On the wings of enchanted pigeons

Means of transport

“Mum, I’m too tired to go any further…”
“OK, dear – shall we have a race to the next square?”

Children’s energy seems boundless. They just need a few minutes’ rest and their little legs are ready to run again. Join us on a trail perfect for young athletes – our guides will be the equally energetic Cracovian pigeons, but they are no ordinary birds…

According to legend, the pigeons of Kraków are enchanted. When the Kraków throne was assumed by Prince Henryk IV Probus in the 13th century, the Piast monarch greatly desired to unite all the Polish lands and crown himself king. But first he needed to garner the Pope’s support…

Let’s take a journey to the past, starting with the Church of St Adalbert. It was built at the fork in the trade route, and its original Romanesque elements are the oldest remains at the Main Market Square. A fragment of a former wall made of small limestone cobbles and a recessed portal are displayed almost two metres below the surface. Now imagine that this was once the pedestrian level of the Market Square! It was here that our restless pigeons came to seek food and rest.

Cross over to the other side of the Sukiennice, next to the Town Hall Tower, to see a model of an early layout of the tower and its former buildings. This is the place of the most “mosts”: the most important public space in Kraków and the most expansive Market Square of mediaeval Europe, it gathers everything most distinctive of the city. It is home to its most distinguishing hallmarks: the most beautiful, the most important, the most charming, the most…

On the way to the Church of St Mary, make sure you visit the Rynek Underground. A few metres beneath the cobbles lies a hidden multimedia exhibition – a treasure trove of information about the city’s past.

Unfortunately the prince didn’t have the money to travel to Rome or to donate to the Church, so he sought help from a local witch. She turned his knights into pigeons and ordered them to fly to the tops of the towers of the Church of St Mary. The enchanted birds pecked at the walls, and as the bits of mortar hit the ground, they turned into gold coins. By the end, the prince had three carts filled with gold! But the witch gave a stark warning: only when Prince Henryk returned to Kraków as the rightful king were his troops to regain their human form.

As you gaze at the pigeons wheeling over the Market Square, listen to the hejnał – the musical symbol of Kraków – resounding every hour on the hour in all four directions of the compass. Next we take the long climb up the steep staircase of the taller tower of the Church of St Mary. Take a peek inside the main church and admire the magnificent altarpiece by Veit Stoss and the polychromic starry ceiling painted by Jan Matejko, or spot the death knells by the main entrance. On the south-facing wall, by the entrance, you’ll find iron shackles once used to chain up sinners. Today you can have yourself bound to ensure happy and everlasting love…

We follow in the footsteps of Prince Henryk along Floriańska Street; on the wall of one of the tenement houses, at No. 17, you’ll find a piece of a chain which was once used to close the street for the night. Try to lift it – you’ll find it rather hefty! The chain blocked the street against invaders, and it stopped horse-drawn carts from breaking the curfew. We reach the St Florian’s Gate – centuries ago it served as the main entrance to the city for kings returning from victorious battles – and the Barbican, a gem of Kraków’s fortifications. It was never conquered, and its crushing of enemy forces with a single shot is the stuff of legend! The Rondel (lit. “saucepan”) of Kraków, as it is affectionately known among locals, is one of just three Gothic barbicans to have survived in their original condition in all of Europe. It is certainly larger and better preserved than those in Carcassonne in France and in Görlitz in Germany.

Delighted at finding himself rich, the prince at once set off for Rome to ask the Pope to support him in his bid for the crown. But he was so thrilled with his new windfall that he spent most of the way feasting and enjoying himself. His carts soon emptied of gold, and he never reached Rome. He didn’t return to Kraków, either, and his faithful knights waited in vain, enchanted as pigeons forever more… Today they eagerly perch on the shoulders of locals and tourists, hoping that one of them will turn out to be Prince Henryk and they can return to their human form at last.

Wearied by their centuries-long wait, the pigeons seek shelter in the Planty Garden Ring, so let’s head there to join them. It’s perfect for a gentle stroll to enjoy the different shades of green during springtime, seek shade during summertime heatwaves and pick conkers in the autumn. Or, if you’re feeling more energetic, you can run along all the park’s alleyways looking for playgrounds hidden among the greenery. Hint: there are two: Wild Planty for young kids and Plantuś with plenty to occupy even the liveliest ten-year-olds!

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