Greg and Tom’s hostel goes on my list of top hostels, and certainly one of the best I’ve seen in Europe – a close call between it and Wombat in Vienna. Free breakfast included, and it’s impressive – and then a surprise dinner every night. While sitting in the common room one of the staff walked through offering everyone ice-cream sundaes, and the second night they had free vodka tastings. The rooms are split into apartments throughout the building, so every three or so rooms has its own kitchen, bathroom and mini common room. No bunks, and the dorms that I saw maxed at 4 beds. Incredible.
That being said, I’d originally planned on dumping my bags and heading straight for Auschwitz. Thinking about it, I decided it’d be preferable to save that for a group thing and go see the Wielicza mines today. When UNESCO Heritage Sites started, they began with just twelve sites – and these mines are one of the original twelve – as was Kraków’s Old Town!.
Kraków City Tours runs a bus out to the Wielicza mines in the afternoon, so until then I explored some of the old town of Kraków – or Stare Miasto. The edge is just a few minutes walk from Greg and Tom’s, and it’s fantastic. Where there was once a massive wall protecting it, they’ve since taken that down and replaced it with lightly forested parkland. As such, this means there’s a park that completely encircles the old town – with bike/running tracks, benches and gardens. The old town is centered around Rynek Glowny (the main Marketplace) from which all the major streets radiate outwards.
In the main square – I arrived just on the hour, which was great timing as St Mary’s Church – a church originally built in 1220, has a trumpeter play the Hejnal Mariacki from its tower on the hour, and is cut short suddenly, supposedly in recognition of a trumpeter shot by an arrow in 1241. Except as one finds out on the walking tour later, this is merely a nice story.
I went for food in a little traditional restaurant, and with my list of suggestions from Malgorzata back in Vianden, started with zurek – a soup made from soured rye flour and meat and pierogi – a sort of dumplings stuffed with ground meat, cheese or well…anything, sprinkled with bacon bits. I quite like Polish food!
Following that I made my way to the tour company and hopped onboard their bus. After a few minutes it started up and the guide started prattling away in Spanish. Just when I was panicking over being on the wrong bus and struggling to keep up with his rapid monologue, he then switched to English and mentioned there were two guides. Phew!
Just 17km from Kraków are the Wielicza Salt Mines. However 17km on a bus after a restless night is enough to make me drowsy, and I grudgingly alighted from the bus and joined the walk up the hill to the mines. Again, yes one can totally do this with a local bus or train, but the added benefit of a group is people to talk to, and soon enough I was chatting with an older Irish guy about rugby, two Americans (mother and daughter) about their ‘5 star’ trip, and a South African girl who was just about to leave London.
The mines themselves have been mined continuously since the 13th century, right up until 2007, making it the 14th oldest company of any sort still in operation. They have had quite the guest list over time, including Nicolaus Copernicus (there’s a statue of him in one cavern), Robert Baden-Powell, Pope John Paul II (he has a statue too!), Bill Clinton and more.
We walked down 54 flights of stairs to start the tour, a nice bit of exercise in itself. The tour does go a bit too fast for my liking, but there’s a lot to see – including over 3.5km of tunnels, albeit less than 1% of the mine. It includes replica machinery, mini-chapels, exhibits, lots of old tunnels, shafts and stalactites of salt(!) – before you finally reach the two main attractions. The first is the only place in the mine where you have to *pay* to take photos, and on principle I refused and walked through. I took one look at the scene and walked straight back, plonked down the cash and strode back armed with my camera. The world’s largest underground cathedral lay before us as we looked out over it from an upstairs balcony. Complete with chandeliers, altar and frescos all around, it was nothing short of incredible.
Following this is a brief light show at an underground lake (pretty good, but I’d preferred to just have seen the lake), and then exiting through a carved out hall large enough to hold a full-size football match, and up the elevator, avoiding climbing 54 flights again, thankfully.
Back in town, I ended up with Shona the South African, and Jan and Kim the mother and daughter Americans who weren’t doing things by halves. Staying in top accommodation, they were quite intrigued by hostels – especially Kim who was considering a trip herself as a change from the current method of travel. They were following the advice of Rick Steve’s guide book – the second time I’d heard mention of this book, and we used it to locate – of all things when on a budget – a Michelin guide recommended restaurant in the heart of the old town. While certainly more expensive than my lunch, it wasn’t actually that outrageously priced and the food and company was excellent (wild mushroom soup in a bowl of bread, with stewed sauerkraut with mushrooms, sausages and more served on a frying pan)* and by the time I’d made it back to my room well after midnight, I was quite happy to crash and sleep.
*On that note, many observant readers have pointed out I tend to focus on the food when I travel. For me, a big part of culture IS the food and therefore is one of the great parts of travel. I read a story about a backpacker who lived on chicken, rice and veges because it was cheap and he could get it anywhere in the world – which is great to save cash, but after a while one would despise meal time, surely. Each to their own.
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