March 2017 - Lauren Griffin
Damian has had this trip in mind for years, so many times he told us about the salt mines in Poland; the size and grandeur of them is a must see for underground enthusiasts. The cheapest flights available to us northerners was Doncaster - Katowice, and ten of us ended up on this particular flight. There were also five others going from Luton, and two from Liverpool. This made our group in Krakow eighteen, as Damian's lovely cousin Karolina would also be joining us on our excursions. The weekend started well, with me passing my driving test the day before, I would be driving to Ed's house on Friday afternoon, and leaving my car there for the weekend. Five of us would be going to Doncaster together to meet five more at the airport. The rest of the group would be united at Katowice airport; Joel in true style, appeared lying on the baggage collection conveyor. Our transfer minibus had the world's angriest driver. He shouted at us for singing the wheels on the bus go round and round, he shouted at us for singing along to Michael Jackson on the radio, and he shouted at Tom for needing a wee and trying desperately for ages to ask him to stop the bus. He didn't speak English, but a very patient Polish lady eventually took pity on us and made him stop. He did pull over at an actual serviced toilet, however this fact was sadly lost on Tom, and more unfortunately Emily. We did finally get to Krakow, and our hostel at around 1.30am on Saturday morning, successfully pissing off more angry/sleepy Polish people.
The next morning we were up at a not unreasonable hour to find breakfast, and catch our train to the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine. On the train out of Krakow centre, a few of us were spying old locos and tons of retired rolling stock, getting excited about the prospect of taking a closer look at these. Wieliczka is about 30 minutes away from central Krakow by train, interesting to note that Wiki says the first settlers in the town were probably Celtic, later driven out by the Slavic population. However the town very quickly became known for it's huge deposits of salt, with the mine becoming a key focus of "white gold" as it was once considered. Wieliczka is one of the oldest salt mines in the world, and is absolutely bloody massive. You could not fail to be blown away by the sheer scale of the place. 1.2 million people visit this mine every year, and it's easy to see why. The tourist trip started with a walk down a long wooden staircase shaft, if our tour guide told us how deep this was, unfortunately I don't remember. Our tour guide then led us through a series of air lock doors, passages and chambers dating from the 11th to 14th centuries. The chambers were quite amazing to us, decorated with salt rock sculptures by the miners, plus various models and artefacts to illustrate the methods of working through different time periods. Our tour guide was excellent, very knowledgeable, and it has to be said very patient with the more childish members of our group, and I don't mean Damian's children!
Below 1: Rynek Główny Market Below 2: Casimir the Great Chamber
We descended further down more beautifully crafted wooden stairs, through shaft bottoms, past winches, equipment and more big chambers. One of Wieliczka's main attractions is the huge Chapel of St Kinga, the patron saint of mining. This is the main chapel of many in the mine located 101 metres underground, and it is possible to attend mass, concerts, or get married in the church. It is quite jaw dropping, big, detailed sculptures, reliefs, the floor, and the altar all carved out of the salt rock. We were allowed around 15 minutes to photograph and wonder at the marvel of St Kinga's Chapel, before being ushered onwards to more impressive chambers filled with too many marvels to try and describe on here. The photographs and videos we took simply do not do this place any kind of justice, it must be seen to truly appreciate the scale and majesty of the chambers.
After we had been underground in this wonderland, it was time for dinner. A three course dinner to be precise for some of us! We were shown to a table in the restaurant already laid out to seat 18 in the Budryk "Miner's Tavern" Chamber. We were all surprised to find free wifi popping up on our phones, and some of us took this opportunity to call and facetime family members back at home in Britain. Quite a novelty 125 metres underground! We were served wine, beer, and traditional Polish cuisine, with plenty of time for the mineral collectors among our group to go and buy some crystals from the well stocked souvenir shop. Our guide then led us on to the museum, which houses historical artefacts and documents, artwork, specimens of very large coloured salt crystals, and more salt sculptures. As the tour was coming to an end, our guide said to the group "You have the option here, there is one more chamber to see, or you can choose for us to end the trip here..." Of course we chose the latter and she led us into a chamber with the biggest horse gin I have ever seen, and I am willing to bet will ever see. Our trip down Wieliczka ended with a modern elevator ride back to the surface, and many thanks to our (now slightly harassed looking) tour guide.
Below 1: Chapel of St. Kinga, Wieliczka Below 2: Michalowice Chamber
After our trip, a few of us were feeling tired, I was still recovering from a bad flu and aching, needed to lie down for a couple of hours, most of us retreated to the hostel. In the evening we went for pizza and a few beers, then walked around the city, taking in the sights. I was most impressed by the statue of Smok Wawelski outside the castle, the seven headed Wawel Dragon of Polish folklore. As I approached the dragon there was a ticking sound followed by an explosion of fire spat from it's mouth! Woooow, I loved this! We stood and waited around 20 minutes to try and catch the fire breathing on camera, but sadly it didn't do it again and we couldn't stand around all night. It is only later after some googling I found that you can trigger the natural gas fuelled fire by sending a text to the dragon! On the way back to the hostel me and Phil found an open door into a empty apartment block. We had a quick look around and concluded it would be a perfect squat. I loved the buildings in Kraków, there is very little modern architecture to be found, and it gives the city quite a unique feeling for me, compared to other cities I've visited. Apart from some of the group getting chased by the police for jay walking, and a slight issue for three of our group involving a power station, most people we encountered were very friendly and happy to help us.
