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Wawel Hill Statue of Wawel Dragon on Wawel Hill Wawel Hill in Krakow Wawel Hill in Krakow Poland

Wawel Hill

Wawel Hill, with the Cathedral and the Royal Castle, is the most picturesque and recognizable landmark in Krakow. Some of its oldest stone buildings date back to 10th century. Until 1611 Wawel was the formal seat of the Polish monarchy – it was the venue for coronations as well as royal weddings and funerals. According to local legends, in a cave at the foot of the hill, on the bank of the Vistula River, the Wawel Dragon once had his lair. Nowadays the Wawel Dragon Statue is a common tourist stop.



The first thing tourists usually do in Krakow is going to the Wawel Hill. Often, without realizing it, they follow the Royal Route. 

Wawel - a castle complex, the former residence of Polish kings, a royal mausoleum, nowadays a museum. It is one of the most important places for Polish national identity, which has played an important role in the history of the Poland. This is where 32 royal coronations took place and where monarchs were born and died.

Being one of the oldest Polish establishments, as well as one of the oldest hearts of state authority, Wawel has long been associated with the emperors of Poland, from the first Prince Mieszko I and the first King Boleslaw the Brave. In the year 1000, almost 50 years after the Christianization of the country, one of the dioceses was founded here. This event had an enormous influence on Poland's independence from neighboring European countries of great power. Although for the first decades after the Christianization the main seat of the Polish rulers was in the Greater Poland (Wielkopolska) region, the significance of Krakow was rapidly growing. In the first half of the 11th century, Wawel became the main center of power. This decision was made by Kazimierz I the Restorer.

The Wawel hill is made of limestone rock and rises 228 m above the sea level. It is situated on the banks of the Vistula river. Before the Wawel castle was constructed, there was just an uninhabited hill (one of several in the Krakow area) rising from the bottom of the Vistula valley. 1000 years ago, however, the hill had a different form, size, and topography. It was originally in the shape of a teardrop, wider to the west and tapering to the east. The northern edge of Wawel was formed by a rock hump, culminating in the area of ​​the present west wing of the palace and Batory's courtyard. The terrain was undulating, with little hills and rocks. With time, the area was leveled, three churches and the ruler's palace were built on the rock, the ravines were filled in and the hill was widened with embankments. 

Contrary to appearances, in the past the Wawel complex was built much more densely than today. The present free spaces are the "contribution" of the Austrians, who built a fort and barracks in the castle, demolishing numerous buildings. Anything to make a square for the drill, that is, the present outer courtyard. Another cleanup at Wawel was made at the beginning of the 20th century. After Poland regained independence, some Austrian buildings were removed, giving Wawel its present form.

On the example of Wawel, we can observe how architectural tastes have changed as the result of millennial transformations and activities of many generations of architects. We must remember, however, that the inhabitants of Wawel did not always respect the styles that went out of fashion and use. The premises were rebuilt according to the latest trends, neglecting the ancient heritage. When Wawel became an Austrian fortress in the 19th century, the castle lost its representative functions. At that time, even such obvious elements of the Wawel decor as the renaissance courtyard gallery were damaged, the royal interiors were destroyed and the rich decoration was scattered. 

If you approach the hill from the Vistula river, you can see that it is guarded by a character from one of the most famous Polish legends - the Wawel DragonThis creature terrified the local people, who had to sacrifice their livestock to satisfy the monster's hunger. If the burghers did not do so, the dragon would devour people. Attempts by knights to defeat the monster were unsuccessful. In the end, the city was saved by cunning. The dragon was fed  animals stuffed with sulfur, which erupted from the fiery breath of the monster and killed him. Nowadays, the popular sculpture is symbolically reminiscent of the legendary dragon, which to the delight of tourists spews fire from its jaw every three minutes.

Undoubtedly, the State Rooms, that is the representative halls of the royal residence remain the pearl of Krakow Castle. After a fire in 1499, representatives of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Kings Alexander and Sigismund the Elder decided to rebuild a medieval building in the style of a new architectural trend from Italy - the Renaissance. Passing through the gate, crowned with the eloquent Latin inscription "Si Deus nobiscum quis contra nos" ("If God is with us, who is against us?"), one finds himself in the arcaded courtyard of the royal palace. This building, erected by Italian artists, in which Gothic and Renaissance motives are uniquely intertwined, represents these two epochs in Polish architectural art. The artists had an ambitious task: to adapt Italian architecture "to the Polish sky", simply put - to the more northern climatic conditions. So, high steep roofs (which are not found in Italy) and strongly extended attics were introduced to the construction. During the Renaissance, the galleries of the courtyard were decorated with colorful polychromy, which was lost over time.

