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Pack your bags, pour a goblet of 1998 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, settle in a comfortable first class seat with one of my novels, and get ready to travel to exotic foreign lands for romance and intrigue—and a good laugh. Enjoy the adventure.
It’s not the destination that matters
It’s the journey that counts
BACK TO THE SALT MINES
This article by R. Ann Siracusa was originally published on the RB4U Blog Site on May 10, 2013
We all know the cliche "back to the salt mines" means it's time to return to school, work or something unpleasant (like finishing that last scene that's been so hard to write), by implying the speaker is a slave to the salt mines.
Yet the Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and proclaimed by Poland as a national monument in 1994.
A salt mine?
Table salt is a commodity we take for granted these days. You can get it anywhere for a reasonable price, but that wasn't always true. In ancient times, it was quite precious, and until the industrial revolution, it was hard to come by. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, and as early as Roman times, being sent to work in the salt mine was tantamount to being sent into slavery with a very limited life expectancy.
So why would a salt mine end up on the list of World Heritage sites?
The Wieliczka Salt Mine?
Four hundred and forty-three feet beneath the City of Wieliczka (population 20,000, in the metropolitan area of Karków, Poland), the Wieliczka Salt Mine has continuously extracted table salt from the time it was constructed in the 12th century by a local duke. The salt mine was first mentioned in 1044 and didn't cease operations until 1992 (some sources say 1996 and 2007), due to heaving flooding. Regardless, it's one of the oldest and longest operating salt mines in existence and still produces brine.
From the outside, the mine appears exceptionally well kept but ordinary, and on the interior, you will find the expected look and equipment of a salt mine.
Interesting, yes. But World Heritage Site quality? I don't know.
This Ain't Your Ordinary Salt Mine
The salt mine itself, while interesting and now housing a museum of the history of the salt mining industry, isn't what attracts over a million visitors a year. Over the centuries, tens of generations of miners not only extracted salt, but they also left behind them a record of their time there in awesome sculptures and architecture, all made of salt.
The tourists who visit have to descend 378 wooden steps to enter an unexpected and amazing world where they can take a 2 kilometer tour (some sources say 2 miles and 3.5 kilometers) of the mine corridors, sixteen lakes, twenty chapels (including the Cathedral), and incredible art works. (There is an elevator to go up to the surface which rises at twelve feet per second.)
These works of art and architecture weren't created by great artists under commission to some King, but by the workers themselves, from the middle ages to the present, by hacking rock from the walls and sculpting statues and reliefs in the salt rock which resembles unpolished granite.
These chapels were places where the miners could capture a few moments of retreat to worship during their labors. There are twenty chapels, the largest and most magnificent, the Cathedral.
The Cathedral is astounding in terms of sheer size and the way in which the miners breathed their Catholic spirit into the cathedral and art works.
It took 68 years to complete.
Photo by Michal Osmenda
Photo by teachandlearn on Flickr
Photo by Adam Kumiszcza on Wikimedia Commons
Many of the sculpted scenes represent well-known stories from the Bible. Others represent other historical events and also the imagination of the miners. One wall is dedicated to the 14th century warrior Casimir the Great.
The origins of the mine are depicted in the Janowice Chamber. In medieval times, the Hungarian Princess Kinga, married Polish Prince Boleslaus the Chaste.
When Mongols invaded Poland, Kinga went to her father asking that he help the Poles. In response, he gave her the sale mine of Maramaros, in Transylvania, where she threw her ring into the shaft. (No references explained why she did that.) The story goes the ring was found in the first block of white sand dug in Wieliczka, which ultimately provided a third of the income to the Polish crown. Below a knight is returning the ring to Kinga.
The amazing salt chandeliers are not simply sculpted from salt, but by using a process which requires the salt rock to be dissolved. Then the impurities are extracted, and solution dried to achieve a glass-like finish. Even the floor, which looks like tiles, is made of salt.
Photo by dgies on Flickr Photo by Matthew.kowal on Wikimedia Commons
In the Spalone Chamber there are figures of the men who worked as the mine's "Pentinents". Before there was proper ventilation, these men worked were responsible for burning off the methane that accumulated in the ceilings of the mine's chambers. They dressed in wet clothing and crawled along the floor of the mine with a long pole hold a lit torch at the end. It was a dangerous task and those workers were rewarded with extra bags of salt, which was an extremely valuable commodity in the Middle Ages.
Visitors who commented on the many articles and blogs, tag the Wieliczka Salt Mine as a "don't miss" travel destination. Now I see why it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I can't wait to visit.