Friday, August 13, 2010

Krakow, Poland and the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Oh where oh where have the regular blog entries gone? The short answer is that I have been living instead of writing about living. Right now, I am back in the states for my dad's memorial and a friend's wedding so I should have time to catch up.

Wawel Royal Castle

Krakow, Poland. I didn't know why I was there beyond needing a destination as I biked into Poland for pierogies. Knowing so little and therefore having no expectations made it easy to enjoy. I rolled in after my huge ride at sunset. It was the best view of Krakow I had. I didn't know quite where I was going, but my route happened to take me across the river from the castle which was breathtaking in the golden hour sunlight. After soaking up the views, I drug my tired body to a couple full hostels in the old city before I finally found one that had room and passed out. I don't think I even went out for dinner.

Skalka Sanctuary and St. Norbert's Convent.

I used my first day to go see Auschwitz. I did not realize how close it was to Krakow and, when I found out, did not want to let the chance pass to see it. The day started out sunny and hot but clouded over as the day progressed, eventually ending in a down pour. That downpour happened when I was in Main Market square, the largest square in Europe that contains over 600 cafes and restaurants. The rain sent me running for a place to wait it out. That place happened to be where I finally had the ruskie piergoies that I know so well from Pittsburgh. They also had twenty other varieties. Who knew you could jam so many different things into fried bread and make it taste delicious? My photo of their twenty pierogie menu was the last time my big camera was used on this leg of the trip. It died and getting it fixed will probably be a saga for another post at some point, if it ever ends. For now, let's just say my camera does not work and it isn't in my possession.

Twenty different pierogie varieties

After inhaling my pierogies, I spent the evening strolling around the old city. It was the usual quaint buildings and cobblestone streets. However, at some point, they tore down the old city walls and replaced them with green space. It had to be a long time ago because the trees in that area are big and beautiful. That green space is a great compass to make sure you don't get lost because if you ever hit that green belt, you know it is time to turn around. The old city never quieted down while I was there. It seemed to always be a hub of activity. At one point, I found a couple hundred people being taught local songs by a small group in the main square. Hearing them all sing might be my favorite memory of Krakow. A close second was the internet cafe with Dire Straits paraphernalia all over the wall and playing their music.

Main Market Square in Krakow.

The morning market in the Jewish quarter.

The next day, I visited the Jewish quarter and watched the city wake up while eating some breakfast from the morning market. Afterward, I made my way out to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I wanted to bike out, but I thought having a day off my bike would be good so I got to know their public transit. It is always a fun different look at a city. Krakow's was easy enough to use, but some of that did rely on luck.

The 378 steps down to the start of the salt mine tour.

This might be a gnome, but I kept thinking of being underground with the mining dwarfs imagined by T.S. Eliot

Gnomes showing what working in the mines was like.

The largest chapel in the mines.

A video tour of the largest chapel in the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

The salt mines had been operated continuously from the 13th century until 1996. Now, they are just used for tours. I don't have any serious interest in how salt is mined, but I heard great things about the what the miners had created out of salt while they worked there. I expected big white, table salt looking, statues, but was pleasantly given much more. The rock salt was black and the statues were huge. They even carved entire chapels in the mines. Unfortunately, the pictures are not going to do the experience justice because my fancy camera was broken, but luckily I had the video camera my brothers got me to use as a back up and something is better than nothing.

A recent carving of the last Pope, John Paul II.

A new room for the tour inside the salt mines

A carving of Jozef Pilsudski, a past Polish leader.

A banquet hall in the mines.

I can't rave about specific things to do in Krakow. It just felt right. Another fun, becoming city perhaps. It is definitely a tourist town at this point though. There were more hostels there than anywhere else I have been so far, so something is sucking our tourist dollars in. Just like in Budapest, I found that I ended up having trouble leaving, but not quite for the same reasons.

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