Friday, August 18, 2017

Post 10: Back to the Salt Mines

Just outside of the city limits of Kraków lies the most wonderful of all tourist attractions in Poland: the Wieliczka Salt Mines. It lies in the town of Wieliczka, and people had been telling me for weeks that I shouldn't miss this. I assumed it was "near" Kraków in the sense that I could take a train and be there in an hour or two. Walking around Kraków, you'll see all sorts of places offering to take tourists to the salt mines. And on Friday, shortly before I was to finish my studies for the day, my teacher asked what my plans were for the weekend.

The salt mines are near!

And I said I was thinking about hitting the salt mines. He suggested that I take the local train for a couple of bucks. They sell "packages" to visit the salt mines for a huge markup and it's a waste. Just take the local train for a couple of bucks.

And I was surprised. I could take a local train? It was that close?

After I returned to Agata's place, I pulled out my laptop and got online and actually looked at a map of it's location. It was located several miles southwest of Kraków, almost right on the border with Kraków. In fact, it was not far from where Agata's place was. I had Google show me a walking path from Agata's place to the salt mines, and it told me that it was about a one hour walk away. The salt mines were closer to me than the school was! I didn't need to take a train at all!

So with that figured out, I looked up when the salt mines would open the next day (9:00, as I recalled), and planned my arrival accordingly.

The walk to the salt mines was uneventful. Most of the roads I followed had no sidewalks, but the roads weren't especially busy either.

At the salt mines, the crowds were huge! It wasn't even the busy summer season yet, and already the crowds were enormous. I checked my bag since large bags weren't allowed, stood in line for tickets and when I reached the front, bought two of them. I decided to take both the Tourist Route, the main route almost everyone who visits the salt mines does--but also the Miner's Route where we got a more intimate experience with the mines and some of the undeveloped parts of the mine.

First up was the Tourist Route. I signed up for the English-language tours. I know I was supposed to be learning Polish, but my Polish was still terrible and I wanted to understand everything they were telling us, so I wasn't willing to throw the English-language guided tours out the window just yet.

These statues are carved out of salt! Salt! They're amazing!

I showed up with about 10 minutes to spare, and the route immediately took us down hundreds of feet in a dizzying circular descent.

And wow--the mine was amazing! Salt mining first began in the 13th century and produced salt continuously until just a few years ago. Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and flooding, but it continued to produce table salt through 2007. Even now they still produce a tiny amount of salt, but only because water leaking out from the mine is filled with salt and for environmental reasons, they aren't allowed to just let it run into creeks that would kill the wildlife. So they extract the salt, but it's just a tiny amount and basically is a waste product of the mine.

The mine reaches a depth of over 1,000 feet and has nearly 200 miles of corridors. The salt is naturally grey from impurities in the salt, and looks more like regular rock than the pure white salt you're used to seeing on tabletop restaurants everywhere. And it's so hard, they've actually carved blocks of it into statues! Amazing, detailed statues created out of salt rock.

The mine also has dozens of chapels scattered through it--mining was a dangerous job, and miners were nothing if not religious. It's even a UNESCO World Heritage Site now.

St. Kinga's Chapel, located deep in the mine, will absolutely take your breath away. It's an enormous cavern decorated with salt statues and decorations. Even the chandeliers are made from salt! The floors, which look like tiles, is just the natural salt floor carved to look like tiles. Absolutely stunning!

The woman on the right was our group's tour guide on the Tourist Route, and she's telling us about the horses that used to work in the mines. The horses would live their entire lives underground, and the last horse worked in the mines until just a few years ago!

The tour guide told us that we are allowed to lick the walls. The walls are salt, after all, and you can taste the salt with a quick lick of the walls. They assured us that it was sanitary to do so--salt is a natural disinfectant and would kill any germs and bacterial that previous visitors might have left when they licked the walls. Which might be true, but... gross. I decided to pass. Although I have to admit, I was really tempted. I wanted to taste a wall that tasted like salt....

The tour eventually came to an end, and I had about an hour before I was scheduled to start the Miner's Route so I went for a quick hamburger nearby for lunch then headed back to the salt mines.

This tour group was a lot smaller--just seven of us. (The Miner's Route had us in a crowd of about 30+ people and they gave us headphones that they could communicate with us because we were so widely distributed at times and to not get confused with all the other tour groups crowded into the mine.)

And we would be traveling well off the beaten path of the Tourist Route. We were given helmets to protect our head, headlamps to see with (there would be no lighting in the tunnels we would be traveling through), coveralls to protect our clothes from the dirt we'd be crawling through, and a portable thingamajiggy to be used in case of an emergency so we could breath (for a short while, at least) in case of a fire or whatever.

