Trip Journal - Kraków




Kraków -- 13 August 1998

Amazingly, Olena got up with Angus and they had breakfast together. Oh, did I forget to mention that Angus had to take the train to Poznan on business and get up at 5:00? We set the alarm so we could get up, say our goodbyes, and then go right back to sleep. It turned out to be a good thing, since Angus' alarm didn't go off. We were all standing around in our underwear when we said goodbye. Then we went back to sleep until 8:00. Olena got up and sat with us while we had breakfast. Actually, she stood most of the time and made us toast while we talked politics, travel and religion. Apparently, the former ruling Communists aren't actually so bad as they seem, sort of. They were the ones who had all the access to information (and probably cash) when the old system was on the way out, so they took everything with them when they cleaned out their offices, and then set themselves up as premier capitalists, so now they are more likely to support the new capitalist system, because they own the businesses. Olena doesn't believe the Poles are very religious. She thinks they just do what their parents and grandparents have done for generations without really thinking about it. I told Olena I was interested in going out to the South East, near the Ukraine because that's there the really beautiful Eastern Orthodox churches are. She started to laugh and told me there's one right there in Warsaw. Sigh.

We packed up or gear, along with out tent (we divided it up and squeezed it into our packs) and started the next adventure, was was to unfold in Kraków. We took the 11:00 train from Warsaw (2 1/2 hours). From the train station, we walked with the packs to tourist information (several blocks). It wasn't that far, but it was very hot, so we arrived feeling sweaty and dishevelled. The heat was exacerbated by the fact that we were wearing our jeans and hiking boots, since there wasn't enough room in the packs for them. The staff there were really nice and helpful. Kraków has really blossomed as a tourist town. It's very accessible for anyone who speaks English or German. We acquired a huge city map and then inquired into campgrounds. The one we'd picked out from the Lonely Planet turned out to be basically inaccessible for the summer because the tram line that takes you there is under construction. They had a list of four campgrounds, with prices, printed out in English. They recommended Cleparsdia, just 5 stops North on the 115 bus, which stops right across the street. We decided it was our best bet, especially after learning the place had a pool. We asked about getting bus tickets, and were told to go to any kiosk with the sign RUCH (literally "move" or "movement"). Olena told us that when the public transportation privatized, they ran a clever marketing campaign that said "Now it's your move" with a nice double meaning. We found a RUCH right down the street - a small kiosk selling cigarettes and newspapers. We had been given a slick brochure in 4 languages (Polish, English, German, Russian)at tourist information about how the tickets worked and how much they cost. Warsaw could learn a lot from Kraków. We decided to get a week pass since it was only 14zl ($4.65). The problem was that the RUCH didn't sell the week passes, and we couldn't find out from the person behind the little window where to get them. We popped into a travel agency, figuring they would have better English, and got vague directions, so we went back to tourist information and they straightened us out. We had to go to the bus ticket kiosk at the main tram stop in the square. We went there and managed to procure our passes through yet another tiny little window. These Kiosks with the tiny little windows are all over former Communist Europe. There is glass all across the front of the kiosk with thick metal bars in front so you can hardly see what's displayed for sale. Then there is a little sliding window maybe 10" wide and 6" high, set at counter level. The space above the window is usually covered with paper displaying prices or products, so you have to bend down to look through the little window to speak to the person sitting behind there. It's a stupid system. I guess they do it out of fear of theft. Anyway, we got our bus pass, and an hour after we arrived in the city, we were standing, bus passes in hand, at the bus stop. We've become used to this. With every new town, we refine our routine a bit, but on average, it takes about 30 minutes to an hour just to get oriented. We've developed a policy of not planning any sight-seeing activities on travel day. It just leads to unnecessary stress and disappointment. It we have something that we really want to see, we just stay another day.

We got on the bus, along with a large crowd of hot and tired people and started counting stops (we'd been told it was five stops to the campground). Paul was trying to follow our route on the map, but the map was so large and the bus so crowded, it was almost impossible just to get the map opened up. We jumped off after the fifth stop, even through it didn't seem like there could be a campground there. Upon further examination of the map, we found that it was really three more stops. The woman at tourist info had either made an honest mistake about the number of stops, or she was exaggerating the nearness to make it seem more attractive. It doesn't really matter. We waited in the heat for the next bus. Fortunately, we had three to choose from, so we didn't have to wait long.

Three stops later we were in front of a large swim complex called Clepardia. We couldn't see any campground, so we walked up to the kasa for the swim complex and said "camping?" (which is pronounced cam-PING). We were directed across the boardwalk connecting the two pools and through a little gate in the chain link fence. A sign on the gate said that the pool was only 3zl for "guests" but from 7 pm to 8 pm it was free. Our only question here was how fast could we get the tent up and get into our bathing suits to cool off. The security guard in the campground, who was very friendly and spent a lot of time patrolling and keeping the trash bins empty, directed us to reception at the other end of the campground. It costs roughly $10 per night for 2 people and one tent. We were ecstatic. We figured in just 12 nights the tent would have paid for itself. We picked out a level spot in the shade, and set up the tent. Unfortunately we learned the hard way that you can't put the tent into the packs. The fly sheet came out with a puncture in it where it had gotten pressed up against the zipper of Paul's jacket. Live and learn. Paul was really upset that he'd "damaged" the tent before we'd even gotten to use it (but as of September 1 the tent has still failed to leak, even in the most torrential of downpours).

