Małopolska is proud of its diversity, which is reflected in the richness of traditions and customs, the taste of regional dishes, and exciting ideas for thematic events referring to the history and values of the region - and not only, an example of which is the Shanties festival, This is one of the world's most significant events dedicated to sailing songs, which for several decades has been held in February in Krakow, 600 kilometres from the sea.
It is worth knowing that several customs, including the Lajkonik parade, the kumoterka races, and the Kraków nativity scene, are on the national list of intangible cultural heritage, and the latter has also been included on the UNESCO world list of intangible cultural heritage.
We present examples of exciting events that take place at various times of the year in Małopolska.
The beginning of the year in the snow
In the first weeks of the year, Zakopane (100 km south of Kraków) hosts interesting events inextricably linked with snow. The first of them, taking place in the middle of the month, is the celebration of World Snow Day, and has a highly diverse and colourful programme. In 2021, the event took second place in the global competition for the best organiser of World Snow Day, in which 103 resorts participated!
The afore-mentioned kumoterka races of couloirs, i.e. two-person sleighs pulled by horses, are organised at the end of January and the beginning of February. The game relates to the tradition of godfathers, or 'kumoters', carrying infants to their christening in miniature wooden sleighs. In the races, the "kumoter" drives, while the "kumoterka" (baba) holds on tight to the sledge and balances her body so that the sledge does not fall off the track. However, there are often spectacular falls, which make the audience laugh. The beautiful regional costumes of the contestants, traditional horse harnesses, folk music and other attractions give the event a unique character.
In February, it is worthwhile going to Bukowina Tatrzańska (90 km south of Kraków) for the Highlander Carnival, i.e. an idiomatic folk party, whose elements include a competition of carol singing groups, dance pair shows, the robbers’ dance competition and open-air games.
Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is considered the most significant holiday for Christians. The traditions and rituals associated with it are still alive in Małopolska and are attended by crowds of pilgrims and tourists.
One week before Easter, on Palm Sunday – the day that commemorates Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Lipnica Murowana (60 km south-east of Kraków) hosts a competition for the most beautiful palm tree (an Easter decoration made of natural materials, the core is wicker, also used to tie together other carefully arranged traditional elements. The palm is decorated with colourful tissue paper flowers and evergreens), combined with a fair, and other accompanying events.
The creators of these palms are local people who construct their works according to customs passed down over the ages. The palms are judged in various categories and based on traditional criteria, but the most exciting is the competition for the highest palm. The record holder, created in 2019, was 37.78 metres high!
During Holy Week, from Thursday to Saturday, the Passion and Marian Sanctuary (40 kilometres south-west of Kraków) hosts the Paschal Mysteries. Most pilgrims are attracted by its Good Friday celebrations, when tens of thousands of people set off on the Way of the Cross in order to participate in the staging of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The pilgrims first gather at the chapel of Caiaphas, where the scene of judgment on Jesus is enacted, and then they proceed to other places to hear the death sentence proscribed upon the Saviour and to accompany Jesus in his passion. Several dozen people are involved in the re-enactment, and it is considered an honour and distinction to be among them.
Another event associated with Easter is Emmaus, which takes place on Easter Monday and is an indulgence held at the Norbertine Sisters’ Convent in Kościuszki Street in Kraków.
The indulgence fair and the nearby street take their name from the biblical village of Emmaus, where Jesus went after his resurrection. This event gave rise to the tradition of pilgrimages on the second day of Easter to churches outside the city. In Kraków, it was popular to visit the afore-mentioned church at the Norbertine convent, located about 1.5 kilometres from the city gates. Over the years, the custom of visiting the church evolved into an indulgence combined with folk entertainment. Today, its elements include a fair, sports, shooting competitions, merry-go-rounds, tombola raffles and refreshments. Unique elements of the event are the wooden figurines of Jews, indulgence pretzels and gingerbread hearts.
Rękawek, held on the Tuesday after Easter in Podgórze, also takes the form of a folk game. The name of the holiday is associated with the Krakus Mound (commemorating Prince Krakus, the legendary founder of Kraków), which, according to folk accounts, was supposed to have been built by the local population from soil brought to the place in their sleeves. In reality, the name instead derives from a pre-Slavic word associated with burial.
Centuries ago, the Rękawek tradition included throwing food - bread and apples - from the mound, as well as rolling eggs. Today, Rękawek celebrations are divided into two parts: on the Lasota Hill, by the Saint Benedict’s Church (the smallest and one of the oldest churches in Kraków), a fair is organised, carousels and shooting ranges are set up, while nearby, at the foot of the Krakus Mound, medieval enthusiasts meet, and warriors set up camp, women brew drink and prepare food. Here, you can see demonstrations of knightly combat, blacksmith's work and coin minting.
April redyk, or the departure of shepherds and sheep
The "redyk" is a ceremonial procession of shepherds with flocks of sheep, which set off from villages in the valley to mountain pastures when the pastures there began to green. The most important of the shepherds, the baca - shepherd and his assistants, the shepherd-boys, would collect the sheep from their hosts and set off for the mountain pastures. According to a Carpathian tradition derived from these Wallachian shepherds, their stay on mountain meadows begins on St Adalbert's Day (23 April) and lasts until St Michael's Day (29 September).
Nowadays, the most important redyk sets off around 23 April from Ludźmierz, from the Sanctuary of Our Lady, Queen of Podhale for the consecration of flocks and shepherds. Beautiful traditional costumes, folk music, the ritual handing over of water, which will be used to consecrate the highland pastures, and wood that will be used to light the first fire in the shepherd's huts, make the Shepherd's Festival extremely spectacular.
Lajkonik's Spring Fling
The Lajkonik parade, one of the unofficial symbols of Kraków, is also folk entertainment.
According to the legend, the figure of the Tartar, i.e. a bearded rider dressed in a costume referring to Oriental traditions, moving on an artificial horse attached to his belt, is a reminder of the Tartar invasions that reached as far as Kraków in the 13th century. The Lajkonik sets off from the afore-mentioned church at the Norbertine Sisters’ Convent on the Thursday after Corpus Christi. With a folk band and a retinue of swordsmen (rafters who floated timber down the Vistula River centuries ago), he walks along Kościuszki, Zwierzyniecka, Franciszkańska and Grodzka Streets to the Main Market Square. He visits shops and service points on his way, collecting tribute from merchants. Nobody refuses him because a visit from the Tartar and a touching of his mace ensures happiness and prosperity. The march ends with a meeting with the Mayor of Krakow, who hands the Lajkonik a suitable tribute and drinks a cup of wine with him.
Summer in Krakow - Wreaths and two grand parades of dragons and dachshunds
Summer in Kraków is a time of many events. A special place among them is occupied by Wianki and two large, unique parades that delight everyone regardless of age. These are the parade of dragons and the parade of the dachshunds.
The first one is actually two events that take place usually in June. Before noon, smaller and larger effigies made by children parade through the streets of Kraków. Their creators accompany their creations as squires, ladies of the court, or other characters appropriate to the character of the dragon. In the evening, at a bend in the Vistula below the Wawel Royal Castle, a giant multimedia spectacle with pyrotechnics, laser light shows, and great music takes place.
Why dragons in Kraków? As the legend has it, the famous Wawel Dragon used to live in the rock cave under Wawel Hill. Many knights set out to defeat this dragon, but none could. He finally met his demise through the efforts of the brave Szewczyk Dratewka, who gave the beast a sheep filled with sulphur. This made the dragon thirsty, and he started drinking water from the Vistula River until he drank so much that he burst. Hence, it is not surprising that hundreds of dragons - of different colours, shapes and sizes - return here every year.
Equally colourful is the September parade of the dachshunds, the only event of its kind globally. It is attended by enthusiasts of this breed who even come from as far away as Australia, Japan, South Africa and the USA. A few minutes before noon, the parade participants meet at the Barbican to set off punctually at noon along Floriańska Street to the Main Square. Each year the parade has a different theme, and after reaching the journey's destination, a selection of the best-dressed dachshunds takes place.
The Festival of the Wreath, which has reference to old Slavic rituals, occurs around the longest day of the year. This annual cultural event takes place at a bend in the Vistula River near Wawel. It includes musical performances, plays, competitions for the most beautiful garland, fireworks displays and other attractions.
Lemkos' Watchfire and Roma Caravan Memorial
In July, the small village of Zdynia (about 150 km south-east of Kraków) in the Low Beskids attracts a gathering of the Lemkos (an East Slavic ethnic group, one of four legally recognised national minorities in Poland) and Lemko culture enthusiasts. Lemko’s Watchfire (Łemkowska Watra), which takes place here, is a time of annual meetings, is extremely important for the Lemkos, and is accompanied with familiar songs, fun, participation in workshops and exhibitions.
Taking place in September in Tarnów (about 80 kilometres east of Kraków), the International Roma Caravan Memorial is the only project of its kind in the world. It makes reference to the myth of wandering that has been present in Romani culture for centuries, and allows people to learn about their history and culture. Its highlight is the passage through the city of the museum’s Gypsy wagon.
The Christmas period starts in Kraków on the first Thursday of December. At this time, Kraków cribs are presented in the Main Market Square; they are intricate, multi-coloured constructions that make reference to the city's architecture. This festival is a cultural landmark of Małopolska that has been entered on the UNESCO's List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity. After a short meeting at the Adam Mickiewicz monument, the creators move their works to the headquarters of the Kraków Museum, where on Sunday at noon, the winners of the competition for the most beautiful crib are announced and then the post-competition exhibition begins.
