Newest Review: ... the entrance. These are huge and suspended by a chain. The legend that goes with the bones is interesting and as I love a legend and Krak... more
A Polish Acropolis
Wawel Cathedral (Kraków, Poland)
Member Name: Praskipark
Wawel Cathedral (Kraków, Poland)
Date: 16/01/12, updated on 16/01/12 (74 review reads)
Advantages: Lots to see - everything wonderful and so full of history - most features free
Disadvantages: Steep steps to climb to see Zygmunt's Bell
Where is Wawel Cathedral? In Krakow, southern Poland. The Cathedral is a magnificent building situated amongst the series of buildings that comprise Wawel Hill.
Best way to view the Cathedral
I have visited Wawel Cathedral three times. The first time was with a tour guide as part of an all-in holiday to Zakopane many years ago. This was a disaster in my opinion as I just found the guide really boring and ended up wandering off on my own. Since then I have visited without a guide. This can be a bit tricky if you want to see more than the cathedral as Wawel Hill is a popular destination due to the fact that most of the buildings close at 3pm so everyone wants to fit as much in as possible. However, a ticket isn't necessary for viewing most of the cathedral so my best advice is to go early in the morning, beat the crowds and view the cathedral first.
The Importance of the Cathedral
As you may or may not know Krakow was the capital of Poland until it was moved to Warsaw in the 17th century. This cathedral was the shrine of monarchs and from 1930 Polish kings were crowned and buried in the crypts along side Polish statesmen, religious leaders and cultural figures such as Poland's greatest poet Adam Mickiewicz. This is still the case and you may remember the state funeral that took place on Wawel Hill after the death of Lech Kaczynski, the President of Poland then, who was killed in the air crash at Smolensk in Aril, 2010.
According to early history books the first cathedral was built on this exact spot roughly after AD 1000. It was at this place where the first Bishop of Krakow was consecrated. This building didn't stay in one piece for very long - the Bohemians attacked it. In the 11th and 12th centuries a Romanesque building was erected although this was destroyed by fire in 1306 leaving only the Crypt of St Leonard standing. The basic structure of the current cathedral is Gothic and was consecrated in 1364, under King Kazimierz the Great. Like most buildings in Poland different generations have added their own touches of style and colour so you could say that this particular cathedral is an example of Polish architecture throughout the ages.
More about my visit and what I saw
I entered St Stanislaus' Cathedral through the main entrance on all my visits. The first time I was thrilled to see the bones suspended to the right of the entrance. These are huge and suspended by a chain. The legend that goes with the bones is interesting and as I love a legend and Krakow is full of them I have always returned to this entrance. Apparently, these bones belong to the dragon of Krakow and if they should ever separate from the chains the world will end. Good job the chains are replaced frequently with new ones. We don't want those bones falling on our heads, do we? What sort of bones are they? Some palaeontologists say they once belonged to a extinct species of rhinoceros, mammoth and whale.
The central shrine which is also called 'a Confession,' is a beauty and although as much as my eyes wanted to wander all over the church they were drawn to this marble and gold canopy which is Baroque in design. Of course, this is a resting place of someone great. The patron saint of Poland, Bishop Stanislaw of Szczepanowo. He was canonised in 1253. The altar has been changed a few times and it seems from my notebook that the version I saw was built in 1626-9, probably but not definitely by Trevano. Upon the altar sits a very ornate silver casket containing the remains of Saint Stanislaus and also pieces of Saint Florian which were taken from St Florian's Church on the corner of Plac Matejki and ul. Warszawska. Historically, this altar was where victorious kings laid down the spoils of war and still there is a plethora of treasures surrounding this focal point of the cathedral. This is not the main altar although I thought it was because of its grandeur. There is another situated further into the cathedral but this is dull and subdued by comparison.
The Confession as mentioned above is the word used to describe the burial place of Christian Martyrs and just to the right of this Confession are canopied tombs. King Kazimierz III the Great and Wladyslaw II Jagiello lie underneath here. The red marble figures lying in a placid state look at peace. Jagiello's wife, Queen Jadwiga's tomb is in between but her remains are not underneath as they were moved to a silver shrine after she was made a saint in 1977. Interesting to note that the Queen has a white marble sephulcre which was made in 1902 yet her royal insignia from her tomb is displayed in a nearby glass cabinet.
Moving on to the nave which is surrounded by 18 side chapels. I'm not going to mention all of these - just choosing what I think are the highlights.
