Monday, July 15, 2013

Back on the Path of Happiness

So my short personal nightmare ended yesterday when I moved out of Satan's pied-à-terre in Krakow

to Nathan's Villa Hostel across town.  Here's what my new room looks like (though, technically, it's not exactly new to me, since I stayed in this very room two years ago on my first Holocaust Study Tour).

You will note, among other things, the presence of drapes, curtains, and a small chest of drawers.  Also present, but not in the photo:  a small nightstand and hooks on the outside (and inside) of the bathroom door.

Since I couldn't check into Nathan's Villa until the afternoon, I had booked a morning tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mines.  I picked a good day for it as it was raining again (5th day in a row).

The first step in visiting the mines is to descend some 64 meters by wooden stairs into the mine.

We then gathered to enter the mine proper

Despite the brick work visible at the opening, in fact, the overwhelming bulk of the mine is secured by wooden beams, some hundreds of years old.

Over time, "salt secretions" (as our guide called them), form on the walls and beams.

One of the many long corridors we walked down.

Surprisingly, I never felt claustrophobic in the mine.  Being so far underground surrounded by rock salt that could (theoretically) cave in on us at any time didn't bother me at all.  It's lack of physical mobility that's my trigger.

Perhaps the most famous room in the mine is the chapel to St. Kinga, carved out by three brothers by hand over many decades.

The chandeliers are decorated with polished rock salt crystals.

As one would expect in a church, the wall decorations and statues all reflected Catholic religious sensibilities.  There were all sorts of 3-D depictions from the life of Jesus, etc.  But one statue off to the side caught my attention.

At first I wondered if it was meant to be Diogenes with his lamp, so I asked our guide and she said it was a self-portrait of the first brother who began to carve the chapel.  It became my favorite art piece of the tour.

After a break for coffee, bathrooms, and, of course, souvenirs, we continued on to the brackish salt lagoon.

And then to one of the tallest chambers in the mine, which took nearly a 100 years to mine out the rock salt deposit.

That chandelier is 3 meters across and 6 meters tall, just to give you a sense of depth. The wood beams were painted white to reflect more light in the mine.

The tour ends, where else, in the gift shop.  Another very tall room; apparently someone once bungee jumped off the upper balcony.

To exit the mine, we didn't have to climb up all those stairs; they have a lift.  It's an old miners' lift, so it's multiple level, with nine people crammed in at one time.

It's the only time I felt even mildly claustrophobic on the tour.  This is the symbol, by the way of the salt miners; you see it everywhere:

It was still raining when we got back to Krakow, so I went to the creperie near by the bad hostel to have a light lunch:  mozzarella, tomato, and arugula (or as the British call it "rocket"), with garlic sauce.

After checking in to my room at Nathan's Villa, I began to search for presents for my nephews, who had surprisingly specific (though not Poland specific) requests.   Before hand, though, I celebrated my new, happier lodgings with an eclair at the bakery around the corner that my students had loved (I'm staying next door to the hotel we used a week ago):

The students absolutely loved the eclairs here.

In looking for gifts, I had struck out entirely on finding "self-tying bow ties," which are not only not made in Poland, they aren't sold here either.  The first musical instrument store I went to didn't carry the trumpet mouthpiece model I was asked to find either.  I made my way across the river to the Podgórze neighborhood (the same one the Germans used for the ghetto in Krakow) and finally found a shop that carried the requested model.

I emailed my nephew and told him that if he doesn't like it or if it doesn't fit, he'll have to come back here himself to return or exchange it.

That still left one nephew to shop for, so I went back to the Rynek and tried to find items that wouldn't embarrass too much a 17-year old boy.  So no nesting Russian matrushka dolls, or colorful Polish dresses, or vaguely anti-Semitic figurines of Orthodox Jews holding or counting coins.

After shopping, I went back to the hostel, where they provided a free barbeque on the patio for guests in the evening.  I chatted with several people, one of whom decided to quit his job and travel the world for 2 years after his girlfriend broke his heart.  He's trying to make his way from France to Japan, only traveling by land (presumably he'll sail that last leg).

On my way to the hostel's bar to pick up a beer, I paced their toilets.  Here's how they mark the women's room (the men's room is similarly signed):

I wanted a dessert, so I headed to Kazimierz and ended up in a rather atmospheric cafe called Alchemia, where I heard more English in an hour than I had in over a week since my students left.

They only had one dessert on display.  I thought it might be tiramisu, but no, I was told, it's made with plums soaked in krupnik (a honey vodka).

The bottom layer is chocolate cake with the vodka-soaked plums on top.  Then there is a thin layer of what appears to be mascarpone, but is probably a Polish equivalent.  Finally, the top is dusted with cocoa powder.  It was very good.

The hostel was having problems with the internet last night, so I went to bed around 10:15 pm.  It's working fine this morning (hence this post).  After breakfast

I'm heading to the Central Post Office to buy bubble wrap to keep some of the liquids I bought, like the Miodula (honey vodka) and Krem (real egg cream) from breaking in my luggage.  I asked the staff at the hostel yesterday what bubble wrap is called in Polish (I was unsuccessful in pantomiming it in two shops), so now I know to ask for "folia bąbelkowa."

No comments: