Once upon a time, there was a small town on a hill. Underneath the hill lived a dragon, which terrorized the town by eating all of their sheep and, on occasion, barbecuing something (or someone). The leaders of the town, not sure what to do, called for all the bravest warriors to come forth and do battle with the dragon, with the aim of killing it and saving the town. The first warrior fought the dragon, but failed in killing it. Just so with the second. And again with the third. Soon, no warriors were left to fight the dragon. It seemed all hope was lost.
While the whole town was weeping and wailing and worrying, the cobbler sat thinking. After a spell, he started sewing. The next day, the townspeople watched him wander down the hill with the leather sheep he had sat up sewing the night before. The cobbler laid the leather sheep on the ground, grandly wished the dragon ‘bon appétit,’ then booked it back up the hill.
The townspeople watched in wonder as the dragon ate the sheep. Almost immediately, the dragon seemed distressed and ran to the nearby river. He drank long and deep, without coming up for air. He drank and he drank and he drank – and then he exploded from all the water he’d drunk.
The people were amazed, and questioned the cobbler. What had he done? What magic was this? What cunning that fooled the horrible dragon?
A greedy belly, answered the cobbler. He explained how he had filled the leather sheep with sulfur, knowing that it would give the dragon an insatiable thirst. Besides, it wasn’t any crazier than any of the other solutions the town had come up with.
The people were so impressed by the cobbler’s wisdom and wiles that they made him king. Under the cobbler-king, the town grew into a city and saw many years of prosperity. The king built himself a castle on top of the hill where the dragon had lived and named it – Wawel.
So runs the story of King Krak, the legendary king of Kraków, and, according to legend, the person from whom the name of Kraków comes. Note: This is a legend. There are many versions of the story.
Historians have other theories about the legendary King Krak, but theirs aren’t as interesting as the folk tale, so we’ll leave it.
Whether you believe the story of King Krak or not, his figure plays an important role in the culture of Kraków, even to this day. Everywhere you go, there are little dragons for sale, commemorating the defeat of the Wawel dragon. Storybooks punctuate book displays, complete with pictures of Krak implementing his cunning. And, of course, Wawel Castle still stands proudly on top of Wawel Hill, looking out over the Wisła.
While Wawel may be the best known monument to King Krak, it is by no means the only one in the city of Krakow. Outside the Stary Miasto (star-eh mee-ah-sto; Old Town), in the Podgórze (pod-goo-zheh) district, there’s another hill, larger than Wawel. On top of that hill is the Kopiec Krakusa (koh-pee-ets krak-oo-sah), or the Krakus Mound.
If anyone is familiar with the Celtic tradition of building barrows for the dead, they’ll know exactly what the Kopiec Krakusa is. Basically, Krak was such a great king that he was given a heck of a funeral and a gargantuan grave. The Kopiec Krakusa is, according to legend, the grave of King Krak.
The story goes that, at the funeral of King Krak, the people of Kraków filled their sleeves with dirt and carried it to the burial site, with the idea that they would build him a mound that would dominate the landscape, in the same way he had ruled over the city of Kraków.
Another theory says that Celts built the mound sometime around the 2nd century BC for astronomical reasons. If you stand on top of the Kopiec Krakusa on a certain day, you’ll see the sun rise directly over one of the other famous burial mounds around Kraków (Wanda’s Mound). Given that the Celts lived in this part of Europe before the Slavs came through, it’s a viable theory. Another theory says that a Slavic people built the mound sometime around the 7th century AD (the more people try to figure out about the mound, the more mystery that seems to arise).
I like the shirtsleeves story better.
If you’re up for a hike, head over to the Podgórze district and climb up the Kopiec Krakusa. It lies about three kilometers outside the Stary Miasto (almost two miles). That might not sound like much of a hike, but remember it’s all uphill. Once you get up to the mound, you might as well climb the extra 52 feet to the top and take in the majesty of Krak’s city.