Friday, December 25, 2015

Krakow Calling

Recently I went to Poland. I had wanted to for a while since my previous experience in Poland was very short and might not count as a trip to Poland for some people.
My last "trip" to Poland was through Slovakia in the High Tatra mountains. I basically walked across the border sat down, rested for a few minutes and walked back to Slovakia. This was on the highest mountain in Poland, Rysy. I'm pretty sure I mentioned it in a blog post about the Tatras.
This trip was also short, only two nights, and I'm sure I will be going again. You would think travel to Poland would be simple, and with a car I imagine it is. If you are going to go by train it's a bit more complicated. As far as I know Polish Railways and Czech Railways are not exactly friends and there are different requirements and regulations for operating trains in Poland and Czech Republic. It could be a matter of purchasing a locomotive that meets both country's requirements is too expensive, but it is actually that such a locomotive did not exist until very recently (just a few months ago). There is a lot to it, there are different kinds of electric lines in Poland and blah blah blah. In short, you can't take one train from anywhere in the Czech Republic to anywhere in Poland. You must transfer somehow. I transferred to a bus.
I didn't check Krakow out as much as I would have liked, it's a very pretty city. At least the historic center is pretty. So a trip back to see Krakow proper is most likely in order. I spent most of my time in Oswiecim which is where the Auschwitz concentration camp is. This of course wasn't the happiest visit of the year and I will have a completely separate blog post about it, just not during Christmas.
As I said the Old Town Square or Rynek Glowny and historic center are beautiful.

Krakow Poland Old Town Square

The central square is also HUGE. This photo maybe shows about half of it. The large building on the left is an old textile marketplace. It bisects the square and now houses tchotchke vendors for the edification of tourists. I walked through it, but nothing really caught my eye. It seems well organized, just a big hall with booths on either side.

Of course there is a clock tower in the square, as you can see, and there is a pump placed on the spot where a man immolated himself in the 1980s. Evidently Mr. Badylak chained himself to this well before setting himself alight. I apologize that the wiki link for Badylak is in Polish, no English version exists so it's off to Google Translate for you. Not every town square has such a place, I think that is probably a good thing. While researching this post I discovered that Jan Palach immolated himself basically on the steps of the national museum. So Prague has some history like this as well.

I want to try and keep this post happy, so I dispense with the self-immolation talk. It's a fun word to use though and one I don't find myself with much use for in normal conversation. I think now it is out of my system for the foreseeable future.

Krakow Poland Old Town Square Wedding Bride

As you can see, most people use the square for happy things like festivals and shopping and, taking wedding photos. Like all European central squares there is also a cathedral, or at the very least a church.

Krakow Poland Old Town Square St. Mary's Basilica

This is St. Mary's Basilica. There were signs posted in front of the church not to enter, which of course every tourist ignored. I hesitantly ignored the signs as well and went inside. Once I saw the reason for the signs I quickly made my exit. They were having confession. Not just any confession but an open-style confession.  There was nothing to separate the penitent from the priest. In what I briefly saw, the priest was holding his hand in front of his eyes to avoid seeing who the penitent man was. As soon as I saw this I left immediately. We'll all have to wait until my next trip to see photos of the inside of the basilica.

Krakow Poland Old Town Square

Behind the basilica there is another tiny square. I think it is in fact called Maly Rynek, at least the street is named that. It means "small market." To me it was a very beautiful place and in the photo above the light was amazing combined with the cobblestones wet with morning dew this quickly became my favorite part of the city center.

I should also note that the Poles are very religious on the whole, a 180 degree shift from the Czechs, and there were nuns everywhere. In the center you couldn't swing a rosary without hitting a nun. It was really nice to see such a devout population. I would see later that not every Polish girl wears particularly modest attire to Mass, which took me back a little, but whatever at least they are going, right.

Krakow Poland Old Town Square Nun

The nun in the photo above was moving so quickly I almost missed her, but with the light and the wet stones I was compelled to photograph her. Had I seen her in time I could have done a better job, but I still really like this frame. So I included it, because it's my blog that's why.

There are, of course, other churches in the city and the historic center consists of many small, romantic little streets and alleys. The thing I found most interesting about the city center is that it is surrounded by a wall. It's like some sort of old fortification. The fact that much of it is still there and there is now a giant park surrounding the center is very cool.

Krakow Poland Church

I honestly don't know the names of these two churches. They were the first ones I saw as I was walking to the center for the first time and I thought they were beautiful and that the light was wonderful. I like the two different styles so close together. This mix of architecture is a bit more classy than how it's done in Sofia.

