The colourful buildings surrounding the Main Market Square of Warsaw Old Town.
Warsaw Old Town is surrounded by red terracotta defensive walls.
Thankfully, not all the mine corridors are this small.
The iconic image of Krakow Old Town — the majestic Saint Mary's Basilica and one of the many horse-drawn carriages.
The defensive wall that keeps the Wawel Castle from the rest of Krakow city.
The complex of Wawel Castle is just a walk up Wawel Hill in the heart of Krakow historic centre.

A brief tour of Krakow and Warsaw makes Zalina Mohd Som want to return to the cities for more

THE cute boyish-looking Krzysztof Dzidek gives quite a lengthy explanation on what’s awaiting us beyond the second door of the waiting area in the main building of Wieliczka Historic Salt Mine.

The not-so-big room is full of big groups of eager tourists, who like us, are waiting for the tour to start. No one gets to step beyond the waiting area without an official tour guide.

It is just another day for Krzysztof who continues briefing us in a soft yet firm voice. However my attention is focused on the huge crowd, scanning each one of them.

Like a rabbit, my ears twitch when I hear our official salt mine guide say “135 metres underground”. I quickly turn to him and ask, “135m underground? As in under this ground?” He nods.

I do a quick mental calculation before blurting out: “That is about 40 storeys down?” Again, he nods.

“She’s claustrophobic,” says my colleague from Indonesia, Iwan, “We were talking about her fear of being trapped in a closed up area with not enough oxygen over breakfast this morning.”

Krzysztof looks at me and smiles. “You can stay up here, there are a couple of cafes and a souvenir shop for you to kill your time,” he says.

“But you’ll miss the fun. This is very interesting,” says Enver, our tour leader, trying to assure me. Not one to miss an adventure, I man up to the challenge. I take a very deep breath and follow my fellow colleagues at the beginning of our tour.

Challenge is good to kick start our tour in Poland. Today is our second day in Krakow, one of the oldest cities in Poland, after arriving in the city just before dinner last night from Slovakia.

Our group of Southeast Asian journalists is on a 10-day familiarisation tour of Central Europe covering four countries — Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic.


DOWN THE SHAFT

“First, we have to take the stairs down to Level 1 which is 64m underground,” Krzysztof says. Ahh, walking down the stairs is easy. I do this all the time at home, I say to myself.

Cased in woods, the shaft is narrow but well lit. Surprisingly, it’s quite windy. The fresh, cold breeze somehow soothes my anxiety and I soon forget that I am actually going further away from the surface.

But as we get deeper and deeper, I start to see watermarks on the shaft walls. Some are fresh and wet, some are dry yellow stains.

“Err… is this what I think it is? Should I worry about this too?” I can’t stop myself.

“Oh, this. It’s just water that seeps from the ground. It’s normal. You know, right, naturally our soil is wet and wood absorbs?” Krzysztof explains. I guess he is used to handling anxious tourists like me.

“But don’t worry,” he continues, “It’s totally safe. There are about 400 miners working around the clock to ensure the mine is kept in good condition.”

Though salt mining is no longer its core business, the mine maintains these workers to keep the mining system which includes air ventilation, drainage system and structure, among others, in good condition. In its glory days between the beginning of the 16th century to the mid 17th century, the mine had almost 2,000 workers to achieve an output of over 30,000 tonnes of salt.

As I have sort of adjusted myself to adapt to the narrow size of the shaft, it’s a huge relief to reach Level 1 which looks even bigger than a lift lobby of a normal size building.

“From here, the touring route will cover a distance of 3.5km and another flight of stairs down to Level 2 at a depth of 110m before we end at Level 3 at 125m,” Krzysztof says.

Everybody is looking at me, checking to see if I am okay with all those numbers Krzysztof just mentioned. I give a reassuring smile and nod. But just as we’re about to move to the next chamber, one of us says “those stairs will be too much on my recuperating knees”.

Looking at our bewildered faces, Krzysztof obligingly says, “No worries, I’ll take you to the elevator. It will take you back up to where we started.”

“Oh, there’s an elevator,” everybody says almost simultaneously.


MORE THAN A PINCH

My excitement to see whatever there is along the tourist route makes me forget the fact that I’m far away from the surface.

Though we won’t be able to see the actual mining process, Krzysztof says we will see several chambers made out of rock salt, one-of-a-kind statues sculpted out of salt boulders, saline lakes and impressive timber constructions.

