‘Go ahead,’ says Sonia, our guide. ‘You can lick the walls. It’s pure salt.’
We – a group of mediapersons from the UAE, part of a fam tour courtesy of flydubai – were in the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow, Poland, getting a taste of the spectacular creations of miners over the centuries.
A Unesco World Heritage site, the mine that dates back to the 13th century is one of the most popular attractions in Krakow. Last year alone 1.7million tourists from over 200 countries walked through the mine – and at least a few thousands must have licked the walls. That perhaps was a reason none of us were keen to take up our guide’s offer.
Always in search of new experiences, I, however, wanted to taste the wall, though I was not keen to deposit my saliva on the sides of Polish mines nor taste someone else’s. So how do I confirm that the walls are really made of salt and not just take the guide’s word for it?
After ruminating on it for a while, I scraped the wall close to the floor using my finger nail – hoping no one would have stooped that low to lick the sides. Popping the flakes that came off into my mouth I was overwhelmed by the salty taste. I pinched the wall once again and tasted the crumbly bits relishing the gritty salt.
I would soon realise that the walls were, quite literally, only a taste of things to come. A treasure trove of history, culture, architecture and art, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must-visit for tourists.
‘Come along,’ said our guide, herding us into a rudimentary lift that would plunge 135m – around 40 floors – below the ground where we could witness the splendid handiwork of salt miners who carved chandeliers, chapels, sculptures, even a replica of The Last Supper all from blocks of salt. We would also meander through some three kilometres of chasms carved into solid rock salt and trudge down 350 steps of the mine shaft to witness absolutely amazing works of art... But I’m racing ahead.
It was in April that flydubai invited a select group of media from the UAE to be part of the inaugural flight to Krakow. If travelling on a brand new flight was a novel experience, the water salute the flydubai flight received after it landed late at night at John Paul II International Airport was the cherry on the cake.
Checking into the grand Sheraton Grand in Krakow and a relaxing night later, I was roused by a melodious peal of church bells. Drawing the curtains I was greeted with a spectacular view of one of the most famous historical buildings in Krakow – the Wawel Castle and the church in its neighbourhood.
An iconic structure, the castle has an interesting history as I would learn during a tour of the place later that morning.
‘See that dragon?’ asked our guide, pointing to a 6m tall bronze statue of a dinosaur-looking dragon standing on its hind legs, jaw agape and peering at the sky. If a Polish legend is to be believed, this was one mean creature; centuries ago it used to terrorise villagers destroying their homes and gobbling up young girls. ‘Yes, strangely, only young girls,’ says our guide.
To end the menace, the king offered the hand of his daughter to anyone who would rid the town of the dragon. Enter a young cobbler named Krak who cunningly finished off the creature and wedded the princess. The icing on the cake? A city named in his honour by grateful locals.
The dragon statue, though, was erected only in 1972. It has a modern tech touch; every five minutes, the dragon literally breathes fire – a huge draw for kids.
The Wawel Castle is a great place to start a tour of the city not least because it overlooks the quietly flowing Vistula river – another icon of Krakow.
A Unesco world heritage site, the castle dates back to the 13th century and was the residence of several Polish kings. A quaint mix of different architectural styles – perhaps representing the country’s turbulent history – it lies spread over a hill. In the early 20th century, it was the residence of the president of Poland but post Second World War was made a national museum.
Within the walls of the castle is another iconic structure – the Wawel Cathedral. The church of Polish kings for over 400 years, it has seen quite a few coronations, weddings and funeral ceremonies of royalty. Step in and you will be amazed by the interiors - the walls are embellished with tapestries woven with silver and gold, while tombs and sarcophaguses have intricate sculptures.
‘Next stop: St Florian’s Gate,’ said the guide, exiting the castle and walking briskly down the road.
The said gate leads to Florianska Street – one of the commercial arteries of the Old Town of Krakow. Named after the nearby church, the gate, a Gothic tower really, dates back to the 14th century and was the route victorious kings took on their march back to the castle.
I pretended to be one until I came by a couple of talented buskers. So good were they that I stopped to listen to them for a while.
The overcast skies of the morning had cleared and the sun was now shining bright and cheerful. Elderly locals parked themselves on benches to enjoy the sunshine while bus loads of tourists got busy with their cameras and selfie sticks.
Once the buskers packed their instruments, there was little else to see and nothing else to do other than walk on Florianska Street, so we headed off to our next stop: Jagellonian’s University of Collegium Maius, the college where star astronomer and thinker Nicolaus Copernicus was once a student.
Also read: Experiencing Warsaw
Although it’s perhaps the best known academic building in Poland, the board indicating the entrance to the college is easy to miss if you don’t keep your eyes peeled while walking down Jagiellonska Street. Look out for door No 16.
Closed on Sundays and public holidays, Collegium Maius (great college, in Latin) is truly hallowed ground. The oldest surviving uni in the country, it stands in a magnificent courtyard ringed with arches that lead to teaching and lecture areas.
Dating back to 1364 when it was established by King Casimir III the Great, the university initially had lecture halls on the ground floor – where Copernicus might have doodled the earth-shaking idea of a heliocentric solar system in the margins of his notebook while listening to lectures on astronomy.
The first floor housed a library and living quarters for the professors and is today part of the museum. (Tourists note: Guided tours of the interiors and exhibits are given in English at 1pm Monday through Friday. A half-hour tour is also given frequently. My suggestion: go for the one-hour tour.)
