Once upon a time a fire-breathing dragon . . .

Warwel Dragons fiery breath IMG_4673

Once upon a time, a fire-breathing dragon, with taste for young female flesh, lived in a cave in Krakow according to Wincenty Kadłubek (1161-1223), Bishop of Cracow and historian of Poland.

When nearly all the city’s young girls had been eaten, the King promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who could kill the beast. The legend reports the Wawel Dragon was finally slain by a cobbler’s apprentice who fed the creature a roasted lamb which he had stuffed with sulphur and hot spices.

After the dragon had devoured the tasty sacrifice a powerful thirst hit him so he went to the river to drink. He drank and drank and drank but became even more parched and continued to drink until, so full of water, he burst.

As with all good stories, on his wedding day, to Princess Wanda, the poor apprentice lad was fittingly renamed, Prince Krak, Dragon Slayer.

Today, the dragon’s den, in the 12 million year old cave at the base of Wawel Hill, and a fire-spouting dragon statue, are both part of Krakow’s literary trail which celebrates its status as the world’s seventh UNESCO City of Literature.

Wawel Hill, home to the Royal Castle, is a favourite setting for many a national myth and legend and when I first saw it, on a grey monochrome morning I could well believe the stories of supernatural powers held by a mysterious chakra discovered there in the 1st century.

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Dunedin (New Zealand) knows, as now the eighth city of literature, that to become a UNESCO City of Literature, there are several requirements in terms of the quality and diversity of initiatives. They include the role of literature in its broadest sense in the everyday lives of the city’s inhabitants, a range of festivals and literary events, and an abundance of bookshops, libraries and other institutions involved with books and literary heritage.

Some of Krakow’s claims for being considered a literary capital were that the first Polish language books were published there in the 16th century, and that it was the first Polish city to hold scriptoriums, libraries and printing houses.

As book lover, in Poland at the end of the tourist season, I was disappointed not to be able to take one of the monthly, guided literary walks. It was even more disappointing that despite two emails to the literary and tourism websites I received no response to my request to hire a guide for an individual tour of the literary hotspots. It’s very easy to overpromise and under deliver. To add to the difficulty the tourism office in the city square did not have the brochure-map either – they sent me to another office where I was given their last English one.
With sixty-one points of interest detailed on the map, they cover historical sites; literary addresses, libraries and bookstores, literary cafes, literature in public places and, Nowa Huta, a 1949-built city for the workers. Until this year, this area was home to the annual Krakow Book Fair, Poland’s most important meeting of readers and some 500 Polish publishers. Portrayed as an ideal city in Stalin-era literature, it has been the setting for many poems and human interest stories. Alongside the book fair, the Conrad Festival takes place – a prestigious literary event, it’s considered one of the most noteworthy occasions in this part of Europe and has attracted crowds of readers for many years.

Outside the old city wall, the moat has been filled in, providing a ring of green – Planty Park. As well as monuments to writers and other artists, it is also home to dozens of benches honouring writers with connections to the city. One easily recognised was Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, the 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel which was later adapted to film for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. QR barcodes on all seats, helpfully link the visitor to virtual collections of text and recordings of the specific author. Of course Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory is on the self-guided walk too.

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There are close to 80 bookstores and almost 30 antiquarian bookshops in the city, with one of the buildings in Market Square housing a book shop continually since 1610. I walked to the Massolit Bookstore hoping to talk with one of the three ex-pat owners about the literary meetings, events and political debates which are held there. They were not available so I did what time-rich travellers do and just sat, enjoying coffee, a chocolate brownie, the international newspapers and the old world ambience.

In the Main Market Square (where you can spend hours) every hour, on the hour, a bugle plays from the four points of the compass in the high tower of St. Mary’s Basilica, and this too has a literary connection. It was immortalised in the first book by Eric P Kelly, The Trumpeter of Krakow, which won the 1929 Newbery Medal as the year’s most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature. An American journalist, academic and author of children’s books, he was briefly a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.

Interestingly too, Krakow is part of the International Cities of Refuge Network and, in the Villa Decius, one of the Renaissance complex sites of literary and cultural salons, a refuge is provided for persecuted writers.

