The Bones of the Wawel Dragon

Kraków is probably the most famous Polish destination among tourists. With its beautiful sights, unique, cheerful atmosphere and history just waiting to be discovered in every corner of the city, it surely deserves its fame. But why is the future of the world in the hands of the Cracovian historic buildings conservator? And what does the Wawel Dragon have in common with a house of ill repute? You’ll find the answers to these questions on the Wawel Hill.

Once upon a time, in a cave under the Wawel Hill lived a dragon. A very scary dragon that demanded to be fed cattle (or maidens, depending on the version of the story) or else it would take revenge on the inhabitants of the city. People were terrified. Many brave knights tried to kill the dragon, with no luck. Then one day a poor cobbler found a way to defeat the fierce creature. He killed a ram, stuffed it with sulphur and then placed it in front of the dragon’s cave. Attracted by the smell of fresh meat, the dragon left its den and devoured the ram. The burning sensation caused by sulphur made the dragon try to find relief, so it drank water from the nearby Vistula river. A lot of water. It drank and it drank until it exploded. And of course the cobbler was lavishly rewarded by the king.

That’s one of the many versions of the story. The legend of the Wawel Dragon was first mentioned in the 12th century by Wincenty Kadłubek and has become very popular. Nowadays the dragon is the symbol of Kraków and you’ll find it on Kraków souvenirs all over the city. When you visit the Wawel Castle, you can also descend into the dragon’s cave. It is a series of limestone rooms, three of which are open to the public. The entrance is located on the grounds of the Wawel Castle complex and the exit is next to the Vistula river. In the 16th century, the dragon’s home served as a very popular tavern, and then it even hosted a house of ill repute. In 1972 a bronze sculpture of the Dragon Wawel with seven heads, one of which breathes fire, was placed by the exit from the cave.

Talking about entrances, exits and dragons, when you visit the Wawel Cathedral - a must-see place when you’re in Kraków - pay attention to what is hanging above the entrance. Three huge bones chained together (the largest of them is over 1 meter long). They have been hanging there for a while now (they were first mentioned in 1583 in letters to the Italian scholar Ulisse Aldovandi) and their origin is unknown. They were supposed to protect the cathedral from evil powers and many people say they’re the dragon’s bones. According to legend, when the chains break and the bones fall down, the world will end (or the history of Kraków will end… or at least the cathedral will fall apart, depending on the version of the legend). So it looks like our future is in the hands of Kraków’s historical buildings conservator, who makes sure the chains are in good shape.

In 1937 a scholar from the Jagiellonian University identified the bones as belonging to a whale, a rhino and a mammoth. But you never know. It could have been a dragon, couldn’t it? Well, anyway, when you visit Kraków, remember not to break those chains. Just in case.

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