Monday, September 30, 2013

The Salt Mines Of Wieliczka

"Cauliflower" salt formations
One of the coolest things I've done in a long time is visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines.  Located just a few miles outside of Krakow, Poland these ancient mines date back to the 13th Century and produced salt continuously until 2007.  The mines were used by the occupying German forces as ad-hoc military facilities during World War II and the site was given a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1978.  The mines run to a depth of 1,073 feet deep and encompass a labyrinth totaling 178 miles.  Because these mines are so impressive (and famous) they are visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.  I can only imagine how crowded they must be during peak tourism season.

Fortunately the day of our visit was after the summer rush so while busy, the crowds were quite manageable.  And of course, since the tours are offered so frequently, the knowledgeable guides have the whole routine down to a science.  We had been warned that because we would be doing a lot of walking and the mines are underground, the temperatures would be quite cool so we should wear comfortable shoes and dress warmly.  While cool, the temperatures were quite comfortable but everyone was right about the walking.  We descended a total of 800 steps down into the salty ground.  We encountered the first 350 of those immediately upon beginning our tour when our group twisted and turned our way down a series of 57 separate sets of stairs and platforms into the ground below.  These steps weren't just any steps either; they were incredibly steep.  It felt like a race into the center of the earth as we followed our guide into the cool unknown.  And the stairs were only a part of the adventure.  Our guide claimed that the total distance we would cover was just under 2 kilometers but it felt like so much more.

What we found at the first "level" was impressive.  We encountered tunnel after salt encrusted tunnel meandering through the dimly lit underground.  This is not a place for the claustrophobic as the ceilings were low and some passageways tight.  Our guide warned us to stay together and I could see how one could easily get lost if they didn't keep up since each tunnel looked much like the last one.  The tunnels were impressive and I could only imagine how dark and scary they must have been to the miners who toiled away in them.  These tunnels would periodically open into caverns of various sizes ranging from small nooks to large rooms with soaring ceilings.  Scenes portraying mining life, carved of salt of course, filled many of caverns.  From whimsical gnomes to hardworking miners and statues of prominent Poles, they were all found in this underground world.  We also encountered several underground streams and ponds whose water was a whopping 35% salinity.  Now that is salty!  I quickly came to realize that all salt is not the same.  We saw white crystals called "cauliflower" salt due to their resemblance to the garden vegetable and we saw shiny and smooth black salt walls.  Other salt was the color of concrete while some of the floors were made of pink toned compressed salt tiles.  Running my hand along a tunnel wall left my fingers a tonge tingling salty.  It was all so surreal.

But pictures say it best.  Who knew that all of this is located right underneath a bustling Polish community?

Just a small portion of the underground tunnels

Recreation of a wedding proposal, cast in salt of course

35% saline; now that's salty!
And because Poland is a predominantly Catholic country, religion plays an active role in most aspects of community life.  Throughout the mines small shrines have been established on the sites where miners lost their lives.  (Mining has always been a dangerous profession so you can only imagine how many of these shrines exist).  The maze of mine shafts also host several large scale chapels including the cavernous Holy Cross Chapel which has high ceilings, rock salt- crystal chandlers, intricate salt carvings, and because Pope John Paul II was "their pope" a life sized statue paying homage to the late pontiff.  These ornate chapels, carved of salt of course, are some of the most beautiful religious sites I have ever seen.  And they are all located underground!

Holy Cross Chapel

The Polish Pope

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