Each chamber has its own exhibits — some have diorama on how the salt is harvested but most tell the history of the Wieliczka Historic Salt Mine which goes back to the 13th century. The mine continued to produce table salt until 2007, despite discontinuing its commercial mining in 1996 due to depleting salt prices and mine flooding. This has made the mine one of the world’s salt mines still in operation.

In 1978, it was listed in the Unesco first World Heritage List. Two years earlier, it entered the Polish List of Historic Heritage and in 1994, it was recognised as a national Historic Monument by the then President Lech Walesa.

“What you will see today were almost all handcrafted by the miners themselves. And everything is made of rock salt. Even this wall and the floor tiles. Go ahead, lick it if you don’t believe me,” Krzysztof says.

We see dozens of impressively sculptured statues — all have their own history and background stories. There are also chapels which Krzysztof says have been used as venues for private functions, including weddings.

But what comes next really blows my mind away. From where we’re a standing, the 55 metre-long, 15-18m wide and 10-12m high St. Kinga’s Chapel looks no different than any above-the-ground chapel. Except of course, for its building material.

It is complete with a High Altar section with a couple of balustrades facing it. Across the floor is the statue of Pope John Paul II. But this commemorative statue isn’t the only artworks in the chapels.

There are over 30 rock-salt artworks from religious figurines and paintings to church furniture such as altar table, a pulpit and a huge cross. But what catches my eyes is the beautiful huge chandelier made entirely of salt crystals.

This is no doubt the most impressive and spectacular chapel — underground and above the ground — that I’ve been to.

Just before we reach the end of the tour, we enjoy a short light and sound show at one of the saline lakes. Therapeutic music of Chopin plays in the background. But my mind is still stuck at the chapel.

The last 1.5km is a straight-forward tour that ends at the elevator that will take us back to the surface. Or as the miners put it — back to the world.


BACK TO THE WORLD

It’s said that the Wieliczka deposit lies within an area of 7 sq km — the same surface area where the city of Krakow was located at the beginning of the 20th century.

Located in the town of Wieliczka, the salt mine lies within the Krakow metropolitan area which puts it at less than a 30-minute drive from the city centre.

As impressive as it is, the salt mine is not the only attraction Krakow has. Since we don’t have much time to explore this historic city, our city tour lingers around the walking streets of the Old Town and the beautiful complex of the Wawel Castle.

Both make the historic centre of Krakow which was listed in the Unesco World Heritage Sites the same year the salt mine got on its list.

Located on Wawel Hill, the Wawel Castle is a huge complex comprising a number of structures built around the Italian-styled main courtyard. The castle, which is one of the largest in Poland, represents nearly all European architectural styles of medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.

From Wawell Hill, we walk down to Krakow Old Town, which to me, looks bigger and well spread out compared to other European old towns I’ve visited.

Its paved streets are wide enough for two cars to drive through, while its Main Market Square is exceptionally huge. In fact, it is said to be one of the biggest market squares in Europe.

We hop on horse-drawn carriages that take us around the market square before heading to Kazimierz, an independent city in medieval times that has a Christian quarter in the West and a former largely Jewish quarter in the East.

From beautiful Krakow, we take a speed train to Warsaw, the capital, located 295km away. We reach the capital at mid-morning, just nice to start our City Tour.

Warsaw welcomes us with towering modern buildings and busy city roads, a contrast to Krakow. I suddenly miss Krakow and the salt mine! But not wanting to dismiss Warsaw, I quickly clear my mind.

“Can you see those empty plots? They are unclaimed plots belonging to those who vanished in World War II and the government can’t do anything about them until it finds their rightful owners,” says our guide Hanna, breaking the ice.

That story gets my attention. Well, Warsaw may after all have her own charms, I say to myself.

And yes, she has. Our bus stops at Warsaw Old Town. Hanna leads us in and starts her tales such as the who’s who in the town, which house belongs to whom and what happened in that building.

Then, just before we get off track, she asks us a question: “Look at this row of buildings and tell me which one is reconstructed and which one is original?”

But of course, none of us gets the answer right. Hanna says: “Don’t worry. Even the locals can’t get it right. You see, almost all the buildings in the Old Town are reconstructed. They were all destroyed during the war.”

From then on, walking along the town’s paved streets is like a guessing game. The more we explore, the more in love I am with this old town.

I love the fact that the whole town was rebuilt based on precise medieval paintings that were saved from the war. For me, it is a labour of love for one’s country and history.

Like Krakow, we don’t get to explore more than Warsaw Old Town. But that half day city tour is enough to make me want to come back to Poland for more of Krakow, Warsaw and beyond.

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