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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

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September 19. KRAKOW "700 Year Old Salt Mines at Wieliczka"  The sales mines at Wieliczka, pronounced Vaylichka, were one of the those unexpectedly rewarding sites along our trip.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these 700 year old continuously running salt mines were a bizarre underworld of salt carved rooms, statues, and chapels. The extensiveness of the mines were hard to even grasp from our two and half hour tour.  In that time we covered eleven caves or chambers through three kilometers of stairways, pathways and bridges, which only amounted to about 1% of the total size of these mines.    

Our tour started with a long drop of stairs to 64 meters below ground.  From there other stairways led us deeper and deeper as we wove through cavernous chambers.  Some of the chambers were left as a museum to the work being done in the mines while others, showing how salt was mined and moves, and how water was kept out.  Other chambers were works of art created by the miners using various mediums of salt - from the dark green colored salt to clear crystal salt.  They created statues in honor of famous people or to tell Polish legends but most impressive creations were the chapels chiseled out of salt walls and decorated with salt tiles, crystal salt chandeliers, The Last Supper in salt relief, statues of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus on the Cross.  The largest and most awesome of these was the Chapel of the Blessed Kings, a church measuring 54 meters by 17 meters and rising 12 meters high with a row of crystal salt chandeliers hanging down the middle.  The sublime experience of this place was only compromised by the two large tour groups of Israeli high school kids that ahead of us.  They were already clapping loudly and singing in Hebrew when we entered the chapel.  We never entirely escaped them during the whole of our tour and as thrilling as it must have been to hear their voices echo in the massive chambers it was really inappropriate and disrespectful to do it in the chapels.  As unconventional as the chapels were they were still built as places of worship by the Catholic mining community.  But, what can you really expect for groups of 60 high schools led by one adult each, especially when that adult was offended at the mere suggestion that her children were not behaving appropriately. 

Some of the chambers we entered where much greater in size than the beautiful church but lacked any decorative detail.  Still their sheer size was impressive in itself, one with a large pool of water at the bottom and another so enormous that they once lifted a hot air balloon within it!  We saw some of the rails used that were used, at one time, to move salt within the caves.  Another cave rose high up to meet with other cave and revealed a complex network of rafters designed to support the maze.  Many of the wooden structures were 250 years old, with the oldest being 500 years old, and with little show of wear.  The cool salty air acted as a wood preservative and the few wooden statues we saw were also looking as good as new.  One smaller but still quite roomy chamber housed a wooden wheel once propelled by horses to set in motion an apparatus on higher "floors".  Horses were used actually used in the mines up until mid-2002.

The two and half hour tour of the mines gave us good glimpse into this underworld were miners today still toil away after 700 years.  It concluded in a souvenir shop with a small makeshift post office.  A restaurant was also attached but as it was set up for a special event was not available to serve us.  We lingered for a while until it looked like the high school kids had filtered their way to the surface.  An escort was needed to get us to the elevator and we waited for the next call but inadvertently ended up with a group leaving for the more extended visit to the mining museum.  Realizing this too late we broke away at the first sign directing us to the elevator and ended up in a swarm of high school kids.  We were soon joined by a German couple that was also lost.  It was just us and about 120 Israeli high school-ers.  One of their chaperones sat next to me with her nose staunchly in the air, offended that we had dared to ask her to quiet her brood.  We were relieved when the doors opened and we were able to file into the area next to the elevators.  We quickly moved to the elevator queue while the two chaperones tried to organize their student mob.  In a few minutes we were crammed into the second level of of a metal two level elevator.  It had not been installed for tourist use and as the mesh metal doors folded closed and we rapidly began to ascend we realized that there were no lights.  People squealed in excitement and the elevator zoomed.  These were the voices we had heard when were started our original descent into the mines.  They were a bit unsettling at the time but now totally understandable.  We were above ground in a minute.

Pausing before cramming ourselves into another minibus bound back to Krakow we nibbled on some Polish sausages - a truly worthy fast food alternative.  The 15 kilometer ride back to town seemed long but we stayed together this time.  On our ride out we got separated and Rob rode smashed between the bus wall and a large Polish woman in the very back of the minibus.  I was sitting just ahead of him and had my own seat but had frequent close encounters with peoples' butts as they got in and out of the bus and dodged some scary arm pit hair from a woman standing next to me.  We were glad to get back to Krakow and as a reward treated ourselves to a coffee on Rynek Główny.  The weather had been holding up brilliantly and it was a nice afternoon for strolling the old town area.   Finally, tired and hungry, we sat down for a gyro, the Greek version of a Kebab sandwich, and then headed back to our hostel.

POLAND Warsaw Sept 16-17 Krakow Sept 18 Sept 19 Sept 20 Sept 21-22

CZECH REPUBLIC Prague Sept 23 Sept 24-25 Cesky Krumlov Sept 26 Sept 27-30

AUSTRIA Vienna Oct 1 Oct 2

HUNGARY Budapest Oct 3 Oct 4 Oct 5-6