Salt Mines.

Trip Start Mar 16, 2004
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Trip End Jun 13, 2004


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Flag of Poland  ,
Thursday, May 20, 2004

Over the course of a few days I explored Krakow. If it was a person it would be described as bright and bubbly. The old city centre, having escaped serious damage during WWII, is very picturesque and much as it was hundreds of years ago.

For centuries it was the capital of Poland the monarchy held court here. Legend says that xxx defeated the dragon who lived under Wawel hill and so established the castle on the hill. Courtyard, royal apartments, armoury and the dragons lair can all be visited for a fee. I arrived late in the afternoon so strolled around the grounds, enjoyed the views across the city and dodged the groups of school children being led around the courtyard by patient teachers.

For some authentic Polish food I went to a little restaurant in the Jewish quarter which was recommended in my guide book. It was a lovely old cafe, probably hasn't changed in 50 years and the owners spoke absolutely no English. The menu on the wall behind was all in Polish except for silhouettes of animals representing, beef dishes, poultry etc. Amid much laughing and discussion, (you'd think we actually understood each other) the owner helped me choose a beef dish. I paid and waited to see what I'd get. It was lovely, a tender steak with potatoes and the usual Polish cabbage, beetroot and tasty coleslaw. You get that with everything here.

I had intended to leave Krakow on Friday, but stayed an extra day to visit the Wieliczka Salt mines. I got the minibus from the street outside the bus station for the short 10km trip to the mines. As I approached the entrance building I saw several guides sitting on benches outside the entrance, wearing smart black uniforms, gold buttons and a little guide shield on their tunic like a sheriff's badge. Some carried a white miners helmet and a handbag style battery pack with the headtorch dangling by its cable.

It was 47 zloty's (10 euro) for the tour. On a tight budget this is a lot for one tour. Since I had arrived I went for it not knowing what to expect. The English speaking tour left at 12.30. About 20 or so people were led through the entrance to the mine shaft and the 350 plus steps down a tight wooden staircase to the first level 64m underground. Despite being an English speaking tour the group contained French, Spanish, Japanese and Germans. How would we manage on a tour in any of those languages?

Our guide reminded me of the policeman in "Allo, Allo." He looked a little like him and spoke with a similar accent, his English was almost perfect. He was very jolly and included many one line jokes in his commentary which drew laughter from the group.The tunnels echoed with chatter as we walked along.

The place is an amazing testimony to human industry. The mine has existed for over 700 years, over 2000 chambers have been excavated and there are over 200 km of tunnels. The lowest level, level 9 is 327m below the ground. Four hundred miners still work here, 800, 000 tourists per year visit and there is a health centre for asthma sufferers.

To work in the mine was seen as a privilege and jobs were well paid and handed from father to son. Due to the length of time it took to get into and out of the mine, miners spent several days at a time underground. In their spare time and as a hobby some of them began to carve statues in salt. The salt deposit, formed when an ancient sea dried up, occurred in huge blocks and the miners worked inside these blocks hollowing them out, a two metre thickness of salt was left to prevent collapse and this created huge chambers. The miners decorated some of the chambers creating amongst other things many chapels. The work was dangerous and the miners very religious.

From the start I was impressed at the skill of the miners. The first chamber on the tourist trail is dedicated to Nickolaus Copernicus, the famous Polish scientist who visited the mines around 1493, they have a long history of tourism also!! The tour takes in a combination of carvings, chambers and the history of the mines. We saw dwarfs mining, famous historical people, legends associated with the mine and underground lakes. Some displays use light and music to tell stories using salt statues. It is very theatrically done.

the guide led us onward and downward. From ahead I heard gasps in the group and several loud"O la, la" from the French. A few more metres and i saw why. We entered the Chapel of the Blessed Kings. It was a huge chamber. The look of awe on people's faces as they turned around to take it all in said it all.

The boring facts are that the chamber is 54m long, 17m wide and 100 to 12m high and floor level is 100m below ground, but that doesn't begin to give an indication of the splendor contained in those dimensions. Its like describing an art gallery by its size only.

Its an underground cathedral entirely carved from salt, the steps we descended, the altar, the chandeliers which emit sparkling light to illuminate the translucent salt. Religious scenes are carved into the wall. the reliefs include a beautiful Last Super and a flight from Egypt. Incredibly it is all the work of just three people, who didn't even work together. The church is used, some people get married down here.

In another immense chamber we were told that the world's first underground bungee jump was performed here, and unbelievably the world's first underground hot air balloon ride!! Apparently its in the Guiness book of records, check it out. The guide said they were still waiting for a volunteer for the first underground parachute jump. Nervous laughter, but nobody stepped forward.

Return to ground level was a rapid ascent in a miners lift in darkness, occasional flickers of light as we passed each level.

I was delighted to have visited such a place. This is the perfect tour to do after visiting Auschwitz. To see such care and attention put into the creation of something so beautiful for no other reason than the simple desire to create something beautiful, miners were never paid for this spare time work, is amazing.

On my first evening in Krakow I passed a bar, outside it had a drawing of Schweik carrying a tankard of foaming beer. Schweik is the character of Czech novel called "The Good Soldier Schweik", written just after the Firts World War, which I read on this trip. It is illustrated by line drawings of the hapless soldier Schwiek of the Czech Army who stuns authority with the things he does. Officers are constantly trying to work out is he really an imbecile or is it all an act. Imagine a mix of Corporal Jones from Dad's Army, and Baldric from Blackadder. I just had to go in.

Within minutes of entering the bar I was chatting to an English couple over for the weekend and two Americans touring Europe. The barman gave useful tips on where to find places to go and as a parting gift said I could take the tankard I had been drinking from. I explained I was cycling and couldn't carry it, so we agreed that I would return in the summer sometime and collect it.

That evening and on the subsequent evenings I explored the bars of old town Krakow with other travellers from the hostel. It really is like a magical mystery tour. Most of the bars are in cellars and you don't know what's there until you go in.

we found a bar with a band dressed in black suits, playing Beetles and Elvis songs, it even said the Cavern on the drum kit, a bar with student, Goths and heavy metal fans spitting beer at each other, grand if you,re not too close, a studenty disco, and a dance club. There are also numerous jazz clubs.
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Comments

Shirley Draeger on

Do you remember the name of the name of the place in the Jewish Quarter that you ate at? Sounds wonderful! We will travel to Poland in the fall this year.

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