Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine: An Underground Wonder


There’s something alluring about underground spaces. Whether it’s the ancient subterranean cities of Cappadocia in Turkey or the alternative art galleries of the Paris catacombs, humanity’s works underground take on a strange and mysterious feeling.

Perhaps there is no underground space more strange and mysterious than the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a salt mine from the 13th century until as recently as 1996. In that time the miners excavated 190 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of more than 1,000 feet. During the mine’s high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, some 2,000 miners worked there digging out 30,000 tons a year.

Salt was hugely important in the premodern world. Not only was it vital for nutrition, but it also helped to preserve meat and other edibles in the days before refrigeration. Several countries, including Poland and Ethiopia, even used salt as currency in addition to coins.

Not content with simply mining salt and making a living, the salt miners carved elaborate statues and scenes out of the salt, including a large chapel complete with “crystal” chandeliers made with purified rock salt. The salt in its natural state is gray, and so it resembles granite. Many of the sculptures are religious in nature, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others show miners and folk figures such as gnomes.

%Gallery-158467%The guided tour takes intrepid travelers on a 1.9-mile route through various tunnels, rooms and even an underground lake. Constantly descending, the group makes their way through dozens of decorated rooms. As this video shows, it’s an unforgettable experience. Also check out the photo gallery for some excellent images of this odd attraction.

The simpler carvings done in the Renaissance and early modern periods are the most interesting to my eye, since they were crafted by regular people out of faith and a sense of fun. Now contemporary artists are getting in on the act and there are many new sculptures, including one of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and visited the mine before he became pontiff. The centuries-old mine is continuing to grow and develop.

Interested in seeing more strange underground dwellings? Check out our articles on salt mine tours and underground cities.

Visiting Synagogues Around The World


Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, India


Places of worship have long been points of interest for travelers. Solemn and usually quite ornate, these buildings provide a window onto a community’s history and values and often give visitors a much-needed pause while pounding the sightseeing pavement. Cathedrals are typical for this kind of touring. But have you ever thought to pay a visit to a synagogue?

My fascination with exploring synagogues began on a trip to Willemstad, Curaçao, home of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas built in 1651. Several years later, I had the opportunity to visit the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, Kerala, India. Constructed in 1568, it is the oldest “active” synagogue in India – “active” because there are fewer than 20 Jews left in Cochin, most having emigrated to Israel. Coincidentally, I learned about the Jews of Cochin from an exhibit at the 6th and I Synagogue, a historic synagogue in Washington, DC, that is now used primarily as a community center and arts space.

The Jewish diaspora is thriving in many parts of the world. Yet in places like Cochin and Mumbai, the local Jewish community is dwindling, giving impetus to visiting some synagogues before they are shuttered or left to become museums. The following are some of the synagogues I have seen or wish to explore on my travels.

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Ghostscrapers – Top ten post-apocalyptic abandoned skyscrapers

abandoned skyscrapers

When city plans exceed reality, or the money dries up, or people simply leave in a mass exodus, skyscrapers vacate and slowly decay. High winds thrash through broken windows. Rats live undisturbed amongst decades old rubble. Stairways lead to doors that may never open again. The ghost of ambition’s past arrives in the present like a howling specter, creating eyesores, dangerous conditions, and free housing for opportunistic urban survivalists.

These abandoned skyscrapers range from forsaken structures aborted long before their doors opened to icons from a bygone era. While a slumper like Detroit has its fair share of empty giants, even cities with tiger cub economic growth like Bangkok are not immune to the plague of creepy abandoned high-rises. South America brings vertical favelas to the list, and Poland has a tower named after a pop-culture villain. And even San Francisco, a city with a high recreational scooter to human ratio and droves of individuals who see the world just beyond the tip of their nose, has its very own abandoned skyscraper.

From North Korea to Venezuela, these structures differ in their stories and circumstance, but each is a fine glimpse at post-apocalyptic urban decay.


