It only takes two hundred and thirty nine steps to reach a completely different city. To reach a song from the past whose ending blends with the snow that falls without sound.
At ground level in Krakow, raw pink and purple lights pulse into the vodka-warmed streets where shadows lead to staircases that crawl into underground clubs.
Here, though, at 54 metres above that icy ground, I find an open invitation to drift back through Poland’s past.
The attic of St Mary’s Basilica, the stately church that overlooks Europe’s largest square, has more than just bats in its belfry. In fact, it has a dashing young fireman who goes by the name of Michal Kolton.
Kolton, in a position he took over from his father and grandfather before him, belongs to a tradition that’s endured through these snowy skies for nearly eight hundred years.
Every hour, on the hour, Kolton throws open a wood-trimmed window, thrusts his trumpet into the icy air and launches into what locals called the hejnal (pronounced something like hey-now if you’re one of those people who still read aloud in their heads like, er, me.)
With a flourish and a flounce the musical notes float away into the air…da-dada-da-da da d-…and then stop with a sudden choke.
I shift uneasily and pretend I haven’t noticed.
He closes the window, take a few paces along the creaky floor and repeats the procedure at the next window. Da-dada-da-da da d- An exclamation, if there can be such a thing, of unexpected silence.
It happens again. And again.
Either the man must have military precision hiccups or something else is at play.
Reassuringly, it turns out to be something else.
Back in the days, a city’s resident fireman would play the warning hejnal bugle call to warn of smoke and fire or invading forces. During one such invasion (by the Tartars in 1241) the lone brave night watchman received an arrow in the neck for his troubles, cutting him off mid bugle call and launching a custom that went on to survive the Nazis.
Kolton’s not the only fireman in Krakow, of course, and a team of six more keep the cycle going, one by one, hour by hour, day by day, century by century.
Another new hour approaches and Kolton plays his cut-short tune again before throwing a self-conscious wave to the blots on the ground that cheer far below.
As for me? I’m enthralled by this city that shows me something new each time I return.
I open another window – and watch the snow fall.
Disclosure: I visited Krakow on this occasion with assistance from the Polish Tourist Board
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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