Then we went to the pool. After paying at the kasa, we got drinks and pommes (fries, the only other choices being sausages and hamburgers) and went to find a spot by the edge of the pool. The water was quite cold and I was instantly refreshed. As I sat on a bench, Paul went off to play on the water slide (rather small by Budapest standards), the dark clouds came rolling in. We started to think maybe we should look into patching the tent. We went back and Paul put some glue from the air mattress patch kit on it. We couldn't bear to put a thick ugly rubber patch on it, so we just left the glue to hold the tear closed. We put up a clothes line between two trees behind the tent and hung up or swimming gear. We realized that the campground was really well situated once we had some time to look around. To the East, the pool. To the South, a lovely park with lots of dogs. To the North and West, houses blocked from view by a line of trees. Conveniently located across the road, a Billa, which is a German grocery store chain. We'd already popped in to have a look, so we knew they were open until 8:00, so we put off food shopping until last. The store was huge and had everything. We got some bread and cheese, scored some peanut butter and jam (the first since England, a great find), and some Guiness beer, which was relatively cheap and also the first since England. We were living large. We went back to the campground, ate supper and waited pensively for the storm to arrive. It seemed like it might just flash a little and then roll by, but later after we were snug inside, the rain came down. It was torrential, with lots of spectacular lightning and thunder. Paul got up several times in the middle of the night to inspect for leaks and to make sure the water wasn't flowing under the tent, but everything stayed dry. It's a great tent.

Kraków -- 14 August 1998

We took the day off. We put in some laundry, since the campground had 2 washers. We didn't realize that one of them wasn't working right and it took hours to get it done. We basically spent the whole day at the picnic table next to the washers. Paul could get power for the computer there, and I had a table for writing and good light for reading. We started drinking at lunch. Zywiec, a Polish beer, tastes great with peanut butter and jelly. After our wash was done and hung on the line, some Dutch people put their wash in. Almost everything immediately stopped. Paul went over to investigate and determined that two washers and a hot water heater were all on the same circuit. It hadn't quit when we did laundry because the hot water heater was full when we started. The poor Dutch people had to wait while the repair men came to check it out. It turned out not to be the fuse, just insufficient power on the circuit, so they didn't know what to do. The Dutch folks finally got smart and brought out an extension cord so they could plug the washer into an outlet on another circuit. It still took them hours to get the wash done though.

Paul and I got to know Bela (Bernadetta) and Dorota (Dorothea), the sisters who worked at reception. Bela let us use the phone in the reception office to check email and push up some pictures. Each of them speaks english very well, and several other languages besides, but Bela's main skill is helping people out. They, along with the security staff, really made the place wonderful. We found out from Bela that the real reason they have security is because they run a parking lot service for the locals. I had wondered why people parked their cars next to their tents. Now I know, the parking lot is for other people.

Kraków -- 15 August 1998

Our plan was to get up at 5:00 and catch a train to Czestochowa at 6:30, but when the alarm went off, neither one of us felt like getting up. The one problem with campgrounds is that they aren't necessarily quiet places at night. August 5 is the Feast of the Assumption, the day that Mary was taken directly up to heaven without having to actually die first. Czestochowa is the site of a mass pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Poland. The Black Madonna is a painting of the virgin and child which was brought to the Jasna Góra (Bright Mountain) Monastery soon after it was founded in 1382. It is quite an unusual portrayal, as the madonna has very dark skin and large features. It's hard to say what race she resembles, but she definitely doesn't look Polish. The icon was damaged in 1430 by the Hussites, who slashed her face and broke the wooden panel. It was repainted but the slashed were left as a reminder of the assault. Up to half a million people come on the day of the Feast of the Assumption, many of them on foot, from all over Poland. That they come on foot explains why the train was not as crowded as we feared it would be. From the train station, we just headed in the direction of denser crowds to Al. Najswietszej Marii Panny (something like: Most Holy Virgin Maria Avenue), where the pilgrims were slowly working their way up the long hill to the monastery. It was really eerie, because as the crowd got thicker, we passed people kneeling right in the street, in prayer. As we got closer, we realized they were holding a great outdoor mass, and all these people were attending. We were still too far away to see anything, but we could hear the mass over the loud speakers. As we worked our way through the crowd, we go close enough to see the boys choir dressed in white robes, to the left of the altar which was above the high walls of the monastery. On the right were priests robed in white and gold, and in the center was the altar, decorated in gold, with paintings and flowers, over which three priests (bishops?) in tall conical hats presided. To the right of all this was a large replica of the Black Madonna, up high so everyone could see it. We kept moving through the crowd and up the hill, trying to get a better vantage point to see what was going on. We passed old women in peasant dress kneeling on tissues or kerchiefs; young people with all their backpacks and bedrolls thrown in a pile and kneeling around it; priests and nuns on vacation; people holding up portraits of the holy virgin; people on crutches; and a very old woman who kissed everyone she met and then gave her arm to a young boy to be led off to communion. The communion was really incredible, they gave it to the entire crowd. The priests came out from the monastery in all directions, creating aisles through the crowd. One of the aisles came right by where we were standing, and we say 6 or 8 priests moving along the aisle, giving the Communion wafers to the people standing along the edge of the aisle. Then the people would move back into the crowd, and more would move to the edge of the aisle to wait for the next priest to come by. It was all very quiet, serene and orderly considering the size of the group. It all felt very peaceful. They still give Communion in the old way there, from hand to mouth instead of hand to hand as they do in the States. After taking Communion, most people went off and knelt, seemingly deep in prayer. It was quite something to see. Then the mass ended, and the crowd started to break up. It's interesting to note that I could follow along with the mass, even though I didn't;t understand the words, because the chanting was nearly the same as in English. I had thought the chanting was more individualized. It sounded very beautiful in Polish.

