from Sandy Needham

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Krakow Dispatch

November 18, 2006

The windows on the van were steamed up on a rainy night as we drove from Krakow airport to the Polish town of Gliwice, where a partner company operates. I could not form much of an impression, except that our modern hotel was extremely nice, and dinner in a typical Polish pub featured "cheese of a rich shepherd!" The hotel breakfast was the most elaborate of the entire trip. When I emerged to shop the next day for desperate boots, the town was rather forlorn and grey. I found the shopping adequate; the people rather distant (can be a blessing when shopping!). Interestingly enough, I found Polish faces the most similar to each other of all the places we'd been, and continually had to confirm that I had not walked into the same shop twice! A sea of consonants that are not pronounced the way they look typify the language, and I found, again, that my mouth wouldn't wrap itself around even 'thank you' in Polish. Most clerks and I could function with a word or two of English.

We had the usual highlight: dinner out with the natives from the company in a beautiful old hotel. The owner of the company is a dignified and elegant Pole - who actually kisses my hand! He is very proud of his country and very astute regarding European history. His wife, Eva, was commandeered to take me to Krakow the next day - I imagine against her will and at an inconvenient time - but she was wonderful about it.

Eva picked me up midday and we drove the hour to Krakow with relatively little conversation. Her English is limited, but she is very smart and interesting. She explained that we were meeting up with their daughter, who studies law in Krakow, and then going to a salt mine. We had lunch in a very typical Polish restaurant, and I believe I shall never forget the sauerkraut soup with a small pork rib in it - so divine! She forced me to stand in front of the little mill wheel, then the mantle, then the little typical chairs for photos, which made me yearn to see Krakow by myself, but it all turned out to be well worth the crazy photo aspect. When it looked like we were going to run out of time to make it to the salt mine, I wanted to say it was all right with me to skip the salt mine. After stopping for a couple of photos of her daughter and me, we were all sprinting down the street on our full stomachs to catch the last bus to the salt mine.

Well, the salt mine is just unbelievable! It is outside Krakow in Wieliczka. Mining began there in the middle ages and lasted until 1996, but a 'tourist route' was laid out at the end of the 18th century. This route is only a fraction of the miles of tunnels going down into the earth. We walked down 800 stairs to go 400 meters deep, and then shot back up like rockets in an elevator at the end. The air is kept at an even, comfortably cool temperature at all times, and the well-lit, spacious passageways and gigantic chambers preclude claustrophobia. The crux of the matter is that miners have hand-dug (and later dynamited) these chambers and sculpted the salt into chapels (for praying that you wouldn't die each day from methane explosions or mine collapse) and even a huge cathedral with salt architecture, statuary, bas relief, and chandeliers (out of crystal salt). The baby Jesus is sculpted out of a special pink salt! Most of the sculptured salt is a grey color, and has taken on a finish over the years very much like marble. The work is magnificent, especially in the cathedral, which was carved by three miners over 80 years. The other crux of the matter is that as you move down through the mine, the history of Poland travels with you. Copernicus was here; Goethe was here (besides a poet, he was the director of the mining commission in Germany). There is even a chamber with a stocky, muscular Soviet sculpture. Some chambers have salt lakes with the salt concentration of the Dead Sea. These render the air very pure and healing, hence the existence of the allergy/asthma clinic there for two-week underground cures. There are huge spaces for concerts and weddings, as well. I must say, who knew? I just loved the tour, and there are about 100 photos of me standing in front of nearly everything!

We spent the rest of the evening seeing the beautiful old city of Krakow. The university where Eva also studied law is 640 years old; the huge town square is alive with students (Krakow is like Boston, student-wise), the imposing Mariacki Cathedral with its two distinctive towers, and the old guild hall; finally, the most endlessly gigantic round castle imaginable overlooks all from a fortress hill.

Up at 4:00 the next morning to fly to Athens!


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