Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ancient salt mine an unexpected wonder

Today we travelled 14km southeast of Kraków to the Wieliczka salt mine, first discovered in the 1300s. In those days salt was a very valuable commodity, essential for preserving food. We descended down hundreds of steps to begin our tour of a section of the mine, some 22 chambers connected by galleries. We were in for a fascinating trip. The mine is a labyrinth of tunnels — about 300km —distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground. Everything in the mine was rock salt.The floor looked and felt like marble but even it was carved from rock salt. The walls were mainly a grey colour. Right away we could see that we were in an eerie world of pits and chambers, everything within its depths carved by hand from salt blocks.

The Wieliczka mine is renowned for the preservative qualities of its microclimate, as well as for its health-giving properties. An underground sanatorium has been established at a depth of 135m, where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays. Our guide kept telling us to breathe deeply: “No bacteria can live in this environment”, she said, “the air is pure”. There is even a salt lake containing 320 grams of salt per litre. I wonder what floating in that would be like?

The guided tours took in three upper levels of the mine, from 64m to 135m below the ground, an eerie landscape of pits and chambers. Some have been made into chapels, with altarpieces and figures while others are adorned with statues and monuments. The miners prayed at the chapels before and after their shifts. The mine closed in the 1990s when less expensive means of obtaining salt became available.

The showpiece of the tour is the ornamented Chapel of St Kinga, a church measuring 54m by 18m, and 12m high. Every single element here, from the crystals in the chandeliers to the altarpieces, is of salt.  There are various religious carvings  around the walls, such as a depiction of the Last Supper. The temple was started in 1895 with only one man working on it. Two others also worked on it by themselves. This remarkable achievement was completed in 1963. About 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed. Since then a statue of Saint John Paul II, who is much revered in Poland, has been added.

What an interesting tour. We had walked down hundreds and hundreds of steps in the mine, some wooden, some carved from the salt. Fortunately, we were whisked up to the ground in a miner's cage.

Feeling quite good with breathing all the pure air we decided to go to a movie near our hotel. The theatre was housed in what was formerly two mansions. We paid the equivalent of $6 and climbed up a majestic staircase to our little four-row theatre, in what was probably a bedroom at one time. The room was hundreds of years old with antique bookcases and an old lamp at the front of the room. Luckily, the seats were proper cinema seats. A perfect environment to see a New Zealand vampire movie!

Walking back around the square we stopped in to a jazz concert held in a basement bar. It was fun with people of all ages from many countries as well as local university students in attendance. Tired of some of the stodgy food we had had, I ordered a peanut butter and banana sandwich. I didn't think I could go too far wrong with that. The astonished server said that in her two years working there, I was the first to order that sandwich. All I can say is,  it was pretty good.

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