They also have a castle in Krakow. I didn't really visit it. I just walked up to one of the gates. It was closed, so I decided that I will check it out during my next trip. It is really close to the city center.

Krakow Poland Castle

Krakow also has a river, the mighty Vistula. It's navigable, and happens to be the longest river in the country. I was staying on the other side of the river from the center so I crossed it a few times. The bridge opposite the one I always walked across was lit in a cool way.

Krakow Poland Vistula River

The other tourist attraction I wanted to see in, or rather near, Krakow is the Wielicka Salt Mine. It's in the small town of Wielicka (pronounced Vee Leech Ka) about nine miles south east of Krakow. The easiest way to get there is to take the train. Head into the station, catch the hourly commuter train and pay the conductor something like 5 Zloty for the trip. The train station in Wielicka is about 100 yards from the entrance to the mines.

The village itself is also beautiful. It's mostly a suburb of Krakow as far as I can tell, but I don't think the fine residents of Wielicka would appreciate that assessment.

Wieliczka Poland Church
Miners are religious, many of them are anyway. It's comforting to put your faith in God when your "office" could become your crypt in an instant. This is the big church in town. I don't know the name and Google Maps is quite devoid of information about the village.

So, the mine. I was greatly anticipating this part of the trip and I was not disappointed. I was in fact quite impressed. I only have one complaint about the tour and I should have expected it. It's popular, so they kind of rush groups through the place. It takes about three hours, which is a longish time but I always kind of felt like we were being hurried through. I don't think tours would be like that in the off season though as there are nowhere near as many visitors.

So salt used to be kind of a big deal. That whole part of history where the Romans sowed salt on the fields of Carthage, whether mere legend or not, was akin to destroying your enemy's agricultural abilities with gold. I've disliked some people, but never enough to bludgeon them with gold bars also, I don't have the means.

Back to salt being important. The book Salt will confirm that cultures throughout history in all corners of the world have put great value in salt. I know for a fact that gathering salt is a tremendous part of a Zuni male's coming of age ceremony. Due to the major importance of salt, this particular mine was crucial and it was owned by kings. It was an honor to be a miner here and the men were treated well. It was not some slave labor camp, at least that is what Paul the tour guide told us. The mine was also significant for people to visit. I liked the tour, why wouldn't some ancient celebrity like Copernicus, who evidently did visit the mine.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

They carved a statue of him in the mine. They carved a lot of statues in the mine. From what the guide told us, famous visitors generally get a statue. Most of the statues are carved out of the salt that is in the mine.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

Like this guy for example. He visited the mine and was famous. You all recognize him, right? Really, I think this is a bust of one of the kings who owned the mine at one time or another. You can see that these statues are impressive, but some like this one look like they could be better. The guide told us that all the statues in the mine are, and were, created by the miners. They didn't hire sculptors or artists to make any of the salt sculptures in the colliery. With some of the sculptures I find it a little hard to believe but hey, it's what the man said.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

What surprised me the most is that most of the support structure for the mine, for the longest time, was wood. As you can see in the photo above a lot of wood, but nonetheless -- wood. At some point in the not-too-distant past they got with the program and started using roof bolts, because it's better. All along points of the tour you walk through corridors like the one pictured above only the wood is white. Again the tour guide told us, these white logs had not been painted but are coated with a crystalline layer of salt.  Which, as you can imagine, gets out of hand after a century or so.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

The above photo is a bit more of a rare case. This was an area with a bit more seepage. All mines leak, that's a way of life much like all damns leak. The problem is salt is a little water soluble and this has the potential to cause some structural complications. So, while this is not a mine that is an active profitable mining operation, this is still an active mine from a maintenance perspective. They have to keep working it to keep it safe and there are about 300 miners who do so. They actually make more money ushering tourists through in groups of 50 now than they do from selling the salt. Which you can buy here if you really want.  It's like $3 for 2lbs and is made from the water they remove from the mine.  I bought some rock salt from one of the many road side vendors and it's good stuff.

