The Haunting Hejnal of Krakow

St. Mary's Church, Krakow

St. Mary's Church - dawning of a new day after a rainshower

This morning, as I flipped through my photos of Poland taken this past October, I came across a series of shots of the famous Gothic St. Mary’s Church in the Main Market Square of Krakow. Page after page of different angles, intriguing details, Monet-esque studies of various lighting and different times of day. My own camera told me what I had not realized at the time – I was obsessed with St. Mary’s Church and in particular with the north tower.

For anyone who has been blessed enough to stroll the enchanting streets of Krakow, Poland’s spiritual and medieval capital, you know the story of St. Mary’s North Tower. As legend goes, when the Tartars, nomadic warriors descended from the mighty Genghis Khan, descended upon Krakow, the town watchman in this tower sounded a warning song from his bugle, allowing the city enough time to rally a defense at the city walls and successfully hold off the attack. Tragically, the watchman was shot through the neck by an arrow as he continued to sound out the alarm. It is a moment in Polish history that makes every Polish man, woman, and child stand a little taller and step out their front door with pride.

St. Mary's Church Krakow

The hejnal is played from the North Tower on the left

In memory of that fateful day, the town watchmen have sounded out the same bugle alarm on the hour every hour to each of the four directions in that very same tower of St. Mary’s. Called the hejnal, and beloved by Poles in every corner of the globe, the hymn is played up to the supposed moment when the Tartar arrow pierced the neck of the watchman so long ago. Since 1928, the hejnal has also been broadcast on Polish national radio. It is a spiritual legacy of a proud if turbulent and tragic Polish past. Today the local fire brigade is in charge of manning the tower. Pairs of firemen spend a shift of several days in the tower, sounding the hejnal and maintaining seven centuries of tradition.

I am not Polish, and even my convoluted American immigrant heritage does not, at least to my knowledge, contain a speck of Polish blood. Yet my own photo album sings of my own spiritual connection to this church, its tower and the legend that encompasses it. Then it hit me with stunning clarity – I had connected with the legend of Polish courage and fortitude as a child, reading a wonderful children’s book called The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly. A winner of the Newberry Medal, one of the gold standards of children’s literature, I came across this enchanting book in my 4th grade classroom. A story of a young Polish boy in 15th century Poland who fled one of a successive wave of Tartar attacks, it weaved a tale of bravery in the face of possible death, and a boy inspired by the legend of the watchman two centuries before him to help save Krakow. I devoured the book in three days.

St. Mary's Church

Sunset in the Main Market Square

So as I stood on the rain-slicked ancient cobblestones of the market square in the shadow of history and craned my neck back to gaze up at this monument to legend, I became that ten-year-old girl. The local fireman on duty opened a window, the bugle appeared far above, and suddenly legend swirled audibly around me – the magic of the hejnal. I did not realize at the time the power of a moment my spirit had waited 18 years to meet. I may not be Polish, or even Polish-American, but as the bugler sounded out his haunting refrain to each of the four directions, I felt as if I had come home. The final note struck and cut off abruptly, and then the fireman waved out the window to the spectators below. My ten-year-old heart waved back.


About chronictraveler

Chronic Traveler starts as a dream, one that I thought I had lost, but that has slowly changed into a mission to realize and live that dream every day. In December 2007 I became seriously ill and the doctors did not know what was causing my illness. I had to stop teaching as my life tumbled into a never-ending nightmare of doctors, hospitals and tests. Finally, in May 2008 I was diagnosed with a chronic condition - fibromyalgia. I was only 26 years old at the time. I have had to give up teaching, and now work part-time at a performing arts center as I learn how to manage my condition and improve my quality of life. What helped me through the months of uncertainty and sickness, and continues to inspire me, was a new focus on what truly mattered to me: family, friends, gardening, the arts, and especially travel. I have always fed my soul by traveling, ever since I first stepped off the plane at age 16 in Kathmandu, Nepal to help with an orphanage's building project. Meeting new people and experiencing how they live and how they view the world infuses my life with a richness I was so afraid I would lose when the doctor first said, "You have fibromyalgia". This blog is my story, as I begin to forge a new path. I am embracing my life as it is, with the fibromyalgia pain and fatigue, and learning to do what I love regardless. It may mean I have to go slower and take more naps or breaks! But I am determined to learn how to travel and experience the world, and hopefully what I learn will help others like me who believe their medical condition stands in the way of their travel dreams.
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One Response to The Haunting Hejnal of Krakow

  1. chronictraveler says:

    Reblogged this on Chronic Traveler and commented:

    An old post that deserves to see the light once again.

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