Monday, 15 April 2013

Day 313 – Chandeliers and Cauliflowers. (Poland)

With less than four weeks to go until we planned to reach our destination of Appin in Scotland, we were planning the rest of our route around visiting people that we had met along the previous parts of our travels. As the only people for us to visit in Poland were on a skiing holiday at the time we were there we decided just to spend a couple of days in Krakow and head straight to Germany where we would begin our tour of visitations. Having really succeeded with Couch Surfing in Ukraine (every single night we were there we Couch Surfed) we decided to stay in a hostel in Krakow. Couch Surfing is amazing because of the opportunity it gives to meet locals and glean a little bit of how people live in different places, but it is also great to meet other travellers and hostels are a fantastic way to do that. And sure enough, as soon as we arrived at the hostel we met the friends that we would spend our days in Krakow with: Laura from Australia who happened to walk up the 82 stairs to the hostel entrance at the same time as us, causing much confusion for herself and the receptionist, and Patrick from England who was fascinated by our trip and caused us much amusement over the following days.

We had heard from several people in the last few weeks that Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must see, and being only 13 km from Krakow is an easy day trip. Despite the fact that three of us had already been to Krakow on previous trips, we hadn’t visited the salt mine before so decided to prioritise that in our agenda. The tour of the salt mine began with a descent down 378 wooden stairs, dropping to 64 m below ground level. Not only were the stairs steep and deep, but there were only half a dozen steps between each landing, each of which lead to the stairs turning back 180° on themselves, so by the time we reached the bottom we all felt a bit dizzy, not only from the depth, but also from the constant spinning around. Built in the 13th Century, Wieliczka Salt Mine was still functioning until 2007, making it one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines. Although the mine reaches a depth of 327 m and spans a distance of over 287 km, the 3.5 km section tourists are taken to only descends to a depth of 135 m and much to our disappointment only covers about 3.5 of the 287 km.

We became severely disorientated as our guide, Katherine (the ticket price includes a guided tour) led the way through a maze of narrowcorridors which opened out into vast chambers and intricate chapels, past informative displays, spooky monuments and even an underground lake. Parts of the walls are reinforced with wood, but other parts are left open, displaying the stunning swirling patterns of the salt as it oozes out of the land. Some of the wood had been so saturated by the salt that it had begun to look like rock, and in some parts the salt crystals have congealed into little bunches referred to as “cauliflowers”, because of their visual resemblance to the vegetable. In some places the walls are rough, but in parts where thousands of people run their hands across it every day, the rock and the salt have become smooth and shiny, almost like marble. Some of the statues that were carved into the salt were understated and we almost didn’t notice them, but some were bold and brash. There was one scene depicting a group of miners at work, and another mining scene, this one fictional and involving gnomes, which was built to spark the interest of children. Many of the statues were constructed by miners to pass time, so there were life sized sculptures of ancient legends and fairytales. Inside the chapels there were all the usual icons and monuments, carved out of the salty rock though, and even the spectacular chandeliers were made completely of salt.

The crème de la crème of this incredible complex though is the exquisite Chapel of St. Kinga, which at 101 m below ground level is the world’s lowest church. The entrance to the magnificent hall brings you out at a mezzanine level giving a breath-taking panoramic view of the entire church. As you make your way down the sweeping staircase to the main level it is hard not to feel like royalty. An altar, pulpit and crucifix mark the front of the church, whilst unbelievable carvings surround you. Amongst others, a full-size scale version of the “Last Supper” by Da Vinci is embedded into the salt walls. In the centre another salt chandelier hangs, this one all the more monstrous in size and grandeur.

During the three hour tour we had followed Katherine from 64 m below ground level to 135 m and we wondered about how we were to get back up. Fortunately the ticket price and guided tour includes a ride back up in a lift, so after enjoying a fine cafeteria meal in the lovely underground restaurant, we became part of the large group of visitors making their way to the lift. It was quite a process, this bit of the tour, and I can’t even imagine what it might be like in peak season when the place sees around 7,000 visitors per day. Katherine handed her 6 person tour (us and our new friends from the hostel) to a stern man with long grey hair who led the now huge group through a few more corridors, another chapel, and past a reception hall to a small dingy alcove. The first 20 or so people were ushered up a small staircase where they entered the top floor of the elevator, and the next 20 or so were allowed to enter the bottom floor of the elevator. Unfortunately I had hung back to take a photo of the corridor and the others had gone on, so I made the elevator ride on the bottom, whilst the rest of my companions were on the top. 135 m is a substantial distance for a lift to travel, and this one was no state of the art piece of machinery. We had become pretty used to clunky and shaky Soviet lifts after our extensive time spent in formerly Russian occupied countries, but usually there weren’t 40 people crammed into one. As I stood in the middle of a group of Japanese tourists for the several minutes it took for the rickety, unlit elevator to reach the top, I could hear the rest of my group centimetres above me joking and laughing about the ride. Surrounded by nervous giggling from my Japanese compartment buddies, I stood quietly and listened to my comrades discussing the odds of whether the lift might collapse and the fact that this was more dangerous than any rollercoaster. But fortunately we made it to the top and have ticked yet another Soviet lift off our “done” list.

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