|November 26, 2010
We were heading out on a tour today so we had to be up and out at a reasonable hour. My first night of sleep in the new bed was eventful as with every move my bed made a ridiculously loud creaking noise. It annoyed me and I’m sure it annoyed everyone else but I was at least glad it didn’t fall apart. I know I’ve been eating and drinking a lot of late but I’m not that fat! The tour today was to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. These mines are around 10km outside the city of Krakow and were one of the first inscriptions on the UNESCO list in 1978. The tour wasn’t that much more than the price of the normal entry ticket so we thought it was easier than the hassle of trying to find out bus timetables and waiting around for a tour when we got there. Our hostel arranged the tour and our guide was a local called Sebastian who had previously worked in the mines and this worked to our advantage a number of times over the course of the day.
Our group was only 7 people and so it was quite easy to get close to things around the mine and also to hear what the guide was saying. At the mine we got our tickets quickly and were able to take the lift down to the lowest level rather than the 480 stairs. We had an older lady in our group and Sebastian had tried to arrange the lift for her but ended up all of us going in it! The mines have been in existence since at least 1291, when they were first mentioned in town documents. It is claimed they are over 900 years old but there is no evidence prior to 1291. Inside, the tunnels were wide and brightly lit and there was so much wood around holding everything together. It is estimated that there are over 300km of tunnels in the mine and around 3,000 chambers at between depths of 64 and 327 metres beneath the surface. The initial lift took us down to around the shallowest part and by the end we’d descended to around 135m. It was really cool walking around the tunnels and seeing all the salt-lined walls. In the mines there are a number of large chambers and also sculptures which have all been carved by the miners who used to work here. It is still a working mine to a certain extent as they have to continually pump water out to ensure the structure doesn’t collapse. They don’t mine the salt anymore though.
Some of the sculptures were brilliant and showed many of the men who worked in the mine doing their daily jobs as well as busts of famous visitors, including Pope John Paul II. The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling were all made if salt crystals too and they were very impressive. The guide was very proud of the mine and it was good having someone with such great inside knowledge of all the passageways and chambers along the way. One of the largest halls contained some biblical scenes in it, including one of The Last Supper, and Sebastian pointed out some factual errors in a couple of them. One showed Mary and Joseph heading to Jerusalem on a donkey but the donkey was depicted with both his fore and his hind right legs raised and donkeys don’t walk like this – I’d never have noticed that if it hadn’t been pointed out! The second one was a group of disciples who were shown reading scripts, although the scripts were in a book which of course wouldn’t have existed back in those days. Again, I’d not have had a second thought about the book until it was pointed out but these mistakes were quite funny and added to the charm. Given these carvings were done by miners and not professional artists, they are all the more amazing and the odd little inaccuracy can certainly be excused.
Many of the chambers here have been made into chapels and there were even salt carvings of Jesus on the cross and similar scenes. There are also chambers which have lakes in them although the water in here is so salty that it is even more “dead” than the Dead Sea making sinking almost impossible. There was one story though of a couple of Nazi soldiers who died in the water here. A couple of chambers are linked by a tunnel that used to be connected by boat and on a visit here a group of German soldiers ignored the warnings about how many people could go in the boat. When the boat capsized due to their drunken antics a couple of them got trapped underneath and due to the saltiness of the water they were unable to swim down enough to save themselves, nor could anyone else dive down to save them. As a result the Germans closed the tunnel to boat rides until a couple of decades later when they were started again. However, a couple of ladies managed to fall in, this time surviving, but again putting an end to the boat trips.
One thing that amazed me about the areas with the lakes in is that they have healing qualities. When we arrived in the first brine filled room Sebastian told us to take some good deep breaths as the air is good for the lungs. In fact, it is so good that part of the mine has been converted into an underground rehabilitation and treatment centre for sufferers of asthma, allergies and other respiratory problems!
