Dec 17, 2006

A Cracking Good Time in Krakow

We leave Krakow early tomorrow morning for the (hopefully) warmer climes of Rome, so it's a good time to get up-to-date on our Polish activities. I've posted my thoughts on our vsombre visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau below; leaving this blog free to be (again, hopefully) fun and full of jokes.

Friday saw us take in the famous "Wieliczka Salt Mine" - did you know, it was one of the very first group of sites to be named in UNESCO's World Heritage List? There you go!

The Salt Mine is just that - a 900-year-old salt mine. Salt was extraordinarily important in medieval life - used as a means of food preservation, it was almost as expensive as silver. Much of Krakow's wealth came from the massive salt deposit that was found under the little town of Wieliczka (pronounced "vee-lich-ka"). What makes this mine stand out are the wonderful carvings and statues that litter the dozens of chambers and passageways. Miners used to sculpt them in their spare time! There are even chapels - including the famous St Kinga's chapel, named after the queen who according to legend brought the salt deposit to Poland as her wedding gift. Some of the statues have worn due to humidity, but modern ventilation systems mean most are perfectly preserved.

The mine runs over 9 levels, with over 3 kilometres of passages running to a depth of over 300 metres (visitors only go down as far as 135m). There are also underground lakes, rooms with ceilings up to 30m high, incredible staircases, and You can do a virtual tour here if you're interested, but unfortunately it won't be as funny as our real-life one - with his fantastic accent, bad jokes and big moustache our guide was a dead-ringer for Borat!

Note: Yes, I did actually buy some salt as a souvenir. It's scented rose, and smells yummy. Can't wait to give myself a salt scrub back at home.

We've spent today cruising around the town - we headed back up to Wawel Castle to see inside its cathedral, where all the Polish kings are buried; we wandered past the Dragon's Lair under the castle hill (legend has it a mythical dragon lived there and feasted on lovely maidens until a local man tricked him into eating a fake lamb filled with sulphur); and enjoyed a look at one of the churches in the main square, home to a massive 10m high carved wooden altar. Snazzy.

I can't finish writing about Krakow without talking about the cold. Avoiding it is tricky; one obviously has to venture outside at some point to make one's trip worthwhile. I wear everything I own, and yet still feel cold. The worst is when my feet start to freeze from the toes down - they literally feel like they are encased in ice. My fingers get cold but I can breathe on them; my face gets cold and I pull my beanie down and pull my scarf up but all I get is a mouthful of wool. This isn't even a cold winter for Krakovians, but I can literally SEE the cold, especially at night - a visible mist wafting through the streets, getting into the few gaps in my winter get-up I haven't managed to plug. I know I sound like a big girl and I freely admit I am. But this is a new experience for me - the cold and learning to live with it. Sometimes I don't know how people survive these winters - I guess they do just stay inside.

I'd better run now; I've been monopolising the free internet for ages now. Must pack, and shower, and get ready for the 2-hour bus trip to Katowice Airport! I would heartily recommend Krakow as a destination - only don't be fooled by people who tell you it's cheap. Food is reasonable, but shopping is just as expensive here as it has been in Europe - in some stores even more so. Some Poles still earn less than $500 a month, so I don't know how they manage. It's certainly cheaper than Western Europe, but nowhere near the value of Estonia or Latvia!

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