Jeff O'Keefe

Krakow – Auschwitz, Salt Mines and Bike Rides

I am writing about our week in Krakow from Amman, Jordan. From Warsaw, we travelled by train to Krakow. It was about a three hour train ride. Nic loves trains much more than busses. I booked first class but it was extremely hot (no AC) on the train. We both had window seats facing each other but Nic had the breeze from the window and I had none. I survived nonetheless. Our AirBnB was a small apartment about a five minute walk from the train station. It was a great location for the whole visit.

The Old Town Free Walking Tour in Krakow started from the Barbican at the start of Old Town. It was pretty much the same company as the tours in Warsaw called Walkative. Unlike Warsaw, Old Town Krakow survived WWII much more unscathed. For this reason it was on the first ever UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The buildings have survived pretty much from the Middle Ages. Our tour guide was Big Tom (about my height). He has a university degree in History and had a lot of knowledge of the history of the city and the Old Town area. This is the same university that Copernicus studied at. We explored the city walls, the main market square, St. Mary’s Church, Wawel Hill, the Castle and Wawel’s dragon. We also saw the Franciscan Church where Pope John Paul II was a cardinal and the papal window.

Horses got upset with Big Tom

Later that evening, we went and did a second free walking tour. This one was called Macabre Krakow. I have done the Jack the Ripper Tour in London which was pretty spooky. These stories were not that spooky but wandering the streets at night makes them a little more scary. Near the end of the tour, there was a scary guy waiting that helped the guide with some of his stories of how people were executed.

On our second day, we walked to the Jewish Quarter and explored a bit. We went to a very old Jewish cemetery. I think most of the graves predate WWII but we did see some from during the war. We also found a mall where there was a movie theatre. We went and saw the new Lion King movie. After the movie, we walked back home.

On day three we separated for the day. I had booked a tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nic had no interest in going back as she had been years before. I am not going to recount everything about Auschwitz and Birkenau as most people know its historical significance. The tour was from noon until 7pm. I will say that there was a lot I learned from the tour and being there puts a lot in perspective of what I knew before and now. It was August 1st… the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. At 5pm sirens rang and people blew their horns.

While I was on the tour, Nic had a day of fun on her own. She bought herself some new shoes. She went to the botanical gardens but to get was cash only. She admired from the outside. She read her book in a park for a while.

The next day we decided to rent bikes and go find the Benedictine Abbey at Tyniec. We signed up for an account with Wavelo. For 29 PLN you can rent a bike for a day. We had nothing but problems. First, my credit card was not accepted. Mastercard had put a restriction on it because of a charge that another app I had set up for Jordan. I created a different account in Nic’s name. It took forever but we finally got it set up. We were supposed to be able to rent a second bike however it would not work. A call to customer service revealed that with the 29 PLN charge you cannot do that. So, we had one bike signed out and could not get a second. Then, I decided to set up a third account using a different email address. Finally, after about an hour of screwing around, we had a second bike. Ugh.

The biggest challenge with getting to Tyniec was getting out of the city centre area. Google maps was pretty confusing as it took us through areas that did not seem like we should be able to go through. The traffic was intimidating. However, we finally got on a bike path and were on our way out of the city centre.

On the shores of the Vistula River

We stopped for lunch just outside of the Krakow city limits. It was an empty restaurant on the shore of the Vistula River. We put the bikes on hold which locks them and allows us to save them. After we ate, we went to take the bikes off hold and they would not reactivate. Mine released the bike which was a big problem. Since the system thought I dropped the bike outside of the city limits, it charged me 100 PLN (about $33 CAD) and froze my account until it was paid. I called customer service and the lady told me that she could unlock it one time only but my account would still be frozen. I explained to her what had happened but she refused to remove the freeze and charge on my account. I was pretty angry to say the least. Nic’s bike would not come off hold either. However, the customer service lady said she could reset it. Why she could for Nic but not for me is unclear. Nevertheless, my suggestion is think twice if you decide to rent these. I have written a complaint to the company and we shall see whether they remove the charge. Either way I will never pay it but the result is I will never be able to rent from them again.

The Princess on her squeaky steed

Once our bikes were unlocked, we continued our ride to Tyniec. From our place it was about a 16km ride each way. The abbey was constructed likely in the 10th century. There was a period with no monks but in 1939 they moved back in. Despite all of the headaches with renting the bikes, we had a lovely ride and were gone for a good six hours including stops.

On Saturday (day 5 in Krakow), we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. You can do it on a tour including pick up from your place for about $55 CAD. However, if you buy an online skip the line ticket it costs about $33 to get in. Wieliczka is about 20 minutes by train and costs about $1 CAD for a ticket. Unfortunately we missed a train by minutes coming back and took a bus that cost us about $3 CAD (hmmmm). It also costs about $3.33 CAD for a sticker that allows you to take pictures.

We went to Wieliczka earlier than our admission tickets were for. We had about an hour and a half to explore the town. We had brought some food from our place and ate our lunch in the town square. It was quite lovely. We wandered around and saw churches, castles, etc.

Despite the skip the line ticket, you still had to stand in a queue to get in. We were at the back of the line and people in front of us had times that were much later than ours. We finally snuck our way forward and ultimately the lady allowed us in ahead of the queue. Every ticket is a tour which is really why you do not need to do a tour from Krakow. 9000 people per day go in the mine during the summer. The tour starts by descending 65 metres and finishes at 135 metres below the surface. At the end you take an elevator back to the surface.

The mine is not operational anymore since about 1996. It still employs about 100 mine workers to keep it safe for tours and about 400 tour guides in 22 languages. Underground you learn about how they extracted the salt over hundreds of years. They used horses underground to turn the pulleys and pull carts. The horses stayed underground for about ten years or more. A half kilo of salt was worth about one kilo of gold.

Also, many of the open caverns have salt carvings in them. One of the most impressive ones is a cathedral with an altar, statues, chandeliers and more all carved from salt. It is a challenge to take good pictures underground but here are some of our better ones.

At the end of the mine tour, you can enter the saltworks museum still underground. Of the 9000 tourists per day, only about 400 per day go in the museum. It is also with a tour guide. I am not sure why so many people do not want to see the whole thing. We did though. It is an extra hour with more artefacts and information about the history of the salt mine.

On Sunday we went to the Rynek Underground Museum in the main square in Krakow. Emily had told us that it was one of the things she liked most in Krakow so I figured we should see it. We made an online reservation for admission which was 21 PLN each (about $7 CAD). In 2005, archeological expeditions began of the main market square area. What was discovered was evidence of a thriving market city in the middle ages. The museum lies beneath the current market square. The city level now has been built up above the street level of those times. There are a series of videos that you can watch that really lay out the history of Krakow from the beginning to the current day.

Monday morning was a very early start for us. We woke up at about 3:30am to head to the airport. From the train station it is about a 20 minute ride. Our flight was at 7am so we were at the airport by 5am. It all went smoothly and my next post will be from Jordan. We have 19 days here so I will likely break it up.

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