After the mass ended, the crowd began to disperse. Clumps of the faithful stayed in places and continued praying. Only then did we see that the way they made sure that the whole crowd could hear was by sending out teenagers with big loud speakers set atop poles strapped to their backs. We decided to go in and see the monastery, and see if we could get a look at the original Black Madonna. We joined the large crowd that was already trying to push through the narrow arch to get inside. There was much shoving and pushing, and we proceeded through very slowly. I was starting to feel a bit panicked. I kept thinking that if every one would just wait in orderly lines, it would be much easier, but the strategy seemed to be to push as hard as you could on the person in front of you so that you could gain a slight advantage on the people to your left and right. It's very hard on the uninitiated, and I fell into Paul a few times. Then I got fed up and started leaning back into it, but people only climbed around me and budged ahead. By the inner arch, there were pictorial representations on the wall to tell you the rules of the monastery: no radios, no ice cream, no girls in shorts, no boys in tank tops, etc. We both had on shorts, but so did a few other women, and we figured they were probably turning a blind eye today. We finally made it into the inner courtyard, and there the press of the crowd lessened considerably. The place is huge, and really looks like a castle fortress more than a monastery. It was apparently one of the only places in Poland to avoid being attacked by the Swedes in 1655, which of course is attributed to the Madonna being there. I think it's just possible that the high fortified walls had something to do with it as well. Within the walls, buildings are placed on several levels, creating a very pleasing view of rooftops, spires, stairs and archways. We didn't know where to go to see the Madonna so we just chose a doorway at random and plunged in. We found ourselves in beautiful large cathedral, full of pink marble, stained glass, gold, and side chapels dedicated to various saints. People were shuffling around other people who were kneeling in front of the altars of their favorite saints. It was packed. No Black Madonna though. We moved into the back room of a small chapel where mass was being held in English. That was surprising. The chapel was packed so we stood in the doorway because it seemed impossible to get in. We underestimated the prowess of the old ladies however. They came in from behind and pushed us ahead of them into the crowd. We were conscripted as unwilling shields. Or perhaps battering rams. The chapel was dark, all black and gold. The altar was enclosed in a wrought iron fence, through which we could see the famous Black Madonna. Like the famous Mona Lisa, when you see it in person, it seems to be a bit small. For some reason we expected it to be bigger. Eventually, we were crushed forward until we got near to the gate, and as I was ahead in the crowd, Paul reached the camera over to me so I could attempt to get a picture. Had there been enough light for them to come out, they would have been very funny because of all the people jostling me, and a nun's head would have been in every one. I just couldn't shake her. Toward the end of the mass the crowd started getting really ugly. The pushing reached frenzy level because people in the back wanted to see be able to get a look before they covered the Madonna with the silver screen that usually hides her from view (she only makes rare public appearances, and you can see why with these crowds). Women were grabbing my arms to gain some advantage and a little girl had to put both hands on my hips in order to avoid being crushed. People trying to get out by the side exit could not move laterally because of then push from the back. Paul and another man forced open a small passage by standing shoulder to shoulder and leaning back, allowing a family to slip through. At the same time, groups of women seemed to burst into song spontaneously, miraculously. "Oh Maria" I knew the tune of, and another had "Czarne, czarne, czarne Madonna" (black Madonna) in it's chorus. Olena may be right that people are rotely following their parents in matters of religion but there really was something there that day in Czestochowa. You could feel it. The singing was incredibly beautiful and once we were out of the crush directly in front of the Madonna, peace once again reigned.

