Got up about 7.15am today, as we had to be breakfasted and ready to go by eight o’clock for today’s excursion, on our last day in Kraków. As usual, we enjoyed a plentiful breakfast washed down by good hot coffee.
Masked up, we then made our way through the hotel foyer and assembed with the other guests in our party to await Mike and the tour bus. Today, we were going to visit an incredible salt mine.
The Wieliczka salt mine, excavated from the 13th century, produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world’s oldest operating salt mines. Today, it serves as a tourist attraction and is utterly astonishing, as we were to find out.
The coach journey to the mine took about an hour, and on arrival we thankfully removed our masks for a short while before entering the ticket office in the mine and meeting our guide. She explained we would be descending into the mine on foot, down the stairs, but we would get the lift back up again. This was just as well, as the mine is over 327 metres (1,062 feet) deep.
We started to go down the stairs, and we’d only gone down one flight when one of the guys in our party said he wouldn’t be able to stand it, and decided to go back to the entrance and wait for his wife there. She explained to us that he suffered from claustrophobia and didn’t like subterranean places.
Down we went, holding onto the rickety wooden railing, down and down and down. It seemed never-ending, and someone leant over the railings and looked down; we just saw stairs stretching into the distance and couldn’t see the bottom. In fact, there were over 800 steps to descend, and it certainly took it out of your calf muscles. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we eventually reached the bottom.
The first thing we saw was a Hungarian-type wooden horse-treadmill circa 18th century, along with some of the wooden tubs used to carry the mined salt. The tableau was brought to life by some figures of miners and horses, depicting how it would have been.
We then came across some amazing statues and carvings that the miners had created out of the salt, including a rock-salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II. As we made our way along the many tunnels (the combined length of all the tunnels and passages in the mine exceeds 178 miles) sometimes going down or up more stairs, the miners’ workmanship was incredible. Suprisingly, despite being over 1000 feet underground, it wasn’t too cold, maintaining more or less a constant temperature of 14-16 degrees Celsius.
Each sculpture we saw or each room we entered seemed more magnificent than the last, all of it painstakingly crafted by the miners from the rock. We saw tableaux depicting Polish folklore, as well as some showing how the mine would have worked, including salt-sculpted horses.
Most breathtaking of all was a full-size underground chapel, complete with altar, wall-sconces, many carvings and relief pictures depicting religious scenes. Several magnificent chandeliers hung overhead, the shaped salt crystals glittering as they cast their light over the wonders surrounding us. The floor was patterned with a series of hexagonal shapes, rather likes tiles, and the surface had been polished to a high shine by the many thousands of feet that had walked over it through the years.
We saw one relief tableau featuring the Nativity and other superb one showing the Last Supper. Our guide explained that you could actually hire the chapel for a wedding; she didn’t specify how much it would cost but I would imagine it would be extremely expensive. But what a unique venue!
As we continued our amazing tour, our next pause was at a natural underground lake and grotto, the Jozef Pilsudski Grotto. A quick Google told me that Jozef Pilsudski was a Polish statesman who served as the Chief of State (1918–1922) and First Marshal of Poland (from 1920). Next to the grotto stood a salt-built statue of Saint John Nepomucene, who was drowned in the Vltava River. Because of the nature of his death, he is considered a protector against floods.
The end of our tour took us to a souvenir shop (a shop! 1062 feet underground!) where you could buy salt-sculpted ornaments, toiletries such as bath salts and salt scrubs, and table salt which came in a souvenir grinder. We bought a couple of jars of the table salt to bring back home as unusual gifts.
We then went along to wait for the lift back to the surface. The lift was on three or four levels and stopped at each one to allow anyone to get in or out. It ascended very quickly and it was no time until we were back at ground level, our eyes blinking against the bright daylight outside. What an incredible visit we had had; we would certainly recommend the Wieliczka salt mine to anyone visiting Kraków.
We arrived back at our hotel around 12.00 noon, the rest of the day being our own. After pottering around for a bit and doing some packing, as it was our last day in Kraków 🙁 We decided to go over to our favourite restaurant for some lunch, but we were surprised to see that it wasn’t open yet; it wouldn’t open for lunch for another half hour. We therefore had a walk around the shops and went over to the Spar where I bought some Polish sweets. The traditional practice, of course, is to buy sweets and goodies to bring into the office to share with your workmates, but we’ve all been working at home for the last six months. I told Trevor I would upload a photo of the packet of sweets for my workmates; in true Bullseye fashion, “here’s what you could have had”, ha ha 🙂
Later on, in the Pierwszy Stopień restaurant, we once again enjoyed the tasty set lunch, washed down with a glass of Tyskie beer each. I took some photos and enjoyed an Aperol Spritz before we went back to the hotel and enjoyed a post-luncheon nap and read and relaxed for a while.
For our final evening in this fascinating and interesting city, we decided to go into the town centre and visit some of the bars we’d been to previously. We walked out into the pleasantly-warm night and walked along, crossing the bridge over the Vistula River and watching the tethered balloon soar once more into the gathering darkness. We came to the “Time for Tea” bar, where we’d enjoyed ourselves the other night, and went in there. It was not as crowded or as noisy this time, and I enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine, while Trevor had some beer. A complimentary dish of salted peanuts accompanied the drink, which was sufficient for us after our large, three-course lunch, which we’d eaten later than usual anyway.
We then decided to take a slow stroll back to the hotel and, as we walked along, there were lots of people out enjoying the warm, late summer evening, particularly on those electric scooters. We reflected on this, our 90th country, and while it had not originally been on our agenda for 2020, here we were in Poland and we had had a great time, and seen and done some very interesting things.
Back in our room we finished off the packing, then spent the remaining time relaxing, reading, watching TV etc. before turning in about 11.00pm, as we had to be up fairly early in the morning. We slept very well.