Wawel Museum is another significant part of Wawel Hill. The oldest archeological monuments of the royal complex can be seen at the exhibition "Lost Wawel". The history of this archeological and architectural reserve illustrates well how Adolf Shyshko-Bogush embodied his idea to reveal the history of the castle by renovating its interiors. A part of the early medieval wall, which became the germ of this exhibition, was discovered by the restorer of monuments, Zygmunt Handel while making an inventory of the house given to the Poles. Handel then wrote in his diary that it was most likely the remains of a medieval tower. Only further research by Shyshka-Bogush showed that these are the remains of a small temple - a 4-apse rotunda. On October 30, 1918, in the presence of the intellectual elite of Krakow, the first Wawel Archaeological Exhibition was opened, the main element of which was the model of the temple in the reconstruction of Shyszko-Bogusz.

The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (later its patrons were Saints Felix and Adauct) is the best-preserved building on Wawel Hill since the early Middle Ages. From the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries, it served as a princely chapel, at the beginning of the 16th century it was desecrated and rebuilt in connection with the development of the castle kitchen. 

To see an outstanding example of Gothic art, you should visit the Wawel Cathedral. The Church of the Bishop of Cracow near the residence of the ruler of Poland performed key functions for the royal ceremonies. From the 14th century, coronation ceremonies were held here according to the established tradition. Only the 18th century introduced confusion into the tradition. Augustus II the Strong, competing for the Polish throne with the French prince, hurried to Wawel to perform the coronation and strengthen his position through this sacrament. But the contender for the throne faced a problem. The door of the treasury, where the coronation regalia were kept, were shut with eight locks. The keys were held by eight senators, who did not always support the candidacy of Augustus II. Knocking out the door would be blasphemous. Therefore, to obtain the regalia, a hole was punched in the wall and the door was left intact. Ultimately, he got crowned at Wawel. The tradition of Krakow coronations was later broken by two Polish rulers who held an enthronement ceremony in Warsaw. The first was Stanislaw Leszczynski, who ascended the throne during the Great Northern War and could not reach Krakow at the time. The second is the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, who did not burn with love for Krakow and with all his actions emphasized the leading role of Warsaw as the main center of power during the Age of Enlightenment.

As previously mentioned, the Wawel Cathedral became a royal mausoleum. Until the 18th century, Polish rulers were buried here, and later the heroes of the statelessness period (in particular, Prince Jozef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko). When Poland gained independence, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski forced the Bishop of Cracow to bury the ashes of his beloved poet, the national prophet of the Romantic era Juliusz Słowacki, on Wawel. Later, the remains of Marshal Pilsudski himself were buried on Wawel, as he had repeatedly mentioned that he wanted to rest here. Lech and Maria Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk in 2010, were the last deceased to be buried in the Wawel crypts to date.


It is necessary to mention two more Wawel nooks: the Sigismund Tower with the Sigismund Bell and the reneissance Sigismund Chapel (the names come from the name of the king Sigismund the Old). The bell, financed by the king in 1520, remained the largest one in Poland until the end of the 20th century. It was rung in exceptional moments for the Polish nation. In modern times these were such events as the death of Jozef Pilsudski, the election of Karol Wojtyla as the Pope or Poland's accession to the EU. Today, the bishops of Cracow use the bell quite often, which reduces its importance. The bell tower is open to tourists.

The Sigismund Chapel is another striking example of Renaissance art on the Wawel. It was built as a mausoleum after the death of Sigismund I's first wife Barbara Zapolska. The architect brilliantly combined three levels of buildings based on three figures: a square, an octagon, and a circle (dome). The harmonious shape of the chapel was a model for numerous building investments of this type in the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the 17th century it served as a source of inspiration, in particular, for the construction of the chapel of St. Casimir in Vilnius Cathedral, and in the early 20th century an eclectic building of the Church of the Holy Savior in Warsaw.

The Renaissance period (or rather, the reign of Sigismund the Old) was the peak of Wawel greatness. And although, the transfer of the royal residence from Krakow to Warsaw took place during the reign of Sigismund III Vasa (in 1596), from the death of Sigismund the Old (1548) the importance of Wawel began to decline. As Warsaw Castle became the main royal residence, the Baroque and Classicist reconstructions designed at the Wawel were no longer carried out on the scale of the Jagiellonian patronage.

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