It was time for a breath of fresh air, so we decided to head to Zakopane, Poland. Zakopane sits right on the edge of the Tatra Mountain National Park.
As it turns out, Zakopane is Poland’s Gatlinburg, TN. That is, there are lots of tourists, lots of ice-cream opportunities and lots of stalls selling crap to children. In fact, there were hoards of children in Zakopane…and for some reason, each one of them had either a can of silly string or little poppers that you throw on the ground. Silly string lined the streets…it was a bit appalling how much mess and sound 10 year old boys can make.
Our guidebook told us that there was a funicular railway (John’s new favorite conveyance) so we set off uphill, heading north up Zakopane’s pedestrianized street, Krupówkki, to ride the rails. 2 sweaty kilometers later, there was no funicular in sight. In fact, it seemed like we had been plodding up a hill into nothing-land…just more sidewalks heading into the horizon. The only reason we pressed on was because we were joined by other groups of people walking purposely in the same direction. We pressed on until we came to a roundabout which had some signposts. The only thing pointing in the direction we were headed was a cable car. A cabbie wandered over and asked if we needed a ride. Apparently the funicular was 4km the other way (thanks guidebook/iPhone compass!).
We decided that we would opt for cable car instead, seeing as we had already committed some time and a lot of uphill walking. We plodded on up the hill. And up. And up…it wouldn’t end…and there was no cable car in sight. Having just visited Auschwitz, John and I made a pact to not complain about minor inconveniences, so we silently marched up the hill for about 2km more. At this point, my shoes were falling apart and my many layers had been peeled off. Whatever we found at the top of this hill, we were going to do the hell out of it. It didn’t matter if it was a tiny carousel for 5 years olds…we were going to ride it.
We eventually came to a cable car station, and after a quick bit of research on the iPhone, I discovered we were about to go to the top of Mt. Kasprowy Wierch (5955 ft). The best thing was that the Tatra’s form the border between Poland and Slovakia, so we were going to fit in a bonus country!
Remarkably, there were very few people around and it was silent, except for the sound of the wind in the valley. We climbed up to a higher point and watched the clouds roll in up the mountain side. Soon, we were sitting in a cloud.
We alternated in between sitting in Poland and sitting in Slovakia, just for fun. There was a couple taking wedding pictures, complete with wedding dress and tuxedo. We watched them from our outcropping, follow the ridge trying to beat the clouds. They just about made it.
We opted for the horse and cart ride down the hill, back to the center of Zakopane, where we finally made it to the funicular railroad. After our cable car trip, the funicular seemed a bit lack-luster, but we did it anyway.
The bus ride back to Krakow featured about 2.5 hours of pleasant Polish countryside. Two frozen pizzas later, we were curled up in bed and rested for our next adventure: The Wieliczka salt mines!
The Wieliczka salt mine
We started our last full day in Krakow visiting a salt mine. It was the Wieliczka salt mine. The biggest salt mine in the world!
Alright, I don’t really know if it’s the biggest salt mine in the world, but it is rather large. Check out these Wieliczka salt mine facts:
– It has been in continuous operation since 1274.
– This mine contains 2039 separate salt deposit chambers that have been excavated. These chambers vary in size, but several of the ones that we visited were cavernous. And there are 2039 of them.
– These chambers are connected via 300 kilometers of tunnels. 300 kilometers is more than 186 miles. Even my buddy Africa Jeff would take a couple of days to travel that distance. The rest of us would take far longer.
– The shaft and tunnel structure is enforced by over one million cubic meters of wood. Pretty much all of the local nearby forest is down in the mine.
– The mine contains 20 different chapels. Miner’s are a superstitious bunch, and they pray a lot, probably for the mine not to cave in. Some of these chapels are quite large and quite cool. And everything in them is carved out of salt.
– One large chapel has carvings of the Last Supper and John Paul II (Jan Pawel II in Poland). They still hold services in this chapel every Sunday, and they do about 20 weddings a year there as well.
– They believe that the salt air is super-awesome for people. They have in the mine an underground clinic for kids with asthma and other breathing disorders.
– Nicolaus Copernicus visited the salt mines in the late 15th century. I have no idea why; I guess he thought they were cool (they are). Copernicus went on to invent astronomy. Incidentally, my lad Nick is named after Copernicus.
– There are a couple of lakes in the caves. As you can imagine if you are not a dolt, this water is fully saturated with salt. Full saturation of salt in water means 327 grams per liter (at the temperatures of the salt mine). That’s a bunch of salt folks. For example, the Baltic Sea which is salty as hell contains 7 grams per liter. Fun fact: people float in fully saturated brine of this sort. You couldn’t dive down in this stuff if your life depended on it.
– The proof of this last statement is that some folks suffocated once in the Wieliczka salt mines as follows. They were on a ferry touring the cave. Their ferry flipped and they were trapped underneath. They had oxygen, treading water under the overturned boat. All they had to do was slip below the inverted side of the boat, and then travel a few feet up to the lake’s surface. But they couldn’t submerge below the boat’s side due to the high salination of the water, and thus they perished once they had exhausted all of the oxygen under the inverted boat. No shit.