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abandoned skyscrapers

Michigan Central Station
Location: Detroit, USA
Stories: 18 floors
Story: The Central Station was finished during the advent of the automobile – 1913. The Beaux-Arts style of the classical building recalls a time when Detroit possessed the resources and momentum to rightfully emulate Parisian architecture. Its old school ambition is not lost on current Detroit residents but its function certainly is. It is a doorway into a forgotten world and a poster-boy for urban decay. The graffiti and dilapidation tells the story not just of Detroit’s acrimonious decline but also the abandonment of rail travel in the United States. At its peak during the 1940’s, 200 trains left this station daily. Today, none. While rail travel is receiving some political buzz in Washington, the fate of this gorgeous structure is uncertain. Many have flirted with re-purposing the old building, from the Detroit Police to casino developers, but for the moment it stands quietly on the outskirts of the modern world like an old ornate wrench that fits no bolt.
Abandoned since: 1988

abandoned skyscrapers

Ryugyong Hotel
Location: Pyongyang, North Korea
Stories: 105 floors
Story: This massive pyramidal structure (above, furthest left) is a 105 story symbol for the absurdist ambitions of Kim Jong Il and the hermit kingdom. It has been under construction (on and off) for decades. It has been called the world’s most hideous hotel. It is an unnecessary extravagance in a country that can barely feed its people. The project was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union due to Soviet subsidies to North Korea coming to an end. The hollow shell stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city – a failure too large to ignore but too painful to acknowledge. The North Koreans spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure. Construction on the structure resumed recently with Egyptian architectural firm Orascom leading the project. It is slated for completion in 2012, to sync with the 100th birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung, deceased since 1994.
Abandoned since: 1992, currently under construction

Tower of David
Location: Caracas, Venezuela
Stories: 45 floors
Story: The Tower of David, one of the tallest buildings in Latin America, is the quintessential slum-scraper. There is no government interference, just 2500 squatters carving up its 45 stories for purposes ranging from housing to business. The building includes apartments, home-brew PlayStation arcades, beauty salons, and perhaps the most suspicious dentistry operation in the new world. While the current occupants have yet to climb higher than the 30th floor, it is only a matter of time before the anarchic housing market pushes residences higher towards the dilapidated rooftop helipad – a symbol from Caracas’ forgotten banking boom.
Abandoned since: 1994, never completed

abandoned skyscrapers

Buffalo Central Terminal
Location: Buffalo, USA
Stories: 20
Story: The Buffalo Central terminal has been looted for artifacts, vandalized by bored delinquents, used for art exhibitions, explored by ghost hunters, and even sold for $1. It is a gorgeous old structure plagued by a series of humiliating footnotes, caught in a perpetual fall from grace. But it was not always so. At a time, the Buffalo Central Terminal was an important hub servicing hundreds of trains daily. Still an Art Deco architectural masterpiece, the structure possesses a prominent tower worthy of superlatives, and its halls are said to be haunted by ghostly apparitions waiting for trains that will never arrive. Last Halloween, the TV show Ghost Hunters filmed a 6 hour marathon in the creepy old building. It is possible to tour the structure and even get hitched in its lofty halls. Click here for more information.
Abandoned since: 1980

abandoned skyscrapers

Szkieletor (Skelator)
Location: Krakow, Poland
Stories: 20 floors
Story: The tallest building in Krakow is a a hulking skeleton of a structure unofficially named after the villain from He-man – a show extremely popular in Poland in the early 1980’s. Construction began in 1975, but the Pols ran into economic troubles. Today, the building is primarily a backdrop in which to drape massive advertisements. It is also a constant reminder of the decades old malfeasance of Skelator – an urban Castle Grayskull looming on the Polish horizon.
Abandoned since: 1981, never completed

