Krakow, Poland and Wieliczka Salt Mines

Sorting and organizing my photos of Krakow, I noticed two things: I don’t have all that many photos (81); and yet of those 81 a HUGE percentage of them I tagged in iphoto as 5-star (my favourites).

Reflecting back, compared to other cities, there really isn’t that much to Krakow per say: there aren’t hundreds of tourist attractions, the downtown area isn’t that huge… I guess that’s why I didn’t take so many photos. But relatively small as it might be, everything you see around you is beyond stunning. 11th-century and earlier buildings; incredible cathedrals; castles; medieval city walls.

So, maybe there’s not that much to it, but it still has the true feeling of a world-class tourist city. The feeling is further magnified by the fact that this is a world-class city in a country that hasn’t had much to point to as beautiful and worthy of celebration in modern history. It’s Poland’s first-class destination, and it really is on par with Paris, London, Rome, New York for tourists: even if there is a little less to see in comparison.

I have to admit that I went in to Krakow with extremely high expectations. And for that I blame my family, my hosts Anna and Maryla, anyone who’d ever been to the city, and virtually all of the Polish people. As I wrote above, Krakow is Poland’s pride and joy and as a result, all I ever heard was “oh wow, Krakow. You’re going to love it.” Certainly, after very enjoyable days getting acquainted with the ‘real’ Poland (in Chojna, in Szczecin and away from the tourist traps) I was ready to set out and see the main destinations of Krakow and Warsaw.

In true Polish style (nothing is ever easy), even the journey itself was intense. We left Chojna by train in the evening and endured a 10-hour overnight journey on one of the slowest trains I’ve been on. All of the sadly stereotypical negative elements of Eastern European culture presented themselves: the drunken people walking up and down the train; the Soviet-era uncomfortable and slightly creepy closed-door train cars; the people who would come to see if there was empty  space in your train car but you had to tell them you didn’t smoke (even though smoking is not allowed) – and sitting/trying to sleep for 10 hours in a fixed seat that didn’t recline. I sound like a baby, I know: but it was definitely an experience. Pretty authentic Eastern European experience.

And then I got to the destination – the major tourist city. And I realized that if I hadn’t spent time in “real” Poland, I’d have missed out and only seen the glossy tourist-friendly picture. It’s nice to say that Krakow, despite my very high expectations going in, truly did present a beautiful glossy image that impressed me.

What’s most amazing about the city (and much of the reason why Poland is so proud of it) is the very fact that it looks so beautiful. That in and of itself is something of a miracle. Whereas almost all of Poland was bombed out in WWII and devastated by the Communist industrial regime in modern history; Krakow is a lasting glimpse at what Poland once was: a beautiful, historic, powerful and cultural country. Krakow mostly escaped German destruction because the Nazis set up the city as their Polish headquarters. They didn’t bomb it to bits while they were stationed there, and they didn’t have time to when the allies liberated the country. 

Unfortunately, the Nazis and Communists drove out/killed most of the political and cultural greatness from the city and country. A powerful story is the Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Krakow’s main market square. The monument to Poland’s greatest poet was built in 1898; then toppled by the Nazis as they drove out Polish culture. Miraculously, the monument was found in a scrap yard in 1946 and restored (I’m a little sketchy on how the monument was restored during Communist times… hmm). Nonetheless, the history of the rises and falls of Poland evidenced throughout Krakow make the city a very special place to visit. And the beauty that remains in the city bears lasting witness to Poland’s past greatness and their efforts to keep rebuilding their status. 

It’s clear that through it all… the country’s pride is still very strong.

*****

Not too far from Krakow, we visited another of Poland’s premiere tourist attractions: the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Operated for 900 years until the mid 20th-century, it was once among the major industrial centers in the world. Over time, though, it grew more famous as a tourist destination. The incredibly gifted miners made art with the salt, sculpting vast chambers, wall reliefs and statues. This work grew into whole underground chapels and even a restaurant: all of it (even the chandeliers) carved from the rock salt.

Hearing people describe the site sounded amazing, but did not prepare me for what it really looks like. It’s simply incredible. Go see the photos!

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