Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weliczka


I was extremely appreciative to Kaśka and Michał because my visit with them had been incredible, and they were really spoiling me since we went somewhere almost each day. They would disagree and say that it was the perfect time for them to explore Kraków as well since there was a lot that they had not seen yet as well.

One place that Kaśka was very excited to see that she had never been to was the Weliczka salt mines, which is not only a national heritage site in Poland, but it was one of the first sites designated with this title in the world.

From the surface, the site of the mines seems modest- A few small yellow buildings that hold the entrances to the mines underground. It isn’t until you scan your ticket and the tourguide tells you to watch your step – over 360 of them – as the group descends to the first level of the salt mine tour.

The stairwell down is like one of those nightmares that irritatingly repeat seemingly forever – and in this case it was just a narrow, claustrophobic spiral staircase that went on for minutes [ I made the mistake of listening to the tour guide and peering through the middle crack of the spiral stairs to only have my stomach lurch since there was no bottom in sight it went so deep.]

Once at the bottom we were about to enter the mines. It is hard to describe the air so deep underground – it wasn’t exactly musty or stale, but it wasn’t crisp fresh air either, that is for sure. Smell or not, the tourguide told us to all take in a deep breath. Apparently we had just inhaled some of the cleanest, purest air in the world that was renowned for its health benefiting attributes. [Kaśka then seemed like she was going to hyperventilate she was breathing so much.] The air is apparently very beneficial for people with asthma or allergies and has little impurities and it is jokingly said that each breath that someone takes of this air adds 5 minutes to your life [don’t overdo it Kaśka – let’s live to see tomorrow first]

The first rooms of the mines showed some of the mechanisms used to produce salt from the underground. Huge chunks would be knocked out and rounded into a barrel shape easy for rolling. These would then be hoisted up using wooden crane and rope systems. This was amazing in itself, but what was more incredible was the fact that these practices were used for several centuries.

[ The Gnomes of Weliczka ]

There were cart rails, wood log walls for passage ways and support, and even horse stables for the horses that worked with the miners hundreds of feet below the surface. I don’t know what was more unbelievable to me, the fact that the huge tunnels below had so much materials built inside from above, or the fact I learned that the mines cannot be confused with caves, since there was no open space in the mines that wasn’t carved away by man first – meaning that the entire complex was man made over centuries.

On subject of the horses, apparently the last working horse was retired in 1996 from the mines and is still living healthily today – it is said because it breathed such good air for its entire life.

The initial rooms showcased the difficult work that was required to produce salt from the mines – but one room was dedicated to the men that burned the methane in the mines. That’s right, there would be pockets of odorless, colorless methane, that would rise above air in the mines. The men would crawl with long staffs with a flame, risking their lives as volunteers, to burn the explosive methane before anyone else would enter the room with candles or oil lamps. They apparently would receive 3 kilos of salt in return for their volunteerism – after all, salt was white gold for a very long time in Europe.

Deeper into the mines, there were more caverns that were decorated beautifully with sculptures of salt of famous Polish figures in history, as well as chapels and even chandeliers – all made of salt. There were many chapels underground, since the work was dangerous and many of the workers would pray when they had the chance during their risky work.

It was actually very difficult to take photos that would capture the mines in a good light. Literally, light drastically changed the perception of the mines – in fact, with the statues, many looked like marble, but when a flashlight was pressed to the side, it would glow proving its lack of complete opaqueness. With photo making of the rooms, the glow of the light in the mines would make the caves appear too dark and orangy – whereas a flash would make the rooms look completely white as if covered with snow. In reality, the surroundings looked like dark grey marble with frosty, powdery walls amongst the wooden tunnels.

The mines were immense and the tour guide said that the entire expanse of the mines would take over 6 months to explore – we were over half way done with our 3 hour tour, but the true beauty of Weliczka was yet to be seen a few levels deeper into the mines.

Zamek Królewski na Wawelu

[ Wawel Castle's Private chambers ]

Earlier in my visit to Poland Michał and I walked around Kraków and I was able to see the fantastic outside view of Wawel castle. Fortunately then, the weather was nice and the skies were clear, but while we were gone for the weekend, the bad weather came to Kraków as well and it was actually snowing!

Michał and I met Ania at the castle and we made it indoors to warm up, but also check out some of the private chambers of the castle as well [ I don’t know what seemed more important at the time!]. I actually saw the inside of Wawel in two visits, because Kaśka had never been inside [naprawdę?] and also, just because it was so big. I was able to see many of the rooms that were used for the royal court as well as the guests to the castle. The rooms were filled with Tapestries from Belgium to furniture from Italy [one of Poland’s queens came from Italy. She is known for bringing great architects, artists, as well as veggies like tomatoes and potatoes to Poland!].

