Any kind of travel that plays by the rules of gravity and will keep me at least somewhat attached to the ground is just dandy in my books. I’d much rather take a 6-hour train than a 2-hour plane. We had ruled out driving down to Krakow and Zakopane from Warsaw, as our polish car was a little run-down with non-functioning headlights.
My dad booked us in for a train from Warsaw to Krakow, and turned into a slightly irrational type-A on the morning of our departure, insisting we leave with at least an extra 45 minutes to spare. Wishing we could have spent that excess time sleeping, I decided to be a bowl of sass all morning until we were settled in on the train. It didn’t help the situation when we realized we were in the same train wagon as a loud group of tourists from South Africa. Their piercing laughter and booming voices were all grand and dandy for the first half an hour, and I assumed that the group would settle down and find a seat once we got going. I really didn’t want to be that person who was grumpy about laughter – I mean, come on, laughter and fun and talking is great and it makes you live longer and I’d be a total scrooge to have my knickers knotted over that. While my dad solved the issue for himself by hanging out in the windy little space that connects the wagons together for the duration of the trip, I did some permanent damage on my ear drums by digging my headphones in at full blast, trying to drown out the rounds of ear-splitting laughter and yelling coming from the rows of seats in front of us. Two and a half hours later, we pulled up in Krakow and couldn’t get off the train fast enough.
A short walk into Krakow’s town centre found us at what appeared to be our AirBnb address. After waiting around for a while and nearly checking into a hostel accidentally, our AirBnb host found us, a few streets away from the actual apartment. A quick trek up no less than 63 stairs – and an excellent reminder that I should probably re-join the gym – led us to a bright and airy space on the top floor of an apartment building located nearly right in the centre of the city. Sidewalk patios bustled down below our windows as the tram rumbled by. The wide granite window sill offered an ideal to perch and people watch. In my quest to learn how to draw buildings in perspective, I decided to try and sketch the view. We spent the evening on airy patios, consuming all the potato derivatives that Poland seems to love so dearly. We munched on baked potatoes and French fries, and sipped vodka (because when you’re in Poland you’re not supposed to shoot your drinks; you’re supposed to put on an air of class and sip on your little vodka shot as if it’s really lovely and yum).
The next morning, Diego and I stumbled down the stairs still wiping the sleep from our eyes, to meet up with our Salt Mine tour group. I had visited the mine a few times before, and had hoped to find time to visit Aushwitz-Birkenhau on this trip, but my dad had informed Diego that this mine was the best thing to see in all of Poland, and argued that visiting the extermination camp would just be sad and unnecessary. I briefly considered visiting Aushwitz solo, but immediately had a vision of myself alone, a sobbing puddle in some corner of the camp, and opted to take Diego to the mines instead. Aushwitz would have to wait another year. So, still half-asleep, we hopped on a big bus that would take us 40 minutes outside of the city to Wieliczka.
The woman who collected our tour tickets looked at us questioningly.
“But, I have a polish name written down for these tickets…”
I reassured her that it was me, and when she started babbling away to me at the speed of light in polish, I sheepishly explained that I didn’t speak the language that well. Mental note to register for those polish language classes already and stop being such a fake Pole.
As we headed out of the city, I could hear that everyone else on our English-speaking tour was conversing in some other language. Being surrounded by words you can’t understand is wonderfully calming. My mind doesn’t feel the need to cling onto syllables or get distracted by the meaning behind them. After a while it begins to feel like fantastic background music. Hard consonants and rolling Rs bounced back and forth over my head as we sped along the highway. I realized I was likely the only person on the bus who spoke just one language fluently, and suddenly felt terribly inadequate but also completely in awe of the people around me (including Diego) who had such wonderful linguistic abilities.
While we waited for our turn to enter the main above-ground mine building, I sipped a cappuccino and had my first cigarette of the day.
Fifteen minutes later, our guide was leading us into a dimly lit cave-like hallway to the first flight of stairs that would take us down 115m below ground. I head the man behind me exclaim something to his wife with a mention of “claustrophobic”, followed by some shuffling as he turned around and walked back up the first couple flights to ground level. I peeked over the railing and felt nauseous looking down into an optical illusion. Railing after railing descended down to a barely visible black rectangle – our destination floor. An image of the earth suddenly caving in around us and swallowing us whole flashed through my mind and I wondered whether it would be better to stand on a landing or a stair in case of such an event. I decided that it probably wouldn’t matter.
We finally reached the bottom of what seemed like an endless rectangular staircase. The air felt far cooler. I let out a couple uncontrollable salt-related puns, and Diego threatened to desert me in the mine.
For the next three hours, our guide led us through cavernous room after cavernous room, where the floors, ceilings, and walls were all made of salt. In some areas, wood panels or even entire tree trunks lined the walls. Our guide informed us that these were hundreds of years old, and had been preserved by the surrounding salt. Different rooms told different stories of the activities that went on in the mine, the role of the miners, and the technology used to excavate such vast spaces.
The most impressive room of the tour – a ballroom (and church) of sorts – boasted salt crystal chandeliers hanging from soaring ceilings and religious scenes carved expertly into the salt walls. For those who like a unique place to worship, this space is used for Sunday mass.
Near the end of our tour, we came upon a kitchen and cafeteria, where deep dishes of potatoes and sausage steamed behind a sneeze-guard. I wondered how on earth they managed to get all that food down there and cook it all on-the-spot. My attention then jumped to the staff working behind the counter, I struggled to imagine what it would be like to come to work so far below ground every day.
After reaching the deepest point of the tour (135m below ground) – we boarded a surprisingly modern elevator, and returned to the surface. The mid-day light was near-blinding, and we squinted around at the street as we returned to the tour bus. The mine was no doubt fascinating, even for a third visit, but I couldn’t help leaving feeling a pang of guilt, and a bit like a bit of an ostrich with my head stuck in the dark dirt for having spent the morning walking around underground looking at salt rather than learning about some of the most significant and devastating atrocities in human history (even if it would have meant I spent the day as a puddle on the floor).
(Click to enlarge images)