When I hit the sidewalk this morning I noticed something was different.  It wasn’t the cold.  That was still here.  It wasn’t the icy sidewalks.  They didn’t go anywhere while I slept.  It was the hundreds of people gathered across the street from my hostel.  Apparently on Sundays there is a massive open air market in the Kazimierz District.  There were fur coats, sweaters, coffees, and sweets filling the usually empty square that I see when I look out my window at night.  I took a quick peek but today I had a goal.  I was going to the Royal Wawel Castle on Wawel Hill.  Wawel Hill became the home of Polish royalty in the 11th century but there is evidence that people have existed there since the Paleolithic Age (around 50,000 years ago).  Today I would join the ranks of those who at one time or another looked out over the city of Krakow from atop this mound of limestone.  Unfortunately, I found out last night that the Crown Treasury and Armory was not open on Sunday, which is “everybody gets in free day.”  This building within the walled fortress of Wawel Hill holds one of the largest stockpiles of weapons in the world and, among other national treasures, the Sczcerbiec Sword.  I have plenty of time left here, though, and if I want to see it bad enough I will come back.

I stepped foot on the path that ran around the high stone and brick walls of the castle just as the church bells struck 11 o’clock.  As I rounded the first corner I looked out and saw the Vistula River as it flows towards the north side of Krakow.

I hadn’t even entered the Hill proper and already I was impressed.  The disappointment I felt about the Polish Crown Treasury and Armory would not be open today faded and I circled the walls until I found the Visitor Information Office.  Even if I couldn’t see the Szczerbiec Sword, whose legend had held Poland together during its many periods of fragmentation, I knew I was going to see something today.

Even though Sundays were free I needed a ticket to get into any of the buildings.  I went to the ticket office and got in line for my ticket to see the State Rooms and the archaeological site that has been converted into a museum, known as The Lost Wawel.  I browsed the pamphlets I had picked up as I waited and the Treasury and Armory was mentioned on every page.  “I have to come back,” I thought.  If for no other reason than The Sczcerbiec Sword, I had to come back.  The legend says that Boleslaus the Brave chipped this sword on the Golden Gate of Kiev when he captured the city in 1018.  This chip gave the sword its name, which translates as “The Notched Sword.”  The legend is most likely false but this sword was used at the coronation of Polish kings for hundreds of years, until 1764.  It was used by the kings of Poland to symbolize a single continuous dynasty (The Piast line) that began with Boleslaus.  Even after the sword had stopped being used to induct new kings it stood as a symbol of Polish pride and heritage.  It is all that remains of the Polish Crown Jewels, most of which were melted down by various conquerors of the fragmented Poland.  It is so important that two days after the outbreak of World War Two it was shipped, along with other priceless artifacts, from Wawel Castle to be guarded.  It traveled to Romania and then France.  While it was being shipped from France to England the ship that was carrying The Sczcerbiec Sword came under attack from Hitler’s Luftwaffe.  The men guarding the sword removed it from its case and packed it between two wooden planks so that even if the ship sank the sword might survive.  It eventually made its way to the Polish Embassy in Canada and was returned to Wawel Castle in 1959.

So, anyway, I got to the front of the line and asked the woman at the counter if she spoke English.  “A little bit,” she said.  So I asked for a ticket.  She told me that there were only two Exhibitions open today and then pointed to the sign.  No State Rooms, I guess.  Oh, but instead they went ahead and opened up the CROWN TREASURY AND ARMORY!  I was going to see everything I wanted after all (and as it turns out a whole lot more).  I got my tickets and had to run.  The tickets only gave you admission during certain times.

I got to the Lost Wawel exhibit in the Rotunda of the Blessed Virgin Mary after a little accidental detour.  As I descended into the caverns of the Rotunda everything grew quiet and dark.  I followed the path that hovered above the ruins of the basement.  The crumbled arches stood above fallen walls.  I bumped the rail and the thud echoed like a gunshot.  I imagined what these rooms looked like when they were built in the 10th century.  I bet they were filled with drapery and decoration befitting the royalty who frequented them.  I daydreamed about being the King of Poland and coming into one of these rooms to sign some great document that would be equal in magnitude to the United States Constitution or the Magna Carta.  I would have used a quill pen and my Polish would be perfect.  Instead, I was scribbling notes on an index card and still trying to figure out how to say “I’m sorry” in this very foreign language.  To bury my dreams even deeper, I then found out that these rooms were actually used as stables and kitchens.  I briefly daydreamed about cleaning up animal crap and cooking a bunch of people food.  Then I remembered that I have spent most of my life doing these things so I could probably just visit another part of the architectural reserve.

