Polen – Krakau und Salz

Last week, tired from our London trip, most of my friends here opted to stay around Stuttgart for the weekend. While I’m sure they enjoyed the break, personally my destination wishlist is too long for me to stop yet. Hence, I hopped on a bus and made my way to the airport Friday afternoon, bound for Poland.

Some of you may be concerned. “How could you decide on a near-whim to go country-hopping on your own? What if something happened?” Rest assured, ladies and gentlemen. Not only did I go on my own, I went on my own with just a small backpack and without printed copies of my boarding pass, hostel reservation, or tour reservation. Luckily for me, I had accounted for my own foolishness and had everything on my phone.

My first flight was to Vienna (I’ll be back at some point). It was relatively uneventful besides the fact that it was delayed due to heavy fog. Oh, and because of that fog, the pilots abandoned a landing attempt last-minute due to a rapidly changing wind. Nevertheless I made it to Vienna with just-enough time to catch my flight to Krakow, aided by the slight delay on the departing flight.

In Krakow the situation was similar, with one bailed landing attempt due to fog. Fortunately I made it to the Krakow airport only about an hour after I had anticipated. I got out some cash (I loved the exchange rate – about 4 PLN to 1 USD) and made my way for the train, which was easy to use. I had remembered the name of my train stop and was lucky enough to catch the departing train just before it took off, so just after I had landed I found myself speeding towards the city center as a conductor punched my ticket.

I arrived a few short stops later at what seemed like a big shopping mall. Most everything was closed (it was about 11PM at this point), so I made my way to the street, got my bearings, and set off to sort out lodging for the evening. I picked a hostel right in the heart of the old part of town, so I passed by the main market square and several awesome old buildings as I walked through the streets. Krakow has a good number of college students, so the streets were naturally rowdy on a Friday evening.

I ducked into a small alley, buzzed the gate, and eventually was handed some linens and a key for the night. In my room I was greeted by two Austrian guys who were in town primarily to party. They showed me some music and we bonded over my terrible German, but I did not go out to clubs with them (as they were encouraging me too) because I wanted a full Saturday. Maybe I’m getting old?

On Saturday I grabbed some of the Hostel’s free breakfast and made my way back to the train station. I was headed farther south, to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. There, miners started a growing tradition of trying their hand at art, culminating in the carving of several beautiful chapels and intricate figures right out of the salt comprising the walls and floors of the rooms.

The only way to see the mines is through a guided tour, so I joined up with the 10:00 English group and we headed downstairs (58 flights of them to be exact). We passed through several tunnels supported by wood, resistant to rotting due to the salt having dried everything out.

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A long way down.

Eventually we were greeted by a statue of Copernicus, one of the mine’s many famous visitors. Our guide explained a little about how the mine grew in notoriety and how miners began carving in the salt. We saw several other stunning works of art and made brief stops at each to learn more of the mine’s history.

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These mines were given as a gift in a royal wedding
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Miners sometimes had the dangerous job of igniting built-up gas.
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A likeness of a former owner
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Even the Seven Dwarves are down here!

Eventually we worked our way down to the second level, where we found ourselves faced with an amazing opulent chamber, carved entirely from the salt.

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All of the walls were intricately carved. Here, the Nativity is depicted
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Those chandeliers aren’t glass. That’s carved salt crystal.

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The “tiles” are a carved salt floor, worn smooth by foot traffic.
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The main altar

We continued on past the chapel and took a quick break at a cafe (underground, yes).

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After our break we continued down to level 3. There, we saw some artificial brine lakes, a few more statues, and another small chapel. Around 90 minutes after we started we had finished our tour. The tour ended with an optional trip through a museum. While it would have been nice to learn more about the mine, I decided against it as I wanted to see more of Poland than just this one site. So instead I hopped in line to take a lift back to the surface, caught a train back to the main rail station, and set off for my next stop.

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Saying goodbye to the last of the salty figures

I grabbed a quick lunch of Perogies (I know those well enough from Pittsburgh). Afterwards, I made for the main square to catch a free walking tour advertised by the hostel. Our guide was studying IT at a nearby university, so I had an interesting conversation with him briefly talking tech as we walked from place to place. He was a Krakow native, very knowledgeable and proud of his heritage.

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In the highest tower of the main church, a trumpeter plays a special tune on every hour to signify the time. Climbing the stairs would be too time-intensive, so the tower features living quarters.

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The main opera hall
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Cloth hall, where merchants would lock up their goods at night. Now a shopping center

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The front of this church is ornate stone. But when the capital of Poland moved to Warsaw, the king no longer could afford stonework of this quality, so most of this church is constructed from brick.
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The inner courtyard at Wawel castle
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The Vistula winds off into the fog
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The fearsome dragon!

When they were laying foundations for the castle, workers found several large bones. These bones were attributed to a dragon living in a cave just below the castle fortifications. According to legend, any man able to slay the dragon would be allowed to marry the princess and gain a claim to the throne. A humble peasant brought a fake sheep laced with sulfur to the dragon’s lair. When the dragon consumed it the sulfur burned inside the dragon, killing him.

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The dragon breathes fire!

After our tour I went back to the hostel to recharge and decide what to do with the evening. I decided to venture out to the Jewish quarter. Krakow had a Jewish population of about 25% before WWII – the Polish were among the most welcoming of European nations and so many Jewish people settled here. I saw a bunch of old synagogues and churches, dotted with lively restaurants and bars which made for an interesting mix. I don’t have a ton of pictures – the lighting was not great and I didn’t want to linger for a long time alone at night with my camera out.

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I went to dinner at a great place not far from my hostel but still in the Jewish quarter. I had pork, potatoes, and sweetened carrots with some tasty Mead for under 15$. Full and content, I went back to the hostel for good this time, and headed to bed pretty early after a long day. I had an early morning on Sunday, but you’ll have to wait till next time to hear about that. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

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