The Vistula/Wisła River

25 Mar 2018

The Legends

The villagers had limited options. The dragon beneath a nearby hill was waiting to consume their sheep and the last of their daughters. Young man after young man had failed to defeat the terrible monster. With few willing to risk certain and fiery death, the villagers put out a call for help. A cobbler’s apprentice stepped forward, though he was but a simple man and called foolhardy and suicidal. The apprentice had no armour nary a sword but he offered an ingenious plan to slay the dragon. He used all his money to buy three sheep and some sulphur. He stuffed the sulphur into the sheep and seasoned the carcasses with spices to fool the dragon into eating it. The poison would do the trick, he hoped.

The apprentice dragged the sheep to the entrance and waited. Awakened and in a rage, the dragon emerged from the cave and devoured the sheep in one go, and then retreated toward the cave. But just as he reached the entrance, a mighty gurgle and roar came from his belly, a reaction to the sulphurous mixture. The dragon, though, did not die. He marched to the Vistula and drank some water. Then he drank some more, then more and more until he had drunk half the river. He swelled so large he exploded and only mere scraps fell to earth. The successful apprentice-turned-slayer inherited the treasures of the dragon’s lair and became king, King Krakus, with his castle set on the nearby hill above the dragon’s lair. The apprentice, some trickery and the flowing river had slain the dragon and created the legend of Wawel Castle.

If Wawel Castle is the spiritual heart of Poland, the Vistula River is its lifeblood, from a source of irrigation and trade to a setting for recreation and entertainment. Called the “Queen of Polish Rivers,” the Vistula gathers waters from the southern mountains near Krakow and stretches them peacefully over a thousand kilometres to the Baltic Sea in the far north at Gdańsk. Although peaceful most days, the river sweeps up more than half of the water in the country and frequently reminds residents of their feeble attempts to pacify it.

The Floods of 2010

Large-scale floods in 2010 caused by heavy rain and rapid snowmelt in the mountains forced cities up and down the river to race to sandbag streets and buildings along its banks. In Kraków, the mayor declared a state of emergency after the river passed the high-water mark at 74cm above average. The next day the river swelled to 300cm above flood stage. The massive stone bulwarks lining the river held firm, though, and channelled most of the problem past the city and downstream to other cities, which suffered inundation. In some cases the water clearly revealed the naivety of local officials who had allowed wide development in the now soaked flood plains. About a month after wave upon wave had passed, Kraków and the other cities dried out and returned to normal and the tamer river continued flowing, almost acting as if nothing had happened.

In Krakow, the floods disrupted one of the city’s grand traditions: the Wianki Festival. This annual festival celebrates the summer solstice with live music, a street fair, buskers, a massive concert featuring top performers on the river banks and a rite where young girls and women in white dresses create and toss flower garlands into the river as a symbolic test of love. If the garland is caught in a bad current, becomes entangled in weeds near the shore or sinks, her love may be doomed. But if it flows freely, her chances for true love are great. It also celebrates, in part, the story of the sacrifice of Wanda, the daughter of the legendary king of Krakus, who as Queen refused a German prince’s offer of marriage and commenced a war. She jumped into the turbulent river and drowned, thus saving Poland from the invaders.

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