Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Train Ride to See Sebastian and a Salt Mine

Warsaw, Poland
Catching the early train to Krakow from Warsaw Main Central Station.

We took a little break from Romy's conference in Warsaw to go sight-seeing in Poland. Also, Romy's friend from the army, Sebastian, happened to be in Poland at the same time we were for a wedding (he is Polish and originally from Poland). So we called him up and decided to meet in Krakow for a day. We didn't have that much time off (just literally a day), and Sebastian didn't either, so we made it a quick but packed trip.

Jenn on the train
We had the train compartment to ourselves that morning on the ride to Krakow!

We decided to take the regional train to get from Warsaw to Krakow. We looked for the cheapest and earliest train, and we found one that left around 5am from the Warsaw central station. Since it left so early, we went to the train station the night before to buy our tickets, so that all we would have to do the next morning was show up to the correct platform. It was early as hell, but we figured we could relax in the train for a while. The ride wasn't too long, only about 3 hours. When we got on the train, there weren't many people at all. We had an entire cabin to ourselves! Woo hoo!

Krakow, Poland
Bazylika Mariacka stands tall in the center of Krakow's old town.

The train ride was very exciting. We rode through the rolling countryside, past many farms, and through a few small towns. When we got into Krakow, the train stopped, we hopped off, and walked into the main train station. It was connected to a big and modern shopping mall. Sebastian texted us saying that the only train he could find wasn't going to arrive until about 45 minutes after ours, so we had a little time to walk around the mall, get coffee, etc. Before we knew it, Sebastian was here and we set off into the old town of Krakow.

Krakow, Poland
Wandering inside Wawel Castle.

We didn't have any plan at all while we were there. The trip was mainly to see Sebastian, and walk around and sight see. I took a bunch of pictures but unfortunately I don't really know what building or church was what, or what was significant about them. I just took pictures of what I thought was cool. The main attraction in the old town of Krakow is the Wawel Castle. We stopped there to do a tour of the royal treasury, and the royal rooms (or something like that). We wandered around the courtyard, and inside some of the castle buildings. We went up an archery tower and got a great view of the city from above. My favorite part was going to see a museum of all the old armor, swords, and cannon guns. The collection was so interesting and amazing. Very old weaponry!

Krakow, Poland
Many towers at the Wawel Castle.

The town was getting packed as the day went on, with more tourists milling about. It was getting hot outside too! So we stopped at a cafe to have a beer break. We sat right on the main square, under the shade of a cafe sun umbrella. We planned out our next move, as we still had the entire afternoon open. I was getting hungry but it was so hot out, all I wanted to do was drink water and cold beer. Sebastian loved the dry pretzels that street vendors sold for literally a penny, so he bought a bunch of those and we munched on them. Sebastian is a very spartan kind of guy.

Krakow, Poland
Kościół Św. Piotra i Pawła, Peter and Paul's Church

A lot of tourist shops advertised side trips out of the town, and we were all interested in taking a trip to the salt mines, which were only about 45 minutes away by car or bus. We inquired about going on a trip, and the timing was right, the price was right, and so we said, "Let's go!" Heck, it would be nice and cool in the cave if nothing else, and the dry air was something I was looking forward too (Poland is very hot and muggy in the summer, like Chicago).

Krakow, Poland
I like the odd stonework here. I am not sure what church this is.

Before we boarded the minivan bus thing, Sebastian said we should stop for some Polish ice cream. It was so cheap and so good! It was like a less sweet soft serve ice cream. It was white, like a vanilla cone, but it didn't have any vanilla flavor. It was literally something like sweet cream. Mmmmmmm, very good. Then we boarded the minivan to go to the salt caves. It was so comfy, we all fell asleep on the ride until we got to the salt caves, less than an hour later. Energized by our nap, I fueled up with some coffee, and we started our descent into the salt mine.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Entering the Wieliczka salt mine - going down down down!

There were literally hundreds of steps down a spiral staircase that we all trudged down. It got cooler and cooler as we went, and we felt a nice cool breeze. The air was remarkably dry and nice. After the mine stopped operating as a salt mine, rooms were made inside for a health spa. The dry salty air is supposed to cure all kinds of ailments. I thought it was better than the hot muggy air outside on the surface.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
I loved all of the salt carvings. They were so interesting.

We had a very nice tour guide, which gave the tour in English. She told us a lot of the history, but of course, I forgot it already. We walked through many mine shafts, reinforced by large wooden beams. The tour guide said that wood was the best support material for the mine because it can naturally flex, and it does not corrode from all the salt like metal would. As we walked around, we were literally surrounded by salt. The walls were pure salt, which looked greyish and waxy. In some places, the moisture from people's breath would dissolve the salt in the air, and then it would re-crystallize on the ceilings and walls. The re-crystallized salt was white and crystal looking, very different than the walls.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
These statues and scenes were life-size, and all carved out of salt!

Many artists and miners (who were not artists really) began carving sculptures into the salt. Many were religious sculptures. Others were scenes of everyday mining life, or Polish history of kings and queens. Some had lights that back-lit the salt sculptures, which was semi-translucent. It made for a very interesting effect. We walked through a cathedral that the miners carved out - everything in there was made of carved salt, even the chandeliers!

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Walking through the salt mine.

We walked a long time, but we didn't even walk through 10% of it. Many parts of the mine went deeper, and were unsafe for tourists, because they might collapse. Other parts of the mine were flooded. We saw one of the rooms that had a lake inside of it. The water was perfectly still and had a reflection of all the wooden balcony boardwalks that took miners past the flooded room, into another. It was very interesting. We were down in the salt mine for a few hours before we took an elevator back up to daylight! By the time we got out, we were very hungry and pooped from walking all day. The bus ride back was nice and we all fell asleep again. When we arrived back in Krakow, our first goal was to find something to eat.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Incredible detail in the carvings. The back lighting is awesome!

We were interested in eating traditional Polish food. We found a restaurant that had just that, and so we ordered a bunch of food to share. Goulash, some open face sandwiches with lard and stuff, and more. We were sooooooo full after we got done eating, and it seemed food just kept coming. It was starting to get dark by the time we were done, so we started to look for a cheap place to sleep. The hotels were very expensive for some reason, so we opted to try and find a hostel that we could share. Sebastian never slept in a hostel before so he had no idea what it was going to be like. We found a place just a few blocks from the train station, and split between three people, the price was acceptable. The hostel was in an old apartment building, and they gave us a room with three beds, with a crooked and creaky floor. We were exhausted, so we didn't care. Plus, we had to wake up and take the hella early train the next morning to make it back to Warsaw for another day at Romy's conference.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
A maze of jumbled wooden support structures.

The next morning, it was tough waking up, but we said good bye to Sebastian, and then somehow made it to the right train on time, and soon arrived back in Warsaw.