After taking a second round through the Rotunda I checked my clock and saw that I only had ten minutes to get to the Treasury building.  I hightailed it out of there and scrambled across the Hill to the home of Sczcerbiec.  I pulled open the huge wooden door with both hands and gave my ticket to the greeter.  I went through the metal detector and entered the first room on the main floor.  Now, I am not a huge “weapons guy” but this was awesome.  All along the walls of this room were dozens of two-handed swords, ornamented hunting javelins, and battle axes with spears at the end of them.  They were from all over Europe and decorated with floral patterns, human figures, stylized letters, and variant coats of arms.

I went into the second room and this stuff was clearly of an even higher quality.  Behind the glass were long, thin cavalry swords, curved sabres, gold and silver daggers, shields, and helmets.  I was becoming at least a medium sized “weapons guy” as I stood there.  The next room had Bohemian pistols from the 16th century, wooden crossbows with mother-of-pearl inlay, rifles with a muzzle like bell bottom jeans, hunting swords with built in pistols, and a rifle that was longer than I am tall.  If I was a huge “weapons guy” this would be my huge weapon of choice.  After seeing the lances and the scale armor with gold emblems on every scale I headed for the basement.

I hit the musty cellar and was taunted by the battle drums that screamed “touch me” but had a sign that said “don’t touch me.”  The rest of the room was filled with battle axes, tiny portable cannons, pitchforks, and a menacing piece of weaponry.  It was a steel pole that had a foot long chain at the end of it.  Attached to that foot long chain was slender block of wood with a dozen steel spikes protruding in every direction.  I would have rather been slashed with the battle axe than face this contraption.

After visiting the rest of the basement I went for the top floor.   Hadn’t seen The Sword yet so I knew it was up here somewhere.  In the main room at the top of the Treasury is some serious booty.  Maybe the Crown Jewels of Poland did not survive but they certainly had a few jewels that did.  There were gold clocks with emeralds and Conk shells transformed into silver bedazzled chalices.  They had ivory steins with gold trim and home altars of gold, silver, ivory, emeralds, and rubies.

Then I entered a room with only four pieces and its own guard.  At eye level in the center there was a case with a sword.  I knew that had to be it but I didn’t want to look.  Not yet, anyway.  I took a few minutes looking at recent coronation swords and ceremonial shoes.  Then I took a breath and went for the case.  I saw the notch just above the hilt and I knew that was it.  That was The Sczcerbiec Sword.  Above the notch was the Polish eagle.  The hilt and cross guard were made of intertwined gold and silver.  The black niello engravings were so intricate I could not imagine how they all fit on the tiny handle, which made it obvious that this sword was not a fighting sword.  There were saints, cows, lambs, birds, leaves, vines, and letters carved into this ceremonial sword.  I looked closely at the blade and could see the tiny imperfections that came from overcleaning in preparation for a coronation.  I would go from one side to the other, comparing them in hopes that I might discover which was superior.  I probably spent a little too much time with my nose to the glass because eventually a second security guard came in and I felt that it was probably time for me to leave.

So I walked out of the Polish Crown Treasury and Armory feeling like I was one bad dude.  In fact, here is a picture of me strutting out of the courtyard and into the streets of Krakow.

As I strutted down the street I saw an old man playing an accordion.  I thought about how much my fingers hurt after taking off my gloves just to snap a couple pictures so I went over and watched him play for a while.  Then I left him a few zloty and felt very grateful that I was able to have the incredible experience I had today.  Now, I am sitting in a room that looks like a children’s daycare facility and looking out my window into the once-again empty square across the street.  It was a day for adventure and if you actually read all this I hope you shared in my excitement.  Well, until our next adventure…

P.S.  Here are a few pics I snapped from/around Wawel Hill.

The only water coming up from the Vistula.  Time for a Sunday bath for these feathery fellas (and ladies).

In the background is The Wawel Cathedral.  In its basement is where Pope John Paul II gave his first sermon.  What a rock star!  Starts in the underground.  A few people like his stuff.  Gets famous.  Changes his name.  Has millions of fans around the world.

I stuck my hand out of the fortress window and this is what I got.  Mostly, I’m glad I didn’t drop my camera.

This is Wawel Hill from the north.

The American Consulate in Krakow.  I only included this because I did not spend fifteen minutes getting cussed out by the Policja for nothing.  Also, don’t take pictures of the American Consulate.  It is illegal.

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