Finally, two Nobel Prize Winners in Literature had their homes in Krakow: poet Czesław Miłosz (1980) who returned after many years in exile, and poet essayist Wisława Szymborska (1996) until her death in 2012: I only wish I had been able to get a deeper insight into this walkable city’s past, present, and undoubtedly bright literary future.

This story first appeared in the Otago Daily Post, Dunedin, New Zealand.

The Palace of Culture and Science -Warsaw’s gift, Poland

The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth tallest building in the European Union. Locals who spoke of it to me said it was “a gift from Russia” and they always drew the speech marks in the air.

It seemed they have a love hate response to it and have a few, mostly derogatory, nicknames for it: they also told me although it was a ‘gift’ they paid for it!

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A beautiful building, it’s a mix of Socialist realism and Polish historicism and was apparently inspired by American art deco skyscrapers. Originally known as the Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science but during a ‘de-stalinisation’ period, Stalin’s name was removed.

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Wikipedia tells me “Construction started in 1952 and lasted until 1955. A gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland, the tower was constructed, using Soviet plans, almost entirely by 3500 workers from the Soviet Union, of whom 16 died in accidents during the construction.[2] The Soviet builders were housed at a new suburban complex complete at Poland’s expense with its own cinema, food court, community centre and swimming pool.[1][3] The architecture of the building is closely related to several similar skyscrapers built in the Soviet Union of the same era, most notably the Moscow State University. However, the main architect Lev Rudnev incorporated some Polish architectural details into the project by traveling around Poland and seeing the architecture.[2] The monumental walls are headed with pieces of masonry copied from Renaissance houses and palaces of Kraków and Zamość.[2]

 

 

Should Christchurch rebuild exactly as it was pre-quake? Warsaw, Poland, did.

Christchurch Art Gallery --
Christchurch Art Gallery

As a travel writer, I was puzzled as I walked through the historic centre of Warsaw, Poland just a few weeks ago.  Why? Well, I’d read that during the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) over 85% of Warsaw’s old centre was destroyed by Nazi troops, but my eyes could only see 13th to 20th century buildings.

The beautiful old town, Warsaw

 

Apparently after the war, a five-year reconstruction campaign began, resulting in the meticulous restoration of the Old Town which is what I could see.

 

According to the United Nations World Heritage website, It is an outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.”

 

old or rebuilt ?
Another fabulous building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder as one of our clichés say, but for me, the beauty of European market places, churches and palaces is in their age.  I kept looking at buildings wondering is that rebuilt or is it old; five hundred years or fifty?  Actually, what I really was thinking ‘real or fake’; it felt Disney or Vegas-like. In fact, at the top of my mind was, ‘I’m so glad Christchurch is not doing that.’

Born, schooled, and living in Christchurch for most of my life, I have been devastated by the destruction of so many of our buildings, and much of my history. All my family arrived in Otautahi between 1862 and 1873 so our roots are deep in this flat, swampy, shaky region, and although I grieve for what was, I also welcome what will be.

During that fateful first quake (September 2010), lying in bed clutching my mattress so, if my 3rd floor apartment building collapsed I’d land on something soft, I had no idea what was to come. How relieved were my tweets and texts on that first day. It never entered my head we would eventually, like Warsaw, loose most of our inner city, my backyard. But we did – about 80% of our inner city.

And today I see on Facebook, that the beautiful Press building could be rebuilt, a replica on the same spot, for a hotel. That would be an asset to the city; it would give us back the appearance of still having one of our old buildings, but please make sure people know it’s a reproduction of a loved building. Don’t have tourists stand and wonder, real or fake, old or new?

Polish people are proud of how they defied the punishing German bombs by rebuilding exactly as it was, and the historic centre is full of tourists most of who love it as it is. However, for me, I’m just relieved my beloved Christchurch is, apart from key buildings that can thankfully be repaired, is arising as a new Christchurch: honouring the past, while welcoming the future.

(The Kiwi Travel Writer now lives in Wellington, but not as a quake survivor – she had begun apartment hunting some months before the quakes)