Tue | Mar 20, 2018

Into the SALT MINE

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 12:00 AMLaura Tanna
Cruxifix in mine
Statue of John Paul II carved from salt
Princess Kinga being presented with the ring inside a lump of salt
Princess Kinga being presented with the ring inside a lump of salt
Oldest painting in Salt Mine of Virgin Mary and child
Casimer The Great Chamber
Entrance to Salt Mine
Mine shored up by wooden pillars

It was a bright, sunny day as we drove the 10 miles from the centre of Krakow, Poland, to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Cultural and Natural Heritage Site since 1978. More than 40 million visitors from around the globe have ventured down the mine, which began operations in the late 13th century, some 700 years ago. The initial 380 steps into the first stage of the visit take you 135 metres underground, although the depth of the mine reaches 327 metres in parts. You're warned to wear comfortable shoes and a warm sweater or jacket as it can be as low as 148C below ground. But it wasn't the temperature I was worrying about as we kept descending and descending what seemed like 10 steps at a time, then turn and another 10 steps, then turn again as deeper and deeper we went. I was worried I might fall after continuously going round and round with people in front and behind.

You can buy your tickets online or have your hotel get them ahead of time, as we did, or else just show up, stand in line to buy the ticket, and as soon as 20 or 30 other people in your language group are ready, you enter. They say no one waits more than an hour, and in our case, we waited less than 10 minutes. Rules are no big bags, no pets, and no smoking. And they do have a special route and elevator for handicapped visitors, though for that you need to plan ahead.

Legend has it that a Hungarian princess was betrothed to Boleslaw V, the Prince of Krakow, and she asked her father to give her a lump of salt as part of her dowry since salt was valuable in Poland. Now if you're wondering what was so special about salt, remember that centuries ago, there was no electricity and salt was prized as a preservative for food. In fact, it was sometimes prized more highly than gold so a salt mine was enormously lucrative. Some say the Wieliczka Salt Mine is Poland's oldest business because it has been in operation continuously since its inception until 2007, though commercial mining ended in 1996, caused by a combination of low salt prices and floods. Now salt is obtained by drying the salt from the mine's water we were told. But the mine's business is very much still a commercial operation as more than a million visitors come every year to see what is at the heart of Poland's history.

So Princess Kinga took her father's lump of salt, placed her fiancÈ's engagement ring into the lump and then threw it down the mine shaft in Maramaros. Once in Krakow, she told the miners there to dig down to rock where they (surprise, surprise, this is a legend) found the ring inside that lump of salt. To this day, Princess Kinga is the patron saint of salt miners. There in the middle of our tour is a chapel carved out of salt, with statues of Princess Kinga being presented with the ring in the lump.


Shored up with timber


Somewhere, either at the beginning or in the middle, we took an elevator holding up to 36 people and descended farther into the mine, which is shored up with timber and quite safe, even with a dragon head peeping out at us from above, the dragon being a symbol of Krakow. But as we walked and walked through the various passageways, always with our guide explaining in English the history of the mine, and as we saw recreations of workers plodding around wooden turnstiles, or experienced recreations of dynamite charges, we began to understand what was involved in that old threat of being sent "to the salt mines". We felt it even more with demonstrations of workers sent ahead to check for gas that might kill them all, despite our guide's admonition that the salaries were better than most, and even the horses that were brought in during the 19th century to work lived longer than horses outside because of their better care below.

Imagining what the work must have been like before electricity was the most frightening. We understood why every so often, there was a painting to the Virgin Mary and baby Christ or a chapel with a crucifix. Poland is a country whose ruler converted to Christianity in 966, and despite Poland having lost its own "nationality" for 100 years when in 1795 it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, today, minorities comprise only 4% of its population. This is a very Catholic country, and the proximity of death in the confined darkness of the mine reinforced the very spiritual aspect of working below ground.

We descended further down wooden steps (there are 800 steps in all during the tour) to encounter a large saline lake, and then eventually, we came to the enormous Casimer The Great Chamber, lit by chandeliers made from salt, with religious carvings on the walls made from salt, including a depiction of The Last Supper and a very large image of Pope John Paul II, who not only came from Krakow, but who had also visited the mine.

The tour ends with an opportunity to visit the Krakow Salt Work's Museum and to dine in the Miners' Tavern, or one can walk directly to an elevator that takes one to the surface, although they didn't mention that the walk to the elevator goes on and on, almost as long as climbing down all those stairs. When I finally asked just how long we had to walk, the guide said we'd probably walked about five miles in total, so be prepared for a good workout along with a three-hour fascinating introduction to Polish history!