The Polish Way

Travelling from the depths of salt mines to the highs of the mountain peaks of Zakopane is all in a day’s work.

Written by Amrita Das | Published:September 18, 2016 1:10 am
Andrzej Staszel-Furtek stands in front of his house, where he sells traditional Andrzej Staszel-Furtek stands in front of his house, where he sells traditional

As I drove into the charming town of Zakopane in the south of Poland, I realised how graceful its landscape is — the vast peaceful countryside, the slim curvy roads flanked by the traditional, wooden houses in the village of Chocholow, and, finally, the steep downward turns into the heart of the town. I found myself panning my head from left to right vigorously, lest I missed something.

Zakopane is about 120 km from the famous Polish city, Krakow. Bordered by the Tatra mountain range, this town attracts a large number of resident travellers. During winters, the Poles come for adventure activities such as skiing, mountaineering and related sports. And in summers, numerous families flock here for moderate hikes and leisurely outdoor activities. I saw only a handful of foreigners here. Zakopane, informed my guide Bertha, seldom saw non-Pole travellers.

But that wasn’t the only aspect that made Zakopane different. Only 95 km north of the town is the touristy Wieliczka salt mine. Wieliczka is a small, nondescript village about 15 km from Krakow. This salt mine is one of the oldest in the world, and, perhaps, the only reason why people
visit. On the other hand, only 4 km away from Zakopane are the high Tatras. Kasprowy Wierch is an accessible mountain in the Western Tatras and the range borders Slovakia.

How was it possible to have such distinct geographic features only in a stretch of 100 km? I understood this when I explored both in a day.

The Mine Drop
The early morning queues, made up of tour groups, at the entrance of Wieliczka salt mine was unexpected. No sooner had we entered through the wooden door, than the noise and chaos died down. We walked down 380 steps (an overwhelming 54 floors!) to begin the “Tourist Route”. Initially, the monotonous, twisty flight of wooden stairs was intimidating. But in a matter of minutes, I found myself in a dimly-lit underground corridor, about 64 m below the surface of the earth.

Held by strong wooden logs, Wieliczka salt mine is one of the oldest operating salt mines. Dating back 700 years, this mine finds its name on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List. My 3-km on-foot exploration helped me unearth its many features. The trail began with an introduction to the various kinds of salts, which covered the corridor’s walls. The path took me through the miners’ tools and lives. The underground world also included chapels, saline lakes and chambers at varying heights.

Polish cheese; a rock-salt replica of The Last Supper by Antoni Wyrodek Polish cheese; a rock-salt replica of The Last Supper by Antoni Wyrodek

I found the Chapel of Saint Kinga the most striking. As I continued on my trail, the chapel suddenly opened up on my right. Centred by three grand salt-crystal chandeliers, this chapel has been carved out entirely from rock-salt — from floor to the exquisite carvings on the wall to the statues. This incredible chamber lies 101 m deep. As I walked around the illuminated space, I admired the chandelier and came to a halt in front of a brilliantly done rock-salt replica of The Last Supper by Antoni Wyrodek, a minor sculptor from Krakow.

Moving away from the chapel, I explored the timber-barricaded path to the lakes of the Baracz Chamber, the Jozef Pilsudski Chamber and the very tall Weimar Chamber. Nothing etched itself in my mind like the bright chandeliers of Saint Kinga’s Chapel. Until I stood on the Kasprowy Wierch ridge.

The Mountain High
Overlooking the scenic landscape of Kuznice, I waited while Bertha procured our tickets for the two cable cars to the summit of Mount Kasprowy. Many hikers also begin their walks here, taking different trails.

Once in the cable car, I saw, with my nose flattened on the glass, a thick grove of spruce and pine, some rocky inclines and steep edges of the Tatra beneath me. Rock climbing, skiing and mountain biking trails are popular here. At the arrival point, as I stepped out, the flourishing green slopes enamoured me. As far as my sight could allow, I saw hikers in colourful gear scale the peak. Some took the longer but moderate route, while others continued on the arduous Eagle Path trail. As the name suggests, this zig-zag trail is designed for seasoned hikers with steep descents on either sides. After two cable car rides, we returned to Kuznice.

The sun still high, we decided to enjoy a leisurely evening walk along the clear, glistening river in the quiet, rural set-up. Amidst the lush green setting, we stumbled upon a quaint wood house. Its owner, Andrzej Staszel-Furtek sells traditional Polish cheese, called Bacowka, and milk to hikers who pass by while on their trail. Biting into the salty Polish cheese, I bid Andrzej farewell. It was time to go back.

As we walked downwards, the light became warmer, the river gushing in harmony. Breaking the silence, Bertha asked me how my visit to Poland had been. I answered, “Who would have thought I’d see the depths of the earth and the highs of the mountains in just one day?”

Amrita Das is a travel blogger and freelance travel writer, currently based in Kolkata.