The Salt Mine and Literature in Krakow, Poland

Poland was the forefront of our priorities when we first moved to London. Looking at genealogy, Jeff’s family hails from the central European country, and I, personally, wanted to see more living history. Poland was the first country the Nazis took over during WWII, defeating the Polish army in 2 weeks, but I’ll get more into that in a later post. It was after our trip to Budapest that these ex-communist countries really sparked our interest.

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Sunset over Wisla River, Krakow

Poland broke from communism in 1989 after years of repression and reform. It took nearly 10 years of strikes and revolts for Wojciech Jaruzelski to resign from the primary office of the People’s Republic of Poland, which also ended with his resignation from politics all together. Shortly after this, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the last of the Soviet troops left Poland in 1993. Poland was officially a free country.

Walking the streets of Krakow, it is obvious the country has gone through some serious turmoil. The buildings are still grey and boxy, but there is also quite a bit of wear and tear on the apartment and business buildings. Broken facades and broken sidewalks show how much the country has been devastated by the last century. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, the trains were shocking.

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The old trains at the Krakow Glowny station.

The train that got us from the airport was very modern and high-tech with the ability to buy tickets on board (so you don’t have to wait in line watching the train pull out of the station). But when we got back to the main station to head to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, the train we boarded had to be at least thirty years old, if not more. I felt like we had stumbled back in time.

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On the first day of our travels, we just explore the lay of the land. We have no set schedule because we usually don’t know what we don’t know. So as we walked around our neighborhood, the Kazimierz borough known for being the main Jewish neighborhood from where many Jews had to be relocated, we found ourselves walking along the Wawel Castle and the Wista River. The sun was just setting and little flurries of snow fell. We found ourselves laughing at how picturesque the city was.

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The sun setting near Wawel Castle on the way to the Wisla River, Krakow.

Right at the base of the castle, there is a literal fire-breathing dragon dedicated to the Wawel Dragon, famous in Polish folklore. The statue is to symbolize the defeat of the dragon by Krakus, a Polish prince from the late 1100s and founder of Krakow. He allegedly fed the dragon sheep laced with sulfur. A less romantic story than a literal slaying with a sword, but it seems just as effective.

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The Wawel Dragon: breathes fire every five minutes.

The statue was erected in 1972 by Bronisław Chromy and literally breathes fire ever five-minutes. We stood watching for quite some time before the cold got into our bones. And like a watched pot, it exhaled the gassy flames just as we turned around, so we only got a glimpse of the effect.

But here is someone’s video so you can see it for yourself:

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Did you know the number one export for Krakow is literature? I had no idea! We picked up the Krakow Literary Trails map and made a list of places we had to see. And first on my list was Massolit Book Shop: a bookstore opened by three American ex-pats with a storefront full of English language books. Broken in two sections, you first walk in a massive room with books spilling over boxes and shelves. Heaven.

There is a little cafe in the back, and the man standing at the register hands you a map detailing the layout for the store. I held this map like it was a trail to Narnia. Through a back door, under a curtain, and into a narrow passage, we made our way to three massive rooms with more books. I found Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski, a Polish novelist who reminds me of Halldor Laxness of Iceland. This store is a must see for anyone interested in world literature.

Not finished with book shopping, we made our way to The Old Town to see Matras Ksiegarnie: site of the first bookshop to open in Europe (1610). During our trip, we wound up coming here three times, not for the Polish language books, but for the coffee. They had some amazing choices one of which was the Oriental Coffee: a latte with chai spices. The store is shotgun style, so it doesn’t look big from the outside, but when you walk in the doors, it just keeps going back and back.

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Matras Book Shop: on the site of the oldest bookstore in Europe. The structure was built in 1610.

There was one wall dedicated to English-language books, but we were enamored with the picture books that were stacked near the cafe. Astounding art works, landscapes, and historical maps entertained us for hours. I highly recommend this place, not only for coffee, but for comfy and quiet seats to relax in the Old Town.

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I mentioned before hopping on a train to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We woke early on Friday morning and made our 20 minute trek to the famous mine. Before you head that way, check the website for tour times. It is mandatory to take a tour through the underground mines because it is easy to get lost in the labyrinth, and certain languages go at certain times. We were lucky that we arrived just as an English tour was forming at 10am.

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The Wieliczka Salt Mine, just outside Krakow.

Armed with headsets and cameras, we started the 380 stair first descent. It’s a winding staircase which made us dizzy by the time we could step on level ground, and just a note: the website says it gets quite cold underground. We were there in the dead of winter, and we were boiling under our thermals and jackets, so keep your layers in mind when planning this escapade.

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Opened in the 13th century, salt was the biggest money-maker for the country for several centuries.

As we walked through the dank and dark caves, we saw walls and walls of salt. The grey salt that surrounded us was 500 million years old, according to our tour guide. But the salt that formed on the ceilings in the shape of cauliflower, was a merely 10 years old. The grey salt looks and feels like marble, but when he held a torch up to the surface, you could see the crystals just underneath in beautiful patterns.

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“Cauliflower” salt takes 10 years to form.

There are wax figures dressed in medieval clothes and statues carved in grey salt to give an almost Disney effect to the mine. It made it a little campy, but it did help visualize how things would have been. This was especially apparent when we saw horses doing the heavy cart work. I was shocked to know horses were this far underground as recently as 2010.

Opened originally in the 13th century, salt was the major currency used in Europe. In fact, the word salary comes from the latin word for salt.

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Grey salt can be as old as 500 million years, and it can be carved into sculptures and figures. This is King Kazmierz in salt.

The mines go as far down as 1,073 feet and is over 178 miles long. During the two-hour tour, we only saw 1% of the mine. It is astounding considering all that we did see: lakes (yes, plural), incredibly high vaulted ceilings, gift shops, and even a cathedral with salt crystal chandeliers. All of this underground.

When we walked into the St. Kinga’s Chapel, we were astounded. It was a massive room that would rival most chapels, and we were allowed time to observe the intricate sculptures and carvings made into the grey salt walls. It was so pleasantly quiet, too.

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High vaulted ceilings in the depths of the underground.

One of my favorite stories from the tour was the legend of Princess Kinga:

There is a legend about Princess Kinga, associated with the Wieliczka mine. The Hungarian noblewoman was about to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father King Béla took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when they split it in two, discovered the princess’s ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital.

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Princess Kinga’s story enacted in salt.

The mine closed for commercial use in 1996 due to the low price of salt and mine flooding, but continued to produce table salt until 2007.

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The water is over-saturated with salt so it takes 50kg strapped to a diver just to go under the surface. After a taste, we were begging for clean water.

It was definitely one of the more random things we learned about and saw during our travels, but the time spent was definitely worth the price of admission.

Stay tuned next week for castles, museums, and bowling?

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Things of Note for Krakow:

  • There are left luggage lockers at the Krakow Glowny train station in case you need to store your suitcases for a bit.
  • Public restrooms are everywhere, but most of them have a cost. We found them to be between 1 and 2.50 zloty, so always carry change with you.
  • Most museums or churches will allow you to take photos, but you will need to pay a small tax (about 10 zloty).
  • You can buy train tickets on the train. A good thing to know when you’re racing against the clock.
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