At the end of the tour we joined a huge queue to get the lift back up. We were behind two massive school groups but thanks to Sebastian we were able to skip that line and ended up much nearer the front. He’d also gone out of his way to help the old lady, too. She hadn’t struggled getting around too much although the mine did contain a few levels and although we only went deeper during the two hour tour there were a lot of stairs. He took her on a bit of a short cut at the end to get to the lift and ensured she had somewhere to sit while we waited for the lift. He was certainly one of the better guides we’ve had on any tour!
The tour was good fun and worth paying the extra for the transport and a great guide. We were soon back in the city and were pretty hungry. I’d tried to take us to a beer house near the old town gates but we got there and it was closed. Next door there was a Polish bar with an English sounding name (“The Dog in The Fog”) and so we stopped in there instead. Even though it was right in the old town and right by the gates we managed to get a nice big plate of kielbasa (Polish sausage) and some meatballs for Elizabeth plus two beers for under $17!
We went back to the hostel and I had a bit of a nap having not slept much last night. We were supposed to be going to the football tonight but I decided it was too cold and I couldn’t be bothered but when a couple of other people said they would go to it seemed like a bit more fun. We left to walk to the stadium and I was now quite looking forward to it. The team we were going to see, Cracovia Krakow, are related to the ice hockey team we saw the other night but they aren’t quite as successful. Despite the defeat the other night the ice hockey team are top of the table whereas the football team are languishing at the bottom of their league with only one win so far this season. They were playing a team called GKS who are quite high up so it wasn’t looking much like we’d see a home win, either.
When we got to the stadium I was surprised how busy it seemed and we joined the queue for tickets. After about 15 minutes waiting we reached the front and were told we had to register first. Register? What the blazes? So anyway, we joined another queue and about 25 minutes later we were registered and could get tickets. One of the guys with us didn’t have any ID on him so could not register and was not able to get in which meant he had to walk back to the hostel on his own. That was a real shame for him as although we missed the first 35 minutes due to the registration fiasco, we ended up seeing a great end to the game. By the time we arrived GKS were already leading 1-0 and not long after half time they went 2-0 ahead. Their small group of fans were in good voice and some Cracovia fans were trying to intimidate them by rushing to the fence although the sudden appearance of about 10 police with guns and in riot gear made them laughingly retreat. Cracovia looked down-heartened and beaten but with 5 minutes left they managed to pull a goal back. About three minutes later they amazingly scored again to equalize and the crowd were going crazy. That would’ve been good enough to send most of them home happy but during the 4 minutes of stoppage time added on at the end Cracovia scored again and all of a sudden they led 3-2 having scored 3 goals in seven minutes. Everyone was running around and jumping up and down but the GKS players were laying on the floor wondering how they’d let such an easy game slip away from them. At the end it was great to see the Cracovia players clapping the fans and chucking some of their shirts in and even the GKS players were gracious in defeat and thanked their fans for travelling to see them. Despite not being bothered about going it turned out to be a fun evening.
After the football we were hungry so we went to get some food. After football in the cold a beer and a burger sounded good and we had been recommended a place called Rooster by a friend of mine. He’d described it as “Hooters but better” so the post-match combination of beer, burger and boobs was too much to turn down. Even Elizabeth was happy to get two of the three Bs! Anyway, the outcome was a little disappointing as the girls were all too wrapped up for my liking but they were wearing ridiculously short and tight hot pants. Better than nothing, I guess! Apart from that though, the burger was good (although their barbeque sauce was actually thousand island dressing) and the beer just as tasty. It is getting increasingly hard not to drink beer here given how cheap it is but today I have drunk 1 litre of beer and about a quarter litre of water. I’m sure that is not healthy!
Back at the hostel we had a chance to join the guys drinking but I was just so tired that we lazed around in our room. Tonight was “Mad Dog Shots” night and these were vodka, raspberry syrup and topped with Tabasco. They sounded gross and I was quite happy to pass. Besides, tomorrow the hostel is having a party and beer and shots are free so I’ll wait for that!
