Things We Are Not Taller Than: Kraków, Poland

This post is part of a series. You can read about the origins of our travel tradition here.

Once upon a time, before the city of Kraków was the bustling bohemian hotspot it is now, there was a cave. This cave was located on the banks of the Vistula River, at the humped foot of Wawel hill. And in this cave lived a dragon. The dragon’s had a greedy hunger: he demanded offerings of cattle from the humans living in proximity. If no cattle could be found, he demanded human lives in compensation. Kraków’s kind at the time, King Krakus, wanted to end the dragon’s reign of terror. He asked his sons, Lech and Krakus II, to defeat the dragon, but the dragon was too strong. So the sons devised a tricky plan. They stuffed a cow full of sulfur; when the dragon ate him, the sulfur ignited the fire in his belly and he died a fiery death. But the brothers could not decide who should get the glory of the dragon’s defeat. Tricky Lech killed Krakus II and blamed his brother’s death on the dragon. But when Lech became king, his secret was found out, and he was banished from the country. The city was then named Kraków in Krakus’ honor.

Or so goes at least one retelling of the legend of Smok Wawelski. Now, I’ve been living my life thinking that Smok is the beastie’s name; turns out that smok is actually the Polish word for dragon, and so the dragon’s official Polish title, Smok Wawelski means specifically, the dragon of Wawel Castle. Today, you can see a metal sculpture of the dragon at the base of Wawel Castle, guarding what’s known as the “dragon’s den”, a dark little cave tucked into the hillside. He is raised in a dark bronze and spurts a noisy sulfurous burst of flame every few minutes, to the startled amusement of the onlookers at his clawed feet. Now tourists crowd in front of him without fear, smiling wide for the camera while the river slips quietly by.