PacBell Building
Location: San Francisco, USA
Stories: 26
Story: Once the tallest building in San Francisco, the PacBell building is a Neo-Gothic marvel abandoned last decade. Completed in 1925, the giant is capped with 13 foot tall art deco Eagles looking out over the great San Francisco expanse. While the building was purchased in 2007 for $118 million, it has since been left to decay quietly in its own upscale way. Unlike most abandoned skyscrapers though, this one still has some life in it. Security guards patrol the ground floor, and the tower is lit up at night. A couple of brave urban explorers over at Bearings snuck past the guard and explored the tower’s heights. Check out their first hand account of the abandoned skyscraper. The PacBell Building will likely be repurposed into condominiums in the coming years.
Abandoned since: 2005

abandoned skyscrapers

Edificio Sao Vito
Location: Sao Paolo, Brazil
Stories: 27 floors
Story: The original vertical favela arrived on the scene in the late fifties with the intention of providing housing to Sao Paolo’s middle class community and expats. Before long though, the building fell into disrepair and became an overpopulated den of urban plight – a favela that sprawled up. As basic services and utilities declined over the years, tenants began disposing their garbage out the window and obtaining illegal electricity. Many of the Edificio’s 624 apartment units were split into two – stressing the already shaky infrastructure of the building known as “Balança mas não Cai” (It shakes but does not fall). By the eighties, the tap water was polluted and only one of the three elevators partially worked – making its way halfway up the building. Edificio Sao Vito was formally evacuated in 2004, though crackheads and drug dealers have taken to the abandoned structure like moths to a flame. Allegedly, the Mayor of Sao Paolo tried to demolish the building because it obstructed his otherwise pleasant view. While this bit of urban lore may or may not be true, the building has been flirting with demolition for the last decade. At the time of reading its graffiti flecked concrete walls may simply be dust.
Abandoned since: 2004

abandoned skyscrapers

Book Tower
Location: Detroit, USA
Stories: 38 floors
Story: Construction began on the Book Tower in 1916, just a few years after Henry Ford transformed auto-making forever with assembly line production. It is the old style of high-rise – more a kin of masonry than a child of steel and glass. For years, the classic structure with an ornate copper roof stood for the old world extravagance of Detroit. Now, it has taken on an altogether different metaphorical role as a sad reminder of when the eminent address spoke for the industrialist success of one of America’s finest cities. The property has changed hands many times in the last decade and plans exist to drop hundreds of millions in restoring the old-school giant.
Abandoned since: 2009

abandoned skyscrapers

Sathorn Unique
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Stories: 49
Story: During the Thai tiger economy of the 1990’s, skyscrapers grew all over Bangkok in a display of Thailand’s new-found economic prominence. This one never completely grew up. Crows circle the pinnacle and rats call its lower levels home. Locals, convinced its hallways are haunted, stay out of the ghostscraper. Expat urban spelunkers have explored the building and returned to Khao San Road with stories from its upper reaches. The verdict: it is a dilapidated mess. The future of the Sathorn Unique remains unclear but perhaps someday it will be finished. For now, it looms on the Bangkok skyline with many other abandoned skeletal structures.
Abandoned since: 1997

abandoned skyscrapers

Sterick Building
Location: Memphis, USA
Stories: 29 floors
Story: Once the tallest building in the southern United States, the original “Queen of Memphis” is a ghostly skyscraper, boarded up and decaying from the inside. The late Gothic architectural marvel once shuttled around thousands of workers, from stockbrokers to barbers, in its eight high-speed elevators. It has been the domain of urban explorers and desperate vagrants ever since being completely abandoned in the late nineteen-eighties. While inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places preserves its era appropriate charms, the future of the towering structure is unclear. Perhaps a redevelopment boom in downtown Memphis will reignite a need for the large ghostscraper.
Abandoned since: 1980s

top flickr image via country_boy_shane

Warsaw, Poland: an up-and-coming European museum destination

European museum destination
As an EU member with a good exchange rate and low prices, Poland is becoming a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe. Most of the love goes to Krakow, with its original architecture and “new Prague” charm, but capital city Warsaw has plenty to offer as a European museum destination. While much of the old town was leveled in World War II, the restorations have been painstakingly done and the tumultuous history makes for a great basis for museum exhibitions.

Like Berlin, Warsaw has embraced its past and given the visitor plenty to learn from and new investments mean state-of-the-art attractions and exhibitions.

