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It turns out the best of this city is subterranean. We go beneath the surface to discover its underground scene.

Underneath Rynek Glowy – Krakow’s 750-year-old market square – I’m wading through what is surely an archaeologist’s wet dream. As I traverse Rynek Underground, a dimly lit, labyrinthine, subterranean museum, I am privy to a plethora of millennia-old artefacts that bring the history of Krakow to life. It’s an ingenious exhibition; nothing is on display that hasn’t already been here for centuries. It’s just that until recently, nobody knew this stuff was here, a few metres under the square.

The museum opened in 2010 after a six-month archaeological dig that spanned into six years. It turned out that, for centuries, Krakowites had been paving old road with new: the square is now five metres taller than it was 1000 years ago, as each added layer of improvements hid debris from the past. Once the archaeologists started to dig, they found a treasure trove of history underground.

The results are on display amid a host of high-tech innovations: at the entrance, I appear to walk through a ghost, then realise it’s a hologram projected on to a curtain of fog. Another hologram is telling me off, although I can’t imagine what I did to offend it. My guide explains the image – of a man dressed in period garb – is yelling at me because I don’t have a licence to sell bread in this part of the market.

She pulls me away from the inflexible 16th-century bureaucrat to show me some skeletons. The first is laid out with its arms crossed over its shoulders. “This one was very attractive. He was tall, and had good teeth, which means he was healthy,” she tells me, then points to another in a foetal position.

“Archaeologists found a grave with these, all in what we call the vampire position. They were different looking, with big noses, or ears. We think that back then they were afraid of the ugly, and buried them separately.”

The museum is set up like a journey through time, starting three metres underground, in about the 16th century, and continuing deeper into the 11th. Maybe it’s the dim lighting, but as I’m walking across a 1000-year-old bridge, I feel as if I have actually traversed time.

Spurred on by the experience, I decide to delve even deeper, and head to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, 17km from Krakow city centre and 135km below the surface. The mine opened in 1290AD and is the oldest continuously run salt mine in the world. What’s most startling about Wieliczka is the sheer size of it. It houses underground stables, where horses that operated a pulley system to bring salt out of the mine lived. The mine also holds the world’s largest underground church. (Our guide explains that the miners prayed constantly, as theirs was dangerous work.) It’s a massive hall, complete with reliefs of the last supper and the nativity carved into the salt walls. 

Our guide reminds us frequently that the climate of the mine is good for our skin. “Look at me,” she says, “I’m really 400.” I can’t attest to its age-defying properties, but I do know I’m well seasoned. Whenever I bite my nail or lick my lips, all I can taste is salt.

It seems like the tour goes on forever, but we’re only viewing 1 per cent of the mine. Our guide tells us it would take years to explore the whole thing: if the tunnels were all joined together, they would span 300km.

A night on the town in Krakow proves similarly subterranean. There’s no shortage of cellar bars in this city – half the places in the Old Town are called Pod-something (“pod” means “under” in Polish).

I resist the ‘pods’ and hit up CK Browar, an underground beer garden popular for its three-litre beer towers, and for the fact it brews its own. Of Krakow’s underground club scene, Prozak in particular is surprisingly cheery for a cellar. Fairy lights, avant-garde artwork adorning the walls and a line-up of live music make it a popular nighttime haunt.

I ask one local, Raphael, why Krakow is so obsessed with cellar pubs. “It’s the beer,” he explains. “We like to brew
our own, and you need someplace cold and dark to do it.”

Hey, with beer this good, who needs sunlight?


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Underground Krakow: Subterranean city
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