We went back into the relative brightness of the pink church and left an offering in the chapel of St. Paul, patron saint of wanderers and Paul's namesake. Then we went out and up to the fortress wall to have a look at the view, get some air, and most importantly, eat some chocolate. From there we could see where all the pilgrims had spent the night. A huge tent city covered the hills west and south of the entrance. I wondered if there were big parties the night before. Looking on the inner side of the wall, we saw that the inner courtyard was filled with wooden confessionals and that people were crowding in to get their turn to confess their sins and be forgiven. We walked counter-clockwise around the wall and discovered that we were walking the stations of the cross backward. Huge statues depicting the events leading up to the crucifixion were raised on tall pedestals just outside the wall so that each stood out in space at eye level when standing on the wall. Naturally there were a dozen or so people at each station kneeling with bibles and rosaries, reading passages and praying.

After our tour of the stations of the cross, we'd had enough of the crowds, so we headed out of the monastery and back down the hill. We sat on a low wall and watched the crowds walking to and from the monastery for a while. The beggars were the most interesting to watch. They put themselves right in the path of the crowds, with no fear of being trampled. The police came along and mode some of them move on. Nearby, two couples were playing guitar and singing, attempting to make a little cash to pay for the train home. Priests were taking photos of the view, like ordinary tourists. Most of the young women had long dresses on, and some wore head scarves. They definitely identified more with the whole thing than the men.

We found a horrible, paperless, but much-needed WC (and you had to pay!) and then sat ourselves down at an outdoor cafe that served coffee and tea in tiny plastic cups. Paul was prepared to spend the afternoon there, but the cigarette smoke was too much for me. We figured we'd go to the market and get some food and have a little something to eat in the park instead. We'd brought the PB&J with us, so all we needed was bread and drinks. These were easily procured at a little store not far from the train station, and we took our picnic to a little park surrounding a church and sat ourselves down on a park bench. We fed some of the bread to the little sparrows that were flitting al around. A strange man walked by, and then stood staring at us for a long while.. He was walking with arm-crutches and his eyes were really wild and looked off in different directions. Perhaps he was retarded (or whatever the politically correct term in nowadays). The way he looked at us gave me the creeps. I looked away and started reading a book. A few minutes later, I looked up and saw he was sitting on the bench next to Paul, looking pas him at me. That really creeped me out. Luckily, it was time for us to go to our train. We we got back to the campground, we were amazed to see that it had cleared out. We and the Dutch family had the place to ourselves. Contrasted to the crowds we had just left, it felt like we were completely alone.

Kraków -- 16 August 1998

We'd been in Kraków 2 1/2 days already and we hadn't seen a thing. We've really been relaxing about the idea that we have to do and see everything within arm's reach.

Kraków is the royal seat of Poland. It's been the capital of Poland, or whatever the country called itself at various times, since 1038. In 1596, King Sigismund III Vasa moved the capital to Warsaw, but Kings and Queens continued to be crowned in Kraków. It's one of the few historical cities that wasn't destroyed during WWII, so it has kept it's old world character.

The city is dominated by Wawel Castle, a huge walled compound atop Wawel hill overlooking the Vistula river. Wawel (pronounced "vavel") has a kind of fairy al feel to it because of all the different types of architecture placed there. Rooftops are trimmed with gold and towers abound. There's a story about a dragon who lived in a cave under the castle and terrorized the townspeople. Someone had the clever idea to wrap dynamite in a sheepskin and throw it into the dragon's cave. The dragon apparently fell for the ruse, ate the dynamite, and was blown to bits.

Kraków is also the site where the events in Schindler's List took place, and Auschwitz and Birkenau are nearby. In the 14th century, King Kazimierz welcomed Jews into Kraków from all over Europe. Later, under a different king, the Jews were forced to move into a small section of Kazimierz, a town across the river from Kraków and now a suburb of it. We started our tour in the old town. Where the old town walls used to be there is now a beautiful park called Planti. We walked through it and by a beautiful church which is under construction, so we couldn't go in. When we got to the main square, we started looking for a place to get breakfast. We got sidetracked by a band in traditional costume playing folk music. We sat down in an outdoor cafe and ordered cake and coffee and tea. The square was very busy, with tourists, horses and carriages, musicians, etc. Busy and colorful but not unbearably crowded. While we were sitting there, the clock of St. Mary's Church struck 10:00, and we waited to hear the famous trumpet call. In the 13th Century, a trumpeter had been attempting to sound a warning that the Tartar invaders were approaching. It was customary to play a melody based on five notes. The trumpeter was shot by a Tartar arrow and the melody was cut short, so to this day, the melody is played hourly but ends abruptly just as it did that day.

