliest evidence of wooden structures dates back to the 9th century. Two centuries later, Wawel became a royal residence for the next 570 years. In the meantime, it was largely extended during the reign of Casimir III the Great.
Wawel Hill owed its rapid development to its location at the crossing of a number of key trading routes. Wawel Hill is believed to be one of the strongholds of the Vistulan tribe which formed a nation at the turn of the 8th and 9th century. Its legendary rulers Krakus and Princess Wanda, who are said to have lived in the 7th and 8th century, are mentioned by the 13th-century chronicler Wincenty Kadłubek. In the 10th century the Vistulans’ lands and Krakow became a part of the emerging state of Poland.
The history of mediaeval Wawel is deeply intertwined with the history of the Polish lands and royal dynasties during the Middle Ages. The political and dynastic tensions that led to the ascendance of Krakow as the royal seat are complex, but for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Wawel was the seat of the national government. As the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formed and grew, Wawel became the seat of one of Europe’s most important states. This status was only lost when the capital was moved to Warsaw in the 16th century.
Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, when Poland lost its independence during the period of partitions, Wawel became a symbol of the enduring nation and witnessed demonstrations and gatherings against the foreign occupation.
The Wawel Hill was occupied by the Prussian Army in 1794. Royal Insignia were stolen and, apart from Szczerbiec, the coronation sword, never retrieved. After the Third Partition of Poland (1795), Wawel, as an important defensive point, was modernised by Austrians with defensive walls. The interior of the castle was changed and some of the buildings pulled down. In the second part of the 19th century the Austrians redesigned the defensive walls, making them a part of a stronghold. However, in 1905 Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria gave an order for Austrian troops to leave Wawel. Restoration works began, with the discovery of the Rotunda of Virgin Mary as well as other relics of the past. The renovations of the Wawel Hill were financed by public subscriptions.
The Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) is a famous dragon in Polish folklore. He laired in a cave under the Wawel Hill on the banks of the Vistula. In some stories the dragon lived before the founding of the city, when the area was inhabited by farmers.
A popular version of the Wawel Dragon tale takes place in Krakow during the reign of King Krakus, the city’s legendary founder. Each day the evil dragon would sow destruction across the countryside, killing people, pillaging their homes and devouring their livestock. In many versions of this story, the dragon especially enjoyed eating young girls, and could only be appeased if the townsfolk would leave a young girl in front of his cave once a month. The King certainly wanted to put a stop to that awful situation, but his bravest knights fell to the dragon’s fiery breath.
In the versions involving the sacrifice of young girls, every girl in the city was eventually sacrificed except one, the King’s daughter Wanda. In desperation, the King promised his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage to anybody who could defeat the dragon. Great warriors from near and far fought for the prize and failed. One day, a poor cobbler’s apprentice accepted the challenge. He stuffed a lamb with sulphur and set it outside the dragon’s cave. The dragon ate it and soon became incredibly thirsty. No amount of water could quell his stomach ache, and after swelling up from drinking half of the Vistula river, he exploded. The apprentice married the King’s daughter as promised and they lived happily ever after.
At the foot of the Wawel Hill stands a statue of the Wawel Dragon, there is also a plaque commemorating his defeat by Krakus, a Polish prince who, according to the plaque, founded the city and his palace on the slain dragon’s lair. The dragon’s cave under the castle is now a popular tourist stop.
In 1972, a bronze sculpture of the Wawel Dragon designed by Bronisław Chromy was placed in front of the dragon’s den. The dragon noisily breathes fire every few minutes, thanks to a natural gas nozzle installed in the sculpture’s mouth.
Once a year, at midnight, war sounds and neighing horses can be heard from the vault of the castle, and King Bolesław Chrobry walks the courtyard. If a good person meets him, he or she remains happy. But if the person to meet the King is evil, Bolesław Chrobry makes them scared and regretful. Also if something bad is going to happen to the Polish nation, moans can be heard from the vault.
According to another version of the legend, all this happens on Christmas Eve, and the sounds coming from the vault are nothing else than Bolesław’s knights feasting, music playing and chalices clinking. Also the account of the royal walk is slightly different: this version says that only a person with a noble heart can see the king.
Interestingly, these are not the only sleeping knights in Poland. According to legend, there is a host of warriors sleeping and awaiting a time when they will be needed in the Tatra Mountains. The outline of Mount Giewont is believed to be the profile of a giant knight, lying in wait.