Dark Secrets of Kraków’s Dragon’s Den

Some of you may have visited the Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den) underneath Wawel Castle in Kraków. It’s a natural limestone cave made famous by the legend of the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski), who supposedly lived there centuries ago.

smocza jama

Today, children and entire families visit this Polish attraction. I remember going there as a kid myself and imagining the dragon climbing up the cave’s wall. What I didn’t know then, and what many people don’t know now, is that the Smocza Jama has a much darker side to it.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the cave began functioning as a sort of pub, but it quickly deteriorated into what Obi Wan Kenobi would surely have called “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.” The Dragon’s Den became a sort of underworld, inhabited by vagabonds, thieves and prostitutes. It became the type of place one avoided for fear of getting mugged, violated, or worse.

Experts believe that what is today one cave, was once a series of caves, and the largest had become a giant brothel. A visiting Hungarian traveler wrote, “I don’t  believe you could have found as much debauchery in Sodom and Gomorrah as you can here.” It’s even believed that Polish kings like Henry Valois frequented this brothel in disguise, and it became a well-known place of “ill repute” around Poland and even Europe.

By the 18th century, the public had grown tired of the shrieks and drunken banter emanating from inside those carnal caves, so the king decided to fill most of them up, chasing the lecherous inhabitants out for good. As a result, today only one cave remains—the one that is believed to have been the den of iniquity.

Years, decades and centuries passed. In 1974, the cave was opened as the tourist attraction it is today. Most visitors today believe that the darkest thing to have inhabited that cave was a fire-breathing dragon. If only that were true.

 

The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy Part 2: Kittens and Pigeons and Dragons, Oh My!

Why did I become Crazy Polish Guy? I’ll try to answer that.

[Click here to read Part 1!!!]

I visited Poland again in 1999 and 2001; I was eight and 10 years old. Taking the trip to Poland was becoming so common that I failed to fully appreciate its significance at that time.

Instead of buying actual souvenirs during those years to remember my travels, I would blow my money on toys I could have bought in the U.S., because, with the exchange rate, they were cheaper. Puzzles, Legos, Pokemon…I hauled so much junk over the Atlantic that I’m surprised LOT airlines didn’t think I was smuggling merchandise in for resale. I probably could have turned a nice profit selling that stuff for much more in the U.S.

An intense face off between me and a Polish kitten
An intense face off between me and a Polish kitten.

The other highlight of these trips was cats. Yes, cats. Specifically kittens. The other boys sometimes made fun of me in grade school because I really liked cats. The reason being was that in Poland, my grandma had a cat that would have a kitten each summer I would visit. From a young age I fell in love with the animals, spending hours playing with them. Even though I was allergic and they used my arms and hands as a scratching post, I adored them.

One kitten took a particular liking to me—I believe during my 1999 trip, perhaps even 1997. Each time I returned with my family from a day on the town, as we pulled up to the house, he was visible at the window, scratching and pawing. When I opened the door, he would crawl down and start meowing at me. I would immediately pick him up and cuddle him close to me. I must admit that those were heart-touching moments of my childhood that I will never forget. Sometimes I wonder where those kittens are now. My grandma would always give or sell them to somebody after I left. If they are still around, they must be pretty old cats by now.

It was during these years that I had my earliest clear memories of places I visited in Poland, especially Krakow. I was still too young to appreciate the historical, architectural and cultural wonders of that medieval city, but there was one aspect that I became obsessed with—the Wawel Dragon.

I won’t recite the legend (click here to read it), but there is a cave and fire-breathing statue dedicated to the Wawel Dragon in Krakow. At eight, I was still young enough to believe in the dragon and treated my family’s vacation video of the “dragon’s lair” as indisputable evidence of the beast’s existence. I remember seeing markings on the cave wall and made sure to point out to my mom filming that those were scratches. In any event, my obsession with the legend helped the Krakow economy because I bought all sorts of dragon toys and statues. When a street artist drew my portrait in the town square, I demanded that he include my little dragon statue in his sketch.

sketch2
I made sure the artist included my Wawel Dragon Statue in his sketch.

Another major memory of Krakow was feeding the pigeons in the town square. Of course somebody figured out that a good way to make money in Krakow was to sell seeds to tourists to feed to the birds. I was a sucker for that. I enjoyed chasing them too.

For lunch in Krakow, I always liked to go to………McDonalds. I know. You’re judging me for flying all the way to Poland just to eat at McDonalds, but in all fairness, this was a special McDonalds because it had a dungeon. Yes sir, the building which housed the Polish McDonalds was quite old and had a deep basement. So it didn’t feel like an American McDonalds at all.