After breakfast we went to the Sukiennice (Cloth) Hall, the first mall in Europe. It was built in the 16th Century, and is a 2-story building in the middle of the square built with a long, wide hallway down the middle and wooden stalls set into either side. It now contains stalls selling Polish handicrafts and jewelry, amber, chess sets, and the like. What's really funny is that the way the sellers get into the stalls is to climb over the counter. There are no back doors to get in.

We went into St. Mary's Church, also in the square. It too is in the process of being renovated, but that didn't stop anyone. Priests were hearing (or probably not hearing) confession, and there were long lines of people waiting. At all the side chapels, people were kneeling in prayer. It was a zoo, and in the middle of it all, workmen were banging away with hammers. We had seen a sign on the door, or rather Paul saw it, that said tourists shouldn't enter, but we saw tour groups inside, so we figured it must be okay to go in. Only on our way out did we realize that tourists were supposed to go in another entrance (and pay). We felt a tiny bit guilty, but we got over it.

We continued our tour through the Old Town in the direction of Wawel Castle. The road into the castle winds up and around the outside in a spiral. It's a pretty boring walk until you get inside the castle complex, and then you see all the fantastic building inside. I guess back then castles had to wear their armour on the outside and keep their softer natures hidden from view. There's a wonderful, garden in front and the churches and palace are in the back. There used to be more building but the Austrians ruthlessly tore them down to make room for a parade ground. We thought we'd skip the tour and just have a look around, since the line for tickets was very long. We headed over to the church, where Adam Mickiewicz (a famous Polish poet - his most famous work is Pan Tadeusz) is buried in the crypt. When we got there, there were signs saying you had to have a ticket, to be gotten from yet a different ticket office, but no one was actually checking, so we just walked in. Slightly less guilt. It was bit dark for my tastes, fairly typical except for the 17th Century tapestries hanging along the walls. They seemed to be images of Polish peasants fighting for the cause of Catholicism, but I can't swear to that.

We decided after all to see one of the exhibits in the castle, as there was little else to see there without a ticket. We figured we'd get sodas, pull out our books, and settle in to wait in the long line. There are three exhibits at the castle: Armour & Weapons, the Palace Rooms, and Treasures from the Orient, including tents and the 13th Century coronation sword "Szczerbiec". Weapons do not excite me much, and the tent exhibit was closed, so we opted for the Palace Rooms. It appears that the reason the lines are so long is that they only allow a certain number of people in every hour. Once the maximum number of people has been reached, they just stop selling tickets until the next time period. After more than an hour in line, we got in, and we'd gotten a lot or reading done.

All the rooms that we saw contained 16th Century tapestries, huge magnificent pieces, many of which showed pictures of "real" animals that the creators had heard of but never seen, so they appeared to be mythical. I always marvel at the amount of time, patience, and skill it took to create such large pieces of art, and from such small stitches.

Our last stop in the castle was a tour through cave where the Wawel dragon lived before his explosive demise. When we got to the little ticket booth, it was closed, supposedly for 15 minutes. We waited around with a swelling crowd until finally two older women showed up, one to swell tickets and one to take them at the entrance. Then the pushing queues began, like in Czestochowa but on a much smaller scale. It worked just to lean back into the people behind you who were pushing. After you buy your ticket, you go down about 150 steps in spiral staircase inside the fortified walls of Wawel Castle. It's really dark and spooky. Finally you get to the cave itself, which appears to have been formed by the flow of water. After walking about 100 m, you emerge through the mouth of the case at ground level outside the castle walls. There stands a metal statue of the Wawel dragon, rising up on it's hind legs and raising it's head in a silent roar. Kids clamber all over the statue's base and the dragon's feet. Every minute or so, fire jets out of the dragon's open mouth, much to the surprise of recent;y arrived children and parents. Paul loved it.

We walked back through town, looking for the Alpinus store where we wanted to get some waterproofing for the tent. Everything had held up fine in the downpour but the seams at the zippers in the rain fly. These were a bit leaky, but once we sprayed on the waterproofing we were set. It hasn't leaked since. I had forgotten about showing Paul the Barbican Florian gate. we took the tram there from Ul. Sienna, where the Alpinus store was. Florian gate is the only gate left of the seven originally built in the old town wall. The walls were built to protect the city from sieges, but by the time they were finished, they were obsolete. Only Florian gate (1307) wasn't pulled down when the walls were demolished and the land made into a park. Now artists hang their paintings along the walls of the old gate - it's a dramatic display. We also looked around for an Internet cafe, but on failing to find one, we decided to call it a day and head back to the campground.

Kraków -- 17 August 1998

We went to the train station early in the morning to catch one of the white minibuses that go to Wieliczka, which is about 15 km Southeast of Kraków. Wieliczka is famous for its salt mine. The mine has been in continuous use since the 1300s and like half of the other places we've been, it's on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List (Kraków is as well). It's been open to visitors since the 15th Century and Nicolaus Copernicus visited there while he was studying in Kraków.

