TRAVEL: Going underground in Krakow
Krakow, Poland. One of Europe's most beautiful cities, listed as a World Heritage site. With impressive monuments, churches and fine architecture untouched by war, it should be on every traveller's bucket list.
There's more to Krakow than meets the eye, however. Just outside the city, deep below ground level is Wieliczka, the site of a 900 year old salt mine which is, today, open to visitors, in fact more than 1 ½ million a year.
To say this place is truly amazing would be an understatement. In many years of travel around the world, I've never seen anything like it. Sure I've seen caves, mines and underground houses but this is something else. Even photographic images can hardly do justice to this extraordinary place.
Here are some interesting facts about the Wieliczka Salt Mine:
Settlement of the area began in the Neolithic period 5,000 years ago, when salt was extracted from brine.
In the 13th century, rock salt was discovered and the first shaft constructed.
In the Middle Ages salt was a valuable trading commodity ("grey gold") used especially for food preservation. Krakow's wealth and strategic importance gained.
In the last nine centuries, 7.5 million cubic metres of salt have been extracted.
The mine today has nine floors from 64 metres to 327 metres underground.
Tours reach a depth of 130 metres to the 3rd level, only 3% of the workings.
Awarded World Heritage status in 1978, now nearly 2 million visitors a year.
There's a full-size chapel underground and regular mass is held.
The Salt Mine Health Resort offers medical services and a wellness programme.
Back on the surface, there are so many things to do in a short stay in Krakow that choices are difficult. Schindler's Factory will bring back memories of the famous movie and is well worth a visit in addition to a walking tour of Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter dating from the 14th century and now a budding creative enclave of "alternative" boutiques, design studios, hip cafes and naturally, a youthful vibe.
Then, nearby there's Auschwitz-Birkenau which attracts more than 2 million tourists a year. We chose not to do this, but obviously many think otherwise. From comments made by locals, they're disappointed that so many people come to Krakow purely to go to a death camp, and miss the real essence of this vibrant city of life.
From daytime touring to nocturnal activities, from shopping to musical events, Krakow is possibly the finest example of a medieval and Baroque city in Europe, whether above or below the ground.
Emirates has daily one-stop flights via Dubai to Warsaw, with a connection to Krakow by air. Better still there's a fast train from Warsaw which covers the journey in 3 hours.
The Hotel Niebieski is a good choice on the riverside, 10 minutes by tram to the city centre. Staying in the centre itself may not suit insomniacs... it can be quite noisy at night.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Poland can be expensive for making calls to Australia, so a GOSIM card is the answer, with cheap call and text rates.