Thinking back, the memories in this post are very simple. Playing with kittens, fantasizing about dragons, chasing pigeons…these are all things I could have done somewhere in the U.S. There was nothing particularly Polish about them (except there are no American dragons). In the years to come, I would begin to appreciate Poland more for its own sake, but I realize that these early memories aren’t so much about a place as about a time—my innocent childhood.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Diary of Crazy Polish Guy!” Click here to read

Jurassic Poland: Polish Dinosaurs Uncovered

Jurassic Park came out when I was a kid, and I remember knowing every single dinosaur name by heart, like many growing up at that time. I always wondered, too, whether a T-Rex once walked in my backyard.

One thought that didn’t cross my mind then, but does now is, “What were Polish dinosaurs like?” You always hear about fossils being discovered in the southwest United States or South America, but never in Poland. Being the crazy Polish guy that I am, I immediately looked into the matter, and here is what I unearthed (pun totally intended).

Cretacious Period map
Map of the world during the Cretaceous period (145 million years ago-65 million years ago). Notice Europe is mostly covered in water.

Not many dinosaur fossils are found in Poland, and there’s a very good reason for that. 65 million years ago and earlier, the earth’s continents looked completely different because the tectonic plates had not yet shifted to their present locations. If you look at the map on the right, you will notice that most of Europe was literally under water back then, including much of Poland. That kind of makes it hard for land animals, doesn’t it? There were, however, some exposed areas, especially in the earlier periods like the Triassic and Jurassic, where dinosaurs and their ancestors did roam, and a number of famous specimens have been discovered.

Oldest Dinosaurs

Several years ago, paleontologists uncovered the oldest evidence of dinosaurs’ ancestors in the Holy Cross Mountains of central Poland. Footprints of a cat-sized creature that walked on four legs and lived 250 million years ago were discovered in a Polish quarry.

These small animals, called Prorotodactylus isp.,  technically predated the dinosaurs, living in between the Permian and Triassic periods. Anatomically speaking, however, scientists do classify them as dinosaurs since they walked with their feet close together and had three large toes in the center of their feet and two smaller ones out to the side.

Nearby, newer tracks of what is believed to be the first dinosaur to walk on two legs were also found. This animal, called  Sphingopus, is estimated to have lived 246 million years ago and was larger than Prorotodactylus isp., its tracks measuring .5 feet (15 centimeters) long.

Silesaurus

Near Opole, in Poland’s Silesia region, many remains have been found of animals from the late Triassic period (230 million years ago). Named Silesaurus, these creatures were small, measuring 1.6 feet (.5 meters) tall and 6.5 feet (2 meters) wide. Like Sphingopus and Prorotodactylus isp, these were pre-dinosaurs, but were anatomically similar to their larger descendents.

Silesaurus walked on all fours, but is believed to have been capable of walking on two feet as well. It was a light and quick dinosaur, especially when young, a trait that helped it escape predators. Experts believe it was either a herbivore or an omnivore.

Silezaur
Although the Silesaurus looks like a predator, it actually most likely ate plants.

This is one of the dinosaurs you will  see in a Polish museum. Skeletal reconstructions and models of the Silesaurus can be found in the Museum of Evolution in Warsaw and the Jurapark in Krasiejow.

 

Polonosuchus

You know that this is a Polish dinosaur because Poland is in its name! Polonosuchus was a four-legged predator that lived during the late Triassic period. It could grow up to 20 feet (6 meters) long and had a very tough hide for defense. The creature could attack larger prey by standing up on its back legs. Overall, it looked kind of like a large crocodile. Polonosuchus continues to be studied, and not a ton of additional information is currently available unfortunately.

Polonosuchus
The Polonosuchus could get up to 20 feet long.

The Wawel Dragon

One of Poland’s most famous legends is that of the Wawel dragon, who supposedly terrorized Krakow centuries ago until being outsmarted and killed by a peasant. This is only a story, of course, but in 2008, remains of a large creature were found in Lisowice, a town in southern Poland.

Paleontologists estimate that the animal lived 200 million years ago and was related to none other than the Tyrannosaurus Rex, who evolved later. Called an Archosaur, this large predator measured 16 to 19 feet (4-5 meters) long, had a skull measuring two feet (60 cm) and weighed nearly a ton. Its size makes it the largest predator to roam Europe, and perhaps the world, during the Late Triassic and early Jurassic periods. In many ways, it was actually a cross between a crocodile and a T-Rex. Click here to read a scientific paper with more details about this fascinating dinosaur.

