| Part 3: Wieliczka Salt
Mine, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, Auschwitz,
30.5: Krakow ->
Wieliczka Salt Mine -> Kalwaria Zebrzydowska -> Krakow
Weather: mostly sunny
blue sky with a few clouds. Temperatures a bit more fresh than
yesterday (probably around 20°C). 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.
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
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 16°C, 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
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
Weather: mostly overcast
with the sun
peeking through every now and then (especially in the late afternoon).
No rain, more fresh than yesterday (around 20°C).
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
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.
Hotel Pergamin, Krakow.
Weather: overcast, cold,
rain until the early afternoon. The sky opens up in the evening.
Temperatures well below 20°C.
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
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
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
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
In the evening, between 9 and 9:40pm I'm along the Vistula river
shooting photos of the Wawel hill.