Characters at the Wieliczka Salt Mine and our first sight of Warsaw
08.06.2011 - 08.06.2011 23 °C
Krakow – Warsaw, Poland
The previous evening we had taken a pleasant stroll through Old Town and into the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Expelled from Krakow in the 15th-century this area had been separated from Old Town by a wall. Until the outbreak of the Second World War 65,000 Jews lived in the area, only to be relocated and exterminated by the Nazi’s. Today, the area is still dotted with Synagogues. A brief tram ride and pleasant walk took us to the 15th-century Old Synagogue - the oldest Jewish building in Poland. Legend tells it was here that the Bagel was first made, to commemorate the victory of King John III Sobieski over the Turks at Vienna in1683, as is often told but to provide a quick to bake bread for after the Sabbath. Along with Prussia and Austria the greater forces of thnot e Ottomans were defeated and Christianity saved in Europe. Designed to resemble the stirrup of the great King on this evening there was little sign of this great culinary event but it not the less tempted our taste buds.
After taking a pleasant evening stroll through Old Town and Kazimierz we decided to spend what remained of our time in Krakow visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Located some 10 miles outside of the city it is an eerie world of pits and chambers. As the day before we took a local minibus to the museum and as with Auschwitz a guide is mandatory at this Unesco World Heritage Site.
Whilst no more than a 1,000ft deep the scale of mining is extraordinary. Mines, first dug in 1288, cover some 20sq miles. The visitor today will spend 2 hours walking some 1.5 miles at a depth of up to 400ft but will see less than 1% of the mine. Owned by the King (and now the Government) at its peak it employed some 2,000 miners and could extract 400,000 tonnes of Salt per year. With salt being both desirable and rare at that time the mine contributed one third of Poland’s total income. Today, though with modern technology and the ability to produce salt cheaply from water, bearing this once valuable mineral, the mining of salt has now stopped at the Wieliczka mine. 15,000 tonnes of salt are produced per year but as in other countries this is extracted from mine water rather than through mining as before.
Accompanying us on our English language tour were a variety of nationalities. It was, however, a small group of elderly travelers from Newcastle that ensured our Mine Guide was kept busy. Brought to the mine by a ‘very nice young man’ whom they would have their pictures taken with when they returned from what was billed as a relatively strenuous walk they managed the 300 step decent into the mine, with walking sticks and the signs of old age, with little complaint. After our first descent ‘June’ was careful to inform ‘Florence’ loudly that we were nearly at the bottom, much to the amusement of the waiting tour group and the embarrassment of one of her elderly travelling companions who had already announced at the start of the tour that she was talking too much!
Careful to grab the harm of a ‘handsome young man’ whenever possible they made the trip through the mine whilst providing a constant background commentary on the quality of the mines steps, walls, floors and anything else that could be remotely discussed for no apparent reason – ‘these handrails have been lovely I have not had one splinter’.
The highlight of any visit to the mine is the richly decorated Chapel of the Blessed Kinga. Measuring 150ft by 60ft, and 40ft high the construction of this underground temple took more than 30 years (1895-1927), resulting in the removal of 20,000 tonnes of rock salt. Created by three ‘unskilled’ miners, during their breaks it is a marvel of salt based statues and frescoes. Today, regular church services take place each Sunday along with concerts that, we were assured, offer the perfect acoustics.
As part of an organized tour we were given time to explore the Chapel before moving on. Whilst the majority of the group heard the call to continue the majority of our incorrigible Newcastle party did not. As we explored the corridors leading from the Chapel, walking deeper into the mine a lone member of the Newcastle contingent remonstrated at the apparent ‘loss’ of her friends. However, as her trusty ‘handsome young man’ was helping her along the corridor she was not overly concerned. In a moment of charity and somewhat missing the Geordie commentary I explained to our unobservant Guide that the elderly ladies who had asked questions at nearly every stop were now, no longer with us. With nothing more than the slightest appearance of reticence he went to find the remainder of his tour. Find them he did, sat quietly in the Chapel, awaiting the continuation of the Tour. Happy in the knowledge that he had not lost anyone in the vast mine works there was, surely, a longing for those ten minutes of quiet when he could carry out his Guiding duties without the continuous commentary that we had become used to.
After some two hours a small, miners lift returned us to the relative warmth of the surface, as the mine is kept at a constant 14c-16c, year round. Even there the distant voices of our elderly travelers could be heard discussing the merits of the tour, the ‘lovely’ Guide and how they were looking forward to seeing their ‘lovely’ Driver once again.
Returning to Krakow we were soon aboard the punctual non-stop Express to Warsaw. Whilst we could have spent much longer in Krakow we have visited most of the keen tourist destinations. An ideal destination for a weekend break it is perhaps unfortunate that many of the people we have met on our travels have been nothing short of surly. Purchasing tickets for our train was a prime example, with the mispronunciation of Warsaw, apparently causing great offence. Whilst those at our hotel and in restaurants have been extremely friendly the general population working at train stations and on buses have not developed the tourist skills of many other nations that we have visited. However, in some ways that allows us to experience more of the real Poland. With English widely spoken we can at least communicate and be understood. Maybe a little warmth is too much to expect, as well.
Arriving in Warsaw we were immediately confused by the various stations called ‘Warsaw’. Our train was scheduled to stop only once in ‘Warsaw’. Only after we disembarked the train did we realize that this meant it would stop in the Warsaw suburbs and in the centre. Alighting in the suburbs the tall, dark concrete apartment blocks soon emphasized our error. However, a relatively brief Taxi ride saw us arrive at our hotel none of the worse for our oversight.
Desperate for a Bagel after our previous days exploration we headed to the Nowy Świat. Forming part of the Royal Way the street is resplendent with cafes, restaurants and bars. Whilst more high end bars line the street tucked away in back alleys groups of bars, such as ‘The Secret Garden’, provide both cheap food and drink. Midway down the street we found our hole in the wall Bagel café – a most welcome culinary sight. With little time to explore much of the city we wondered back towards our hotel viewing for the first time that emblem of the city, the massive, brooding and inescapable towering structure, the Palace of Culture & Science. The Palace was built in the 1950s as a ‘gift of friendship’ from the Soviet Union – the kind of unwanted gift that is hard to hide away – and is still one of Europe’s tallest buildings.