Smok Wawelski dinozaur
This could be the skeleton of the famous Wawel Dragon.

This Archosaur certainly represents one of Poland’s proudest paleontological finds. When it was discovered in southern Poland, it was immediately nicknamed Smok Wawelski, or Wawel dragon. It is not unreasonable to believe that the famous legend itself may stem from this giant predator. Centuries ago, if a Pole accidentally dug up the skeleton of one of these animals, he or she would have had no idea about dinosaurs. The automatic reaction would have been to call it a dragon, or some other mythological creature. In that sense, when we look at the skull of the Archosaur, we may be staring into the very face of the Wawel dragon.

Overall, Poland continues to provide evidence of some of the oldest creatures to walk the earth, making it a unique spot on the planet for studying how dinosaurs evolved. In that sense, you could say that Poland is where dinosaurs began.

Meet Poland’s Most Famous Monster: The Wawel Dragon

 

The Dragon of KrakowIn many ways, Krakow is a town taken right out of a medieval storybook. Quaint narrow roads, towering cathedrals and an imposing castle greet anyone fortunate enough to visit this famous hub of Polish culture.

No medieval story, however, is complete without a fire-breathing dragon, and Krakow does not disappoint. Below Wawel Castle lies a natural limestone cave. Upon entering this “Smocza Jama,” or dragon’s den, one cannot help but be overcome with the coldness of the stone walls and the primal feeling that pervades this ancient expanse. Legend has it that the Wawel dragon made its home in this very cave. Here is the story.

Centuries upon centuries ago, Krakow’s inhabitants were being terrorized by a bloodthirsty dragon living in the limestone cave under Wawel Hill. No one knew where this beast had come from, only that it wreaked havoc on the town, destroying  livestock and feasting on young Polish virgins.

The king was desperate for a solution. He offered all sorts of riches and his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever could slay the monster. Soon knights arrived from across the country to face the beast in the hopes of collecting the reward. Their weapons were useless against the dragon’s thick scales; however,  and they all suffered agonizing deaths. It seemed the dragon was there to stay.

Now, there was a young boy named Krak living in the city, a shoemaker’s apprentice, who claimed he could slay the dragon without any sword or armor. Naturally, everyone laughed him out of the room (even though sword and armor had proven useless up to this point), except for the king. By this point, the king had no place to turn to. He was willing to try anything to save his kingdom from the Wawel dragon.

Smok Wawelski
16th century drawing of the Wawel Dragon under the castle

Krak requested two items to slay the beast: a dead sheep and sulfur. Confused, but desperate for a solution, the king supplied the materials. After cutting the carcass open, Krak stuffed it with sulfur and sowed it back up. He then placed the sheep in front of the dragon’s cave in the middle of the night.

The next morning, the dragon emerged from its cave to begin a typical day of murder and destruction. When it saw a sheep just sitting in front of the cave, (apparently this didn’t seem odd at all), it gobbled it up. Big mistake.

Soon, the Wawel dragon began suffering the mother of all belly aches, as the sulfur in the sheep caught fire in its stomach and began exploding. Somehow, a ruptured gastrointestinal tract was not enough to kill the beast. Instead, it flew as fast as it could to the Wisła River and began drinking water to try and extinguish the fire. The water didn’t help, but apparently made the situation worse. Shortly after, the dragon exploded, its remains sinking to the bottom of the river.

sheep
The Polish weapon of choice against dragons

Krak became an instant hero for killing the dragon in such an ingenious way. The king gave him his daughter’s hand in marriage. Eventually, Krak became king, built a castle atop the dragon’s den, and named the city Krakow.

When I was a kid visiting Krakow, I would always peer into the Wisła River, hoping to spot the bones of the Wawel Dragon at the bottom. I was never lucky enough to find them. Although, some bones of a mysterious large beast were found not far from the city.

Over the centuries, the Wawel dragon has become a major staple of Krakow’s culture. The limestone cave draws thousands of tourists each year. Outside the cave, near the river, a fire breathing statue of the Wawel Dragon was erected in 1972. Most visitors, especially  kids, have a photo climbing it.

Many cultures have legends of dragons and dragon slayers, but this one is definitely unique. While other dragons are typically slain by swords, arrows or magic, the Wawel dragon went down from an exploding sheep carcass. Hmm, must be a Polish thing.