We caught the minibus and got on with four Australians and a friend of their who might have been Spanish. He didn't talk much. Paul was really excited to talk with them and I couldn't blame him. We've both been starved for some meaningful conversation with someone other than ourselves. It was a quick trip to the mines, and we didn't know whom to pay when we got off. We had just boarded an no one had sold us a ticked or anything, so when we got there we all got out and looked around for a stand or something. Then the drive got out and came around yelling "Hey, what about the money!?", so we sheepishly handed over the money to him. The Aussies asked us if we wanted to be in a tour group with them, since the English speaking guides sometimes cost a fixed price, so the more in the group the better. It turned out that we still had to buy individual tickets so we got in line. The Aussie got in the line which said 'Tickets' in English and we were in the line that said 'Bilety' in Polish. Our line was quicker and we figured we could handle buying tickets in Polish. We had an hour or so before the tour so we went out side to find a spot to have lunch. We had lunch at some picnic tables with our new friends (we had PB&J, and everyone else was jealous), and just when we finished, it was time for our tour. Our "group" turned out to be about 35 people. We ended up near the back of the crowd/queue, and when we got to the ticket taker at the front, we were informed that we had a ticket for the Polish tour. I began cursing the former communist bureaucracy mentality in Poland. "How about letting us in anyway?" Paul asked hopefully. Nothing doing. So we had to run over to the ticket counter, cut to the front of the line, and try to exchange our Polish Tickets for English Ones. When we did this we understood why the ticket taker wouldn't let us in. The English tour costs more. So we paid up the difference and got back in with the end of the group.

The first 15 minutes of the tour was spent walking down a huge wooden-plank staircase that was built in the 1600s. It descended 64 meters (378 steps) down a mine shaft. You could look up and down through the center of the shaft and see lights on each level and people above and below all doing the same thing. Of course, the first thing everyone thought of was, "What if there's a fire?" because we spent a lot of time on the stairs, not moving, and not knowing why not. Had there been a fire, there would have been a stampede. But there were great fire protection systems in the mine, sprinklers, etc.

It was very cool in the mine, about 14 degrees C. It was weird to think that all the hallways we were walking through were solid rock salt. It felt a little like a huge ant farm, and I felt much less claustrophobic than I had expected.

Most of the 'rooms' that they show visitors have statues carved out of salt in them. The first one was filled with salt dwarves, in whom miners believe. They sometimes help out with the work at night. In the second room was a statue of Kinga, the patroness of the mine. Kinga was the daughter of Bela IV (of Hungary) and sister of St. Margaret of Hungary. Kinga was engaged to marry King Boleslaw. Her father told her that he would give Kinga whatever she liked as a wedding present. Kinga thought that a salt mine would be a good thing for the people of Poland, her new subjects, and so she asked for that, a salt mine in Hungary. While she was visiting the mine, Kinga dropped her engagement ring down a shaft and it was gone. She still married, however, and on her honeymoon, she and her husband visited Wieliczka. Kinga liked the town very much, and the two decided to build a house there. When the well was being dug for it, one of the workers discovered rock salt. He pulled up a chunk of it and inside was Kinga's engagement ring. And that was the beginning of the mine, and the reason Kinga is its patroness.

We were shown how it was for miners working hundreds of years ago. They used wooden sledges called "mining dogs". These were pulled by horses who spent their entire lives down in the mines. Individual miners hauled 35 kilo loads of rock salt on their backs up steps cut into the steeply sloping sides of the vertical shafts to deposit then in the sledges which were pulled along the horizontal shafts. from there a huge wooden gear lift was used to haul the salt up to the surface. The wheel of the gear was turned by eight horses and weighed two tons. Special highly paid workers called "gas burners" had the most dangerous job in the mines. Within the salt in the mines was also some trapped methane gas, which would gradually be released into the mine and accumulate in pockets at the ceiling. Methane gas is highly flamable, and having it floating about while the mine was lighted with flaming torches and lanterns was a potentially disastrous situation. The way they handled is was to have the "gas burners" attempt to find the pockets of gas while they were still quite small and burn them off before they got big enough to cause a serious explosion that would threaten the structure of the mine itself. So they would creep about with burning rags on the end of long poles, poking the flame into corners and crevices to burn all the accumulated gas. Every once in a while they'd hit a big one, and a minor explosion would result, eliminating the gas but also the gas burner with it.

Where water flows, salt is melted and creates interesting formations on the rock salt walls. Some are called "cauliflowers" and look just like them, and the stalactites are called "saltcicles".

