(Photographed by author, 2 June 2013)
This picture combines several local elements. First, there is the traditional dress, indicating the strong ties of language and culture that have kept the Poles together, despite the fact that since 1795, the country has only been united and independent for a total of 45 years. After the interlude of 1918-1939 came fifty years of totalitarianism in two varieties, so for many of the onlookers the habit of celebration is still fresh. The Central Square has a plaque to commemorate the suicide there of Walenty (Valentine) Badylak, who set himself on fire to protest the suppression of the truth of the Soviet massacre of the Polish elite at Katyn. We were fortunate to have seen the Corpus Christi procession ("never seen so many nuns in one place," said my wife) the Thursday before this parade, and the green-clad Army formed part of the march past - neat and steely serious.
Next is the character seen here riding a dragon. His name is Lajkonik and he has appeared a little early, since he has his own festival a week after Corpus Christi ("konik" is Polish for "horse", though Google translates the whole word as "festivities"). Krakow was attacked by the Mongols in 1241 and it's said that a citizen who had killed a Tatar came back into the city mounted on a horse and clad in his foe's robes. The invaders won, but had to break off their conquest of Poland and return home because the Grand Khan had died, forcing the election of another. They came back twice more before the end of that century, and to this day a warning clarion is blown hourly from the tower of St Mary's Church in the square; the call ends abruptly because the guard was killed mid-note by a Mongol arrow. The current trumpeter is the third generation of his family to perform the ritual, a tradition dating back as least as far as the fourteenth century.
Last is the dragon himself. Legend has it that he dwelt below the Wawel rock on which the castle now stands (commanding a bend in the Vistula). Smok ate girls as his tribute until fooled into swallowing a sulphur-stuffed lamb, which made him so thirsty that he drank from the river until he burst. A forty-year-old, seven-headed sculpture of him stands by the castle, emitting flames every few minutes to the delight of passing children (and now he even belches in response to SMS messages). A huge T-Rex-like carnivorous dinosaur, the remains of which were found 100 miles away near Lublin, has been named Smok Wawelski in his honour.
Whether dragons ever really existed is a question for another article, though my answer to that isn't no. Meanwhile, here are some more images from this year's crop of Smoks:
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