Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Krakow - beautiful and diverse

Yesterday we had an energetic day exploring Krakow, located in southern Poland. In past times it has been the capital of Poland, and has been the site where kings have been crowned. Due to its inland location it suffered very little damage during World War II, unlike the capital Warsaw. Also, on this trip it is one of the very few locations with any hills, so Wawel's strategic position on a high point, has meant that through history its old city has been able to be defended fairly well.

Our hotel is located on Kosciusko Street (pronounced kosh-oosh-ko) Kosciusko was a Polish patriot who made his name in Poland, and in USA, but never visited Australia. The mountain was named by another Pole, the explorer Strzlecki, who was honouring his countryman.

Thestreet sign in Krakow

Krakow is indeed a beautiful city, and it certainly merits more than a day to explore it. However, we did our best by undertaking a tour of the Salt Mines, followed by a city tour, some free time, a tour of the Jewish Kazimierz section of Krakow, and finally dinner.

We began the day with a tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It has been operating as a salt mine for many centuries, but ceased mining in 1996. It has also been a tourist destination for a very long time and is now more profitable as a tourist destination than it had been for a long time as a mine. There are over 250 guides employed there, and it attracts tourists all year. The floors are in places made of salt, as are the walls, polished shiny by thousands of hands and feet.

To access the mine there is a lift in place of the first 350 stairs, but the extra 800 steps to reach the lowest levels are lift-free. Fortunately the lift takes you all the way back up to the surface. It takes 9 people squashed sardine-tight. Just as well we were friends.

The mine contains many life size displays - some showing the past lives of miners, others are decorative showing historical figures.

Model of a horse whim used to raise and lower loads of salt

Salt sculptureof Nicholas Copernicus

Salt sculpture of Casimir the Great, an early king of Poland

There is an enormous cavern used for weddings, conferences and other functions, located about 130 metres underground. It contains several statues and religious scenes, and a number of rock salt chandeliers. It took 67 years to carve. One of the statues is of Pope John Paul II, who is still very popular in Poland.

Chandeliers made of rock salt

Salt sculpture of Pope John Paul II

After the mine tour we had a conducted tour of the Old Town of Krakow. This included the Cathedral, Wawel Castle which sustained damage in World War I. The tour included as usual several churches which are beginning to merge into a highly decorated soup as the tour nears an end. Krakow has one of the largest town squares in Europe, dominated by an enormous Cloth Hall, used today as a market.

Gateway to Wawel Castle

The courtyard of Wawel Castle
Krakow Cathedrals where kings and queens have been crowned, and are buried in splendour

The Cloth Hall in Krakow Square

The house where John Paull II lived

We also visited the Jagellonian University, the 2nd oldest university in Europe. One of its notable graduates is Nicholas Copernicus, one of the early astronomers to develop sun-centric plans of the solar system.

Inside the courtyard Jagellonian University

Facsimile of Copernicus treatise

We had a real treat for lunch. David and Matthew (one of our group) were waylaid by an attractive young thing with technicolour eye makeup, trying to obtain lunch custom. As a result we has a 4 course meal for 15 zloty (about $5) which was very tasty. It was followed by a half hour walk back to the hotel to digest it.

At about 6.30 we set off again to explore the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, a bus and walking tour followed by a 3 course meal at a Jewish restaurant, complete with traditional Jewish music. We visited Oskar Schindler's factory, now a museum, which also featured in the book and film, Schindler's List.

Sculpture of 70 empty chairs to represent the Jews taken to Plaszow Concentration Camp

Oskar Schindler's Emailia factory in which he employed Jews who would otherwise have been killed. 

Old Jewish cemetery in Kazimierz district

Writing this blog nearly 24 hours later you'll be pleased to know that dinner tonight was a very basic affair to compensate for yesterday's over-indulgnce.

This was our last day in Krakow. This morning, Tuesday we set off early for a 500km coach trip to Prague, our final destination on the tour.

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