For a moment, I felt a tad uncomfortable traipsing through the professors’ quarters. So perfectly are the rooms preserved that you feel the great teachers are still around poring over tomes or preparing notes.
The university was well known for its departments of literature, law, math and astronomy, and apart from its most famous student Copernicus – who studied here in 1491-95 and who proposed the heliocentric model of the solar system – also produced several modern-day luminaries. Ivo Andric and Wislawa Szymborska, for instance, won Nobel Prizes in Literature in 1961 and 1996 respectively. Wislawa’s Nobel medal is on display here. Another famous graduate from the university was Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II.
Leading us up a flight of stairs to a common room, our guide pointed to a modest room with rows of benches and long tables. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is where professors ate their meals together.’ Polished and still retaining an air of importance, the benches, though, are out of bounds to tourists who might feel like resting a while.
(However, there is one area – the Collegium Novum – where you can actually sit and listen to a lecture this, though, from the tour guide. I must say it is hugely edutaining. The seat of university authorities, it is the venue for important moments of the university and is where – to this date – doctorates and honorary doctorates are conferred on illustrious academics.)
Meal over, the professors might have adjourned to the adjacent library impressive with walls lined with bookshelves. Some of the books are handwritten and are a collector’s dream. The room after the library houses some of the most fabulous artefacts including scientific instruments and an Arab astrolabe dating back to 1054 that shows the then recently discovered America.
One showcase proudly displays the honorary Oscar statuette that film director Andrzej Wajda received in 2000, while another has the Nobel medal Polish national Wislawa received for literature in 1996.
The museum boasts not less than 2,000 items and is said to be one of the most valuable ones in Europe with optical instruments, clocks dating back to the 15th century, microscopes from the 18th century and quaint thermometers.
Security is high in the museum with infrared lasers setting off beeps any time a tourist, even if unintentionally, strayed off the prescribed route. By the way this was firsthand experience.
Having had our fill of academic information, we headed off to fill our tummies at the Grey Goose Restaurant. Located in Krakow’s famed market square, the restaurant is one of the most respected in the city. In a nod to its name, the accent is on poultry and is known for creating an entire three-course goose-themed meal – foie gras appetiser, glazed goose leg for mains and a signature grey goose dessert.
A sumptuous meal over, we hit the other attraction in Krakow – the Main Square. Once listed the best public space in Europe due to its bustling street life – it was also rated the most beautiful in the world by Lonely Planet guides a few years ago – the square, at close to 40,000sqm, is one of the largest medieval town squares in Europe.
Skirted by ancient townhouses with the St Mary’s Basilica’s Gothic towers soaring into the blue skies, the square is a magnet for tourists and locals alike.
Plonking myself into a comfortable chair in a coffee shop on the fringes of the square, I found this place ideal for people-watching. A bunch of Japanese tourists struggled with their selfie sticks trying to get themselves, the church, the tower and the square into a single frame. A little away, a Polish couple were sitting in another restaurant and doing just what I was doing but while munching on obwarzanek krakowskis. The most popular snack in Krakow, the braided, ring-shaped bread sprinkled with sesame seeds is available just about everywhere – sold by women from street carts parked by the side of the road.
‘Look out for the trumpeter,’ said our guide, pointing to the taller of the two towers of the basilica. On the dot every hour, a window opens high up in the tower and a trumpeter can be seen – and heard – playing the Hejnal mariacki, the city’s most famous bugle call. Ironically, the bugler breaks off mid-melody in honour of the legendary trumpeter who was shot in the neck while he was sounding the trumpet to warn his city of Mongol invaders who were at the gates.
The notes are moving and sombre, and the moment well worth waiting for.
Trumpeter show over, visit the basilica, famous for its amazing 80m tall wooden altarpiece, and some of the most amazing stained glass works.
There’s more to see, suggested the guide, offering a tour of the underground museum, but I’d had enough history lessons for the day. Keen to check out the geography of the city, I, after a brief rest at the hotel, set out for a walk around the city.
Since I was outdoors, I decided to check out the night life I’d heard so much about. Let me say this: Krakow can rival any European city on this front.
The next day morning found us at the famed salt mine. Quite literally an underground metropolis, it has 12 objects that are on Unesco’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage List including an awe-inspiring lake deep below the ground. Until as recently as 2007, the mine was producing salt, says the guide, leading us to the nether world, albeit in a lift.
Stepping out of the lift and walking down a flight of stairs, takes us to a large hall carved out of salt where public functions, soirees and even weddings are conducted. Guests sit on benches of salt and can admire the salt frescoes on the walls and roof of the mine.
Part of the mine houses a rehabilitation and wellness complex. The air in the mine is said to be pure because it does not have any contact with allergens, and combined with high levels of humidity and sodium chloride is said to be beneficial for asthmatics and those with breathing conditions.
But after viewing its amazing sculptures and awe-inspiring interiors, all it did was take my breath away.
A delicious meal of Pierogi, perhaps Poland’s most famous dish, later at the restaurant deep in the mine, we headed back to the surface.
Much later on our comfortable – thanks to the luxurious business class seats – flydubai flight back to Dubai, I made a mental note to myself: if there was one must-visit site in Krakow that I must take the family to, it would have to be the salt mine.
Flydubai has daily flights to Krakow, Poland. Fares start from Dh780.