Given all of the places to see, Warsaw could easily fill a week (or two) on a Europe trip. Here’s a look at some of Warsaw’s best museums.
Only-in-Warsaw

Warsaw (Up)Rising Museum – Warsaw’s proudest museum is a hi-tech interactive experience detailing the events of the two-month rebellion of the Polish people against the German forces as well as what preceded and followed. It borders on being overly comprehensive, the hundreds of artifacts can overwhelm, as can the crowds who line up daily. Be sure to follow museum signs as you walk through, as the chronological exhibit doesn’t necessarily follow the logical path.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison – Two of the city’s most unassuming buildings were once the most feared. Not as flashy as the Rising Museum but equally effective, the former Gestapo HQ contains a few stark cells that once held prisoners to be interrogated and often tortured before being taken to the prison, along with very professionally-done interactive displays telling the experiences of the poor souls held there. Most of the prison in the former Jewish ghetto has been destroyed, but dozens of artifacts and exhibits explain the prisoners’ conditions and attempt to describe the horrors that happened there.


Fryderyk Chopin Museum – Another hi-tech, multimedia extravaganza, this brand new space dedicated to Poland’s most famous composer goes beyond the usual exhibition with a fully customizable experience. Sample sounds from a rare score, read letters to the important women in Chopin’s life, and see a recreation of his Paris drawing room.

Palace of Culture and Science – Not so much a museum as a gift Warsaw can’t hide away, the tallest building in Poland was a gift from Joseph Stalin and it’s hard to go anywhere in the city without seeing the Soviet beast. Though the building is enormous, not much of it is open to the public. It’s worth a trip to the terrace for panoramic city views (see above photo) or spend an afternoon making sense of the bizarrely curated Museum of Technology.

Want more history? There are also museums dedicated to the Polish People’s Movement and Polish Independence, plus the many churches and monuments of the restored Old City and Krakowskie Przedmiescie street. Warsaw’s Jewish culture is also well-documented at the new Jewish Museum and Wola district historical museum.

Well-done in Warsaw


Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle – A few blocks away from the Gestapo Headquarters, the building has a history as a royal residence, medical hospital, and now modern art museum. Some of the most innovative artists in Poland and Europe are showcased here: November saw a show focused on Internet-shaped culture such as a scrolling display of Twitter results for the phrase “Best day ever.”


Warsaw Zoo – In addition to being a nicely-maintained habitat for animals, this zoo has a fascinating and heroic past. Diane Ackerman’s book The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the story of the zoo director who aided in war efforts and saved many Jewish Poles from the Nazis by hiding them in the animal cages.


Royal Castle and Wilanow Palace – Just outside the Old City, the Royal Castle was also rebuilt from scratch and houses a slew of antiques and artwork, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and other treasures from other museums. If you visit in good weather, it’s worth a day out of town to visit the grand Wilanow Palace and gardens, the Polish Versailles.

Not exhausted yet? Small museums also specialize in collections of cars, trains, military weaponry, horse-riding, caricatures, and Polish physicist Marie Curie. See the In Your Pocket Warsaw guide for more info.


Q & A with Grantourismo round-the-world slow travel bloggers

Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWith all the holiday travel madness just beginning, sometimes it’s nice to take a breath and think about taking travel more slowly. I recently had a chance to meet up with blogger Lara Dunston and her photographer-writer husband, Terence Carter, of the round-the-world travel project and blog, Grantourismo while they were traveling through Istanbul. Lara and Terence hosted me at their fabulous terraced apartment with glasses of Turkish wine, travel chat, and views of nearby Taksim Square and the nostalgic tram.

Grantourismo is a yearlong grand tour of the globe to explore more enriching and ‘authentic’ (and they get how those words have been debated and abused by travel bloggers!) ways of traveling, which began in Dubai this February and will wrap up in Scotland in January. In order to slow down and immerse themselves in each place, they are staying in vacation rentals (rather than hotels) in one place for two weeks at a time.

Read on for more about their slow travel philosophy, tips about renting a holiday apartment, and how they found Austin’s best tacos.

