Deep underground in Poland lies somethingremarkable but little known outside EasternEurope .For centuries, miners have extracted salt there,but left behind things quite startling andunique.Take a look at the most unusual salt mine inthe world.Click to advance
From the outside, Wieliczka Salt Mine doesn’t lookextraordinary. It looks extremely well kept for aplace that hasn’t mined any salt for over ten yearsbut apart from that it looks ordinary. However,over two hundred meters below ground it holdsan astonishing secret. This is the salt mine thatbecame an art gallery, cathedral and undergroundlake.
Situated in the Krakow area, Wieliczka is a small town ofclose to twenty thousand inhabitants. It was foundedin the twelfth century by a local Duke to mine the richdeposits of salt that lie beneath. Until 1996 it did justthat but the generations of miners did more than justextract. They left behind them a breathtaking record oftheir time underground in the shape of statues of mythic,historical and religious figures. They even createdtheir own chapels in which to pray. Perhaps their mostastonishing legacy is the huge underground cathedralthey left behind for posterity.
It may feel like you are in the middle of a JulesVerne adventure as you descend in to the depthsof the world. After a one hundred and fifty meterclimb down wooden stairs the visitor to the saltmine will see some amazing sites. About the mostastounding in terms of its sheer size and audacityis the Chapel of Saint Kinga. The Polish peoplehave for many centuries been devout Catholicsand this was more than just a long term hobby torelieve the boredom of being underground. Thiswas an act of worship.
Amazingly, even the chandeliers in the cathedral aremade of salt. It was not simply hewn from the groundand then thrown together; however, the process israther more painstaking for the lighting. After extractionthe rock salt was first of all dissolved. It was thenreconstituted with the impurities taken out so that itachieved a glass-like finish. The chandeliers are whatmany visitors think the rest of the cavernous mine willbe like as they have a picture in their minds of salt asthey would sprinkle on their meals! However, the rocksalt occurs naturally in different shades of grey(something like you would expect granite to look like ) .
Still, that doesn’t stop well over one millionvisitors (mainly from Poland and its easternEuropean neighbours ) from visiting the mine tosee, amongst other things, how salt was mined inthe past.
For safety reasons less than one percent of themine is open to visitors, but even that is stillalmost four kilometres in length – more thanenough to weary the average tourist after an houror two. The mine was closed for two reasons – thelow price of salt on the world market made it tooexpensive to extract here.Also, the mine wasslowly flooding – another reason why visitors arerestricted to certain areas only.
The religious carvings are, in reality, what drawmany to this mine – as much for their amazingverisimilitude as for their Christian aesthetics. Thenext slide shows Jesus appearing to the apostlesafter the crucifixion. He shows the doubter, SaintThomas , the wounds on his wrists.
Another remarkable carving, this time a take on TheLast Supper. The work and patience that must havegone into the creation of these sculptures isextraordinary. One wonders what the miners wouldhave thought of their work going on general display?They came to be quite used to it, in fact, even duringthe mine’s busiest period in the nineteenth century.The cream of Europe ’s thinkers visited the site – youcan still see many of their names in the old visitor’sbooks on display.
These reliefs are perhaps among some of the mosticonographic works of Christian folk art in the worldand really do deserve to be shown. It comes as littlesurprise to learn that the mine was placed on theoriginal list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in1978.
Not all of the work is relief-based. There are many lifesized statues that must have taken a considerableamount of time – months, years – to create. Withinthe confines of the mine there is also much to belearned about the miners from the machinery andtools that they used – many of which are on displayand are centuries old. A catastrophic flood in 1992dealt the last blow to commercial salt mining in thearea and now the mine functions purely as a touristattraction. Brine is, however, still extracted from themine – and then evaporated to produce some salt, buthardly on the ancient scale. If this was not done, thenthe mines would soon become flooded once again.
Not all of the statues have a religious or symbolicimagery attached to them. The miners had a sense ofhumor, after all! Here can be seen their own take onthe legend of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.The intricately carved dwarves must have seemed tosome of the miners a kind of ironic depiction of theirown work.
The miners even threw in a dragon for goodmeasure! Certainly, they may have whistledwhile they did it but the conditions in the saltmine were far from comfortable and the hourswere long – the fact that it was subterraneancould hardly have added to the excitement ofgoing to work each morning.
To cap it all there is even an undergroundlake, lit by subdued electricity and candles.This is perhaps where the old legends oflakes to the underworld and Catholicimagery of the saints work together to bestleave a lasting impression of the mine.