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Part 3: Wieliczka Salt Mine, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Auschwitz, Krakow

28.5: Dresden ->Jawor -> Wroclaw -> Krakow
29.5: Krakow
30.5: Krakow -> Wieliczka Salt Mine -> Kalwaria Zebrzydowska -> Krakow
31.5: Krakow -> Auschwitz (Oswiecim) -> Krakow
1.6: Krakow

30.5: Krakow -> Wieliczka Salt Mine -> Kalwaria Zebrzydowska -> Krakow
Aparthotel Pergamin, Krakow.
Weather: mostly sunny blue sky with a few clouds. Temperatures a bit more fresh than yesterday (probably around 20C). No rain.

We leave the hotel at 11am, and briefly stop in a bakery for some late breakfast/early lunch. It must be 11:50am or so when we start driving towards the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which should be just 16km from Krakow.

Getting there takes longer than expected, because initially we are stuck in the traffic in Krakow, then the Navigon navigation system sends us on a narrow unpaved dirt track, where we do a few km. I really wonder why Navigon keeps dirt tracks in their database as usable roads.

Once we reach the village near the mine, we do a proximity search for touristic highlights and finally find the mine in the Navigon software. Still 3km to go and at 12:30pm we are at the mine.

We leave the car in the mine parking lot (15 zloty), then buy the ticket. A family ticket for two adults + two kids 4-17 years old costs 190 zloty (+10 zloty camera fee), really very expensive. The next possible time to go down into the mine is 1pm. Lots of people visiting this site, I guess it must be good business for the site operator.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are 13 such sites in Poland, four of them in or near Krakow.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a former salt mine, which now has been converted to a sort of a museum. Tourists can visit some of the former shafts. The deepest point accessible to tourists is 110m below ground level.

At 1pm we enter the site. Initially we start walking down a long wooden staircase (total of 380 steps, 54 stairs of 7 steps each). Once we are at the bottom we start walking together with our guide, an English-speaking Pole. For almost two hours the guide will show us around the mine (we are together with a small group, total of around 20-25 people).

It's quite dark down there, too dark for handheld photography even using high ISO and image stabilisation. I have a tripod with me and set the camera to ISO 200, to avoid having too long exposure times (the longest exposure is 25 seconds at F5.6 and ISO200). The group moves quickly from one spot to the next and there is not much time to set up the camera and take a shot.

The temperature inside the mine is around 16C, not really cold. I carry a light jacket with me all the time and end up not using it. There is some air circulation in the shafts, either natural or there must be a ventilation system. We see a chapel and a church.

Everywhere there are statues and bas-reliefs made out of salt rock by the miners over the centuries. Every now and then there is some water pond and we see a few spots where there are tourist facilities (toilets, souvenir shops) - all deep under the earth. Must not be fun to work in the mine full time, in all that darkness.

It's quite tiring to walk around for almost two hours in this mine (I'm surprised that the kids walk, walk and walk without complaining). The sights are quite cool, but after some time enough is enough. Finally at 2:45pm the tour finishes and we head to the exit. Then we queue up for the lift. It's almost one hour of waiting time. At 10 to 4pm we finally get out of the mine. Some more walking and at 4pm we are in the car.

We then drive to the next place, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. This is another UNESCO world heritage site ("Kalwaria Zebrzydowska: the Mannerist Architectural and Park Landscape Complex and Pilgrimage Park"). We arrive at 5:35pm, after a meal stop in a KFC restaurant along the way.

I really wonder what is so special about this place to warrant the entry into the UNESCO list, because it is just another monastery, with a nice church, but not overly impressive. This place is not more interesting than the Benediktbeuern or Ettal monasteries in Bavaria, yet gets an entry in the UNESCO list. The church is nicely decorated though.

We don't spend too much time here and in fact shortly after 6pm we start driving back. We spend the evening in a Carrefour mall near Krakow, where we have dinner and buy some groceries and other stuff.

31.5: Krakow -> Auschwitz (Oswiecim) -> Krakow
Aparthotel Pergamin, Krakow.
Weather: mostly overcast with the sun peeking through every now and then (especially in the late afternoon). No rain, more fresh than yesterday (around 20C).

Today the plan is to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp site. From what I've been told this can be done in two hours, so the idea is to be back in Krakow in the afternoon and do something else. In reality we'll end up spending much more time in Oswiecim than originally planned and we'll be back in Krakow only after 7pm.

We leave Krakow by car at 12pm. I key in the Auschwitz site into the navigation system and reach the site at 1:15pm. We leave the car in the parking (8 zloty) and proceed to the site.

I'm a bit concerned about today's visit because I'm with the family and don't know how to explain to my kids (two girls, 4 and 8 years old) what happened here. They are probably too small to understand properly and might be shocked if told what happened here.

It turns out that the navigation system didn't bring us to the place with the barracks camp and the train line passing through the building, but as I find out later that is Birkenau, not Auschwitz.

