10.07.2013 - 10.07.2013 29 °C
We are only a ten minute walk away from one of the world’s oldest institutions of higher learning, Jagiellonian University, which first opened its doors in 1364. Muriel and I visited the Collegium Maius which is its oldest building. A clock above the old library door chimes the hours and several times a day plays the University’s anthem while a procession of figurines marches out of two doors below the clock. We took a brief but fascinating tour of the library, professors' common room, treasury, assembly hall and a few other chambers in between. The entire building just breathed history and learning. It was more like a temple than a school.
Jagiellonian counts among its alumni the mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. A famous Polish saying is that Copernicus is the astronomer who stopped the sun and moved the earth. In tribute to Copernicus, the roof of the library is painted like the heavens. Among the many treasures housed in the building are the actual instruments this famous astronomer used to arrive at his conclusions. The fact that the university has this equipment is astounding considering that Copernicus did his advanced studies and research in Italy. Already in the 1500s, some Italian academics understood the historical significance of Copernicus’ tools and sent them back to Krakow as a gift. It was a tremendous event and just as we would in our day, the university held an exhibition featuring these artifacts so all could see.
Besides having Pope John Paul II among its more recent alumni, the university has at least one very accomplished film maker and one Nobel laureate in literature on its list of graduates. It happened that a Finnish man on the tour was familiar with Poland’s award winning poet, Wisława Szymborska. He apologized to the guide that he had not read her poetry in its original Polish. Our guide shared an interesting tidbit about literature translation as a result. She said people who translate prose are considered slaves of the original author while those who translate verse are considered competitors. It is because of interesting tidbits like these that I still enjoy taking museum tours even after 8 months of visiting cultural and historical institutions.
After our tour of academia, Muriel and I rejoined the kids and changed focus to take in the accomplishments of industrious and skilled labourers. Wieliczka Salt Mine lies just within the Krakow metropolitan area and is the world’s oldest salt mine, having produced table salt continuously from 13th century until 2007. It still produces salt today but no longer on a commercial scale. Its age and mammoth size (287 kilometers long) and depth (327 meters deep) are enough to make it noteworthy, but it is what the miners did with some of their working space that makes this salt works so famous. The mine consists of hundreds of chambers of which 40 have been transformed into chapels and many others into settings for carvings on mythical or historical themes. The rock salt is not white like you would expect but, rather, a shade of gray that is much like granite in appearance. It is the impurities in the salt that give it this colour. Despite the grayness the rock is still translucent. Our nearly three hour tour took us through some spectacular spaces and a couple of saltwater lakes. Perhaps the most stunning room is the Cathedral which took over 70 years to carve into its present form. As with all but the most recent carvings, all the work has been done by the miners themselves. As with everywhere else in the mine, the Cathedral has been constructed entirely of rock salt including the tiling on the floor. It has many complex scenes that tell Christ’s entire life story. Even the chandeliers in this space consist of salt, with all the crystals having been manufactured from salt that was dissolved out of the rock and then reconstituted and polished into crystalline masterpieces. In addition to the Cathedral, where mass is held every Sunday and weddings performed on a regular basis, there is a meeting hall that can sit 400 people for dinner as well as a large ballroom.
Not only were the rooms that were carved and decorated to be admired, so too were some of the rustic chambers whose cribbing and supports were painted in a white salt based paint to make them fire retardant and reflective of light. The timbers in the taller rooms knit together to resemble the interior of some sort of gothic church. Just as we found the Collegium Maius to be more than just a school the Wieliczka Salt Mine is more than a just a feat of ingenuity and sweat but a work in homage to these miner’s homeland and God.
Our glimpse of Poland has been wonderful. We will leave Krakow tomorrow wishing we had more time and thinking about how we can return someday. In the meantime we hope to shed some of the weight we gained from eating Polish style pizza, perogies, cabbage rolls and sausage.
A late night addition:
I now have more reason to put a return visit back to Poland farther in the future. I have more weight to shed. For a late dinner we went to a sidewalk kebab place just down the street. These kinds of eateries are all over Krakow. The easiest way to find one is to know the location of an open air fruit and vegetable market. It seems that just after the market closes these eateries open up and people stand around on the sidewalk or among the abandoned stalls and eat their meals.
The kebabs we ordered were adapted, much like their version of pizza (see Politics to Pizza post), to suit the local palette. In this case it was the use of cabbage and the addition of copious amounts of sauce that looks and tastes like a cross between Thousand Island’s Dressing and chipotle mayo that made our kebabs very much a local dish. It was fortunate that Abby couldn’t get her food order filled as the kebabs the rest of ordered were far more than the four of us could hope to consume. Gargantuan portions seem to be another Polish specialty. We are happy to report the food was delicious and this time came with napkins—all of which were sorely needed.