on March 13, 2008
I love looking at old tapestries, so one of our Krakow "must see’s" was the Castle (the former Royal Palace) at Wawel Hill. The Royal Apartments (14 ZL, £3, $6), and the Staterooms (19Zl, £5, $10) are priced separately. If you are keen to explore all of the Wawel area, you can also visit the Oriental pottery display, the cathedral, the Armoury and the Dragon’s Cave. You need to buy separate tickets for each attraction. Our tour focussed on Wawel Castle, which was built in Italian form almost 500 years ago. Unfortunately, the Castle suffered very badly at the hands of the warring Swedes and Austrians. The latter ransacked the palace and turned it into an army barrack stronghold. In the courtyard, you can see some old photos of the Castle in the early 1900s. I think the locals have done well to restore the old place.You can only visit the Royal Apartments by tour guide. The English speaking tour departed at noon when we visited. While I usually prefer to go at my own pace, I must confess the guide was very helpful, and gave us a lot of specific historical information. None of the furniture currently on display in the royal apartment is original. Following the 400 years since it was used as a Royal Palace, the Swedes, the Austrians and the Nazis took over and used the Wawel. During restoration, rich local families provided the current furniture to restore the correct look and feel to the palace. Most of the furniture here dates from the 16th century, and is mainly Italian, so although not originally used by the Polish royal family, it is at least in keeping with the building. The tapestries are original. They are Belgian and Dutch and date again back 500 years or so. While the colours have faded, the sheer quality and artwork is still there. Each square yard of tapestry takes about a year to produce, so a 40-50 square yard tapestry is equivalent to a lifetimes work! The tapestries are often themed on a biblical or mythical story such as the tasks of Odysseus, and the story of Noah and the Arc. I enjoyed the plants and animals depicted in the tapestry, and of course, the workers had very little opportunity to check whether their images match the wild animals they were depicting (they don’t!). The tapestries were smuggled out of the castle in times of invasion, and although around half the original number was lost over the centuries, around 180 remain. During the most recent evacuation, the tapestries were safe in Canada, while the Nazi Governor arrived to find his new home stripped bare. I also enjoyed the chance to view the grand rooms. The Royal Apartment tour took us through around 12-14 rooms, and the staterooms tour perhaps another 20. During the Austrian takeover, the original grand frescos in the rooms were whitewashed over. Fortunately, restorers discovered many of the frescos underneath, although some have been replaced with lesser modern versions. Like the tapestry, there are familiar themes from stories, religion, and myths. Our tour of the royal apartments took around an hour, as did our "self tour" of the staterooms. I appreciated the information we picked up with the guide, as it meant I had a better understanding of the staterooms. These contained just wallboards and sheets of information, and so didn’t come alive as easily. Krakow’s Wawel Hill attracts more tourists than any other site in Poland, and while the attractions may be a bit dusty for some, at the very least, a quick stroll around the outside of the lofty buildings at the Wawel is worth the time. In particular, to get a feel for the scale and grandeur of the place, don’t miss the open courtyard outside the Castle itself. If you are like me, and enjoy your history, then an additional tour inside the palace is a worthwhile experience.
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