Travel icon: Wawel Castle,
Once terrorised by a virgin-eating dragon, Kraków’s royal icon now stands proudly atop the beast’s former lair, celebrating 40 years of UNESCO status
Kraków No longer prone to dragon attack – at least not that we know of – this Polish castle marks 40 years of UNESCO backing
Kraków has a few origin stories, but none odder than this: they say it was once menaced by a dragon with a taste for livestock and virgins, until the Polish settlement was saved by a shoemaker who stuffed a hapless sheep with sulphur and left it for the monster to eat. The creature gulped the Vistula River dry to quench the burning, but it was vanquished. The man then married King Krakus’ daughter before founding Kraków proper.
The Wawel Castle complex, which incorporates the great Gothic cathedral, celebrates 40 years of Unesco-listed status in 2018. It also holds the bones of many of Poland’s former monarchs – but being on Wawel Hill, it also rests on the dragon’s former lair. The creatures remains are even said to hang at the cathedral, although more conventional wisdom suggests these are the bones of a menagerie of ancient creatures, including a woolly mammoth.
Getting there & around
Many airlines fly direct from the UK to Kraków’s John Paul II International Airport, taking from around 2.5 hours; return fares from £40. Public buses and trains link the airport to the city centre; single-trip fares cost PLN4 (80p; buses) and PLN9 (£1.80; trains). The city centre is walkable but it has a good network of buses and trams, too. An hour pass is PLN5 (£1), a day pass PLN15 (£3) and a three-day ticket PLN36 (£7.30).
Wawel Castle is an architectural document of the country’s finest moments and most solemn occasions, as well as a spectacular hill-perched icon. Just by strolling its sprawling grounds (free to enter) you can feel its history, but for a deeper understanding of the role this fine castle had to play in both the city and country’s past, explore one or two of its buildings. There are more to visit than can be squeezed into a day, but you don’t need to have seen them all to say you’ve ‘done’ the castle. The State Rooms (from PLN20; £4.10) form the largest exhibition, a series of chambers restored to their original baroque magnificence, while the Royal Private Apartments (from PLN25; £5.15) reveal how Polish nobility once lived.
Wawel Cathedral is smothered in a variety of ornamentation. Entry is free, but it’s worth paying PLN12 (£2.45) to climb Sigismund Tower and see the Royal Tombs and an extra museum.
You can also visit the cave that once served as the dragon’s den (Apr–oct only, PLN3; 60p). However, any fire-breathing fears have long been extinguished; it’s now a cheesy series of chambers. You emerge beside a bronze statue of the dragon on the banks of the Vistula – now full and flowing again. Much like Kraków itself.