Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Salty Wieliczka: Afield in Krakow Part 1 of 3

We landed at John Paul II airport early on Thursday morning, not completely sure how we will get into the city center of Krakow, or ultimately find our hotel.   But, as experience has shown, these types of things have a way of sorting themselves out, usually.  Therefore, we decided against buying a local SIM cards for the iphone; arming ourselves only with the tourist map from the information desk at the airport.

I constantly read that the best way to change money into the local currency is to use your debit card at the ATM to get the best rates, rather than go to the booth where they charge a hefty commission to exchange currency.  The ATM typically dispenses only the larger bills - in the case of zloty that would be 100s and 50s.  Of course, the first thing I need to buy are bus tickets into the city for 8 zl, from a machine that won't accept my credit card and will not dispense change for a 50 (the guy behind me in line laughed out loud).  Luckily Kerry remembered that the newsstand in the airport also sold tickets, so we were able to get our bus tickets (and some small currency amounts), and get on our way.  Hey, at least we weren't as bad as the lady who tried to pay the 1 zl toilet fee with a 50, but I get ahead of myself.

On the bus ride, we decided to not waste time and go directly to the famous salt mine in Wielicszka, a city just southeast of Krakow.  This meant we had to figure out how to store our bags and find transportation to the mines.  We felt like we were on the Amazing Race, a show where contestants have to travel to different countries and solve clues to get to the next pitstop.  Usually they just annoy strangers who have iphones with google maps.  Except Kerry and I are usually too timid to approach strangers; we'd likely be the first pair eliminated.

Not having enough coins for the lockers at the train station (surprise surprise) and after about 5 failed attempts to change my 10 zl note for coins from various street vendors (you'd think they were asked to make change all the time!), we ended up checking our luggage with some dude who charged 5 zl per bag for up to 24 hours.  Perfect - while this seemed like a lot compared to the cost of a locker, 1 zl is only $0.33, so we're making out like bandits.

About 90 minutes after landing and another 7 zl later, we're on a train to Wieliczka.
Now how do we know when to get off?
Luckily Wieliczka was the last stop, because I could not see station names from our seat (not that any of the intermediate stops looked all that inviting to alight).  On a summer day, the salt mine can see thousands of visitors, so it was quite a touristy area and the directions to get to the mine were more than clear.

"Dzien Dobry" A phrase I was glad I practiced ahead of time
We began our tour with a long stairway descent into the mine, 54 flights of 7 steps each.  Being the nerd that I am, here's what I was thinking about.

You fear to go into those mines. The dwarves delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness.

 But it turns out they call the dwarves "brownies" here.

Brownies - my picture is better than the one from Wikipedia

The mines have excellent accent lighting for all the rock salt statues and hollowed caverns, so I took all the photos without flash.  Usually it ended up in a blurry mess but there were a few favorites which I'll share here. I heard that the mine officially don't produce salt anymore, but there were tons of guys with hardhats looking like they just put in a solid day's work.  Maybe it was just for maintenance purposes.

The tour guide told us to touch the wall and lick our fingers to taste the salt.  I said "the snozzberries taste like snozzberries!"

A large collection of salt statues

Our English-speaking tourguide was very knowledgeable

Descending down to 135 meters
Most of the lasting structure is made from wood.  They had metal rails which used to run the carts to transport salt, but that would corrode quickly.  The salt helps preserve the wood.  Also, the air quality was excellent, no mold!  In fact, people go spend time at the underground health spa to alleviate their asthma symptoms.

The underground cathedral carved out of salt.

The cathedral was very impressive.  The workers in the salt mine (and Poles in general) have a very spiritual history, and worship would take place before every shift.  The statues carved into the wall are from 4 different artists over a span of 100 years.  Also, there are excellent acoustics here, so I was euphoric.   They have chamber music events here on occasion.  It was such an interesting contrast to La Sagrada Familia and York Minster; in terms of extreme houses of worship I think we've covered the spectrum.

A fully salt-saturated underground pond - does not corrode the salt walls but no floating allowed.

After a solid 2 hour tour, the way back up was through an elevator; they did not make us climb the steps.  Even after all we saw, I was informed we saw about 1% of the mine passages.  We descended to the 3rd level of the mine, but there are 9 levels!  The bottom level flooded some time ago and has experienced some problems from that.  Divers must use heavy ballast to descend down and make repairs in pitch black.  Talk about claustrophobia.

Salty dining hall

After the train dropped us off at the main Krakow station, I officially gave up.  I could not find the local stop nor the bus/tram number that would get us from the station to our hotel in the old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz.   Tired and hungry, we caved and spent 23 zl to get a taxi to the hotel  (a tram costs 7).

Let me talk about the amazing experience that is Polish food.  Let's just say it agrees with my hearty sensibilities.  Beef, pork, venison, boar, organ's all here.   Served with potatoes, cabbage and vodka.   I did have perogies and borscht already for lunch at the salt mine, so for dinner I opted for the pickled herring starter with a Zywiec beer and the mutton for a main, along with two Wyborowa vodkas and a piece of raspberry cake.  Kerry had the apple cinnamon duck, a glass of wine, and tasted both honey and cherry vodkas to complement her apple pie with cream.  The damage?  200 zl - or $66, basically half the cost of the same meal in the States.  That was our most expensive meal here.

Wodka and Wino

We were off to a good start in a beautiful city.  Day two is next.

1 comment:

  1. Love the pictures, especially the salt mine cathedral. I also like when people post what they learn while travelling, good job with the salt mine info.

    I'm guessing from your second paragraph that you don't know about exchanging money at Post Offices or banks here? Basically you buy the money and only pay the currency conversion rate amount in pounds (if you order 250 Euros you would pay ~200 pounds), no other fees are charged. The Post Office will even exchange back foreign currency bank notes to pounds after trips using the current exchange rate. They typically order the foreign money in predetermined amounts and it takes about a week so you have to order the money a couple weeks before your trip. You would have to check to see what your international ATM fee is to see if it makes sense or not. I am always a little nervous as a foreigner (assuming we stand out when we travel) withdrawing money on international trips.

    Food sounds great, can't wait to read about day 2.