Our self-guided walking tour around the Christmas market, medieval square, Jewish quarter and Wawel Castle had been a great experience but now it was time to do some JWalking underground. We don’t this very often. If memory serves me right this has only happened twice before. The Bendigo Gold Mines in Victoria, Australia and the tunnel linking the Library of Congress to the Capitol Building in Washington DC but I am sure Jonno will correct me. My stats on tunnels aren’t quite in the same league as his.
The Royal Salt Mine at Wieliczka
Not usually being one for tours, it was strange to be picked up by mini bus with 8 others to make the 30 minutes journey to the mine on the outskirts of Krakow. We had decided to take this unusual step on the advice of the tourist information office. Coinciding with our arrival in the city there had been a radical change of train timetable which had not yet bedded in and meant that all the buses were full to bursting. Adding into this the strict allotted departure slots for each English tour, the additional equivalent of £10 extra seemed worth paying to get us there punctually.
Once we arrived, we appreciated how busy this place gets. Rows and rows of my favourite (not) queuing zig-zag channels like at the airport but we were in the smug zone and were walked straight through to descend the 380 steps taking us to a depth of 64 metres but by the end of the walk we were at 130 metres. It was amazing to think that the mine’s depth reaches down to 317 metres and has passages running for over 170 miles. We were only doing to walk about 2.5 miles to see some of the most impressive chambers.
The tourist route is fully lit and ventilated but there is still a manual system in place to aid air circulation. Before and after entering and leaving the longer passages there is a sort of lock system. We went through a large wooden door and all of our group had to gather and close the door behind us before passing through the next door. Primitive by today’s standards but our guide assured us it helped with airflow. It was while waiting by one of these doors that we were encouraged to lick the walls to confirm that the grey granite looking rock was indeed rock salt. It is only after light passes through the salt that it looks like the white crystal we recognise as salt.
Salt was mined from the 13th century through until 2007. Horse power aided workers and amazingly the last horse didn’t leave the mine until 2002. If CCTV had been in place over those years what an varied history we would see. Early mining methods, occupation by the Germans during World War II and used for manufacturing what was termed as “war-related” items, early and contemporary artists sculpting the salt, church services in the huge cathedral-like chamber, rowing on the huge brine lakes, functions in the carved ballroom right through to the private rehabilitation and wellness centre.
The incredible St Kinga’s Chapel
St Kinga’s Chapel was the most impressive to me. We arrived on a high balcony looking down over what is called a chapel that can accommodate over 400 worshippers but the height made it feel more like a cathedral. It blew me away to think that most of the carvings and artwork in the chamber were completed by just three miners not artists. Even the glittering chandeliers were made of salt crystals. Most miners were very religious and felt their safety and well-being was in the hands of God so made a variety of shrines mobile as the mining continued. St Kinga’s Chapel is a little different and has an intriguing legend.
Here were go. Princess Kinga was a Hungarian Princess and was due to marry the Prince of Krakow. She asked for father, King Béla, for what was in those times a valuable lump of salt in her dowry. They went to the salt mine. Legend has it that she threw her engagement ring into one of the mine shafts before leaving for her wedding. On her arrival in Krakow she asked miners to dig a deep pit and miraculously they came across a lump of salt which, when they split it open, contained the Princess’s ring. Kinga then became the patron saint of salt miners.
How believable? I love a legend but could a ring travel over 450 kms underground in salt deposits and then be found. What are the odds? At least it led to the completion of this amazing chapel that still holds masses, weddings and other religious events. What isn’t legend is the fact that the miners voluntarily worked on this chapel after a very gruelling 8 hour shift working in the salt mine. Now that is a labour of love and devotion. (Remember every single think you see has been carved from salt.)
An express, very cosy, miners lift whizzed us back to the surface in just over 30 seconds. We were so pleased we went to this amazing place. Maybe we need to line up more underground JWalking experiences. Any suggestions?
I would like to say that we intentionally carried on the underground theme intentionally but actually this second subterranean adventure was discovered in the search for something to do for a few hours on a rainy day after we had checked out of our accommodation and before our flight home. It was the perfect solution, within walking distance of our accommodation, had a cloakroom to store our backpacks and only 21 zloty each (£4.50). Because of the narrow nature of some of the walkways in the museum has a strict timed ticket system. They only allow 30 people to enter the museum at once in 15 minute intervals. The only problem was to find the ticket office the day before to book. I don’t think it is intentional but it is like a intelligence test to find the ticket office which is one one side of the Cloth Hall in the Market Square.
The next day we headed for the entrance which was in a totally different location in the Market Square with our precious tickets. The Rynek Underground lies directly under the market square and has only been open for the last 8 years. Basically, the whole eastern side of the market square was dug up in a massive archaeological dig that discovered old stone roads, relics and buildings.
Then the market square was relayed on top and what was found was preserved and all the artefacts and ruins presented in a museum. A lot of technology is used to recreate the feel of the square and settlement of the middle ages. It is well done and little did we know that this was just a few metres under our feet as we supped our mulled wine in the Christmas Market and made me wonder how many other city market squares have the same layers and layers of medieval history under them. At a cost of 38 million zloty (about 8 million pounds) and excavating for 5 years in the Market Square, it was one expensive and disruptive project so why make it so hard to find?
Krakow Christmas Market
All this “down to earth” exploring had made us peckish so we indulged one more time in the delights of the Christmas Market before making our way to the airport. Would it be oscypek (grilled sheep milk cheese), a kielbasa (bbq’d sausage), a paczki (the most delicious filled donuts), grzaniec galicyjski (mulled wine) or all four? We would 100% recommend a visit to the friendly delightful Krakow as a summer or winter destination.
11/12 – 12/12/2018