After days of early starts and Czocha madness we decided to spend a leisurely morning in Kraków, meandering our way across the city comparing prices on salt mine tours and generally taking in the daytime atmosphere. We visited the historic cloth hall by day, enjoyed a stroll in the ‘planty garden’ and met a random American guy who was working for a bike rental place down a tiny backalley. I would seriously love to know how many people he actually speaks to each day!
Eventually we found ourselves at the station where a train to the mining town of Wieliczka was leaving in 10 minutes. One thing striking us about Poland so far, almost everyone we speak to seems deeply sad. There are no easy smiles or friendly customer service. When we’re seen to be making an effort with poor pigeon Polish the smiles come more readily, and usually by the time we’re saying goodbye we’ve managed to extract at least one or two, but it does make me wonder why they’re so sad. Full of adventure to be doing this solo rather than through an organised bus tour, the 20 minute journey sped by and we had tickets for the 12.30 entry to the mine. The mines have been open since the 13th century and on the tourist route you visit depths of around 440ft, beginning with a 378 step wooden stairway which left me feeling quite dizzy!
Well, the things I now know about salt! For starters, everything in the mine which was not wood was salt, seriously! Even the walls, ceilings and walkways, of course we had to taste it to make sure. There are huge structures of criss crossed trees used to support the mine, as the salt penetrates and petrifies the wood lending it strength and making it virtually indestructible. When the nazis took over the mine in the 1930’s they laid metal tracks for the underground carts and trains, only for these tracks to last mere months before cracking and disintegrating from the sodium levels in the air. Amazing.
Along the route there were also several statues and scenes also carved from salt, which takes on a granite grey colour in its raw form. When chipped away and ground it is almost 100% pure white table salt, with very little more needing to be done to it to make it fit for sale. One of these scenes showed Princess Kinga, a Hungarian noble woman who married the prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry she was given salt, which was worth a lot in those days, and legend has it she through her engagement ring into a salt mine at home before leaving for Poland. On her arrival here she instructed miners to dig for salt, and when the first lump was found and cracked open they found her engagement ring inside. That’s how Kinga became the patron saint of salt miners. Clever trick!
The complexity and detail of the spaces we saw underground were incredible. Salt mining, as with all types of mining, is dangerous work, so miners were deeply religious. We saw several small chapels were miners would pray before and after their shifts, but nothing prepared me for the cathedral. A huge cavern with intricate and ornate carvings along each side, and stunning chandeliers made from (you guessed it!) salt crystals. What was truly mind boggling though is that this place was the work of just three men…one after the other. Imagine being down here in the dark, alone, spending each day carving this incredible room. It’s just astounding.
The next stop on our tour was a series of underground lakes and rivers, where the water is so buoyant it is impossible to dive in it. The water was such an eerie shade of green, I really wonder what it was like to swim in! Historically they would offer boat rides through the caverns, until 7 German soldiers capsized their boat trapping them underneath. Being unable to lift the boat and unable to dive underneath they eventually suffocated. This was the last time boat rides were offered at Wieliczka.
Our tour ended soon after, something we were both glad of as the cornflakes at the hostel was beginning to feel like years ago. Luckily right there 125m underground there was an option to try some traditional polish food, which of course we did.
Heading back to Kraków, with night train tickets to Budapest and bus tickets to Auschwitz purchased, we had time for a spot of shopping and a chilli coffee (highly recommended) before our dinner reservations in the Russian restaurant just off the square. To our disappointment our waitress (dressed like Heidi) led us away from the fur lined benches overlooking the bustling streets and down a wooden staircase to a cavernous room reminiscent of an alpine chalet. Our table was in the corridor between the secluded spots for two to our right which were backed by a water feature consisting of a pool and huge water wheel, and the main eaterie to our left where the walls were adorned with old style skis and musical instruments. However, before long it became apparent we had the best seats in the house, as a musical trio sat themselves right opposite us and began playing a lyrical concophony of Russian and Polish folk tunes. Apparently they were from the mountains, and this music is traditional amongst those that lived up there. We were in heaven, sipping honey and ginger vodkas with a delicious stew of beef (I know), vegetables and potato pancakes.
With a 5am start and day Auschwitz ahead of us our evening here had to come to an end all to soon, but needless to say it’s definitely been one of the most memorable and fun days of the trip so far. Hopefully it’s warmed the cockles of our hearts enough to get us through tomorrow.