Walking around Rynek Główny in Kraków, you’ll notice that, every hour on the hour, someone starts playing a trumpet. They play the same tune four times, then they stop. Some people stop and look at the tower of the Bazylika Mariacka, then they move on. What most people don’t notice is that this tune stops. Abruptly.
Most people are familiar with churches ringing bells to tell time and call people to prayer, and they assign the trumpet call in the Bazylika Mariacka to the same category. It isn’t that, though. The hejnał (hey-naw) has a unique and interesting story all its own, separate from religious life.
Way back in the 14th century, Poland imported some royals from Hungary: King Louis I and his daughter, Jadwiga (yahd-wee-gah; she’s now a very popular saint in Poland and is buried in Wawel Cathedral). They word hejnał comes from a Hungarian word meaning ‘dawn,’ so academics have speculated that the two Hungarians brought the tradition of playing a call at dawn to Poland with them. Either that, or the tradition was already in place and they simply brought the word with them. At any rate, the first written records of the hejnał being played in Kraków come from the time of their reign.
The hejnał didn’t just keep the people informed of the hour; it also signaled the time to open and close the city gates, in the morning and in the evening, as was common practice in European walled cities in the Middle Ages. In fact, it’s this tradition that gives the modern-day hejnał its distinctive sound.
When it was time to open or close the gates, the trumpeter would play the call four times, once in the direction of each of the important gates. If the city gates needed to be closed in a hurry, an emergency hejnał would be played. In the 13th century, just such an emergency occurred when the Tartars invaded Kraków. In addition to being extremely rude for trying to come in uninvited, the Tartars had a reputation for being particularly nasty to the cities they invaded. In Russia, they had completely leveled almost all of the major cities of the time. Naturally, the people of Kraków didn’t want that to happen to them, and they tried to keep them out by shutting the gates.
According to legend, the lookout in charge of playing the hejnał saw in the invading troops and started to play the alarm. As the gates were rumbling closed, a Tartar arrow found its way into the poor lookout’s throat, abruptly terminating his ability to play the call. However, it was too late for the Tartars: the alarm had already been sounded, and although they did considerable damage, they ultimately failed to take the city.
Because of that story, regardless of whether or not it’s true, the hejnał is a symbol of great pride in Poland, representing the fighting spirit of the Poles. In 1944, a Polish soldier played the hejnał to announce victory at Monte Cassino. When the Nazis were repelled from Kraków at the end of World War II, one of the first things the people of Kraków did was reinstate the practice of playing the hejnał from the Bazylika Mariacka. Even today, every day at noon, it’s broadcasted over Polish radio.
And because that one trumpeter stopped playing mid-note during the Tartar invasion, every single player since has also stopped the hejnał mid-note.
The hejnał is played from the taller of the two towers in the Bazylika Mariacka. For 15 złoty, you can climb the steps (careful, they’re steep and windy) and look out over Kraków from hejnał player’s perch.