November 27, 2010
We had intended to go to the National Museum today but after reading about it I wasn’t sure there was anything there I really wanted to see. Whilst I was getting ready to go out Elizabeth was talking to a girl at the hostel and she told her about an exhibit of Polish art in the Cloth Hall which had only recently opened. We decided we would go there instead and at least get a taster for local art and maybe decide if the large national museum would be worth it. In my opinion, thankfully, the gallery was OK but nothing special which meant that Elizabeth wasn’t bothered about going to the larger gallery. The style of paintings here was nothing new and none of the Polish artists seemed to have instilled their own techniques or styles into the art and had just copied styles from the time. You could see landscapes that looked like poor copies of Monet’s or van Gogh’s and there were thousands (it seemed like!) of mid-19th century portraits. The gallery was new and well laid out although the English signs were impossible to read. The walls were a light colour and the signs in Polish had been written in black but the English was in a silvery-grey which dissolved into the background.
It had been snowing a little as we entered the museum and when we left it was a little heavier, settling on some of the statues around the square. We headed to the big shopping mall opposite our hostel as we needed a few items and thought we’d take the chance of a cold, snowy day to do some shopping. We ended up going around a few different places and trying on a load of different things and comparing prices. We had no idea how much things should be here in Poland so we didn’t want to just but the first thing we saw. I wanted to get another shirt and so many I tried on were just weird, weird shapes and sizes. Some places the arms were stupidly long and other places the shoulders made me look like Quasimodo and other places the designs were just, well, awful. I found one really nice red-check shirt but the buttons resembled pink gem stones and looked very gay. I think Elizabeth was struggling not to laugh when I tried it on as I hadn’t noticed them at first! We eventually managed to find a couple of t-shirts and a shirt for me and some t-shirts for Elizabeth. Even she had to resort to buying extra-small MENS t-shirts as the women’s sizes were all funky and nearly every t-shirt was way too long for her. The Poles have this dress code it seems where the women wear thick, woolen tights and then a long t-shirt/top over them to cover their arses. However, not every woman (*cough* Elizabeth) wants a really long t-shirt but only in men’s sizes could she find one that fit! We also bought a journal for Elizabeth and a book for South-East Asia despite buying the Kindles so we wouldn’t have to buy any more books – travel guides just aren’t as handy and easy to read on them as normal books so we decided to buy this one as it was a good price and we’re planning on spending a long time there and visiting lots of different places to our first visit to the region.
Back at the hostel we once again lazed around and watched as the snow started to fall heavier but still didn’t seem to be settling too much on the pavements and roads. There wasn’t any free food at the hostel tonight due to the free party but when we found out the free party wasn’t here but at another hostel we decided not to go. I think our thoughts were tainted by our puking experience in Tallinn as well as seeing all the people hanging out at our hostel beforehand working their way through a crate of beer they’d bought prior to the free stuff! Thankfully, there was a Dutch couple staying in our dorm room who had the same idea as us and so we went out for dinner with them. We went to a nice Italian place just off the main square and got a really good pizza before heading to The House of Beer for a couple more drinks. We even tried the local honey beer which is really sweet and quite sickly. It was another thing ticked off the list as “tried” but I won’t be going back for more! It was nice to have a cilvilised even out and to not feel stupidly drunk when getting back into bed.
November 28, 2010
It felt good to get up this morning without a hangover having had a good night although I still felt tired. It is impossible to sleep in a bed which creaks so much. I don’t move around much once I’m asleep but it takes me forever to fall asleep and I often wake in the night so trying to fall asleep whilst rolling around isn’t easy on a noisy bed!
Anyway, today was Sunday and the Wawel Castle in the city was free today so it was an ideal chance for us to see something we wanted to without it costing us a penny. We headed out fairly early as we’d read that tickets for the castle are limited and often sell out. Of course, we got there and it was almost empty but that might have something to do with the weather rather than anything else. The temperature had really dropped overnight and the snow had started to fall and given everything a nice fluffy white covering.
As we walked through the old town to the castle the town square was quite slippery in places but it gave everything a really scenic and Christmassy look. As we reached the castle we noticed that it looked even more picturesque in the snow, too and so we headed up and around to the main gate. Near the top of the outer wall I stopped to get some photos and we saw the dragon there blowing fire!
