Impressions from Krakow

Guided tour in snowy Krakow

Sunday morning there's a guided tour for the early birds. There are 5 from Egypt, a Frenchman from Australia, a Brit, a German couple, a Romanian lady and me. It is a walking tour, and it is very cold with snow and wind.

The Egyptians aren't used to cold like this and the others suffer too because they aren't dressed for this kind of weather; only the guide, the Romanian lady and I wear sensible clothes.

The tour is quite interesting. The guide knows a lot and tells with obvious pride about his city and its history. We see the old castle, Wavel, and some churches. Some of the architecture is clearly influenced by architects imported from Florence.

Snow in Krakow The cathedral in Krakow Golden dome; the cathedral in Krakow
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It is time for mass and in the churches I feel like a voyeur, but you have to follow the guide who genuflects with practised ease. In front of the art museum is a cold line, but we get in at last to admire the city's Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci.

Piece of the old city wall with paintings Gutter in the old university's courtyard
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It has stopped snowing and at noon the tour is over. I get a light lunch at a café and relax in my room, where someone has put the dry-cleaned clothes in the closet - now spotless. In the evening there's a welcome reception and with all the snacks I feel no need for supper.

The Wieliczka salt mine

Old mine lift

The conference begins Monday morning and there's a gala dinner in the evening. We go by bus to an old salt mine, Wieliczka, where salt was mined from the 12th century.

Today the mine is a tourist attraction and on UNESCO's long heritage list. There's also a hospital 200 metres down; the air down here is said to be very healthy (the rock emits some chemicals) and good for people with respiratory problems.

In a miner's lift - like sardines in a pitch dark can - we go some 100 metres down and are guided through tunnels and galleries, where the pious workers once made chapels, altars and statues. The salt rock is a bit harder than marble, says the guide.

He speaks excellent English and informs professionally with a twist to the tale. The salt was deposited in pockets, and that is why there are huge chambers interconnected by tunnels, and where there's moisture salt crystallises like cauliflower on the rock surface.

For centuries the salt was an important source of income for the Polish kings and the livelihood for many workers. I have never been to a mine before and it is a fascinating tour although we see but a fraction of this underground maze.

Chapel in the salt mine Chandelier and salt crystals

Salt rock sculptures Church Gala dinner in the salt mine
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150 metres below ground we enter a huge and beautifully lit hall. The tables are laid and we sit down accompanied by a brass band playing marches. The guide told us that mobile phones work even down here, and some do try but give up because they cannot hear a thing - the trumpets and horns are amplified and ricocheted by the rock walls.

Soon the entertainment is taken over by a group of folk dancers in traditional costumes, and their performance is truly impressive. After the smoked salmon follows a traditional Polish meal with a hearty and slightly sour soup, pork with potatoes and vegetables and cake for dessert.

The Spanish red wine tastes like jam, and a Frenchman at my table immediately switches to beer looking homesick.

At the inn we are welcomed with salt and bread

After the second conference day, Tuesday, there's a farewell dinner at an inn in the woods. Once again we get a hearty and solid Polish dinner and are entertained by a group of folk dancers. With the food we get a Bulgarian red wine and ice-cold vodka.

Wednesday we go on a tour to a local cement plant. It is a long drive (2 * 2 hours), and you get an impression of the Polish landscape in these parts. Many houses seem to be demolished slowly by time, but there's also construction going on. Hens roam freely around houses, and the fields are covered with snow. The conference is over.

On my own in Krakow

After the hearty lunch with traditional Polish delicacies I am in the mood for something less heavy and find a trattoria ("Soprano") in the old town - a pizza or some light pasta is just what I need.

By Danish standards prices are very reasonable indeed and it is a cosy place, which compensates for not having someone to share the meal. The waiter has a punker's haircut, but he speaks excellent English and the service is kind and impeccable.

Amber shops in the market hall

I have some time on my own Thursday morning before the trip back home. Spring is in the air and the cafés with outdoor service on the square have many customers. I also meet beggars - although Poland has joined the EU there's still poverty.

An old woman shakes a tin cup in front of my face and when I signal that I don't have any change and don't speak Polish, she tries in German: "Viele Kinder, viele Kinder!" ("many children").

With the image of her tin cup in my mind I search the amber shops and at long last find a bracelet, which I think my wife will like.

Fortunately I leave for the airport early, because here chaos rules and it takes forever to check in and get through passport control and security. At intervals airport officials walk along the line asking if anybody is booked for this and that destination.

Those who confirm are rushed through. My flight is delayed 45 minutes due to conditions in Frankfurt, but I have plenty of time, a book to read and get home without further ado.