All along the tour there are displays of the history of how they used mechanical-advantage machines in the mine. There are many, many examples all complete with dummy horses and people. The mannequins for the people appear to have been purchased from a company that only makes Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon dummies for archeology museums, or this is what Poles looked like in the 13th century.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

If you are an engineer, or a miner, or a physicist or just like to tinker with machines you can appreciate how remarkable all this stuff is. It's all just pulleys and ropes and mechanical advantage, no hydraulics here.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

We got to see some of the largest devices of their kind on the tour, and by that I mean something like "the largest Polish-made, peg-wheel mechanical doodad" in the world. It's kind of a specific title. We were also told by our guide that sometimes the machines may have been impressively huge, but were not as efficient as they could have been or were maintenance nightmares. I can imagine that the huge device above was troublesome when those tiny pegs always needed replacing.

In the mine there are some gigantic excavated chambers. I've been underground a few times, okay a bunch, and I have seen some giant chambers both manmade and natural; I can tell you that these Polish miners knew their shit.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

It is very difficult to accurately depict the size of some of these chambers. Some of them are so large that I think it would be possible to fit a building or two inside. I'm sure there were some where you could put a house. 

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

The chamber above is the Chopin Chamber. It's enormity is inspiring. It's mostly hewn out of salt, but there were some natural factors that went into its creation as well. Chopin visited the mine once, evidently they liked him. During the tour we were treated to a light show in this chamber while experiencing its beautiful acoustic properties by listening to a recording of one of Chopin's pieces, I forget which one now.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

See, famous visitor gets a statue. This one is copper and corroded a touch from all the salt in the air. I quite enjoy the way the sculptor was able to incorporate movement into this piece. That will be the end of my art critique.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

Other than the Chopin chamber, with a staircase that is exhausting to look at and fortunately we didn't have to climb, this was one of two other chambers with a pond (they call them "lakes" but come on) in it. I think I remember the guide telling us that the lower levels, which we are unable to access, contain more and larger lakes. By the way, each level of the mine is a little larger in square kilometers, whatever those are, than the village which rests above it; and there are nine levels to the mine. In other words, it's gargantuan, it's much bigger than Paris for example.

Remember when I said the the Poles are a religious people? And then remember again when I said that miners are a religious sort? No? Come on people keep up it's not like there is a mountain of text here. Anyway, when you mix the two you get a few, who at some point over the course of the 700 years that a mine is working, will want to build a chapel.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

Pretty cool, right? It's nice I like it personally. The floor there, it's not tile. That's right, it's salt. They just carved the floor out of the bottom of the chamber. So, this chapel is beautiful, but not quite enough I guess. Someone needed to carve a church into the mine, or many out of the mine. It depends on how you look at it. If you feel the church was always there and the creators just brought it out, then...

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

This really is an extraordinarily monumental achievement. It is very large. Not the largest church I've been in by any means, but this is underground carved out of salt. There is a salt last supper, salt Virgin Marys and the coupe de gras: a salt statue of Pope John Paul II, yes he visited the mine and got a statue too.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

While the tour was excellent, I did say I felt rushed the whole time. There was our guide, at the front, and then there was a docent at the back helping to herd us along. I can understand this because we were right on the tail of a large group of Russians and there was an equally large group of Chinese-speaking people behind us. It's a well-oiled machine, but I think during the winter it's a bit more chill. When the tour is over you will have the option to hop in the mine elevator, you descend via a very long staircase, or continue to the mine museum. The photo below is basically where the tour ends, but around the turn of the century they used to have boat tours from this point.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

You might be thinking right now, "isn't the whole place a big museum?" Yes, it is, but if you take the tour of the specific underground museum you will get to see more things more closely and without the rush through of the larger tour. The museum tour consisted of my guide and two Brazilian guys. That was it.

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

If I hadn't seen the museum I would have missed this beauty, a custom mine cart build specifically for the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so he could take a tour. The Emperor sat up front, note how the opulence diminishes as you get to seats for his advisors and then staff. 

Wieliczka Salt Mine Poland

The museum has an exceptional art collection and the guide told us that the salt in the air preserves mostly everything. He said the air is very clean because of the salt in it and that it's cleaner and healthier than the air outside. There is now even a spa in the mine where people with respiratory issues can take advantage of this clean air. 

So that is about it. I would like to say that my tour guide, I think is name was Paul, is one of the best I've ever had. He conducted the tour professionally with just the right amount of sarcasm. His English was first-rate; so good in fact that for the first 20 minutes of the three-hour tour I thought he was a native speaker, he is not. If you go to Krakow, take this tour it's worth it and it will cheer you up before or after you go to the concentration camp. 

So that is basically the end of this. I want to close with a frame I made for no reason other than I thought it looked nice. I like it. I don't even remember if I took it in Krakow or Wieliczka, but who really cares. 

Krakow Poland

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