When traveling, I like to take recommendations from locals and repeat tourists. That’s usually the easiest way to find the best ice cream and learn how to navigate the public transportation system. Evidently, it’s also how you can come to be trapped in a Polish salt mine for four hours.
That may sound dramatic – especially when you consider that when I say “trapped in a mine” I actually mean “on an organized tour” – but it was still true enough. Because there was no way for me to conceivably leave that tour, so I may as well have been locked in.
Anyway, this salt mine tour came highly recommended by a man from Texas and his son who I met at a coffee shop halfway through my stay in Krakow. They visit the city every summer and both insisted that the mine was a “must-see.”
“You have to go,” the man told me. “It’s one of the manmade wonders of the world.”
It is not, as a quick Google search will confirm. But it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it did look quite spectacular. Basically, it’s a 700 year old salt mine that doubles as an underground art gallery with elaborate statues, portraits, furniture and even entire chapels and rooms cut from salt by the miners. Everything – from the tiles on the floor to the crystals in the chandeliers – is made of salt. (See pictures here.)
It did, indeed, sound like something worth seeing. So I booked a tour for the following day – completely ignoring the fact that I’m the type of person who holds her breath in tunnels and sometimes gets nervous in walk-in closets. I really have no business being in a mine, but I figured it was a 90-minute tour. Surely, I could manage.
And I probably would have if the opening line from the guide was not: “You are now 220 meters below ground and for the next three hours we will be exploring some of the mine’s 300 kilometers of twisting tunnels and paths.”
I lost track of what the guide said after that, but judging by the number of people who began to lick the walls and scrape portions of the ceiling into their mouths, it must have been something to the effect of, “Here in the salt mine, everything is edible and germs don’t exist. Consider this place one giant potato chip.”
As soon as the guide was done with her welcome speech, I pushed through the crowd and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I said. “But I was under the impression that this tour was 90 minutes.”
“Oh,” she replied. “We didn’t have enough people on the short tour, so we merged it with the longer one. Now you can spend more time in the mine.”
It was an interesting thing to say considering that “more time in a mine” is typically not a selling point for the average tourist.
“Are you claustrophobic?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “Three hours is a little much.”
“Well you don’t need to worry,” she assured me. “There’s been only one tourist catastrophe in this mine and that was in 1915.”
“Wonderful,” I replied.
“There was a boat of Austrian soldiers and they were getting rowdy – singing songs and dancing in the boat,” she continued, rolling her eyes. “As you can imagine, they capsized.”
“You don’t say,” I responded. “So they drowned?”
“Oh no,” she explained. “You can’t really drown here. This is salt water. You’ll float. Like the Dead Sea.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“They suffocated,” she corrected. “Under the boat.”
I fanned myself with a brochure.
“But like I said, you don’t need to worry,” she reminded me. “We don’t even have boats here anymore.”
I took a deep breath and smiled. Then, in my clearest, simplest English, I said, “I NEED TO GET OFF THIS TOUR, PLEASE.”
She looked slightly taken aback, which is understandable when a person suddenly starts yelling in a salt mine and shaking a 16-ounce bottle of water like a maraca. She reluctantly switched on her walkie-talkie and, in Polish, said what I can only assume translates into, “The able-bodied single lady is freaking out. I know, I’m as surprised as you are… She just put on sunglasses! Hysterical!! OK, I’ll drop her off in an hour at the snack stand. 10-4!”
She switched off the device and said to me, “You can leave halfway. But don’t tell anyone.”
“Never,” I agreed.
And I realized that if I had any chance for redemption on this tour, I would have to keep that promise. Even when the guide told the group that we didn’t have to worry about the mine collapsing because “These pillars are in place.” As I learned during my 4th grade field trip to the Lackawanna Coal Mine, a wooden pillar could support the weight of a mine about as long as a toothpick could hold you or me. But I said nothing – because this woman knew where the snack shop was and she was my salvation. She could have told the group that the work mules had a good life underground and actually lived longer, happier lives because the miners treated them like family, and I would have nodded agreeably and added, “Just like at Sea World,” before hurrying everyone towards the smell of the hot dogs.
True to her word, 90 minutes later, the guide delivered me to an exit point where I climbed into a rickety wooden elevator and then high-tailed it to the train station. Once back in the city, I took myself to lunch, where I ordered a plate of pickles, eight pierogi, a Greek salad, small beer and, later, an ice cream cone.
“I’m impressed with how much you can eat,” the waiter said as he brought me my check.
“It’s been a long morning,” I said. “And I’m happy to be alive.”
And, you know, I’m not even being dramatic about that part.