I have nothing against the comforts and easy pleasures of a lighthearted holiday, but I’ll always choose adventure travel over a vacation. I simply feel more alive heading out into unknown territories that are the cultural equivalent of the spaces on the old maps marked “Here there be dragons.” But until I got to Kraków, Poland, it had never occurred to me that there might literally be dragons. Which just shows you how little I knew.
Kraków’s dragon was called Smok Wawelski, and back in the day he was always ravaging crops, livestock, and maidens. When all the local knights had died fighting him, a poor but crafty cobbler’s apprentice named Skuba came up with a clever plan. He filled a lamb’s carcass with sulphur and laid it temptingly in front of the dragon’s cave. Smok gobbled it up and was seized with such a monstrous thirst that he ran down to the river and drank without ceasing until he exploded. Problem solved!
And I know every word of this is true, because I have seen Smok’s bones, mounted at the entrance to the cathedral in the Wawel Castle complex. Naturally there weren’t many bones left after he exploded, and as our guide was telling the story, Rich was craning his neck in an unsuccessful attempt to see them. Finally he leaned over and whispered, “Where are the bones?” Unfortunately, he whispered this into the ear of a strange woman with my color hair who happened to be standing next to him at the time. A few awkward moments ensued until the woman’s male companion, evidently deciding Rich was a harmless lunatic, pointed to the rafters and said, “Up there.”
Chained high on the wall were three bones of gargantuan size, two massive joints and what looked like a long, curved rib. Now, I know you’ll find this hard to credit, but some naysayers have seen fit to question the authenticity of these bones, suggesting they might be from a blue whale, a rhinoceros, and/or a wooly mammoth rather than an actual dragon. However the chances of those bones being taken down and subjected to scientific scrutiny are precisely zilch, because according to legend, so long as they remain in place, Kraków is safe from destruction. Are they working? You bet. Otherwise, how would you account for the fact that during World War II, when just about every major city in Poland was bombed to rubble, Kraków survived more or less intact?
Well, there is one other reason that could account for the city’s survival: the Wawel Chakra Stone. If you’re a little hazy on the whole chakra thing, they’re sites of highly concentrated physical and spiritual energy. The human body has seven, from the root chakra at the base of the spine to the thousand-petaled lotus of enlightenment at the top of the head. The Earth also has seven chakras, marked by stones that radiate transformative and protective power. One is said to be inside a wall in Wawel Castle, where it’s busy cleansing the earth’s aura and reanimating the seventh chakras of those who touch the wall.
Do you have to ask? Of course, I tried it! I placed my palm against the wall and leaned in. Nothing whatsoever happened. Or did it? For all I know, my spiritual batteries are fully topped up, all thousand petals of my lotus are open, and my seventh chakra is doing a happy dance – but all in ways too subtle for me to notice.
I will never know if those are real dragon bones or whether the chakra stone gave my aura a bit more zing. But I am certain that visiting Wawel Castle let me step outside the boundaries of my ordinary life and open myself up, if only briefly, to some of the mysteries of the universe. And who knows, maybe as I continue exploring unknown territories, the protective powers of the Wawel Chakra Stone will be keeping me safe along the way.
“And after dinner, of course,” said one of our new friends, “vodka and pickles.”
At this point in the evening, I felt nothing could shock me. Earlier I’d been staggered to observe people in many of Krakow’s charming bars casually drinking liters of beer through large plastic straws. When I asked a local woman about it, she laughed and said, “Oh, that’s not beer.” I was so relieved; call me old fashioned, but somehow sipping beer through a straw seems to be flying in the face of nature. “No,” she continued. “That’s beer with ginger flavor added to it.”
I was still reeling from that appalling revelation when a round of tiny vodka glasses appeared on the table along with huge green pickles. “You eat them after drinking the vodka,” someone explained. “It helps keep you hydrated.” Oh, well, if it’s good for my heath… Na zdrowie!
After a month on the road, I’m still gobsmacked by how much I have to learn about the world. So far we’ve traveled through Spain (Seville, Barcelona), Italy (Genoa, Verona), Germany (Munich), Austria (Salzburg) the Czech Republic (České Budějovice, Český Krumlov, Prague) Poland (Krakow, Katowice), and Slovakia (Zilina, Košice). We’re now proceeding towards Transylvania by slow stages, hopping from one hitherto unknown spot to another. As we stumble on and off trains, we find we’re confronting many of the essential travel questions people have been asking since our earliest ancestors first wandered over into the next valley and discovered another tribe.
How do you communicate without a common language?
Zipping in and out of so many countries, we scarcely have time to learn how to order beer in our new temporary language, let alone master the nuances of conversation. But if you’ve ever played charades or Pictionary, you’ll know that words aren’t everything. Last week I stopped into a hair salon in Krakow, pointed at my gray roots and made scissor motions at the tips of my hair; my new fryzjer knew just what to do. Similarly, when I arrived in Košice yesterday and wanted the hotel to wash our things, I simply made drawings of the various items, which not only amused the desk clerk no end, but insured that we received every item back this morning.
Can you turn strangers into friends, or at least acquaintances?
Finding congenial souls along the way enlivens the journey and gives you fresh topics to think and talk about afterwards. One of the best ways to meet interesting people is to take a free tour. You usually get the liveliest and most knowledgeable guides, who are highly motivated by your tips and the hope of luring you into taking more tours; people who take free tours tend to be slightly less conventional and more open. Another way to connect is by renting a room or apartment directly from an expat or local via AirBnB, where you’re likely to find cheaper, homier places and a host who knows the best bars in the neighborhood.
What makes for the most memorable experiences?
We recently had a one-night stopover into Katowice, Poland, a gritty, post-industrial town whose mines were exploited by the Nazis and the Soviets, leaving a landscape dotted with the monstrous, rusting hulks of derelict factories. “Katowice is the butt of jokes throughout Poland,” a tourist brochure informed us, rather unnecessarily. At the train station’s information booth, we asked the two young men on duty how to get to our hotel, which was 300 meters away. The tall, skinny one with the braces started to answer, the short, stocky one disagreed, and they went back and forth like two wild and crazy guys from the old Saturday Night Live routines until Rich and I went into whoops and had to hurry away. We soon found our hotel, which was so close to the station that we could here them announcing trains from our room. My point – and I do have one – is that getting off the beaten path lets you experience all sorts of odd and entertaining encounters. Our night in Katowice was like stepping back in time to the old Soviet days, only with better food and the opportunity to leave in the morning.
There isn’t nearly enough space in a single post to fill you in on all we’ve learned, so watch for future updates on lodging, packing, train travel, and of course, drinking customs around the world. Na zdrowie!
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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