What’s the essence of Grantourismo?
We’re attempting to get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting and to inspire other travelers to do the same. We’re doing very little sightseeing and if we’re taking tours, we’re doing small group tours with expert local guides ran by sustainable companies, such as Context. Mostly we’re experiencing places through their food, markets, music, culture, fashion, street art, sport, etc, and doing things that locals do in their own towns rather than things tourists travel to their towns to do. We’re trying and buying local produce and products, and seeking out artisanal practices we can promote. We’re also highlighting ways in which travellers can give something back to the places they’re visiting, from planting trees in Costa Rica to kicking a football with kids in a favela in Rio. And we’re blogging about this every day at Grantourismo!

How did you make it a reality?
Our initial idea was 12 places around the world in 12 months, learning things like the original grand tourists did. Terence, who is a great musician and a terrific cook, wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen and learn a musical instrument while I was going to enroll in language classes and learn something different in each place. But we couldn’t figure out how to fund such a project. We were lucky in that I saw an ad from HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (the UK arm of HomeAway) looking for a travel journalist-photographer team to stay in their vacation rentals and blog about their experiences for a year. I presented Grantourismo to them, they loved it, and here we are! We’re in the 10th month of our yearlong trip, we’ve stayed in 27 properties in 18 countries, and we have a ski town and five cities to go! We’ve written 369 stories on our website – and only 27 of those have been about the properties, the rest have been about everything from winetasting to walking – and we’ve done loads of interviews with locals we’ve met, from musicians and chefs to fashion designers and bookbinders.

Terence Carter Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWhat’s the biggest difference about staying in an apartment vs. a hotel?
The biggest difference and best thing is that when you’re staying in a vacation rental you’re generally living in an everyday neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, which means you can meet people other than hotel cleaners and waiters. You can pop downstairs or down the road to a local café or pub that’s full of locals rather than other tourists. You can shop in local markets or supermarkets that are significantly cheaper. Sure if you’re staying in a hotel you can go and look at the markets, but your hotel mini-bar probably won’t hold much, whereas we go with a shopping list or we simply watch what the locals are buying, and we go home and cook.

You can generally get off the beaten track far easier than you can when you stay in a hotel. If you’re relying on the concierge for tips, you’re going to see other hotel guests eating at the restaurant he recommended. Then there’s the beauty of having lots of space, your own kitchen so you don’t have to eat out every meal, and a refrigerator you can fill that doesn’t have sensors going off when you open it. There might be shelves filled with books or a DVD library – in Cape Town we even had a piano, which Terence played every day! The privacy – we got tired of housekeeping ignoring DND signs, people coming to check the outrageously-priced mini-bar, and the phone always ringing with staff asking, when were we checking out, did we want a wake-up call, could they send a porter up. It became so tedious, especially as we were spending around 300 days a year in hotels on average. There are downsides to holiday rentals too of course. If something goes wrong the property owner/manager isn’t always around to fix it, whereas in a hotel, you phone the front desk to let them know the Internet isn’t working and they’ll send someone up.

What should travelers consider when renting a holiday apartment?
Location first. What kind of neighbourhood do you want to live in, how off the beaten track do you want to get, do you want to walk into the centre or are you happy to catch public transport or drive, what kind of facilities are in the area if you’re not hiring a car, and is there a supermarket, shops, restaurants, café, bars in walking distance? After that, the quality of accommodation – in the same way that people decide whether to opt for a budget hotel if they just want somewhere to lay their head, or a five-star if they want creature comforts, they need to think about how much time they intend spending at the property and the level of comfort they want. We stayed in a budget apartment in Manhattan, which was fine as we were out a lot. In Ceret, France and Sardinia, Italy we had big charming houses with terrific kitchens, which was perfect as we stayed in and cooked a lot. If it’s a family reunion or group of friends going away together and they want to enjoy meals in, then it’s important to ask detailed questions about the kitchen and facilities, as we’ve had some places that only had the bare basics, while others like our properties in Austin and Cape Town had dream kitchens.

