Krakow, 10th to 12th of May

My trip to Auschwitz had spanned the middle of the day and taken a good five or six hours, including getting there and back, but it hadn’t really involved lunch. I should have been starving, but the heat had sapped my appetite. I needed something, however, so I headed off to a restaurant that promised Polish food and beer. I settled in and ordered soup and a beef pancake with mushroom sauce, and a Tyskie beer to wash it all down. ‘Large or small beer?’ the waiter asked. ‘Ooo, large please,’ I replied, thinking cosily of the “large” half-litre beers in Germany. Then I looked at the menu and realised I’d accidentally ordered a litre of beer. Oh well, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in Germany, it’s how to behave in the presence of a lot of beer. The pancake turned out to be similarly vast, occupying half of a plate that looked to be about 10 inches in diameter. The other half was occupied by twin peaks of shredded red cabbage and what I assumed was shredded white cabbage. Meep. I girded my loins and got stuck in, managing to deal with the pancake and create a reasonable mole-hill out of the red cabbage mountain. The beer presented a challenge, but I got there in the end, though I probably looked like a dreadful alkie sitting there drinking my huge beer by myself.

Wieliczka salt mines
The entrance to the Wieliczka salt mines.

The next day was ear-marked for the Wieliczka salt mines, a massive complex of chambers and tunnels created during the lifetime of the mines, from the 13th century to 2007. Only a relatively small section is open to the public, and you have to join a guided tour to see it. The guide for the tour I joined had the most amazingly booming, almost operatic, delivery and a lugubrious sense of humour. Unfortunately, his accent was also quite pronounced, which made it difficult to follow everything he said.

Carving, Wieliczka salt mines
Carving of a miner in the salt mine. Pockets of methane gas had to be burnt with torches like the one this chap is holding.

However, I do like a trot through some tunnels, and the salt mines were worth a visit. A lot of the tunnels and chambers are shored up with wood to keep them from collapsing, and in many places the action of the salt has almost turned the wood to stone. In other places, salt crystals had slowly grown to completely cover the wood. Salt was mined mainly as salt “barrels”, which were shaped from slabs of mined salt-rock and then hoicked to the surface by man- or horse-power for processing. There were displays of different mining techniques, and a number of sculptures carved from rock salt to commemorate miners, legends and various notable people.

St. Kinga's chapel, Wieliczka salt mines
The rather grand chapel of St. Kinga. The chandeliers are made of salt crystals, and the walls are carved with many images from the Bible.

One of the most impressive chambers was the St. Kinga chapel, big enough to hold a concert in and wonderfully decorated, largely with salt carvings. Lower down we saw the machinery used to pump water away from the tunnels. After we’d trekked through the main sight-seeing passages and reached the lift to the surface, our guide mentioned an “optional” extra tour of the mine’s museum. It sounded interesting and seemed to be included in the entrance fee, so I went for it. Our guide took us deeper into the mines and had more extensive displays of mining equipment, from miners’ lamps to some of the biggest winching machinery in the mines. It also had information on the geology of the mines, something I always find fascinating. Most importantly, I felt like I’d got better value from the experience.

The rest of my time in Krakow was spent doing a few chores before I headed off to Warsaw. I went through my rucksack and parcelled up assorted extraneous items that I’d decided I didn’t really need after all and tootled down to the main post office to send them home. Then I went shopping for a few minor essentials, taking advantage of still being somewhere with a familiar, if heavily accented, alphabet and brands I recognised. My last morning in Krakow was a little tedious, and I only had myself to blame – I got myself down to the station and managed to buy a ticket to Warsaw, but unfortunately it was only valid for Inter-Regional trains, and there wouldn’t be another one of those for a couple of hours. If I’d been a bit quicker off the mark (or figured out where to buy a different variety of ticket), I could have caught an earlier train. Sighing at myself, I found a coffee shop in the Galleria and did some writing and work to pass the time. The journey to Warsaw itself was uneventful. The weather did what it had been threatening to do and rained, but I was tucked up in my train carriage so I didn’t care a jot, and it cleared up (or we’d travelled out from underneath it) by the time we reached Warsaw.

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