Last week, I shared our moving experiences at Auschwitz and Birkenau – two places that you should definitely visit if you are visiting Kraków. There are many more worthy destinations for day trips from the city, but the two others that we made it to were Wieliczka and Częstochowa.
Let’s start with the Salt Mines in Wieliczka!
About a thirty-minute drive from Kraków, Wieliczka is the town that the famous and ancient Salt Mines are located in. It is easily accessible by public transportation, and the whole trip can be done in half a day. It is absolutely worth it!
Our amazing tour guide/driver, Chris, picked us up at our hotel at about 10:00 on Monday morning. A quick 30-minute drive later, we were in Wieliczka (pronounced vyeh-leech-kah). Chris parked the car and walked us to the entrance to buy our tickets. We were told that the English tour just left and that we would have to wait for the next one, but Chris worked his magic and got us tickets (79 zloty per ticket, plus another 10 zloty to take pictures). He then quickly ushered us to the elevator, so we could go down and meet the group that was taking the stairs.
Even though we had arrived late, we actually had to wait for about five minutes for the rest of the group as they made their way down 350 steps (suckers!). The tour, which was made up of around 30 people, began on the first level – about 64 meters, or 210 feet, underground. This level is called The Bono, and I kept waiting to hear the opening notes of “Where The Streets Have No Name”, but I was left disappointed. Thankfully, the rest of the tour made up for it.
The mine was opened about 700 years ago, and is still active today. In 1978, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the entire mine covers over 185 miles, only about one and a half miles of it is open to the public. Over that distance, you will pass through many galleries and chambers (and even a couple of gift shops, naturally!) spanning three levels – taking you to the lowest depth of 135 meters/443 feet. For those of you that may be concerned about claustrophobia because you are so far underground, I really don’t think you should let it stop you from going. Even though you are underground, the rooms are so large and most of the ceilings are so high, that you don’t feel confined at all. The only times the ceilings are a bit low are when you are walking through some of the corridors and they don’t last very long:
The mine is kept at a temperature of 14°C/57°F all year round. Even though it sounds like it might be cool, I was wearing a light jacket and found myself getting a bit warm because you are doing so much walking. One thing is for sure, though, wear comfortable shoes!
Honestly, the mine is amazing. Almost everything you see is made out of salt…the floors, the ceilings, the walls, the carvings…it’s just incredible.
Legend has it that the discovery of the salt mine came about when Blessed Kinga, a Hungarian princess, threw her engagement ring from Polish king Bolesław the Modest, into a salt mine in Hungary. Miraculously, the ring traveled together with salt deposits all the way to Wieliczka, where it was rediscovered – along with a wealth of salt, which was very valuable, but scarce in Poland. The carvings below show Bolesław proposing to Kinga:
What surprised me is that, in its natural state, the rock salt is actually differing shades of gray, and looks more like granite than salt.
The tour itself is very interesting, and a lot of the galleries along the way are set up with mannequins and such to help you picture what it was like for the miners to work down there long ago:
But the true pièce de résistance is the Chapel of St. Kinga. It took over 30 years for three men to complete, and is simply stunning. Every single thing in this chapel, which measures 148 feet by 59 feet, and is 39 feet high, is made of salt. Even the chandeliers are made of salt that has been dissolved and reconstituted so they look like crystal. Masses and wedding ceremonies still take place here regularly.
There is also a carving of Leonardo daVinci’s “The Last Supper”, which is actually only about three inches deep, but the perspective makes it look much deeper.
And, of course, no destination in Kraków would be complete without a statue of its beloved son, Pope John Paul II:
The whole tour takes about two hours, and you do have an opportunity to use the restroom or get some refreshments along the way. The tour ends in a gift shop full of things made from the salt from the mines – including actual salt that can be used on food. At this point, you have the option to visit the museum (price of entry included in your ticket) or you can leave. We left, so I can’t comment on what the museum was like.
After another lengthy walk, the guide will put you on an elevator, which speeds you back up to the top in about 30 seconds. Back outside, there are several food stands where you can purchase sausages, ice cream, snacks and drinks.
Overall, visiting the Salt Mine is something that I very highly recommend. People of all ages will enjoy it, and it’s a very unique experience. If you are in Kraków, be sure to make time to get to Wieliczka.
Next stop, Częstochowa!
Częstochowa (chen-sta-ho-va) is a bit further from Kraków – a little under two hours by car. We actually stopped there on our way from Zakopane to Warsaw, but it is definitely doable as a day trip from Kraków. In this town, you will find Jasna Góra, the monastery that is home to the image of the Black Madonna, the most revered icon of the Catholic faith in Poland.
When we were preparing for our trip and making sure that we would time our visit to the monastery right (the Black Madonna is unveiled only at certain times of the day), I pictured a smallish building alongside a cathedral, basically in the middle of nowhere. So I was quite surprised when we arrived in Częstochowa and found a very industrial-looking and busy town. We drove up a side street and pulled into a huge parking lot, then joined many others walking into the monastery grounds.
We went straight to the Basilica to see the icon and saw that a private mass was going on in the small chapel where the icon is displayed.
There are many legends and stories surrounding both the origins and the miraculous powers of the Black Madonna. According to tradition, the icon was originally painted by John the Evangelist on a piece of wood from a table that was made by Jesus himself.
The beautiful icon has been credited with an untold number of miracles, from helping the Polish army triumph in battles against the Hussites, the Swedes and the Russians, as well as curing people from incurable afflictions.
During World War II, Hitler prohibited Poles from visiting the monastery, but in 1945, after Poland was liberated, over half a million pilgrims flocked to Częstochowa to share their gratitude. The following year, 1.5 million people gathered there to rededicate the country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Click here to read more about the monastery and the Black Madonna.
The treasury there is also worth a visit. No pictures are allowed inside and it’s very small, but filled with tapestries, jewels, church vestments and many other things.
Though it is not a destination that everyone will be interested in going to, it is very worthwhile for those that do have an interest in seeing the icon. Covering just the highlights takes no more than a couple of hours and it’s all free.
Have any of you been to either of these places? If so, would you recommend them to others? Why or why not? Sound off in the comments below!