It was a case of early(ish) to bed, early to rise for all but 5 of our group. Bochnia Salt Mine on Sunday was an altogether different experience, we would be surprised and amused by this mine and our fabulous tour guide Jakub several times during the course of our day underground. This started with a cage lift down to 70 metres deep, I love these lifts, the darkness and swoosh of air gives a real sense of speed descending the shaft. Then the real fun started as we discovered we would be going on a train ride, the excitement among our group built as we waited, listening to Jakub's warnings safety information. The miner's man-riding train carriages are basically just wooden benches that you straddle, with a bar that comes down on either side. It's very loud and rattles your bones, but so much fun we had to contain ourselves; we were warned don't scream too loud or the driver might think there is a problem and stop. At the end of the train ride we were shown another access shaft, not normally used for public trips, and inside the air lock doors, a deafening multimedia exhibition about the beginnings of Bochnia and the mine. The mine trip took in various exhibits about the history and methods of working the mine, as we worked our way through passages, stairs and chambers. Bochnia is one of the oldest salt mines in the world, and certainly the oldest functioning salt mine in Europe.
Below 1: Bochnia Salt Mine Below 2: Bochnia Main Passage
In Bochnia Mine there is another Chapel of St. Kinga to be seen, which must surely be the only functioning church in the world with a real live railway line running through it? Jakub told us that they hold mass in this chapel every Sunday for up to 200 worshippers. We were led on to an attraction in this mine which was completely unexpected- the world's longest underground slide! It's made of polished wood, looks much like a bench, is 140 metres long, and 65 metres high! After listening to the supervisors translated safety instructions, it was time to dump our bags, grab a mat and go for it... Some of us definitely went further and faster than others! Afterwards I had a quick spot of footie on the sports court, and we grabbed burgers and chips from the excellent cafe. The last adventure of our day underground would be a boat trip 250 metres deep, floating down a brine flooded passage that's saltier than the dead sea. This was easily the most atmospheric part of the mine for me, Damian and Karolina translated the boatman's narration for us, as we passed petrified sculptures and half sunken vessels in the quiet dark. After this it was time to start making our way out, and have a good look at the steam engine housed on the surface. Once back at the lift shaft, we waited with 2 other groups of visitors for around 40 minutes watching the engineers go back and forth making phone calls and looking slightly worried. We realised that there was a lift full of people stuck in the shaft, and were told with apologies by our Jakub that we would have to get back on the train and use a different shaft to get out. We thought this was an excellent idea, another train ride, and a new shaft! Win win! Off we went, crammed onto the train this time, and up the shaft which I gather is normally used by staff and the miners. Upon exiting the lift out into a different building, 2 sad facts became apparent to us; we weren't seeing the steam engine and we wouldn't get to thank our guide Jakub properly and tip him for being awesome. Damn.
Back in Krakow, Damian had a table booked for us all at a cool basement restaurant serving traditional Polish food. We had a bit of a mooch around the city again but the rain soon saw us back at the hostel happily drinking cherry soplica wodka. Monday morning came around far too early and quickly, the majority of us looking worse for wear and fighting the wodka induced haze. Most of the group would be going to visit an underground market before heading off to the airport. However, me, Emily, Joel, Phil and Rob would be heading in search of disused trains. The rain was not enough to put us off, and after a 10 minute train ride we found oures walking amongst hundreds and hundreds of abandoned trains and carriages. Most of the doors were welded shut, but there were a handful of accessible carriages. We also went up an old concrete tower of some description, right next to the railway lines. I don't think any of us quite worked out what the tower was for, it had the look of a silo about it, and offered a good vantage point to watch the trains, and rail workers doing a spot of welding below.
Below 1: Chapel of St. Kinga, Bochnia Below 2: Freight
For me the highlight of Monday was finding the steam locos. We had spotted a couple from the train on Saturday, but weren't sure where to find them. Thanks to Joel-nav and google maps, we found them just as the rain stopped. Massive, old, rusty, dirty, beautiful things! I wonder when they were last used. After playing on the trains, and some new(ish) tampers, we headed to the nearest station and back to the hostel. Time to meet the others, say goodbye, and reluctantly make our way to Katowice airport.
What a properly amazing weekend! Damian was an absolute star in organising this whole trip- the airport transfers, hostel, trips to the mines and meals too. I found myself wishing for more time in Kraków, to explore the beautiful city, for the extended mining trips, and to visit Auschwitz. Sadly money and work constraints meant that a return trip is most definitely in order at some point in the future. Thank you so much, in no particular order to: Damian, Karolina, Magda, Filip, Tom, Ed, Max, Joel, Emily, Jodie, Phil, Matt, John, Robert, Anton, Gina, and Jack.
Below 1: Choo Choo Motherfucker