We buy the tickets (80 zloty for two adults, the kids don't pay). People are assigned to a guided group. These are available in different languages, we join the German language tour. The guided visit of the Auschwitz site takes about 1:30 hours.

The Auschwitz site now is sort of an open air museum. Assuming the buildings we see are the original ones and not reconstructed versions, the site consisted of a number of red brick houses facing each other in two or three rows. The site, or let's say what is accessible to tourists, is relatively small. For instance, the Dachau concentration camp is way bigger.

Lots, really lots of people visiting the site. I see several groups of children and other young people, which perhaps are school classes, and also a group of Japanese.

The buildings on the site are all converted to museums showing photos and other artifacts of the time.

At 2:40pm we drive into Oswiecim. Before that I make a detour to another site in Oswiecim, which turns out to be the Birkenau site. Since Shirley and the kids are hungry (it's almost 3pm and we haven't had lunch yet), I bring them to the Carrefour mall we spotted before and then drive back to the Birkenau site.

Free parking is available at the site, if you ignore the paid for parkings near the site.

Birkenau looks like a real concentration camp: on a very wide area there are countless rows of wooden and brick barracks. Only a few of the wooden barracks are still left standing, while a much larger number of the brick barracks are still there. The entire camp is surrounded by barbed wire. The camp is crossed by a the tracks of a railway line. In the rear part of the camp there is a memorial with metal plates in several languages and the ruins of the gas chambers and cremation ovens.

After one and a half hours at the Birkenau site, at 5:30pm I drive back to the Carrefour mall to pick up Shirley. By the way, Oswiecim seems to be a small modern and dynamic city. After some shopping in the mall, at 6:30pm we drive back to Krakow. In the evening we have a dinner in the Asian restaurant near the hotel.

1.6: Krakow
Hotel Pergamin, Krakow.
Weather: overcast, cold, intermittent rain until the early afternoon. The sky opens up in the evening. Temperatures well below 20C.

Because it is raining in the morning we stay in the room long and only leave after 12pm. We have a lunch in the Asian restaurant near the hotel, then walk to the car. Today we'll visit two places, the Wawel hill and Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. Both places are in walking distance, but it is always a challenge to make small kids walk and Shirley isn't too pleased either to walk a lot.

We park the car below the Wawel hill and proceed up to the castle. It starts raining heavily for a few minutes. Strong wind, inclement weather today. At the cashier I try to get tickets for the state rooms, the treasury & armory and the private quarters, but they tell me there is only time for two places and recommend the state rooms and the treasury&armory (94 zloty for the four of us, Alissia pays a reduced price, Natasha doesn't pay.

We have to leave the bags in a deposit and photography is not allowed. At 2:25pm we start visiting the state rooms. It turns out that they are nothing special, we could have saved time and money. Inside there are some paintings, wall carpets and some furniture, but nothing that impressive. This contrasts with what the Rough guide writes, which rates the Wawel castle highly.

I have a quick look inside the church near the castle. This is nice inside, but by far (actually by orders of magnitude) not as impressive as the church of Mary on the Stare Miasto. I decide to skip it.

We then proceed to the treasury & armory. This is much more interesting. It appears that many of the exposed artifacts come from Germany and only some are original Polish. Big collection of swords, spears, halberds, suits of armor, 16th to 18th century fire weapons etc. Also nice collection of gold artwork.

Shortly after 3pm (it took us about an hour to visit the two places in the Wawel castle), we walk down to the river. We do so by using a staircase which goes through a "dragon cave" (3 zloty/person). Not sure why it is called dragon cave, must be a legend.

Outside there is a bronze statue of a dragon which every two minutes spits fire. Groups of (probably Polish) kids/students pose in front of this statue. It's 3:45pm now and we head to Kazimierz.

Getting there by car involves negotiating the Krakow Friday afternoon traffic and crossing twice the Vistula river. We leave the car somewhere (3 zloty/hour for the parking), then walk towards the Jewish area.

The area is moderately interesting. There are some interesting buildings (among them the former town hall of Kazimierz) and some churches. We pass what must be Schindler's factory (I hear that from a guide), then we end up in a longish square in Szeroka street.

There we get adopted by a local guide who for 160 zloty will show us around for 45 minutes. They guy brings us with his electric car to various places, some of which we had missed, and explains what everything is. Not exactly cheap, but quite informative and less tiring for the kids to walk.

After the tour, at 6:10pm we have a dinner in a cafe-restaurant on Wolnica square. After that we return to the hotel.

Surprise, surprise, turns out that I entered the wrong date for the second room booking. I booked 28.5-1.6 through booking.com and then, when I wanted to extend the room by one night, I had to make a new booking because the system won't allow me to modify the dates of the 28.5-1.6 booking. It happened that instead of entering 1.6-2.6 as booking date for the room I entered 31.5-1.6. Now the hotel staff insists that I pay an extra night (I already paid 5 nights) and our room has not been cleaned. What a mess and poor service quality of this hotel.

In the evening, between 9 and 9:40pm I'm along the Vistula river shooting photos of the Wawel hill.

Copyright 2012 Alfred Molon