John Falconer is in Poland. Let him transport you inside the famous Wawel Cathedral.
From the street, Wawel hill cuts an imposing figure. It seems to be a constant reminder that God and the King will always be above you, watching. There’s no denying its beauty, though, especially in the snow. People take selfies all along the approach, with a hundred different backgrounds depending on their chosen lookout.
There are two inner courtyards. The first on my route, the cathedral courtyard, has wide, cobbled paths, arcing through the snow as if swept by a giant hand – perhaps by the hand of God himself. In the very middle are hillocks and the remains of ancient walls, all with a liberal coating of white. In defiance of the many signs that forbid trespass, it is covered in deep footprints.
The walls of many buildings are sloped slightly inwards, so that something dropped from an upper window would easily be intercepted from a lower one. It seems the architect favoured arches; they are everywhere. Perhaps that is where that word comes from – I should check that (ed – it isn’t). At least one arch is decorated with flowers, finely crafted out of the grey stone. In every wall, alcoves shelter statues of saints and royalty; some statues embody both.
Viewed from outside, the cathedral looks like a hodge-podge of different stone, bricks, and stacked shapes. There are towers and domes, some bedecked with gold, others green. Inside the cathedral itself, it is dim and grand, like most cathedrals, or almost any church in Rome. Of course, there is a gold altar dominating the space. Many fine statues of red marble are used for decoration. I find them obnoxious and overblown. Elsewhere, the marble is pink and white, as if carved from flesh.
The cathedral viewing route takes me through the choir’s area, made of dark wood. The carvings here are intricate, angular. It seems to me a more humble expression of piety than the perfectly-proportioned statues that loom from every corner. The chapels are separated from the cathedral by heavy, red and gold curtains, tied back with gold rope. They are so thick and still that I can almost believe they are oil paintings. Just like the courtyard outside, the cathedral is heaving with tiny statuettes that lurk in a hundred little alcoves.
The second courtyard belongs to the castle. It is on three storeys, each one supported by columns of white, decorated with scrollwork. The approach to this courtyard is dramatic; through a dark archway, longer than the others, I see bright snow, and can hear the sound of running water. Entering the courtyard, I discover that the sound comes from six dragons on the roof. In the ancient style, they are depicted – rather than realistically represented – but it is immediately clear what they are. They spray a constant stream of water into the courtyard. I wonder if they are melting the snow; it seems fitting.
Before I leave, I decide to check out the Dragon’s Den, which means that I have to backtrack a little bit. A heavily-insulated young woman guards the gate, and I see that it is a ticket-only attraction. I am not curious enough to go pay to go in, and decide instead to practise my Polish. She is wearing a scarf that covers most of her face. Her nose pokes out above it; her eyes are made up in the ‘smoky’ style. In my best Polish, I enquire if she speaks English. She responds by waggling her outstretched hand left and right.
“Co to jest?”
She pulls down her scarf. “A cave,” she says in English with a smile, and then pulls the woollen garment safely back up.
“Dziękuję,” I say, and start my descent through the snow. Somewhere in the old town, there is a hot chocolate with my name on it.