The Salt of the Earth

Almost as soon as we arrived our taxi driver was offering to take us to Krakow’s salt mine. Agreeing, we had only to wait 24 hours for the experience. By then we had worked out the fantastic margin Polish Adrian had built into the deal, but by then it was too late, and the prison cart had arrived.

We were unprepared for the size and scope of the mine at Wieliczka. Most of us had some experience of coal mines, either through museums in the UK or actual visits. Salt mines obviously in a different league.

First there is the 400 step descent to the first level. Then there are the smooth walls of dark grey salt, matched by the roof and floor of the perfectly square tunnels. Then there are the airlocks that you pass through in order to control the ventilation system- large wooden doors that shut with a clunk after the last person through. Further twisting stairways wind down into the earth, taking in huge chambers of sizes ranging from the relatively domestic to the massively cathedral-like.

These latter were almost aways converted into cathedrals by mine workers who had chiselled biblical figures into the salt walls whenever the commercial extraction of salt had ceased. The ones without religious re-purposing had mysterious and ethereal in them, whose waters were either glass-still or churned by hidden pumps to create a drama as we pass.

Snatches of history are delivered by our guide, who hase worked as an attendant to tourists’ needs for 15 years, and is now chief of the operation. With many stairs, 9many times a day, he is enormously fit, and resplendent in a semi-military uniform.

We are astounded by the scale and scope of what we see – mines which have functioned since the 13th century, and which fomed the engine of Polish prosperity when salt was as valauble as silver, and was essential to the preservation of food throughout the year – they naturally now are vast. There are 5 levels – and we only see to level 3. The remains of modern equipment – electric railways, and so on – are occasional reminders that this was once a very busy place.

Now the salt no longer mined – and the operations here were ended in the 1960s because of subsidence. Teams of miners now work to backfill galleries that are collapsing. The current income is from visitors like us – and from weddings held in the chapels and cathedrals.

The abiding impression is that what was once a place of toil and wealth creation is now just a well-presented visitor attraction – where the work of the former centuries has been repackaged and cartoonised. Appropriately, the first gallery we are shown has been fitted out to resemble a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There is the occasional stuffed horse, and large wooden machinery the size of space rockets are made to turn which lift and pump – but who can guess what the space was like when it was what it was?

UK industrial history is presented differently – to convey the many life stories of the people at all levels who depended on the place and what it did. At Wieleczcka, there are only ghosts that hide as the doors open, and the clear evidence that work in Poland is never more important than Faith.

We await our 5D cinema experience of salt

Our final journey is in a genuine miners’ lift. 3 tiny cages taking 8 at a time which are the real thing in mines the world over. For at least 2 of us, the trip to the surface is the most exciting experience of all!

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