I particular liked the Holy Cross Chapel which is just to the right of the entance too. This was built in the 15th century. I love the Gothic ceiling with its high architectural bosses showing the coats of arms of Lithuania, Poland and Hungary. A boss is an ornamental feature that is raised and usually used to hide the joints in the ceiling. In this case the blocks of frescoes have a Byzantine and Ruthenian aura about them and the choirs depicted in the designs look very heavenly as they sing. There are some amazing graves in this chapel mostly showing Polish kings resting peacefully but the one that stands out is the marble sarchophagus of Kazimierz IV. The reason why it stands out is because the carving of the King in red marble flecked with white shows the king squirming around on his death bed in agony.
Another highlight - Chapel of theZygmunts
This superb Renaissance chapel with its gilded dome is one of the most influential monuments in Poland. It has been claimed as one of the finest of its sort outside northern Italy. The golden dome shines out because it is repeated in design on the exterior of the chapel next door, Kaplica Wazow (Chapel of the Vases) and can also be seen in the Church of St Peter and Paul. The interior is lavish and rich and probably set the tone for the next century as far as funerary chapels were concerned in Poland. What I liked was the stunning contrast between the white sandstone and polished red marble. I have never seen marble so highly polished in any other building throughout Europe. It really is stunning.
If you have time then a short visit to the Chapel of the Vases is worth a visit although it is quite sombre. This chapel was built in 1664-76 on what was the site of a Romanesque chapel mainly to keep St Stanislaw'a bones safe. The mausoleum for the Vasa Dynasty was designed with features similar to that of the Chapel of the Zygmunts. The shrine is Baroque made from black marble and decorated with golden angels. I like it but my husband wasn't too keen - he said the chapel was too morbid.
For the features and attractions I have already mentioned a ticket is not needed. These parts of the cathedral are open all the time from morning until the sun sets. However, there are two other attractions connected to the Cathedral and I think they are worth paying for. You can purchase tickets from one of the kiosks near the main entrance to Wawel Hill.
Two added attractions: The Zygmunt Bell and the Royal Tombs
The Zygmunt Bell is a monster in size. We are talking - 8 feet in diameter and weighing in at 11 tons. I think you can imagine the noise the bell makes. I have only heard it once and that was a couple of years ago at Xmas - it is exceptionally loud. There is an ancient Krakowian joke and it is that when the bell of Zygmunt rings out loud at Christmas you can still hear it at Easter. The thing is - the clapper is showing signs of deterioration and there are cracks in it so the bell isn't rung as frequent as it used to be. It is now only rung on special occasions. There is a legend that goes with this bell also and it is this - every school child that climbs the steep steps to the tower must ring the bell and then her/his wish will come true. If you have a head for heights which I don't then the view alone is worth the climb. I have climbed the steps and I remember feeling tight in the chest and a bit sickly but I was glad I perservered as the view of Wawel Hill and its environs is sensational.
Open: Mon - Fri 9am - 7.15pm, Sat - 9am - 4.45pm, Sun - 12.30 - 5.15pm
I love these labryinths and although I am not sure who all the dead Polish Monarchs are, the crypts are fascinating. For me, the most important part of this tour of the underworld is the Romanesque Crypt of St Leonard. If you remember at the beginning of my review I mentioned that this crypt is a fragment of the first cathedral built by Wladyslaw Herman in the 1090s. Two words needed only to describe St Leonard's Crypt - simple and beautiful. It's very atmospheric walking underneath these tunnels which are well lit with soft, mellow lights. If you look through the wrought iron gate at the beginning of the arched labryinths you see lots of flickering shadows on the walls and ceilings - a bit spooky but not too scary.
Also, buried underneath are two great Polish Generals; Poniatowski and Kosciuszko who were courageous and fought revolutions on two continents. Not forgetting Marshall Pilsudski and General Sikorski - very important characters in Polish history.
Open: The same times as above. Tickets for both these attractions cost 12 zloty (£2.25) standard price and 7 zloty (£1.31) reduced.
I whole heartedly recommend a visit to Wawel Cathedral as it is a beautiful creation and experience. The whole of Wawel Hill is exciting and interesting to view but I would suggest a visit to the Cathedral only as it takes over 3-4 hours viewing everything and I think if you did that together with other sights in the Wawel complex you would be under time pressure. If you wish to go with a guide there are English speaking guides but personally this isn't my cup of tea. Also, you will find a lot of excursions to Krakow and Wawel Hill will be intermingled with other attractions close by like the Salt Mines. Obviously, it depends how long your stay in this part of Poland is and how much time you want to spend viewing the attractions of Krakow but from experience there are enough sights in Krakow for you to see in a week or even more and best to see these without other places tagged on.
Summary: Poland's important treasures
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