St. Mary's Church (Kosciol Mariacki) - Krakow
Prior to entering the church, listen to the legendary trumpeter tune from the lower of the towers, played every hour on the hour. Main gate's for prayer only. Use the south side entrance for visitiors.
The Bazylika Mariacka (Saint Mary's Basilica) is undoubtedly one of Krakow's most famous and most spectacular landmarks. It towers over the northeast corner of the Main Market Square, its delicately sculpted turrets peeking over the roof of the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), visible from all over the city.
Like so many places in this enchanting city of Krakow, the Mariacki church towers are swathed in legend. Their uneven height is due to the jealousy held between the two brothers commissioned to build them; the designer of the smaller tower, envious of his brother's success, murdered him in a fit of rage and then, wracked with remorse, threw himself from the higher tower. In another version of the legend, the taller tower was completed by the murderer as an act of penitence. No one can quite agree on the story, but the knife that struck the fatal blow can still be seen, hanging beside one of the central arches in the Sukiennice.
A more well-known legend tells the story of a brave city guard who saved Kraków from a Tatar invasion in the 13th century. The high church tower served as a watchtower in those days, where a trumpeter stood guard, signalling the opening of the city gates every morning and their closing every evening, and warning the townspeople of fire or invasion. When the Tatar hordes were crossing Europe and burning cities in their wake, the Krakow trumpeter spied them in the distance and sounded the signal to close the gates; in the middle of a note, a Tatar arrow pierced his throat, and the melody was broken. To this day, that same tune - the hejnal - is played every hour from the four sides of the tower, broken off at the same point in memory of the brave guardsman.
Even on the scale of the Market Square, the brick gothic church is a towering edifice, yet its elegant exterior does not even hint at the colourful splendour to be found inside. The walls are patterned in rich tones, heavy reds and deep blues, and ribbed with gold, the arched ceiling dotted with stars. In the dim light filtered through the panes of stained glass, the wealth of colour takes on the quality of a jewelled fairytale palace, the heavy woodwork and ornamentation in gold surprisingly light and airy.
The walls are covered in magnificent patterns, hung with paintings and dotted with richly constructed alcoves, but the real jewel is the altarpiece, a stunning work of woodcarving created by Wit Stwosz in the late 15th century. It is designed as a set of doors which, when opened to their full expanse of thirteen square meters, depict the Dormition and Ascension into Heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Panels on the sides depict cycles in the lives of Mary and Jesus.
The earliest version of the church was built in 1221 on the site of an earlier wooden temple, but was quickly destroyed during the Tatar invasions. The church that can be seen today was raised around 1300, in early gothic style, and continued to be developed and enriched throughout the 14th century. In the early 15th century, the side chapels were built, most of them the work of the master Franciszek Wiechon from Kleparz (then a small village just outside Kraków, now a neighbourhood bordering the Old Town). A cemetery used to lie beside the church, but was liquidated in 1795, creating the present-day Plac Mariacki; some of the tombstones were transferred to the church walls. In the 18th century, the church was remodelled in baroque style, but the interior was redone once again in neo-gothic style in the late 19th century, with contributions by some of Poland's most famous artists of the era. Jan Matejko is responsible for the colourful painting; while Stanislaw Wyspianski and Józef Mehoffer created the stained-glass windows in the presbytery and above the main organs.
Apart from the hours of mass, tourists can visit the Bazylika Mariacka for a small fee, entering at the side door. An additional fee is required to take photographs. After a walk through the glittering splendour inside, climb the 239 steps of the 82-meter trumpeter's tower, the Hejnalica, for a panoramic view of the city.