Krakow Part 2 – Less Misery, More Salt

Compared to the unending misery of Auschwitz, the visit the following day to the salt mine was a joy. Except that I forgot I don’t like being in a) small spaces and b) underground. Apart from that, all good.

The Wieliczka Salt Mines, as you will know if you read part 1, are the main reason we find ourselves in Krakow. They lie just outside the main city, about a 25 minute journey away by car. And they are vast – apparently we only saw 1% of the total mines, which ran continuously from the 13th century up to 2007, producing table salt and substantial wealth for Polish royalty in the middle ages. You have to go with a guide, and as far as I’m concerned that’s totally fine – I’ve seen The Descent, I know what lives underground and hunts lost young women.

The tourist route starts with a long-ish slog down 56 flights of wooden steps, but I wouldn’t describe it as particularly strenuous. From there you are guided through numerous passages, down more stairways and told stories about the history of the mine, from the early days of salt springs, descriptions of the mechanisms to deal with transporting the salt, dealing with groundwater and methane gas, and the carvings made by the miners over time. The main attraction is the Chapel of St Kinga, which is amazing. Carved out of the grey rock salt, it is lit by 3 large and 2 smaller chandeliers, themselves decorated with salt crystals. The obligatory religious scenes are all carved as reliefs into the wall, and the altar is also carved from the same material. What amazed me was the change in sensation; I’m not a big fan of being underground, but the Chapel was the first place I properly lost the mild sensation of fear that had been running along in the background for the earlier parts of the tour.

However, the mine also threw up some other beautiful areas:

1 – just before you reach the Chapel of St Kinga, there is a small chapel with two statues, one at either end. I didn’t catch the name, but the carvings, particularly the one to the right of the room on entry were stunning, and just ridiculously well placed and lit.

2 – the Michaelowice Chamber; basically as close to the Mines of Moria as you are likely to get in real life (and outside of a Kiwi film set). I slightly geeked out in excitement, and whispered ‘you shall not pass’. It was immense.

3 – the underground lakes, formed to hold the groundwaters instead of pumping it out. Still, eery, could hold a Gollum no problem.

Out of the mine (and the labyrinth of gift shops), it was a short ride back to town. During the journey back, we decided that our tour guide, who had been with us in Auschwitz the day before, had definitely had a big night in between, and may possibly not have been to bed. I respected him for this; my time in retail during my late teens and early twenties regularly involved small, low key naps to shake off a complete lack of sleep. Totally immature and completely irresponsible, but that’s what your twenties are for! I suddenly felt old.

I felt even older after a trip around St Mary’s Basilica. I’m not religious, and even for the briefest of time when I did attend church (to make sure we could get into the primary school next door to our house instead of the one 2 miles up the road) it was Anglican, not Catholic. So I basically have no idea what to do in a Catholic Basilica, and just wandered around being amazed at the building abilities of medieval stonemasons and how pretty it was with all the gold and paintings, what with English churches tending towards dower grey and with a distinct lack of real gold (thanks Reformation). This literally never impresses my friend, who is religious, and lights candles and sits down and does all sorts.

A similar pattern would have been repeated the next day in the cathedral at Wawel Castle, were it not for the audio tour, which was pretty good. I now know an awful lot about St Jadwiga, who chose country over love, calling off her engagement to her beloved to marry the Duke of Lithuania, 30 years her elder and a pagan (!). But that seemed to work out, and she appears to have been an incredibly skillful political operator in her own right, combining generous acts towards her citizenship with intelligence, shrewd diplomatic maneuvering, and establishing and enhancing centres of learning and culture in Eastern Europe. I almost think it is a shame to canonize such acts; why not give her the praise she deserves, and rank her amongst the greats of Polish Kings, instead of ascribing to her only piety, charity and questionable miracles?

We couldn’t visit the rest of the castle, as we had fallen into the old ‘everything is shut on a Monday’ trap. Apparently this is the only thing all of Europe can agree on. So, after a sneaky Burger King, we headed for the train and the journey back to the UK.

But only after recording some Polish folk singing for easter… this was by some measure the jazziest song they sang in about 2 hours. Enjoy!


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