Favorite destination/apartment?
We’ve been to some amazing places but my favourites have been Tokyo and Austin. We’d only visited Tokyo once before on a stopover, stayed in a cramped hotel and just did the tourist sights. This time we really saw how people lived by staying in an apartment, we discovered different corners of the city we didn’t know existed, and we made new friends. In Austin, it was all about the people, who must be the USA’s friendliest and coolest. We spent a lot of time seeing live music and met lots of musicians, and we also got into the food scene – locals take their food very seriously in Austin! We even hosted a dinner party there with Terence cooking up a multi-course tasting menu for our new friends. In terms of properties, I’m torn between the rustic traditional white trullo set amongst olive groves that we stayed at in Puglia where we had our own pizza oven and bikes to ride in the countryside, the penthouse in the historic centre of Mexico City, and the two houses in Costa Rica, one set in the jungle and the other on the beach, literally within splashing distance of the sea!

Funny story about one of your stays?
The funniest moments weren’t funny at the time but we look back at them and laugh now. At our the Puglia trullo we had terrible internet access. It barely worked in the house because the walls were so thick, yet internet is crucial to what we’re doing so we had to work outside, which wasn’t much fun in the rain. Terence discovered that he could get the best access in the middle of the olive grove next door; you can see him working here! The monkeys that visited us everyday in our houses in Costa Rica were also hilarious. One morning I was enjoying a rare moment reading in the sun when I saw a rare red-backed squirrel monkey run across the fence, and then another leapfrog that one, and then another join them! I quickly got up and raced into the kitchen to make sure there was no food left on the bench, turned around and there was a family of 30-40 monkeys trooping through the house. These guys are endangered, but it didn’t look like it from where I was standing in the kitchen in my bikinis and towel, trying to protect our food as the property manager had warned us that they know how to open the cupboards! The manager also told us to leave the lights on at night, because otherwise the bats will think the house is a cave. She wasn’t kidding.

How is social media playing a role in your travels?
We decided not to use guidebooks this Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersyear and rely on advice from locals, many of which we come in contact with through social media. We’ve met many locals via their blogs or Twitter. We use Twitter every day, as a research and networking tool, to make contacts ahead of our visit and get tips from people when we’re there. We’ve had some amazing advice from our followers, from restaurant recommendations to suggestions on things we should do. When we were in Cape Town, loads of tweeps said we had to do the Township Tour offered by Cape Capers and we did and they were right, it was life-changing.

Terence learns how to make the quintessential dish of each place we visit and often asks tweeps what he should make. We’ve had great tips from food bloggers who use Twitter such as Eating Asia and Eat Mexico. We’ve ended up meeting loads of tweeps, including a bunch of New Yorkers – bloggers, writers and travelers – we met for drinks one night, including Gadling’s own Mike Barish and David Farley, while in Austin we had lunch with ‘the Taco Mafia‘ from the Taco Journalism blog and got the lowdown on Austin’s best tacos. We also use Twitter to share our own travel experiences and let people know when we have new stories on the site and we run a monthly travel blogging competition which we promote on Twitter (with very generous prizes donated by HomeAway Holiday Rentals, AFAR, Viator, Context, Trourist, and Our Explorer); the aim of that is to get other travelers to help spread our messages about the kind of traveling we’re doing.

What’s next?
As far as Grantourismo goes, we just left Istanbul (where we were delighted to meet another fascinating Gadling contributor!) and are in Budapest. After this it’s Austria for some fun in the snow, then Krakov for Christmas, Berlin for New Year’s Eve, and our last stop is Edinburgh end of January. After that? We’ve been invited to speak at an international wine tourism conference in Porto, Portugal, about Grantourismo and wine, as we’ve explored places through their wine as much as their food, doing wine courses, wine tastings, wine walks, and wine tours, and really trying to inspire people to drink local rather than imported wine. Then we’re going to write a book about Grantourismo and our year on the road, and later in the year – after we’re rested and energised – we’re going to take Grantourismo into a slightly different direction.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.