Sunday 20 May 2012

The Poland trip – down the Salt Mine

Our second day we took a trip to a salt mine. It’s a working mine but didn’t feel like it, prettified for the tourists so that oddly any sense of the toil and the ever present danger of deep mining is gone. Gone from the public levels at least. We’re taken down to 900 metres. Three levels for tourists. Another six levels below. One sixth of the total area is opened to view. And what we’re shown is massive. It would be very easy to get lost in the maze of tunnels and caverns.

The 14th century parts of the mine are deemed too dangerous so some of the carvings and chapels (all made by the miners) have been restored and moved so they can be shown off to group after group of tourists.  Most of the carvings are salt, but in one place a 200 year old wooden Jesus gruesomely nailed to a wooden cross is watched by a wooden Mary from across the cavern. The colours are vibrant and exactly as they were when the carvings were done 200 years ago. The wood  hasn’t been touched in all that time. The salt preserves it.

Ornate chandeliers are hung with pure crystal salt, transparent and luminous. There are many religious figures, but also mythical creatures, dwarfs and so on, some being the miners’ friends, others not. The place is steeped in both superstition and religion. The mine houses Europe's largest underground chapel, though we wonder how much competition there can be for that title.

Cauliflowers of salt show where water seeps through. This spells danger. Water washes salt out, collapses caverns, and creates deadly sink holes at the surface hundreds of meters deep. In one place a lake has been created to make the cavern look better for the tourists. Not dangerous we’re told because the water is super saturated at 33%. However, a monster is said to lurk in its nine meter depths.

Myth has it that salt was originally brought to Poland from Rumania by Queen Kinga. There is a story of a wedding ring thrown away in one country and reappearing in another. The real story is shown in the archaeology of the stone age.

Everywhere are carved figures of miners working, of kings and queens, of religious figures, a recent one being a larger than life Pope John Paul II carved for the millennium, having taken one man 6 months to complete.

The huge cavern where masses, concerts and weddings are held took three men 67 years to build. When the first died, his son took over the work. And when the son died a third man took over and completed the work in the 1960s.

As we are hurried by our guide through tunnels and caverns, from galleries to staircases, real miners flit in and out of sight disappearing behind doors forbidden to us, wearing lamps and battery packs. They shake hands with our guides but ignore us. A surreal reminder that this underground tourist theme park is still a real working mine.

We pay to be allowed to take photos underground but none of mine come out.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Crime writers go to Krakow

It’s a beautiful city. There’s a centre with a maze of largely pedestrian streets and alleys, the weather warm enough for us to sit outside to eat.

As well as exploring the city streets, we went to Vavel castle, which was the home of the Polish monarchy.

Having climbed up and into the castle, we leave through the twisting tunnels of a cave called the Dragon’s Den. It is said to house the dragon that guards this entrance to the castle – no millionaires waiting to throw insults and shell out cash.

 Underground in the Dragon's Den

This way out leads to the banks of the Vistula.

The footbridge we cross has hundreds of padlocks locked to the mesh of the sides. Most are labelled with two names and a heart, reminiscent of the ancient graffiti at Stonehenge. Some of these are clearly as old as the bridge. The bridge itself doesn’t seem so old but other older bridges are also adorned with padlocks. We didn’t find anyone to explain the tradition.

At the other side we were in the industrial quarter – a sea change from the Krakow that draws the tourists, except that tourist buses drive past us every few minutes taking people to and from the Schindler factory which is our intended destination. A misreading of the map makes it a longer walk than it should have been. It’s a very intense experience to walk round what is now a packed museum knowing what happened here and what draws people.

Saturday 12 May 2012

The Nairobi Trip

It is hard to give impressions of a country on the basis of a one-day trip. Not that it was literally a one-day trip. But the other three days were spent inside the hotel at a conference. It was a very good conference, the business bit is written up here

On that one free day I went around Nairobi with a friend, for whose time I am very grateful. She took me first to the Masai market and helped me to navigate the goods, the general clamour and the people who wanted me to buy simply everything.

I was reminded of the guy in Jamaica who wanted me to buy a large jewel encrusted dagger, insisting I’d have no bother getting it back through the US; or the guy in Paris determined I should buy a huge carpet from him. The goods on sale in Nairobi were far more practical and I bought quite a few, making sure they were customs-friendly and would fit in my suitcase.

The colours were amazing. Is that to do with the light in Africa? I've heard it said, but I don't know. I do know that some of the carvings on sale are the same as those on sale 6 miles away from where I live in the UK - large wooden giraffes. I didn’t buy carvings , doubting they’d survive the luggage battering of a long haul flight, but I bought other stuff including sandals and fabric, in colours and styles that I can't get at home.

Then we went out to the Karen Blixen house where there was a wedding in progress.

What an amazing setting for a wedding. The Out of Africa story is well enough known not to repeat it here, but it was an amazing experience to see the setting and many of the artefacts for real. It was like being transported back to an exotic 1950s England. Photographs were not allowed inside the house, apparently due to some rights issue in relation to the film.

From there we visited the Nairobi National Park.

We missed the trip that would have taken us right through so we walked around the walkway instead. We would have been allowed to drive in ourselves but as it was the start of the rainy season we would almost certainly have got stuck. We walked first round the orphanage seeing the young animals that had been brought in as orphans. Many big cats and also crocodiles, a warthog and a zedonk.

Out on the walkway with its magnificent views over the park and the river we saw some animals we couldn't identify. Of course out in the wild they aren’t labelled.

Impressions of Nairobi? Not unlike many big cities. Some areas of great wealth, helped along by the presence of the UN, and some areas of great poverty. Nairobi houses one of Africa's largest slums. Everyone talked about how bad the traffic was and it did look pretty horrendous at certain times of day but I was lucky enough not to be held up anywhere. Apparently there are frequent pileups which doesn't surprise me in the least. There is a style of driving that is Nairobi's own. I never felt in the least uneasy but I don't think I would like to be behind the wheel.

As it was the beginning of the rainy season, the traffic flow wasn't helped by occasional floods and huge potholes that, once filled with water, were impossible to gauge as to depth. Nairobi's rolling stock is somewhat battered and pretty muddy.

It's a shame to go somewhere and spent three quarters of the time inside a hotel. Saying that it was the sort of hotel in which it was no penance to stay. With its huge atrium some 15 stories high, its shopping mall, bars, gardens and pool, there was no sense of being enclosed or hemmed in. Security was tight because of the recent problems but I felt no personal sense of threat at any time.

Even in the worst of the traffic – cross roads solid with cars in all directions – there was little evidence of bad temper. Situations which in London or New York would have generated a cacophony of shouts and car horns were really quite peaceful. Kenya was advertised to me as a very friendly country. It genuinely seems to be so.