Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Krakow - Eposide Two: Above the salt

From Wiki: "The word salary originates from Latinsalarium which referred to the money paid to the Roman Army's soldiers for the purchase of salt."

White gold, below the salt, salt of the earth, worth his salt. Salt has been currency both in physical and literary terms for thousands of years. And though I was familiar with salt harvesting from the sea, I never really thought about rock salt or that it required mining. I never imagined, for example, that beneath the ground the prehistoric seas had left such huge salt deposits as those that give their name to places like Salzburg and Salzach.

My visit to the Wieliczka salt mine was one of the highlights of my recent visit to Poland. There is a lovely story of how the mine was found, through the dropping of a ring by St Kinga (she dropped the ring in a salt mine miles away, and it turned up in Wielicza). St Kinga is the patron saint of salt miners, of course.

The mine itself is an amazing place and certainly worth visiting. 101m underground and you are in a huge chamber that equals that of many a stately home. And it's all made of salt - from the tiles beneath your feet to the crystals on the chandelier. The salt miners (who lived longer than their non-mining contemporaries, due to the 'benefits' of salt) made the most amazing statues and underground chapels - carving out of the salt not only the chambers and passageways, but detailed statues of saints and heroes.

The mine was awe inspiring - in fact it is one of the most extraordinary and intriguing places I have ever been. A mix of nature's wonder (the varying colours of the salt and the way it crystalises on the ancient props) and the ingenuity of humanity - carving not only a living from the salt, but the amazing chapels too.

From the Pope to gnomes, all along the tourist route you get to see the craftsmanship of carver-miners. The tour I went on was around two hours and we walked a long way, exploring three levels of the mine that are open to the public. And the amazing thing is that we saw just 1% of the mine - it must be absolutely huge.

St Kinga

The main hall

One of the tunnels

The floor tiles - simply carved out of the salt floor

One of the carvings in the main hall

Carving detail

I was there! 
The salt mine alone was worth the trip to Poland. I wish I could have taken better photographs, but those I do have don't even begin to do it justice.

Photos: All (C) Carolyn Sheppard 2013
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