Travel July 2002

The Jewel of Poland

Once again, many-faceted Kraków sparkles

The mood in the bars is wonderfully convivial and welcoming, and since there are so many students, one is likely to find at least a few willing to practice their English. But Americans especially need be forewarned: the places are like machines for turning tobacco leaf into smoke. You literally can't make out the far side of the room, maybe fifteen feet away. One fellow suggested that I break the filter off one of his cigarettes and at least breathe through that: it would doubtless be healthier, he assured me, than breathing the ambient smoke straight.

After an evening in a Kraków bar the best place to spend the next morning may be the salt mines—in particular, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, reputed to have some of the purest air in the world. The guides explain that the caverns' salt walls, with their negative charge, magnetically attract all the positively charged impurities floating in the atmosphere. The mine is about half an hour out of town to the southeast (buses leave often throughout the day from the central station, or you can hire a taxi for the morning). It was in continuous operation for more than seven centuries, during which the miners burrowed deeper and deeper, carving underground chambers out of the thick veins of rock salt in a process that went on till just a few years ago, by which point more than 2,000 chambers on nine levels (ranging from depths of about 210 to about 1,070 feet) were vertically connected by dozens of shafts and horizontally connected by more than 120 miles of corridors. (There's even a thriving overnight health spa on Level Five!)

The mine tours, which leave every half hour or so (English-language versions are scattered throughout the day), begin with a mesmerizing corkscrew descent of 378 steps from the surface to the shallowest level. And though it's all sort of kitschy in a mass-touristy way, then again, it's emphatically not. For one thing, visitors have been touring these mines almost since their inception. Copernicus came through, as did Goethe and Pilsudski and John Paul II—their visits memorialized by stout likenesses carved out of salt. The sculptures and all the other detailing (intricate bas-relief renditions of Leonardo's Last Supper and other paintings) are the creation of generation upon generation of miners. In addition, there are heartrending dioramas illustrating the sheer labor, and the dangers and the ingenuity, involved in excavating the treasured rock—showing, for instance, the way workhorses were winched down steep shafts, never to see the light of day again.

Our tour burrowed past poignant chapels and chandelier-decked pavilions (sites of glittering midnight balls during the Hapsburg era) and vast networks of drainage sluices and cart tracks. There were crystal-clear underground lakes so mineral-saturated that they cannot absorb another gram of salt, and hence no longer dissolve their shores, and vast, hangarlike vaults, some more than half a soccer field deep (sites recently, we were told, of the world's first underground bungee-jumping competitions). Deeper and deeper we went, past intricate, Escherlike concatenations of perpendicular rafters and stanchions, till we at last reached Level Three, the deepest we would be allowed to visit on the public tour, 443 feet below ground level. (We were urged not to worry: on the far side of that level we would quickly be spirited to the surface, in narrow shaft elevators.)

We entered a huge vault, perhaps the vastest yet, and noticed an incongruous Star of David hanging over its entrance. It turns out that this chamber was once even deeper, but during the war the Nazis coated the bottom with a thick layer of concrete, the basis for a factory in which enslaved Jews spent their last days manufacturing the V1 rockets that would presently rain down on London.

There is no place in Kraków not steeped in history. A plaintive trumpet sounds—or maybe so one merely imagines—and is cut off abruptly in midstrain.

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