In the second level, the most impressive space is the Kinga Chapel. It was begun in 1896 and took 70 years to complete. It's hard to describe what an impressive space it is. From the rear balcony, two staircases lead down into the chapel, one on each side. The floor of the chapel is exactly 100 m below the surface. Everything in the chapel: altar, parquet floor, statues, chandeliers, is entirely made of salt. There are carvings along the outer walls of the Last Supper, Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem. The perspective on the Last Supper is so good that it appears to be much deeper than it really is. As far as anyone has been able to tell, there is only one mistake in the chapel. The donkey that Mary is riding has legs that move laterally instead of diagonally. But you could forgive the creators that. They were just miners and amateur sculptors. In fact, none of the statues in the chapel or elsewhere in the mine were done by professional sculptors. Two of the most famous miners who sculpted in their spare time were the Markowski Brothers. They and 2 others, all working at different times, created the Kinga Chapel. In the back of the chapel is a statue of the Virgin Mary, lit up from behind, the light diffusing through the translucent salt statue so that it glows from within. But Kinga herself has the place of honor on the altar. She is holding a piece of pink rock salt, a very rare but naturally occuring color, and inside it is the found engagement ring.

We walked through a cavern filled with water and al lit up from below so that the light refracted through the surface and played in light and dark patches across the towering cavern walls, to be lost in the darkness of the roof high above. It was very beautiful and soothing. Every house should have such a cavern. Of course they also had something underneath the water that made it roil and then tried to convince us that a sea monster lived down there. The water is used there to dissolve the salt, then the intense brine is pumped out and evaporated, leaving pure salt behind, to which iodine is added to make table salt. They don't even bother to mine salt anymore. The water method is much safer and more effective. There's another lake in the mines on which they used to give boat rides to visitors. Unfortunately, in 1912, some rather drunk visitors managed to overturn their boat and were drowned because they were trapped under the boat, and the brine is so buoyant, they were unable to swim down below the surface to get out. Or so our guide says. The mine wasn't at fault, but they stopped giving boat rides anyway. Too bad.

We came into another cavern filled with water and this one was also filled with music. The mine has it's own brass band, and they were there in their smart red uniforms with gold trim. The acoustics in the cavern were exquisite. It would be a great place to practice playing the guitar...

There was a new statue, from 1997, and it interested me because I hadn't come across his name when I was in Poland four years ago. His name was Józef Piésudski (1867-1935). He successfully fought against the Russians in 1920 and also one visited the mine. He was not studied in school during the Soviet times, which is why I didn't hear about him. The Polish are gradually rehabilitating their true national heros, separating their real national history from the revised history they have lived with for the last 50 years.

Of the 2,000 chambers in the mine, the highest is 36 m below the surface (all the chambers are man-made by the way). During WWII, Jews were kept prisoner in this room and made to work. On the lighter side of things, on Kinga's Day this year, they celebrated with the first ever underground bungy jumping. Miners sure are a wacky bunch.

We took the minibus back to town, without the Aussies this time. They may have decided to have a look at the miner's museum. They must have a higher threshold for becoming 'museumed out' than Americans do. Once we got back into town, we got on a tram and went South again, but this time, only as far as Kazimierz, the suburb that houses the Jewish Quarter. Actually, Kazimierz is split into two parts: on the West side, it's Catholic, with churches everywhere; the East side is Jewish, with its own synagogues. In the old days, the two parts were divided by a wall. We got off the tram in the Jewish Quarter. Almost immediately, we saw four Hasidic Jewish men, wearing the traditional black clothes and earlocks. They may have been part of a tour to the factory and death camps South of town; many tours have sprung up since Schindler's List. Maybe they really live there, but there are so few Jews left in Kazimierz now, less than 70, where before there were thousands.

We went to the Ariel Cafe and sat down outside. I still wasn't warmed back up after the coolness of the mines. It was really between lunch- and dinner-time but once we saw the menu, we decided to order food anyway. I had chicken with ginger and raisins. It was wonderful and the portions way too large. I couldn't finish it. We had coffee and tea afterwards. When we turned around to see if anyone would take our money, we saw a sign advertising a Jewish Folk Music concert. We asked and found out that they are held at another cafe owned by the same people a couple of doors away. It was going to start at 8:00 that evening. We figured we might check it out.

We walked around Kazimierz: met dogs leaning out windows over our heads, checked out the hala gokartowa (the go-cart hall), which was located in a huge hanger-like building, walked by the High Synagogue (it was closed), and went and sat in St. Catherine's Church for a little while. That was a really cool experience. I really liked the church itself; its decor was so "hopeful". The actual structure is just a simple grey stone Gothic building (built in 1363). But then there are altars everywhere, from which cherubs and Saints look down at you, as if to tell you that everything really will be all right, and giving you a glimpse of the glory of Heaven. The Saints and cherubs were all done in gold, and the clouds in silver (I thought they looked a lot like smashed soda cans). In front of the altar, several cherubs were carrying Jesus up to Heaven, cross and all, while Mary and two other women (I probably should know who they are) held onto the bottom of the cross, unwilling to let him go. I thought it showed nice tension between the heavenly and the earthly. The pulpit was in the shape of a ridiculously ornate ship, with a big, curling sail, on top of which more cherubs sat. More great imagery and symbolism. But besides all the cool things to look at, a dozen or so older women were sitting in the front of the Church reciting prayers, possibly the rosary. The sound of their voices was so soothing and restful, almost hypnotic. I felt quite peaceful.

