09.09.2016 - 09.09.2016
This was my last day here in Krakow and I had another full day of touring planned.
I booked a half-day tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is about 30 minutes outside of Krakow. The driver picked me up at 09:00 and, after one last pickup of additional tourists, we headed out to the mine. The driver, who resembled Christoph Waltz, made some very inappropriate comments during the short drive, including some anti-gay comments: "Here in Poland we don't like the modern family. Two men and a dog. We don't like such experiments." He was talking to a couple sitting at the front of the car and went on to explain how important religion is to the Polish people and how family is man and woman. I know that Poland (and most of Eastern Europe) is very conservative on many social issues, but I didn't expect for our tour driver to be spouting out this crap. Thankfully he was just the driver and we went off with a different guide at the mine.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine was a salt mine began work in the 13th century, but it ceased operation in the late 20th century. The mine has gradually been opened to tourists over the past 200 years. We were given personal audio devices so we could easily hear our guide as we explored the mine. The beginning of the tour had us walking down 54 levels of stairs (7 stairs per level, total of 378 stairs). The mine's temperature is a constant 14-16 degrees Celsius year-round, which was quite nice since today was going to be another hot one.
Throughout the mine were several statues and monuments to show what life was like for the miners working in the mine. There were also statues of mythical figures, including several gnomes/dwarfs. Salt deposits covered the walls and we were able to taste the salt; it wasn't too strong. However, there was some running water in the mine (naturally running through the mine); we tasted this water and it was much stronger - far saltier than sea water too!
There were several chapels scattered throughout the mine as well, including a gigantic chapel that is still in use; it regularly hosts weddings. In the large chapel there were several religious carvings in the rocks, including one of the last supper. At the end of the chapel was a statue carved from pure salt, which was rather spectacular. The room also had three large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
We continued to walk deeper into the mine and came across a large salt lake; the water has such a high salt content that a human would simply float on the water. One of the final rooms that we saw was the largest of the excavated rooms. It was supported by massive wooden structures and had a massive 8m tall chandelier hanging from the ceiling!
We made our way back to the surface via elevator. We saw barely 1% of the entire mine complex during out tour; the entire mine extends for over 287km (178mi)! We met up with our driver and made our way back to Krakow. To avoid hearing any more off-color remarks, I put in my headphones during the drive (I listened to recordings of The Howard Stern Show).
Upon arriving back in Krakow I headed out to visit the old Jewish ghetto area of town. There were not many parts of the old ghetto that remained (or that we obviously part of the ghetto in the 1940s). There was a small square near one of the entrances to the ghetto with a nice memorial: a series of large - and empty - chairs appeared throughout the square. Down the street from the square was a small section of the original ghetto wall. Seeing the wall was rather moving; I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live inside the ghetto, walled up like that. I was initially surprised to see that the wall had some design included with the top of the wall; I had imagined it would be a plain wall with barbed wire or something (similar to how simple and crude the Berlin Wall was). I later found out that the top of the ghetto wall was meant to resemble a tombstone, which thus gave the wall an even darker symbolism.
My final stop for the day was the museum at the Oscar Schindler factory (yes, that Schindler from the movie Schindler's List). The factory isn't located in the best part of town; it is still a manufacturing section of town, but there were numerous tourists around. The factory was actually smaller than I had expected. Inside I bought a ticket to tour the museum, which is explored on your own.
The museum is one of the best museums that I have ever visited! It thoroughly details the occupation of Poland during the Second World War. Included with the numerous artifacts and pictures were dozens of explanations of the events that transpired. One of the most interesting areas covered what everyday life was like under the Nazi occupation. Most of the time we just hear about the awful treatment of the Jews (which was undeniably horrendous), but life for the average Polish citizen was not pleasant as well. The section explained the changes in shopping, going to restaurants, even using public transit changed for everyone.
The first areas, covering the initial attack and occupation in the fall of 1939, included numerous Nazi and Third Reich artifacts: several flags, books, portraits of Hitler, guns, signs, etc. One room even played the music that the Nazis would blast over the public loudspeakers during the occupation (I recognized one piece as a military march - it was used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, during the book burning scene in Berlin). Even the floor in this area was covered with swastikas - literally!
Throughout the museum were personal stories recounted by survivors and victims of the Nazis, along with their pictures all over the wall. The section concerning the treatment of the Jews was especially moving; the area was quite dark; pictures were everywhere, along with personal accounts of the events in the Krakow ghetto.
There was surprisingly only one small area of the museum dedicated to Oscar Schindler; I don't feel it truly represented what the man did - it definitely didn't adqeuately explain what his "list" did to save the Jewish lives. Perhaps the museum relies too heavily upon the film to convey that. There was one sign about his "lists" - plural, not singular. I couldn't quite decipher what it all meant, but there were multiple lists and it was clear that events didn't transpire exactly as the film showed; this made me wish the section was larger so I could learn more. There was a replica of his working desk, across from which was a very nice memorial listing out all of the people that he saved.
There were some very interesting pieces in the museum, including Nazi propaganda posters and examples of Christmas presents from the war years - even an Adolf Hitler marionette!
At the end of the museum was a room filled with statements from survivors and victims in various languages. The final room had photographs of many of the people that Schindler was able to save.
I was really surprised by how spectacular the museum was; everything was in both Polish and English, making it easy for me to understand everything that was displayed. The level of detail that went into creating the museum and detailing out all of the events from the war was amazing. I could easily have spent an entire day at the museum; I had to rush through the last half since it was getting late (and I'd spent so much time reading everything during the first half!).
I made may way back to the old town for a quick dinner and one last stroll through the main square. Oh, and there was a guy playing the piano on the street... wearing a horse head mask.
When I got back to my hotel I received a rather unpleasant email concerning my safari tour of Africa: the tour price had increased $200 due to a new tax imposed by Tanzania. The government imposed an 18% VAT on safari tours and provided only a 1-week notice before it was implemented. Since the excursion into the Serengeti is in Tanzania, this caused the price to jump. Hardly good news one week prior to leaving on the tour.
Though this bad news was offset when I received my electronic ballot for the November election! I'll be able to print it out next week while I'm in Scotland and get it sent in before I leave for Africa! Huzzah!
... and now there are loud and obnoxious Italians in the courtyard outside yelling and screaming at one another...