I had actually planned this short South-East Europe trip to coincide with my first ever birthday outside my country – India. The last time a birthday cake was cut for me was four years back and I don’t care for my birthday anyway! This time also, no birthday cake was cut but however it was much special as I did not realize that I would be checking out 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites that day technically (to account for IST and CET time difference!).
On 9th July, I reached Country No. 8 (last country – Poland) of my trip. Kraków it is! There is some joie de vivre associated with this academic and artistic city which is an economic hub of Poland. Also former Pope John Paul II was a priest here before he became the Pope.Since Kraków was relatively undamaged in the Word War II, it retained its grand architecture almost intact and in its Old Town, it has the largest medieval market square in Europe,the Rynek Główny. My accommodation Cracow Hostel is located just at this square.
It was afternoon and I decided to take a bus to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wieliczka Salt Mine ((Polish: Kopalnia soli Wieliczka) from Kraków. I was searching for a Bus Ticket vending machine near the main train station Kraków Główny (as the Main Bus and Train stations are nearby) and found two girls- a Thai and a Polish checking out one vending machine. They told me that they were also visiting the salt mines but by train and the Polish girl helped me get a train ticket instead. I got a ticket valid for 6 hours as it would help me in availing of the return journey as well! Coincidentally we (including their friend – a guy from Ecuador) were in the same English guided tour group at the salt mines.
For me Wieliczka Salt Mine reminds me of that part of the Michael Palin travel documentary – ‘New Europe’ where he visits the Chapel of St. Kinga inside the mines which left him in awe at the nature of the work done in rock salt by miners and artists alike. When we reached the ‘Wieliczka Rynek – Kopalnia’ train stop from ‘Kraków Główny’, we looked for signs outside the station to reach the Danilowicz Shaft entrance (around 200 m from station). This is where the popular ‘Tourist Route’ starts.At 5:30 PM , we started off the tour with a guide – some 30+ of us in the group and went down many levels of stairs (around 30+ levels or floors !). Our guide was very informative and explained the process of salt mining since they started mining this area and also the history associated with the mines. We pass through different chambers, statues of salt ( for eg that of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,King Casimir III of Poland (Kazimierz Wielki)) and the pièce de résistance of the tour was of course the Chapel of St. Kinga which has impressive statues and chandeliers made of rock salt including a mural of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ in (of course) rock salt!
After the tour, I decided to have my dinner in what was described as the world’s only restaurant 125 m (not sure of this record!) under the ground – “Miners’ Tavern in the Budryk Chamber. I have read that the dishes are seasoned with Wieliczka salt. As I was about to finish my dinner, it was already 10 July in India (IST) and my birthday! A whole grilled chicken here costs somewhat at par or less than that in a fine-dine in New Delhi! A pre-birthday dinner many metres under the ground – that’s a first for me! I took the 9 PM train back to Kraków and met the same group of Polish girl, Thai girl and Ecuador guy in the train and we checked out the Kraków Market Square (part of UNESCO World Heritage site- Historic Centre of Kraków . More on it in another blog!) and then bade them good bye!
I woke up early morning on 10 July to catch the 6:48 AM train to Oświęcim 70 kms away (where the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Auschwitz Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945) is located) . Auschwitz is known as Auschwitz I and Birkenau (some 3 kms away from Auschwitz) is known as Auschwitz II.The grounds are open from 8 AM onwards. Between 10 AM-3 PM, because of crowd control purposes, entry is only possible with a guided tour (comes with an entry fee). So I arrived before 10 AM and did Auschwitz I for free (Auschwitz II is generally free anyway). I had some coffee and a zapiekanka (“an open-face Polish sandwich made of half of a baguette topped with sautéed white mushrooms, cheese and optionally other ingredients, and toasted until the cheese melts”) near the Auschwitz museum.Later bought a cheap Guide Book of the Museum and grounds from a souvenir group for my self-guided walk as the maps do help in navigating!
Once I entered the grounds of Auschwitz I, the cynical sign – “Arbeit macht frei” placed at the entrance appeared before me! This famous German phrase meaning “work makes (you) free” had been used in a number of Nazi concentration camps. Auschwitz will be where the human race had reached its nadir – the levels to which the Nazis had stooped low for the ‘purification ‘ of their race and the quest for their Third Reich. This is a place for solemn reflection and to pay homage to the people who had suffered from the atrocities of the war. There were so may buildings to cover in Auschwitz I but I also had Auschwitz II to visit that day quickly to get some time to discover other parts of Kraków. Auschwitz I is a better maintained museum and so it helped to navigate and understand this place at a decent pace. There were so many images and items here preserved which portray a testimony to the horrors of the World War II. Cans of gas used for mass murder of Jews and other prisoners, hair from women prisoners, left-over suitcases and personal belongings of the detained people – the more you see, the more you cannot help but get overwhelmed by the scale of the working mind-set of the Nazis.
There’s a free bus that shuttles between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).It just takes some around 5 minutes by bus to reach Birkenau . Unlike Auschwitz I , Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is not a full-fledged museum or a research centre. Effort has been made to keep it in the same state as it was during the war and some barracks are being restored and some remaining in ruins. The Nazis could not destroy much of it before the Red Army came to liberate it.So we can still see the railway track that bought thousands of prisoners to Birkenau. One of the memorial signs there read:
“Immediately after getting off the train, the Jews were ordered to line up into two columns, one of women and children and the other of men. Each column was subjected to ‘selections’ by SS doctors and medical orderlies, there and then on the ramp: the strong and the healthy were separated from the old, the sick and children.People selected as fit for work were sent to the camp.The others, usually 70 to 75 per cent of a transport , were sent to be murdered in the gas chambers.”
After spending an hour or so in the massive grounds of Birkenau, it was time for me to go back to Kraków. The heavy thoughts within me will continue to linger for a while…
1. Transport info between Kraków Główny to Wieliczka Rynek – Kopalnia and Oświęcim.
a) Train Ticket valid for 6 hrs from Kraków Główny to Wieliczka Rynek – Kopalnia and back : 5.6 PLN
b) Train Ticket from Kraków Główny to Oświęcim : 9.5 PLN
c) Train Ticket from Oświęcim to Kraków Główny : 9.5 PLN
2. Wieliczka Salt Mine :
Entry : 79 PLN + 10 PLN (for photos) . PLN (Polish Złoty)
Dinner : Grilled Whole Chicken, Bread and Coffee : 27 PLN
Few stats from wiki:
A wooden staircase with 378 steps provides access to the mine’s 64-metre (210-foot) level. A 3-kilometre (1.9-mile) tour features corridors, chapels, statues, and underground lake, 135 metres (443 ft) underground. An elevator (lift) returns visitors to the surface; the elevator holds 36 persons (nine per car) and takes some 30 seconds to make the trip.
3. Auschwitz Birkenau
Breakfast : Zapiekanka and coffee : 10.5 PLN
Baggage Locker fees : 3 PLN
Washroom usage : 1+1 PLN
Guide Book : 5 PLN
Hot Chocolate : 4 PLN
(I checked this link only)
(This is another new link which I did not check before )
Regular Entry Pass for individual visit for Guided Tours with Headphone : 40 PLN (I did for free as arrived before 10 AM)