A day down the salt mines

We weren’t sure about visiting the salt mines near Krakow. They have over a million visitors a year, so mightn’t they be, well, a bit tacky?

Actually no. It was quite a special experience. And a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.

They’ve been mining salt in Wielicza since the 13th century.  We walked down 800 steps to get to a depth of more than 300 feet to see some of the earlier workings. Further seams can plunge to a depth of over 1000 feet.  Miners routinely walked down to their seams, or in the early days, were winched down on precarious rope hoists.

 Salt encrusted wooden pit props.

English coal mining is the only mining history I know. So it was wonderful to learn that visiting these mines has been a tourist attraction since the 15th century. There are pictures of elegant 18th century balls being held in the more spacious caverns.

And which English coal mines ever had built in chapels? Miners constructed and ornamented these places of worship so they could give thanks for surviving another day in these dangerous surroundings. They would greet each other ‘God be with you’ (so you survive another day).

A man I talked to at the end said his Fitbit revealed that we had walked 5 km. in our four hours down the mine. Just think how much else I could tell you about this fascinating place if I put my mind to it.

This is a cavern where dancing and other events took place. The walls and floor are made of salt. As are the droplets of the chandeliers.

A mish-mash of a day….

…. At the market at Stary Kleparz. Just look at all those mushrooms.

At Collegium Maius, the oldest part of the Jagiellonian University of Krakow. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world, and my father studied there. 

Up the Town Hall Tower in the Market Square …

… from which we could see St. Mary’s Basilica, whose wonderful polychromatic interior seduced me as much as the magnificent altarpiece by Veit Stoss.

All of these deserve posts of their own.  But not just now. I spend my time getting lost. I can’t even walk the 300 metres or so to our favourite café without getting in a muddle. Every single time. 

Nowa Huta

That’s where we’ve been today. New Steelworks. It’s the name of a town, now part of Krakow, that was part of the post-war dream of the communist regime. Krakow was seen as too bourgeois, too intellectual. It needed a healthy dose of industrial work. Steelworks. 

There was no coal or ore nearby. No matter. Bring raw materials in from miles away.  The site proposed fot this industrial powerhouse was fertile agricultural land that had been productively farmed since the Middle Ages. No matter. Destroy the villages and evict the farmers and labourers.

Nova Huta was born. In its heyday it employed more than 100,000 workers.  They benefitted from good facilities for their families, and cultural opportunities, at the same time as they and the Krakow region choked under catastrophic industrial pollution.

Today the pollution is sorted, but the town of Nova Huta lives on. It was a model of Socialist Realism. Monolithic concrete blocks of flats flank broad grassy tree-lined boulevards, interspersed by parks. We expected to hate it. But we didn’t. The massive blocks of flats are medium-rise, and grouped round communal lawns. Shops and community facilities form the ground floor of blocks along the main boulevards. The parks are spacious and seem to be home to lots of – yes – red squirrels. And groups of tables with inlaid chess boards where we came upon gaggles of men playing cards. Honestly, I’ve seen much nastier social housing all over Europe.

When the Solidarity movement began in Gdansk under Lech Walesa, the workers of Nova Huta, aided by the priests of the churches they had struggled to have built, and by the monks of the nearby Cistercian monastery were eager to join in the fight against communist oppression.

As is now clear. The main streets of Nova Huta are now named after Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Solidarity itself.

What a day. Such a contrast from historic down-town Krakow, and from the local Cistercian Abbey and ancient wooden church of Saint Bartholomew, which we also called in on. As well as the 1970s church of Arka Pana, which was such a struggle to have built. Luckily for the parishioners of Nova Huta, their bishop was on side. A certain Karol Wojtila, later Pope John Paul II.


Social housing

The offices of the steelworks.

The interior of Arka Pana.

Wawel Castle

Poland’s had a tough history. There’s never been a century when it hasn’t been invaded. I found a map that showed the western countries that hadn’t had a go at taking over Poland were few and far between. What with Swedes and Prussians and Austrians and Germans and Russians invading, ruling, dividing and subjugating, it’s a wonder that Poland has a national identity, language, or culture at all.  But it has. And the Polish people are proud of it.

Take Wawel Castle in Krakow. Originally built in the 11th century, then rebuilt, it burned down in 1499. And what a palace Sigismund the Old commissioned in its place! His wife was from Italy, a Sforza, and Italian workmen wrought a Palazzo fit for her to enjoy.

Since then, it was repeatedly sacked by armies from Sweden, from Prussia, and then from Austria. These last razed churches and houses on the site, constructing instead barracks and a military hospital while ruining the mediaeval fortifications.

Poland was once again re-established after WWI. Since then, the castle and the entire enormous site has gone through a period of painstaking restoration to reveal its earlier Polish ancestry. If this means rebuilding, or scaling away later additions by conquerors, so be it.

Wawel Hill is an enormous site shared by state and church alike. Here are some pictures to give some idea of this magnificent area of Krakow. The images show the Renaissance courtyard, the Royal Cathedral, the Sandomierska Tower and a view of the site from within the Castle walls.

Comfort food, Polish style

After a couple of emotionally draining days, we had a low-key day exploring endlessly fascinating back streets.

Rain threatened all day, and when it finally came, we knew about it. Deluge. We needed comfort food. This is what I chose at lunchtime: zureck. It tasted slightly sour, slightly fermented. I loved it.

You make a zakwas of rye flour, bread crusts, garlic, and warm water set aside for some days to ferment. Then you make a broth from root vegetables. Then you fry onions, bacon, white sausage, and add it to the strained broth. Add a hard boiled egg. And the zakwas. And you’re done. I’m going to make this at home.

This evening we shared a single portion of potato cakes, goulash type stew, sauerkraut, carrot salad served with sour cream. We almost failed to finish it. And I’ve recently acquired a taste for fruit vodkas. Expect us to have gone up two sizes at least by the time you next see us.

Museum of the Second World War Gdansk

We visited this recently opened museum yesterday. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. 

Every community in the world who played their part took their place in the involving and graphic displays, but the inevitable focus was Central Europe and Poland in particular.

I hadn’t really realised how protected we were on our little island from wholesale displacement, from the destruction of communities, from unbelievable and barbaric cruelty to citizens and soldiers in many parts of continental Europe. Maps, displays of humble artefacts, moving personal testimonies told the stories of families torn apart, of wanton destruction and cruelty far beyond the concentration camps.

We spent four hours there. We could have spent days. It was utterly harrowing, utterly memorable. 

Most of my photos are on my camera. I’ll simply show this. We walked past screen after screen with images like this. Every portrait is of one of the countless Jews who lost their lives under the Nazi regime.