We walked to a little kiosk and got sodas and chocolate, the food of travelers. We walked around some more, just looking around, then ended up at the cafe where the concert was to be held. They had tables set out in a nice little garden and we chose one under a tree. We ordered beers and Paul read the paper while I read up on the Czech Republic, our next destination. A little before 8:00, we went inside. Paul had reserved a table for us earlier and it was waiting for us. The room was set up like a big parlour from the 40s, with portraits on the walls and a velvet curtain hanging in front of the double doorway into the next room. There were only eight tables or so, it was a very intimate setting.

Most people were ordering dinner, but we weren't hungry any more, so we stuck with beer. Then the musicians came out from behind the velvet curtain. There was an accordion, a fiddle and an upright bass. It was obvious that the young guy playing the accordion was the brains of the outfit, and the one playing the fiddle was the soul. The music was heavy, lively and melodramatic, and very well performed. I'm guessing they weren't ethnic Jews (they all looked quite Polish, and there are only a few thousand Jews left in Poland). There's been a resurgence of interest in ethnic and folk music lately. After the first song, a tall, thin woman with long blond hair made her entrance from behind the curtain. She wore a long black evening dress, and she looked quite elegant and serious standing there. When sh started to sing though, she would rock back and forth from the hips and her hair would start to fly around and in her face, giving her a sort of a wild and sensual appearance. She sung with a low voice filled with all the joy and sorrow she could muster. I think it was something she thought she should feel, rather than something she actually did. Perhaps she was a bit young to really grasp the depth of feeling that is bourne in these songs. In any event, it was a wonderful performance anyway. They had the whole place going, snapping fingers, shouting "Hey!" at the end of musical phrases. Many of our fellow audience members knew most of the songs and would sing along with parts. At times we would have the strange feeling that we were involved in something forbidden, as if we might be found out, be arrested and dragged away. It was a bit surreal. It was a great night.

Kraków -- 18 August 1998

We spent our last day in Kraków at the campground, packing up, airing out the sleeping bags, I fixed the straps on my two new dresses, etc. We were ready way too early and pretty soon our "site" was reduced to two sleeping mats with all our gear in our packs around them. I stretched out on one of the mats and read in the sun. Paul worked on the computer over by the washing machines where there was power. When it was time to leave, we rolled up the mats, put all the gear on our backs and set off. We had reserved two couchettes on a night train to Prague. We got to the train and got into the compartment first, so we got to stow our packs up in the luggage rack. The couchette cars sleep six, but there's never enough space for 6 people's gear, so arriving early is the key. Otherwise, you have to sleep with your pack or put in on the floor where other people have to climb over it to get in and out. After we were settle, a nice Danish couple arrived. They were very nice, but a bit reserved. Then two Irish women came in. They were a riot. Apparently they had been travelling mostly in the Czech Republic, having just taken a little side trip to Kraków. They raved about Cesky Krumlov, so we put in on our "must do" list. So there were were, in our bunks, having a nice conversation with the Irish girls and occasionally drawing the Danish in, when a hand came through the door followed a face which smiled a big grin and said "Hi, I'm Matt". We'd noticed the commotion earlier as a large group of Americans with an excessive amount of luggage had boarded our car and set about trying to find places for all their stuff in the tiny compartments. It was so strange, after 2 1/2 months, to be surrounded by Americans. We suddenly could see ourselves from the European point of view. They were loud and boisterous, friendly and invasive, just like the stereotypes. They seemed to be like golden retrievers trying to make friends with cats. But at the same time, they were warm, kindhearted, helpful, and hopelessly naive. After Matt came found out about our year-long trip, we had to suffer a stream of others sticking their curious heads in to hear about the unbelievable thing for themselves. They were all from Buffalo and presumably members of some sort of religious group, though they didn't say. It just seemed like that king of group. One woman worked at Marine Midland Bank, which I believe is where I had my first bank account.

When I went out to the WC to brush my teeth, I asked one of the women which end of the car the WC was in, and she directed me with an explanation of how you had to use a foot pedal to flush the toilet. Apparently the group had taken a while to figure this out. I smiled and told her I had been on these trains a few times before and she said "Oh, I wish I'd talked to you first! I couldn't figure it out!" without a trace of embarrassment. So helpful, naive and sweet. We had a little more communication with the Irish girls, but the encounter with that many Americans had put the Danish couple right out of the conversation and we never did get them back. Eventually we settled down to sleep, and slept quite well except for the several interruptions in the middle of the night for passport checks. They came in three times, once the train conductors came in to make sure that everyone had a passport, then the Polish soldiers came through to give us our entry stamps and then the Czech soldiers came through to give us our entry stamps. I thought there were more interruptions than that, but I must have dreamed the rest.