Monday, April 6, 2015

Wawel Castle conjours up Poland's glorious past

Even in the very substantial old stone building housing our hotel we could hear the wind howling all night. In the morning we bundled up with as many layers as we had with us and headed for the Wawel Castle, the most important collection of buildings in Poland. The first Polish King was crowned there in the 1300s beginning a tradition that would see a further thirty-five coronations. All of these rulers used the Castle as a residence, but when the capital moved to Warsaw in the 1500s the Castle fell into disrepair. The twentieth century saw the Castle change hands a number of times. The occupying Austrians used it as a hospital and during WWII it was used as the headquarters of Nazi Governor Hans Frank.

The inner courtyard of the Castle reveals a jumble of architectural styles that we admired only briefly in the rain. Then we headed indoors to visit state rooms, armoury and treasury. We started with the ground floor suites of the Governors of Cracow, with their wonderful ornate wooden ceilings. Up a grand staircase were the guest apartments. The Envoy's room was most impressive with an astonishing ceiling of thirty carved wooden heads looking down at us. The rooms were decorated with original tapestries and paintings.

Finally we reached the royal chambers with large reception rooms decorated with more Belgian  tapestries. The largest was the senate room, used for state occasions. Picture taking was not allowed, a rule enforced by particularly alert museum guards.

Next we toured the Royal Treasury, with precious stones dating back to 2 BC, candlesticks, miniatures, chess boards and religious vessels. One of the most impressive items was the coronation sword of Polish kings. Other rooms had spoils of war, suits of armour, jousting masks, swords and ornate ivory inlaid guns. One hunting gun really meant business with a particularly vicious sword attached to it.

It was time to brave the weather again. We crossed a wide open space filled with lots of daffodils in bloom. It had been 20 degrees here last week. Thankfully, we found the museum cafe for a thick hot chocolate Polish style. Once warmed up it was time to visit the Cathedral.

The Wawel Cathedral was the coronation site of Polish monarchs and remains Poland's most important national sanctuary. Thanks to its 1000-year-old history and numerous treasures it is said that the Krakow cathedral is the most interesting place in the whole country. The 14th-century walls shelter a great variety of top-class objects d’art, from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque to Classicist to Modern. It is also the burial ground of most Polish royalty, the greatest national heroes, two poets, four saints and countless Krakow bishops.

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