After getting our tickets, which included a time slot for the State Rooms in about 45 minutes time, we headed to one of the first exhibits known as the Lost Wawel. This was an excavated area of the old castle and showed where the old walls and rooms used to be. It had a walkway which led under the current building and was really interesting and left you walking right on top of the old ruins.
We finally managed to get into the State Rooms after depositing my bag into the left luggage. We were a bit early for our time slot but I didn’t want to stand outside in the cold for too long. We weren’t as early as the ignorant old cow behind us who decided she didn’t want to queue so moved in front of us. And then the next person. And then, well, every person. We caught sight of her ticket and her entry time wasn’t for at least another 45 minutes. Obviously, as she was Polish they let her in anyway. She soon disappeared into the rooms and we didn’t have to see her obnoxious mug again, thankfully. Inside we saw a number of rooms over three levels which were full of luscious oil paintings and Flemish tapestries. The pieces ranged from stunningly detailed to gaudy and from attention-grabbing to particularly dull. The best thing was the wooden heads on the ceiling of the Royal Audience Hall. They were all individually carved and had very amusing expressions, including a man who looked like he was being tortured and screaming in pain and a woman who was obviously a gossip and had her mouth clamped shut! When we got to the shop at the end, they even sold models of all the 30 different heads in the ceiling. I wasn’t tempted to buy one as they were awfully tacky although funny to look at in situ.
After the inside of the castle we tried to check out the cathedral but being a Sunday it was closed for services so we contented ourselves with a walk around the outside instead. The castle and buildings, including the cathedral, are really stunning and provide some great backdrops for photos as well as being a good viewing point for overlooking the city.
The castle hadn’t taken us too long so we decided to have a walk around and then get some lunch. We’d been recommended a restaurant closer to our hostel so we headed back there. They did a good selection of Polish food including a dish called golabki which I wanted to try. It was basically a cabbage roll stuffed with meat in a tomato sauce and it was served with mash potato and was really tasty. Elizabeth got some fried pierogis filled with spinach and cheese but they still weren’t as good as the ones we’d had in Warsaw.
For the remainder of the day we just hung out at the hostel and slept, catching up on a few nights worth of missed shut-eye and only really moving far to get our free dinner. Tonight was pasta and it was by far the best meal we’d had made by the hostel and it was worth getting out of bed for! After an afternoon of catching up on sleep we didn’t get much tonight as the couple of Aussies in our room were in and out a lot and even managed to break the door and the people next door were banging around at about 3am and after Elizabeth asked them to be quiet she heard one call her a bitch and she responded by shouting loudly that he was a dickwad. I told her she needed to work on her insults!
November 29, 2010
Today we got up and packed up as we were heading to Oświęcim for a couple of nights. We left our large packs at the hostel and just took our smaller bags with us. The weather had really gotten worse overnight and the snow was quite deep but the train thankfully ran on time and after about 90 minutes we were in Oświęcim.
The weather was awful in Oświęcim and the snow was falling heavily and the wind was blowing strong as we left the station. This made the 2.5km walk to the hotel a whole barrel of fun! We actually walked past the Auschwitz Museum on our way and opposite there we saw a number of restaurants so decided to stop for lunch, still being about half a mile away from the hotel and not fancying the walk back later on! Despite being close to a large tourist site the prices and menu in the restaurant was good although it looked like it was setup for tour groups so we weren’t overly hopeful that the food would be anything other than drab! I decided to have the goulash with roast potatoes and Elizabeth had the Hungarian style pancakes, which was similar to the Polish stew we had the other day. The food was actually very good and the staff were friendly and polite.
After lunch we walked a bit further to the hotel. We were staying at The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, a fact which I’m sure will amuse both my mother and mother-in-law! The hotel was really nice and we had a very comfortable and clean room which was a nice place to relax. We had decided to come to Oświęcim for longer than the usual day trip as we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to see everything at Auschwitz and Birkenau and the thought of a tour shuttling us around didn’t really appeal. Given the weather we were quite glad we weren’t trying to get here, walk around and get back to Krakow all in one day. Settled in our room and surrounded by snow, we decided to order take-out pizza for dinner and even that was good and cheap!