After our much-needed day of rest, with our time in Kraków drawing to an end, we had two destinations we had to reach. The first, we decided, would be the Wieliczka Salt Mines, about an hour’s bus ride outside of Kraków.
I had looked up the mines on cracow-life.com (a great resource if you’re ever in the area) and was immediately intrigued. Underground chapels? Salt statues? Subterranean lakes? Count me in. More than that, I was drawn in by the comments left by past visitors. Overall, they were enthusiastic and complimentary; the only ones that deviated from the norm were those left by American visitors (“The lines are too long!” “The ceilings are too low!”). In fact, the comment directly preceding the one I would eventually leave said, “… it had to be an American who has given this wonderful place a bad review.”
Well, that settled it. I was determined to go, and to enjoy it, and to show the world that not all Americans complain incessantly about minor inconveniences.
We had a tricky time figuring out where to catch the 304 bus out to Wieliczka; once we found the stop, we had a little time to wander around, and so we meandered over to Old Town. As we drew nearer, we saw a sign advertising a familiar European pastry.
The woman in the window didn’t want to make eye contact, however, and I wasn’t bold enough to knock at first, and so we continued wandering. As we came back around, and started making our way to the bus stop, we passed by it again. I still really wanted one, but the lady in the window was making it very clear that she did not want to make any unless she really had to. Jim told me to confront my fears about speaking Polish and go up and ask for one; after all, she was sitting in the window– she was clearly there to do a job.
Drawing a deep breath, I went up, and she looked at me but didn’t open the window, so I knocked. “Przepraszam, jedno cynamon, proszę.” She looked unenthused and told me it would be 10 minutes. I said fine. Ten minutes turned into twenty, and “cinnamon” became “cheese and onion”, which was more expensive and also not what I wanted. By the end of the transaction, I was extremely annoyed. Any talk of facing my fears was met with sullen resentment. Plus, as a consequence of my desire for chimney cake, we missed the bus we were trying to catch, and had to sit and wait for the next one.
Once the bus got going, I promptly fell asleep, and woke up 30 minutes later in much better spirits. Before too much longer, we arrived at our destination.
The entrance was positively crawling with tourists of all different ethnicities. At first we couldn’t even determine where to buy tickets, until a friendly man at the door directed us through the throngs and into the building. There, we found the ticket counter and paid our US $20 apiece. The waiting room, too, was packed to the gills with tourists and schoolchildren. We weren’t really sure what we were waiting for; there was an English tour happening shortly, but we were afraid any announcements would get drowned in the din. Soon, a tiny and adorable Polish woman caught our attention, and ushered us toward a group of a dozen other visitor; together, we made our way to the lift.
The lift is one of the things that the Americans on cracow-life absolutely hated. It’s a bizarre contraption made up of four compartments, two stacked on top of two more, and each compartment fits nine people snugly.
It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic, but salt mines probably aren’t ideal for claustrophobes anyhow.
Once we got off the lift, a process that occurs in stages due to the stacked compartments, we were in a cavern that was pleasantly cool and dim. Our guide extolled the virtues of the mineral-rich air and the constant temperature in the mine, and we began what would ultimately end up being a 426-foot descent into the earth.
As it turns out, getting good pictures of a mine is not the easiest thing in the world, but we tried to capture what we could. Most of the statues were carved by miners.
There is a myth surrounding the origin of the mines, wherein a Hungarian princess, Kinga, was to marry the Prince of Poland. As a dowry, she asked her father for a salt mine, since Poland had none. On the way to Poland, she stopped at the mine she was given, and dropped her engagement ring into it. Upon arrival into Poland, she ordered a well to be dug. Soon, salt was discovered underground. The legend goes that, as they were digging and discovering more salt, they soon uncovered a ring– Kinga’s engagement ring. From then on, Kinga became the symbolic protector of the mine and those working in it.
Kinga’s importance in the mines is emphasized by the eponymous Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, an underground worship area that still holds Sunday masses. The Chapel is the grandest of all the chapels in the mine (there are several), and everything, down to the “tiles” in the floor, is carved out of salt.
The tourist path through the mines is so well-trod that it’s easy to forget that, since the 1200s, this was an actual working mine (excavation stopped in 1996, though the mine still employs hundreds of workers). As tends to be the case with mines, conditions were hazardous. When toxic gases would build up in the upper reaches of a cavern, the miners had to crawl on their bellies while holding long torches with which to ignite, and thus eliminate, the gas. This often led to the miners igniting themselves as well, but there wasn’t exactly a choice about it. Horses, used to power the excavation process as it became more sophisticated, spent their entire lives underground since there was no way to move them. Fascinating stuff.
My favorite room was probably the Weimar Room, which featured a mini-light show above a brine lake, while Chopin played overhead. Very soothing. Unfortunately, it was too dark for pictures.
After a couple solid hours of being ushered purporsefully through the mines– the tours are so regimented, we were told, because they actually only travel through a small section of the mine, and if tourists were allowed to meander at their own pace, they’d likely end up lost underground– we were led to a large cavern with a gift stand, and told that we were near the lift back to the top. We could either head straight to the lift, or go to the mine museum; our tour guide was setting us free. Jim and I decided not to visit the museum (it seemed redundant after 2+ hours of walking through the mines) and headed instead for the bar (!!) where we would determine our next move.
On the way to the bar, we passed this.
A couple bottles of woda gazowana later, we decided it was time to go home, so we waited in line for the lift, behind a pack of twenty or so loud, possibly Italian high-school aged kids. They were singing football chants and laughing raucously, which annoyed me instantly because of the ringing acoustics of the mine. Soon the line opened and we were led, by another guide, to where we would catch the lift. As we walked, the football chanting continued, but slowly I found it more endearing, because they were genuinely enjoying themselves. They joked around with the tour guide, despite the language barrier, which I also found endearing.
On the way to the lift, we turned a corner and came face-to-face with two archetypal miners, complete with lighted hardhats. They were standing over a tray of rocks, from which we were each encouraged to take a sample. In fact, the tray was full of salt crystals in various forms, which I thought was fantastic– we were being given souvenirs of the mine by the miners themselves! After we each thanked them for their generosity, we continued to the lift.
We got to the waiting area and stood around. The lift is definitely a slow affair, so we had a bit of time to kill. The kids continued their singing, and eventually ended up teaching the chant to our guide. Once he learned it sufficiently, there was enthusiastic applause, and then they asked him if he would teach them a Polish song. He was hesitant at first, but then taught us “Sto Lat“, the Polish birthday song.
As if on cue, the lift appeared just as we had all finished applauding our halting group rendition of “Sto Lat”, and we began the comical process of packing in, nine at a time, into the tiny lift compartments.
Back above ground, the sun had set and we made our way to the bus stop, satisfied. We headed back to our neighborhood, stopping at a Delikatesy (or “delika-teezy” as we started calling them) for things to cook for dinner. Bedtime was going to come early tonight, because tomorrow, another day of travel awaited: we were headed to Oświęcim.