My Trip to Poland (part I)

I left home on Saturday to travel to Krakow, Poland (or Cracow). This was a flight from Indianapolis to Charlotte, Charlotte to Munich, and then Munich to Krakow. Total flight time was about 14 hours in planes, and 4 hours in terminals, connecting.

The Munich airport is very large, and has a huge duty free section. I saw a sign saying that I could get anything German duty free. I asked for Heidi Klum and Giselle Bundchen, but was told I could only request German brands. So, I asked about an Audi and a BMW, but they told me I couldn’t get those either. I figured I might ask next about Glock and Sig Sauer to make a point, but considering I was still in the security zone at the airport, I decided to go to the airport lounge instead (thank you Star Alliance Gold status!) and have breakfast. The Germans are very civilized about that, at least, with two wonderful beers on tap to accompany my granola and fruit. I managed to recharge my laptop and then got the plane to Krakow. The airport at Krakow is very small, and was closed for outgoing flights from bad weather after I arrived and the taxi ride to the hotel was a trip through forests covered in snow.

The hotel is lovely and near downtown Krakow. My stomach was a bit upset (maybe beer and granola wasn’t the best idea for breakfast) and I only slept about 4 hours last night. Coffee was called for this morning, in quantity, but German coffee isn’t very strong nor is it served in big cups. Luckily, I could go back for refills at the buffet.

This morning I delivered my keynote address at the ARES conference, and spent some additional time there.

In the afternoon, I went to the Wieliczka Salt mine — perhaps the oldest salt mine in the world in continuous operation. According to the guide, the first written mention of the mine was in 1291, and it was a description of an already working mine.

For much of time of operation, the salt was an extremely valuable item — more valuable by weight than silver. This is because it was used to preserve food for travel and over the winter. Silver may glitter, but you can’t eat it in the dead of winter! Apparently, early miners faced danger from getting lost, mine collapse, methane explosion, and more. However, they also were wealthy because each was allowed to bring out a handful of salt each day (remember, it was worth about twice its weight in pure silver). Many stole more than that and their families lived in great comfort. Nonetheless, enough salt was produced to make Poland one of the wealthiest countries in Europe for many centuries.

The mine has 6 levels and over 300km of tunnel, shored up by nearly 1 million cubic meters of timer (some of it over 400 years old). There are multiple lakes, and scattered throughout are 42 separate chapels including one fully functional Catholic church dedicated to St. Kinga (about 4 stories tall in a cavern, with weekly masses; everything inside is carved of salt, including the floor tiling). Throughout the mine are elaborate carvings and decorations made by the miners over the centuries. There are also elaborate ballrooms, meeting rooms, offices, restaurants, stairwells and ladder runs, and exotic looking mineral deposits — and that was only the small part we saw! They run a health spa for people with allergies and asthma, hold concerts in the ballrooms, formal conferences,  and the church has regular masses and weddings. One room even is in the book of records as the site of the first indoor bungee jump and first indoor hot air balloon flight!

The story goes that J.R.R. Tolkien visited the mine in 1908 and may well have based his description of Moria and the dwarves based on the mine and the miners in it. Kings, movie stars, authors, philosophers, presidents, and even a CERIAS faculty member have all visited the mine at some point or another, but the last is an incident they are attempting to hush up.

They had their own stable of horses in the mine, some which were born there, lived for 20 or more years, and then died there — it was too difficult to move them in and out via hoists, with many horses dying in that process. Instead, the ones that stayed in the mine were actually healthier and lived longer because of the steady climate.

They ceased regular mining about a decade ago, but still extract some salt as a preservation step (the salt is slowly moving to close some tunnels because of the pressure — it is somewhat plastic, and is under huge weight from above), and they regularly pump out water from the bottom levels and extract the salt from that.

Our tour went down over 800 steps and saw less than 1% of the mine over 3 hours. It was one of the most incredible experiences I can recall in recent memory.

I took pictures but without a major flash unit I can’t say they turned out all that well (a few did, though).Most  of the pictures online are much better. See some of the official pictures and descriptions here. I will post my pictures after I get home.

I bought a couple of souveniers (including a piece of pink salt for our small mineral collection at home; the salt is pink from some iron oxide inclusion), and then snoozed a little on the bus ride back to the city.

Dinner was traditional Polish food at the hotel and very good. It was served by two extraordinarily good-looking blonde, blue-eyed young Polish women — who, unfortunately, had been warned for years with stories of strange, bearded dwarven men so they kept their distance from me after serving me the food.

Tomorrow I will take a walking tour of the city center, including the old castle and the cathedral (Poland is historically quite Catholic, but the people seem nice anyhow :-). The walking may be a bit of a challenge — it has been snowing lightly but continuously for over a week, and the temperature is hovering right at freezing. Thus, there is icy slush everywhere and I do not have my winter shoes with me. I have already fallen once (and hurt my back a little) so tomorrow may be an adventure.

Wednesday I return home. Winter back there too. No salt mines, and all the cute young things back there seem to have been warned about me, too. Ah well, at least I will have warm, dry shoes and access to my regular computer again. Until my next trip, that is.

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