I don’t write about Kraków often, I admit it. It’s never been my favourite Polish city, nor even in my top 10, but it does grow on me with each visit and I plan to return again a few times in 2019. In fact, last year I visited Kraków about 8 or 9 times, sometimes for flights, visiting friends or to tour the UNESCO sites nearby, which led to nights in Katowice and Wrocław and trips to Tarnowskie Gory, Swidnica (and San Escobar), Lipnica Murowana and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Again, I still haven’t got round to writing about any of those trips!
Most visitors to Kraków will be aware that the city has a famous dragon, known as the Wawel Dragon or the Smok Wawelski. A statue of the said dragon emits fire every 3 minutes at the foot of the famous Wawel Castle. I first visited Kraków in 2015 and wanted to know what on earth it was all about – the dragon had also been a popular emblem in Wales, Taiwan and China on my travels around the world.
Where to Sleep in Kraków
In terms of hostels, choose either the Mosquito Hostel or the Pink Panther Hostel. I’ve stayed in both and they are great. In terms of a cool new hotel, choose the Hotel B and B – just excellent. And for those wanting a good level of luxury near to the city centre but still on a budget – head to the Ibis Kraków Centrum.
As well as touring Wawel Castle, I did a free city tour, visited Schinlder’s Museum and headed to the nearby German Death Camps. But here in Kraków, I also delved into the history of how this interesting Kraków Dragon came about. I love the way the two biggest cities in Poland both have a mystical city symbol. Warszawa has its Mermaid (Syrenka) which I have visited many times, dating back to 2005. And here Kraków has its Dragon (Smok). This is also the most photographed statue in Kraków.
When Does The Wawel Dragon Date Back To?
Okay, so nobody really has an exact answer to this one. It could be anyone’s guess as to when the Wawel Dragon actually lived here in Kraków. What is known is that some 25 million years ago, the limestone formation known as Wawel Hill was formed. This limestone formation looks like any normal island or hill in any old city and I’ve toured a few similar places on my travels. But delve deeper into the mystery and you will find that there are a series of spooky underground caves and creepy passages all hidden from the upstairs passer by. It was in these dark and poky sub-ground chambers where the so-called Wawel Dragon once lived. Kraków is a medieval city and back in those medieval times, King Krakus ruled the city.
The Legend of the Wawel Dragon
The Wawel Dragon was certainly no saint. Dragons breathe fire and look scary. The Wawel Dragon was a devilish creature who feasted himself on animals and local maidens, and caused havoc in the city. He destroyed and devoured anything that would get in his way. In the city, nobody could thwart, destroy or kill this ghastly pest. However, one day, the King of Kraków (then it was just a small village) gave his men a challenge. Basically if any of his men (or indeed anyone in Kraków) could kill the Wawel Dragon, the King would grant them permission to marry his beautiful, and rich daughter. At the time, Kraków was running out of female virgins and so many men rose to the challenge and attempted to kill this beast…
But killing the dragon was proving to be nigh on impossible. He wouldn’t be beaten. The Wawel Dragon would breath fire on all these guys’ attempts to kill him, and one by one, the men slowly died. The legend or the myth goes that one day, along came a local cobbler named Krak (not Krakus, who was the King apparently). Krak was holding a sheep. Legend has it that the sheep was dead and his insides were filled with sulphur. The Wawel Dragon was of course greedy and went to eat the sheep. As soon as the Wawel Dragon tried to eat the sheep, the sulphur inside the sheep set fire to the dragon’s stomach! Then, the dragon jumped into the Wisła River and rumour has it that his body body exploded instantly and that was the end of the Wawel Dragon. The village hero, Krak then married the princess and later became the king. He proceeded to build a huge castle/fortress (which is of course today’s Wawel Castle). He built up the city of Kraków, easily now that the dragon was dead. The city of Kraków takes its name from King Krak (or King Krakus)!
Please note that I took this story from the various sources I have been told it by – including local tour guides, my friends in Kraków and by reading many guides to the city and websites! Other variations of the story might state that the cobbler was called Skuba and that King Krak (or King Krakus) was already in charge before the Wawel Dragon was defeated. Or that he wasn’t a cobbler, or they may tell a different way that he got rid of the dragon.
The Aftermath of the Wawel Dragon’s Death
So now that the Wawel Dragon had been defeated, the small village (as it was then) became a city and the population grew. Kraków later became the capital of Poland (it’s a country that has had many capitals down the years including Gniezno, Lublin and Płock). So despite the horrors of the dragon initially, the legend of this dragon lives on in many ways. The dragon’s bones were hung up outside the entrance to the main church, St. Mary’s in the Old Town Square, and yes the bones are still there today. The place where the Wawel Dragon lived was an underground cave and it has been turned into a tavern where you can have a drink. At times the cave was also used as a brothel and much more recently, the famous Wawel Dragon statue was revealed. The statue that emits fire…
Where To Find the Wawel Dragon
It’s easy to find the Wawel Dragon and I recommended it as a thing to do while in Kraków. Simply head down to the river at the foot of Wawel Castle to this point on Google Maps. Right here you will see the bronze statue of the Wawel Dragon sitting on the rock on the path. The dragon statue was designed by an artist called Bronisław Chromy and unveiled to the public in 1972. As well as being a huge tourist pull in the city, it is also one of the most photographed and visited statues in the whole of Poland, so be ready for the swarms of tourists here checking it out and taking selfies with the Smok for Instagram!
The most special thing about the Wawel Dragon statue is that it actually breathes fire. There used to be a text message system to activate the fire. Basically, you’d send a text message to a set number (a number pretending to be the dragon himself!!!), and the dragon would allegedly “get your message” and respond by breathing fire for a short period of time. However, due to the increased popularity of that text message system, it stopped.
These days, the dragon now breathes fire automatically, normally every three minutes. Check the video I made of it on my first trip to Kraków. As well as seeing the dragon, you can learn more of the history of the dragon and the city by doing a tour of the legendary Wawel Castle itself. This offers further insight into the history of Kraków and this mythical creature. When you tour the castle, you will also see the Wawel Dragon’s cave, in the underground part of Wawel Castle.
Other Dragon References in Kraków
I was curious as to why none of the football teams or sports team in Kraków were named after the Wawel Dragon, or even used a dragon as their symbol, nor did this really happen in Warszawa either with the Mermaid. After a bit of research, I found that there are a few other references to the Wawel Dragon in Kraków. There is a “Dragon Street” in the city, which is called Ulica Smocza in Polish and leads down to the river. There is also a link to the dragon at the annual Kraków Film Festival which names its awards as Golden, Silver and Bronze Dragons. For food geeks, there are also two restaurants in the city both called The Silver Dragon. Further afield, an international comic called Nextwave (from the US company Marvel Comics), featured the dragon as “The Beast of Kraków” in one of its issues. However there are no football teams or sports teams that I could find with the dragon link…I was in Wales recently though and also toured Cardiff Castle and saw the flag with the Welsh dragon on it.
So that’s my wacaday guide to the iconic Kraków Wawel Dragon, I’ll also write about Warszawa’s legendary Mermaid (Syrenka) at some point.