[www.wawel.krakow.pl ]

The unique fact about the Tapestries – the largest collection of its kind woven with threads of gold and silver – was that they managed to survive potential damages from WW2 by being removed from the castle, and making a journey through Europe from Romania to Great Britain, and ended up in Canada for safe keeping until the 60’s when they were safely returned.

[ Interior photos from : www.wawel.krakow.pl ]

No pictures are allowed inside the castle, but the rooms probably wouldn’t be served justice from my camera anyways. Inside the main rooms of the King – including cool furniture in the Alchemy room amongst others – I learned that Polish royalty was not one of divine intervention – meaning that it was a royal bloodline selected by God. The Polish royalty was actually elected, so it was in a sense a democratic monarchy voted in by the large 30% of noblemen [compared to the average 4% in other European societies].

Kaśka and I discussed how this could have impacted the history of the castle, and we both guessed – we have no idea if this is true – that whereas the castle has many treasures, it is not garishly ordained like some other European monarchies, like Britain or France. We assumed that because there was no divine intervention that the attention may have been devoted to promotion of architecture and/or other sciences/information since Kraków had always been a central point for knowledge and academia in Europe - After all, I also learned that Poland had the first constitution in Europe, The May Constitution [Second in the world only after the USA] which I found to be astoundingly progressive for Polish history. [ However, the constitution lasted only one year until Poland was conquered again in the Russo-Polish war of 1792.]

It was just a guess, but the great architecture spanning different centuries and artistic styles, to the huge number of private chambers for the royal cabinet, Wawel castle still captured all our imaginations and we still have much more to see [like the underground caves that bear the legend of the Krakowian Dragon!]

Krupówki


Cold and wet, but at least out from the blizzard, we were back down the city of Zakopane. From there Kaśka was so excited to show me different things, that she actually didn’t know where to go first. We walked for a bit, and came upon a huge ski jumping hill [realizing that I have never seen one in person, but only on TV]. Kaśka told me how she used to train here but doing exercise drills up the incline of the hill to build endurance. I was definitely impressed.

The other aspect of the hill that was of interest to Kaśka was that the stadium part was going to be reconstructed, and it was actually an architectural project through her company. We went to the top of the jump, and my conclusion was definitely a lot of respect for ski jumpers.

At the base of the ski jump Kaśka said it was time to warm up, and she knew the perfect place.

A left turn from the road was a cabin that I never would have recognized to have been a restaurant. The door was very small [ and I am short! ] so we had to duck to get in – but everything that was a potential passage for heat to escape in the winter was kept very small.

The inside was awesome – the walls covered in Polish art and design everywhere. What I loved about it was that it wasn’t forced and touristy – the inside may have been decorated with traditional Polish craftsmanship from the mountain region, and the staff even wore Góral outfits, but it wasn’t in a kitschy way – the atmosphere felt like it was supposed to be that way because the culture in this part of Poland preserved it that way. Kaśka emphasized to me the proud culture of the Górals, and I could definitely see it here.

With the huge fireplace in the center, we dried off and warmed are frozen dupas. We also ordered some good local favorites to warm up – Tea with cherry vodka [if that doesn’t warm you up, then I don’t know what would!] some local goat cheese, well known in Zakopane, as well as some Kiełbasy and cabbage soup.

The food was great, and we enjoyed the atmosphere as we defrosted ourselves filling up on great regional dishes.

For the rest of the day we walked the streets of Zakopane and checked out some of the other corners of the town. Krupówki street, the main street of the town, was postcard-perfect. Tiny little streets, lined with small wooden buildings, and other restaurants decorated inside similar to the great restaurant that Kaśka and I had just come from.

There was a little river that crossed under a bridge past the street, and with the changing colors of leaves, the frosty river, and the little cabin stores around with snowcapped mountains in the background I was falling in love as well – this was Poland and everything that is great and beautiful about the country was captured into one little street!

The street blended right into corners filled with markets and kiosks, selling everything from Czupaga axes, little wooden chess sets and other woodworks, hand-made goat cheeses sold by little Polish ladies in Babuszkas - everything quintessentially thought of as a Polish souvenir, it was there. I was really impressed with the varieties of beautiful Polish crystal and the piles of furs that were stacked high on tables – surprisingly cheep too, only about 25 bucks for an entire fur!

Kaśka offered to find a bus back towards the house, but I wanted to walk around and see some more corners of the town even though it was cold. I was glad that we did. We walked by other very traditional wooden buildings, including the oldest in the town, as well as another wooden church, and this one was equally impressive as the one in Tarnów with an interior almost completely wood and gold.

The central cemetery in Zakopane also represented everything that makes Polish cemeteries so beautiful , with artistic headstones and many candles and flowers.

At the end of the day we were absolutely tired, and luckily we had the bus ride back home to finally rest our legs and shut our eyes before returning to Kraków.