A visit to the Salt Mines in Wieliczka provides a remarkable insight into source of much of Krakow’s wealth through the centuries, as well as a chance to see a true marvel of engineering. Salt had enormous value as a trading commodity, and Krakow was famous throughout this part of Europe for its abundance of quality rock salt, mined for hundreds of years in a labyrinth of tunnels and caves that stretch for almost 300 kilometres under the Polish countryside. A visit to the salt mines (in the nearby town of Wieliczka) involves a very long walk down a flight of stairs, followed by a zigzag tour through this network of tunnels in the company of a guide. The highlight for most is almost certainly the Chapel of St. Kinga, an unexpected and large underground church hewn from the solid salt. Everything is made of salt, from the altar to the candelabra, as well as the cave itself. Able to fit up to 400 people, the Chapel is also a show-stopper location for marriages and major events.
At the end of your trip, you can look forward to being crammed like sardines into the cage of a miner’s lift that will save you walking a few hundred steps to the surface. This experience alone is worth the visit! And one more thing - depending on what time of year you visit, with underground temperatures year round barely fluctuating more than a degree either way from a cool 15 degrees Celsius, a trip to the salt mines may also offer either a respite from the heat of a continental summer day or a welcome break from the bitter cold of the Polish winter.
Although Krakow draws natural comparisons to Vienna or Prague, Krakow can never feel quite like one of Europe's other beautiful, historical cities, because only Krakow lies in the nearby shadow of one of the most fearsome sites of the Holocaust - the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Just over an hour away by bus or train, nothing can properly prepare the visitor for the impact of coming face-to-face with the camp that claimed the lives of over 1.1 million people in the confines of its hideous barbed-wire fences.
A trip to Auschwitz is not something I ‘recommend’ as one would some sort of attraction. For many visitors to Krakow, it is simply something that they feel drawn to do, and indeed their obligation. Certainly no-one who does visit will return unaffected by the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness, but few will regret the choice to make the journey.
There are several ways to get to Auschwitz from Krakow (a journey of about 75 km) - by train, public bus or on a private tour. The former options are the cheapest, naturally, and for some provide the best sense of personal journey. But if your time is limited, your best option is with a private Auschwitz Tour. A driver will pick you up directly from your accommodation, take you to Auschwitz and the nearby (and more horrifying) Birkenau. A guided tour of the camps themselves is included (visitors are not allowed to wander around on their own). An overwhelming experience that nothing said or told in advance can prepare you for.
Take an old Trabant (the Eastern Bloc’s ‘People’s car’), throw a couple of travellers in the back and a crazy guide in the driving seat, and you have the recipe for a entertaining trip to Nowa Huta, Krakow’s satellite industrial city - an Orwellian town with one of the largest steel factories in Europe. An epic example of Soviet central planning, Nowa Huta (“The New Steelworks”) was created in the period after the Second World War in an attempt to show the world that such practices could create a thriving economy, and also to try to dilute the troublesome ’intelligentsia’ of Krakow (a university town) with a large influx of worker families. Neither really worked. For one thing, Nowa Huta’s location was not ideal as a steelworks, as none of the raw materials required for iron smelting are found close to Krakow, and everything had to be sent enormous distances by railroad. A large number of workers did indeed enter both Nowa Huta and Krakow itself, but the latter never lost its rebellious intellectual edge, and was the hub of much anti-communist activity in the period that eventually led to the overthrow of the Soviet shackles.
A tour around Nowa Huta reveals amazing stories of streets and buildings designed to prevent potential attacks from the West, of propaganda stories about heroic bricklayers, and true stories about how Nowa Huta was the location of the world’s very first pre-fabricated concrete apartment blocks, the need for the rapid deployment of housing inspiring an architectural practice which continues to this day.
As the Soviet system started to crumble, and the economic realities of Communism began its collapse, Nowa Huta itself never reached the proportions and size that had been planned for it. It remains an epitaph to a failed system, but with its Ronald Reagan Square and architectural curiosities, it is well worth paying the time to visit. Tours can be arranged, or you can just take a tram (about 45 minutes) and wander around yourself. If choosing to do the latter, do read up in advance or take a guide book with you to make the best use of your time, as the most interesting aspects of the town are not necessarily immediately apparent.