In turn, on the first weekend after Santa Claus's Day (6 December), angels from different parts of the world and the sky fly down to Lanckorona (40 km from Kraków to the south-west) to participate in the Winter Festival Angel in the Country Town. This is an event with an extraordinary atmosphere, that is accompanied by numerous exhibitions, handicraft workshops, performances and other events.
Christmas is also preceded by the Christmas Market, which occupies almost the entiretyof Kraków’s Main Square. You can admire and buy items produced and created by folk artists, as well as Christmas articles, and taste traditional regional dishes; all this in a festive scenery and accompanied by the sounds of carols. The event has a unique atmosphere and has been mentioned in many publications as one of the most interesting Christmas markets in Europe.
The Christmas Eve attraction for young and old alike is the living nativity scene at the Franciscan Monastery in Franciszkańska Street, i.e. a staging of the stay of Mary and Joseph with the just-born Jesus in a Bethlehem crib. Performed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it involves actors and live animals admired by crowds of Kraków residents and tourists.
On 6 January, during the Feast of the Epiphany, colourful processions pass through many towns in Małopolska, commemorating the arrival of the three wise men to the tiny Jesus. In Kraków, each king goes with his companions along a different route. All processions meet at the Main Square, where they pay homage to the newly born Child. Carols and pastorals performed by famous Kraków artists accompany the event.
Being in Kraków at Christmas time, one should not miss the tolling of the Sigismund Bell. It takes 12 bell-ringers to move this giant (together with the instrumentation, it weighs 12 600 kg), whose sound is carried even 30 km away. For this reason, it can only be heard a few times a year and on special occasions. The Sigismund Bell sounds from the tower of Wawel Cathedral on Christmas Eve (at 11:45 p.m.), Christmas Day (at 9:45 a.m.), New Year's Day (at 9:45 a.m.) and on 6 January, Epiphany (at 9:45 a.m.).
This is the name of a project comprising several events at different times of the year. On the Night of Museums, the participating institutions are open longer than usual, offer admission for a symbolic fee and prepare additional attractions for visitors. The Dance Night, in turn, is an open-air event in many parts of the city showcasing different styles of dance, during which the public is invited to dance workshops and dance parties. The Night of Theatres is also exciting. The most crucial theatre performances are presented during the Night, often on open-air stages, and meetings with actors and directors are held. Beyond the aforementioned, the Jazz Night has a unique atmosphere and this type of music can be heard on open-air stages and in jazz clubs until late at night.
There are many festivals in Kraków dedicated to various subjects. The best known include the afore-mentioned Sea Song Festival Shanties (in February), the Misteria Paschalia Festival of Early Music (during Holy Week), the Jewish Culture Festival (at the end of June and the beginning of July), the Kraków Film Festival devoted to documentary, anonymous and short films (in May), and the Film Music Festival.
Crowds of tourists gather during the open-air performances of the Street Theatre Festival (at the beginning of July). Even though it touches on a different theme every year, it always attracts the most outstanding artists, provides many surprises, arouses imagination and evokes admiration.
Another unique event is the International Festival of Children’s Folk Ensembles – the Festival of the Children of the Mountains, which takes place in July in Nowy Sącz (ca. 100 km from Kraków, to the south-east). This unique event is a meeting of children from different cultural and religious backgrounds, who, while having fun together, get to know the wealth and diversity of traditions of various countries and regions, and learn tolerance and respect for their peers’ faith, culture and customs.
Equally colourful is the International Festival of Highland Folklore, in Zakopane in August. Visitors can familiarise themselves with the traditions, costumes and music of the inhabitants of mountain areas from different continents. Performances on stage are accompanied by a folk-art fair, folk concerts and food stands featuring regional dishes.
How Małopolska tastes
Małopolska is a diversity of cultures and traditions, including culinary ones. Hence the idea of the Festival of Flavours showcasing the diversity of Małopolska flavours and hosted in various towns and cities of the region in July and August. It is an excellent opportunity to taste traditional dishes and products - golden kinds of honey, smoked cheeses, traditional cured meats, freshly pressed juices, crusty bread, fish - which are delicacies that have not been forgotten. On the contrary, they are becoming increasingly popular and more and more people are looking for them.
Culinary festivals devoted to various dishes are also popular. These include pierogi (it turns out that the filling does not have to be just meat, cabbage or fruit. Pierogi with lentils, spinach or fish are also served). During the Pierogi Festival (usually in August), each of its participants can vote for the best pierogi in their opinion. In September, on the other hand, there is a honey harvest where you can buy different kinds of honey and bee products and learn about the life of bees and their importance to humans.
There is always something interesting going on
These are just a few examples; there are many more interesting events going on in various corners of the region. In thinking about visiting Małopolska, it is worth considering the calendar of cyclical events or searching on the Internet for information about events that are to take place during your possible stay. Doing so will allow you to plan your exploration of the region's charms carefully, get to know its traditions and culture, and experience plenty of unforgettable impressions. Welcome to Małopolska - there is always something interesting going on here!