Friday, August 19, 2011

Visit to Krakow

One evening during a visit to Krakow I was strolling with a friend in the old town square. In the north east corner of the square is the St. Mary's Basilica, a Brick Gothic church built in the early 13th century, famous for the hourly trumpet signal played from the top of the taller of the two towers. We entered just as the service was concluding and stood in the entryway as people began streaming out. (There weren’t that many.) I thought to turn and go but something held me there as the echoing sounds of the departing parishioners began to fade.

The central part of the cathedral was dimly lit by large candles and, as we stood there, I could see that they were being extinguished one by one. Slowly the distant darkness moved in our direction. I tried again, but just as I mustered my resolve to turn and leave the soaring soprano sounds of a woman’s voice singing “Ave Maria” fixed me to the spot. I couldn’t tell where the sound was from other than the vast empty space of the nave that was becoming progressively darker.

As the singing came to an end, the last few candles were extinguished by an old bent over figure dressed in hooded medieval attire and carrying a snuffer on a wrought iron staff. (Perhaps my mind later added these embellishments. But, I swear that this is as I remember it.) He had a cord around his waist from which there hung an iron ring with a dozen or so ancient looking keys.

Without speaking he began to herd us toward the door. One candle remained in the entryway, and there was still a faint glow high up inside the church itself. As we started to back toward the door the first few bars of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D” on the church organ echoed through the church and the low note at the end of the first passage shook the building and froze all three of us in our tracks. I’m not sure I was even breathing until after the music ended nine or ten minutes later and we were thrown back into the world of reality. We looked at each other. Had that really happened?

I don’t remember leaving the church or hearing the door close behind us or even if there were steps down to the street. All I can recall is that it was late, the square was empty and it was time to head back to the hotel.

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