"You shouldn't need it," our guide told us confidently. "The last fire we had in the mine was decades ago."

Famous last words, right? =)

Dressed up and ready to party, we took an elevator down hundreds of feet and started exploring the mine.

I'm dressed up and ready to mine!
Our guide showed us what it was like to be a miner. He showed us equipment that could test the air quality and let us know if it was safe to breath, which we then used to test the air. We measured if the walls or ceiling were moving and perhaps about to cave in. In another room, there was a log set up with a cross-cut saw, and we had to saw a piece off as if we were cutting wood for scaffolding. (I was a real pro at the cross-cut saw task having used cross-cut saws several times during my volunteer work on trails.)

We shoveled rock salt into carts, crushed larger pieces into smaller pieces--which we were then allowed to keep as souvenirs. Yes, folks, I mined salt and brought about five pounds of it back with me to the surface. I also licked the rocks because after breaking the big pieces into smaller pieces, I could be absolutely 100% certain that nobody had ever licked those rocks before. =)  And sure enough, it tastes like salt! Our guide told us that the salt was about 70 to 80% pure.

I was also excited at the thought that later, while checking my bags to the United States, someone would pick up my bag and exclaim, "Holy cow, that is heavy! What do you have in there? A bag of rocks?!"

And I'd chuckle. "Well, as a matter of fact...." =)

But anyhow.... All-in-all, it was an absolute blast! Totally worth it, and a completely different experience than the Tourist Route. If I had to pick a favorite, I'd be hard-pressed to do so. The Tourist Route was visually a lot more spectacular with all the statues carved from salt and decor, but the Miner's Route was much more hands-on and just plain fun to participate in.

After I finished the second tour, I stopped for dinner at a nearby restaurant in town before walking back to Agata's place in the evening. Between the two tours and my lunch and dinner break, it was an all day event! Totally awesome, though. Totally awesome. *nodding* If anyone who reads this ever makes a trip to Kraków, you have to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. It's absolutely an amazing experience and worth every cent!

These mechanical men show us how miners would remove waste water from the mine. (Water, of course, dissolves salt, so water could be a serious problem for miners!) Also, salt forms on everything! All the equipment is just encrusted with salt!
St. Kinga's Chapel will just take your breath away! Unfortunately, my camera sucks and the photo is absolutely terrible. I used a flash in this photo and you'll see little white dots all over it. Those are salt particles floating in the air.
The salt carvings are so amazingly detailed!

Even the chandeliers are made from salt!
This floor that looks like tiles? Nope... salt. *nodding*

Loading up a cart with salt is hard, back-breaking work! =)
Checking out the walls encrusted with salt.
Near the end of the tour we had this small chapel to ourselves without the hoards of tourists on the Tourist Route.
My camera on the ground, looking up with the salt chandelier above my head. The little white dots all over the photo, again, are particles of salt in the air that my flash lit up.

A group photo of our small little group on the Miner's Route. That's me waving my arms in the background. I'm such a ham! The guy in the green suit was our tour guide and head miner. Our certificates prove that we're now experience miners and can work in any salt mine anywhere in the world. (Okay, maybe they won't actually get us jobs, but they do give us certificates for having 'braved' the Miner's Route.)
There was a machine that would take a self-photo of you with these salt statues, and I was trying to make it look like that statue in the middle had just punched me in the face. It was hard, though, because I only had about ten seconds to put myself in position before the photo clicked and the image in the monitor I saw was a mirror-image of my point of view. I just couldn't do a good job of getting in the right position in ten seconds! This was my best attempt before other people wanted to use the machine and another couple wanted to get closer to the statues to take photos with their camera.

After I finished the tours, I found this small statue outside not far from where I ate dinner. I thought it was cute. =) I don't really understand what it's saying, though. Przerwa is a break. (We took them during classes. Time for a 20-minute przerwa!) And prosze czekac (which I think should actually read proszę czekać, but they didn't use the weird Polish characters) mean "please read?" Break, please read? Please read during breaks? I wonder if this is located outside of a library. I didn't think to pay attention at the time!


Mary said...

Wonderful photos! What a great tour! There were salt mines where I grew up and I just checked to see if there were any tours and they're closed and abandoned. Sad!

Karolina said...

In the last photo it says 'break, please wait'. 'Czekać' = to wait, 'czytać' = to read.

Ryan said...

Now I feel like an idiot--I knew that. But the book threw me off! And it still makes no sense to me! =)