Thursday, 6 September 2012

Lightly Salted...

Poland, and particularly Krakow, is known for its historic and tragic role in Hitler's persecution of the Jews during World War II. But what it is not so well known is its connection with something that we still use everyday...salt.

Wieliczka Salt Mine (it's pronounced Veil-ich-ska - I had to work surprisingly hard for a couple of hours to get that right!) is about a 20 minute drive from Krakow and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site for more than 30 years.

But a little over 3 hours is all you need to get up close and personal condiment-wise.

Old miners steps about 100m below the surface
Used for the preservation of food prior to the invention of refrigeration, salt was one of the lynchpins of the Polish economy. Salt was once valued more highly than gold and the workers at the mine itself were so highly regarded that they were actually paid with it. (The word salary, comes from the Latin sal, the word for salt.)

White 'gold'
The visit all starts with taking some steps - many many many of them (380 in fact) - down to level 1 of the mine 90m below the surface and ends 2 hours later a further 45m deeper (that's 135m for those of you that have well and truly run out of fingers!)

In between, we walked the rock salt corridors, gaping at each new cavern, wondering at the bravery of those that worked here and breathing in the salty air. Rubbing my fingers along the walls gave me a quite literal taste of the origins of the condiment that will eventually end up on the dinner table.

Wood (rather than metal) is used everywhere to support the corridors and caverns providing a safe place or all comers
Throughout there are extraordinary natural monuments alongside man's efforts to carve and shape the dark grey stone: tributes to Poland's visionary forefathers (from Copernicus to Pope John Paul II) as well as its legends (St Kinga) and superstitions (the Treasure Keeper). And to top it all off each breath is therapeutic, the salt-laden environment being ideal for the treatment of asthma and other respiratory conditions. (There is actually an underground health spa for these treatments if one is so inclined to revisit.)

Copernicus preserved - in salt - for all eternity
Wieliczka Salt Mine has been operational for over 700 years - although commercial salt mining stopped in the 1990s, salt is still extracted from the water that dampens ceilings and walls and fills numerous underground lakes.

This underground lake is overseen by the Treasure Keeper from his alcove. Smile at him and you will be lucky, so the saying goes. (Do you think it's a bit like going to a singles bar?)
It's a relatively easy 2km walk through the mine with many stops to look at the various points of interest with a local guide. There are toilets and a couple of shopping opportunities along the way so one can stock up on sugar-laden snacks, caffeine fixes or a souvenir or two...and take care of the 'essentials'. There's also a museum on site - but the 2 hours was just the right amount of salt for this Aussie palate.

My recommendation would be to join a group tour (I was with Cracow Tours) which means avoiding all the hassle of getting yourself there and back and queue-ing up in between. My group didn't allow time for anything other than the mine tour but you can go on your own and join a group there if you prefer to allow a little more time for other exploration.

And last but not least, you'll be pleased to know that the return to the surface is via a fast mining lift, with 8 of your fellow men, women and children, which takes no more than a few minutes, feeling the cool salty air in your hair and on your face as you ascend back to the main entrance building.

And it's just as well. 380 steps upwards might have proved a few steps too far!

------------------------------------
Other posts in the Krakow series:
It Starts With The Locals
The Dark Side
A Monstrous Vision
Eat, Sleep And Be Merry

Post a Comment