Day 6 – Krakow & Wieliczka Salt Mine

Our main site today was the Wieliczka Salt Mine, just outside Krakow. Through the middle ages, it was a primary revenue source for Poland and is one of the largest salt mines in the world. They no longer mine it, but offer tours. The draw there are the carvings made in salt by miners and, more recently, sculptors.

Getting there was part of the experience. We chose to take a privately owned mini-bus which both guidebooks recommended. After finding the stop (temporarily across from the post office during major construction at the bus/train station). We boarded and paid the 5 zlotys (2.5 ea.) to the driver. The trip was fairly long and site filled: through the old town, over the river, past new and communist era apartment blocks, onto an expressway of sorts with a great view of the nuclear power station, and finally over a hill and around some bends. We almost missed our stop. It seems that passengers need to remind the driver of their stops. We had told him our destination when we boarded but he passed by it without stopping and didn’t stop until we asked him to.

The salt mines were mostly underwhelming, with only a few highlights. Was it worth the price? Yeah, I’d say it was although only once in a life time. 🙂

Most of the carvings we saw on our tour were done by professional sculptors rather than miners, as we’d been told about. Tours of the mine started more than 100 years ago for wealthy individuals and diplomats. The mine realized then the value of the tourist trade and started hiring ringers as miners. They were professionally trained sculptors put on the payroll as miners but who probably didn’t mine a day in their life.

They had statues, reliefs, rooms, and even a full chapel carved in the salt. St. Klinga’s chapel was the most elaborate set of carvings we saw, but it was done by the professionals. The untrained miners were responsible for other pieces and chapels not on the guided tours. The real miners made more simple carvings but those were still fairly cool. There were also some obviously made during the communist era in a very Soviet style. Overall, I wasn’t as impressed with the mines as I thought I’d be.

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The mines were a great example about how far from communism Poland is. Commercialism was everywhere. They were selling to us before we entered; during the middle of the tour at the center of the mine; at the end of the tour where they had gift shops, kiosks, a restaurant,and banquet hall; as we waited for the elevator up and out; and in the room we exited the elevator in. We did buy and send a few postcards from the bowels of the mine, 125 meters down, but we didn’t fall into the trap and buy expensive trinkets or a bite to eat.

Krakow is a popular place for school trips this year for classes from all over Europe and was overrun by school kids from ten to 18 years old. Kids were everywhere we turned, every museum, swarming the streets, and even in our hostel. The salt mine also seemed to be on all their schedules. A group of Danish high schoolers was waited for their tour on the benches in front of us, our tour group was behind another school group from Germany, and we waited in a long line for the elevator up with several different school groups speaking different languages. When we were writing our postcards, one group of Polish boys, about 11 or 12 kept saying “hello” to us and then jumping behind a corner when we would look up. Polish kids all start learning English in primary school and these boys were practicing. Kids these days. 😉

The ride back up in a four level elevator was a highlight, made better by the screaming kids in the levels above us. I think some of them were actually frightened by the ride.

Afterwards, we ate a late lunch at the milk bar (Eight pierogi, a carrot salad, a yogurt drink, and a borscht cost us 9.60 zloty) and then walked around the old town. We had been eying all the lody (ice cream) shops and finally found ourselves in front of one with space in our stomachs. Brett and I each had two [very small] scoops (cost: 4.80 zloty). She had orange and lemon-ginger and I had cherry and walnut-honey. Anyone who knows Brett may ask why in the world she ordered something with ginger in it. We’re still both wondering how that happened, but at the time she told me she was in the mood for something lemony. The ice cream was excellent. I don’t think I’ve had ice cream that good before.

Our walking took us into a section of the old town called Kazimierz which had been the old Jewish district before the Nazis evicted the residents. As we started to walk around Kazimierz, the sky opened up and we soon found ourselves in a small coffeehouse. I ordered a beer and Brett a latte and chatted about the trip as we waited out the storm. We abandoned our walk and decided that we’d need to see Kazimierz another day.
We ended the day by eating dinner at Chlopski Jadlo (meaning: “country folk”), a restaurant recommended by our guide books and someone we chatted with at the hostel. It was touted as authentic, traditional food. I didn’t like it. My Polish-American palate felt that the food was saltier than it should have been and saltier than lunch which had been salty. When we arrived, the waitress brought us a dish of lard, another with butter, and bread; they meant business. I ordered bigos and Brett salad, which was sauerkraut and carrots. My bigos was also too sour to my liking.