Cities / Towns Visited: 50
Countries Visited: 15
Steps Taken Today: 15,108
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,754,499
Rising early, we ate a quick breakfast and trotted of to the train station to meet up with the others to begin our final day of adventuring together before being separated once more. After a rather painless train ride, and a short walk, we found ourselves at the attraction for the day; Wieliczka Salt Mine. This incredible mine was started in the 13th century and ran continuously until 2007, although it is now open simply as a nation run historical museum. The morning sun was beating down, and with the temperature rising it was more than happily that we bought our tickets, fetched our audio guides and joined the next English tour. Descending into the mine via the stairs, we eventually reached the bottom, after a few hundred steps.
Our guide lead us through the cool tunnels, pointing out all of the features of the mine. Despite what you may expect, the walls of salt are not white, but instead various shades of grey, due to their mineral content. We were told about other salt mines across Poland, which have other colours of salt as well, due to different minerals, from green and red, to blue (which cannot be eaten mainly due to the fact that the mineral that gives it its colour is, in fact, radioactive). She explained the amazing health benefits of the salt filled environment, and explained that they even run a camp in the mines, where children with respiratory issues come and spend time in the subterranean environment, as the mineral rich air, which is purified by the salt surroundings, can help ease their health issues. We were encouraged to breathe deeply as the guide made it known that, if we so wished, we could lick the walls, as bacteria is unable to survive on its surface, so despite it sounding like a terrible idea, it is actually perfectly safe. I took it upon myself to keep up my long standing history of not licking walls, but a few braver souls, including my Wifey, went ahead. The mines weren’t all fun and games though, and we were taught of the risks associated with salt mining, just like any other underground endeavour. Water is always a threat in mining, but doubly so when the product you’re searching for, and the thing making up the walls, floor, and roof, are water soluble. There was also the hazard of gas build-ups producing the risk of explosion, leaving a number of unfortunate souls to inherit the dangerous job of taking long torches into the mines, and waving the flame close to the ceiling to burn off any gases.
After being shown the more industrial parts, like the mine tunnels, and rooms displaying some of the equipment used, like horse drawn winches, and original wooden carts which, despite being 300 years old, are perfectly preserved by the salty environment, we moved onto the more attractive rooms. Now keeping in mind that the original miners were from a time when religion was a hugely important part of everyday life, it should come as no surprise that amongst the tunnels, there are quite a number of small chapels, in which the miners could pray for safety in the mines. These beautiful rooms were created in the empty chambers after they had been mined of salt, and aside from your standard religious art, they also incorporate salt into their very decorations, from carved statues (which are tragically slowly melting away simply from the moisture in the air), to chandeliers hung with beautiful salt crystals.
Along with a number of salt statues depicting some of the famous names who have visited the mine over the centuries, including Copernicus, there was also a room with life sized statues of a number of guards, the Hungarian Princess Kinga, and a miner presenting her with a lump of salt. As the legend goes, Kinga, who married the Prince of Krakow, had asked her father, the King of Hungary, for a lump of salt (a prized possession back in those days) as part of her dowry. He took her to a salt mine in Romania, where legend says she threw her engagement ring into one of the shafts. On her return to Krakow she requested that miners dig a shaft until they find salt, and when they found the first lump they broke it open and her ring was inside. She is now the patron saint of salt miners. A questionable story, but the fact the opening of the mine was commissioned by the Princess is true enough. Finally it was time to enter the main event, St. Kinga’s Chapel, a massive chamber decked out with stunning salt relief panels of biblical scenes, salt statues of the Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul II, and even a salt altar. It was truly an incredible sight, even if you aren’t a believer. I’ll just let the photos do the talking.
From here we passed through a few chambers which have small lakes of water, in the most impressive shade of green. Don’t panic though, this water will not send the walls into meltdown, as it is less of a lake of water, but instead a pool of saturated brine. The salt level is so high that it is impossible to dive down underwater; a sad fact that led to a number of people in history drowning after their boat overturned and they were trapped beneath it, unable to dive down and out. Morbid thoughts aside, we stepped out into the final giant chamber, which is so large that at one point they inflated and took off in a hot air balloon in there. Oh the silly things people do for a place in the Guinness world record book. Aside from housing the gift shop which sells foods and trinkets made of the signature unrefined grey salt, they also have display cases showing some of the coloured salts I mentioned earlier. We also took the chance to go and see a small exhibit they have of rocks which fluoresce under black light. The display case switches between normal and ultra violet light, and it was fascinating to see some of the most boring looking rocks, burst into a rainbow of colours under UV. A true example of the fact that things aren’t always as they seem, and that, given the right conditions, even the simplest things can surprise you.
Finally it was time for us to ascend back to the surface, and after a rather cramped elevator ride back up, we were spat out into the searing heat of the midday sun. Stopping briefly to buy a kielbasa and another soft serve, to fill the void until we got back into Krakow to find some proper sustenance for dinner. Once we returned and took a little time to relax, we all met up again, along with Hubby’s parents, to find some traditional Polish fare. Now, I know its hard to believe but man cannot subsist on pierogi alone, and thus after settling into a quaint little restaurant we indulged in a couple of different traditional stews served in bread bowls. I must say I can fully get behind anything delicious which comes in edible crockery.
Sufficiently fed, and saying goodbye to the parents, we wandered off into the town square once more, and happened to stumble across something rather unique. Hearing music, we rounded the end of the cloth hall and found quite the scene. Set up was a stage surrounded by a crowd of fans. Jazz music streaming out from the brass and woodwind orchestra on stage, then we looked up to see that in the five windows of the second floor of the building behind it, there stood five more musicians, wielding their instruments and playing their sweet tunes out to the fans below. The tunes were catchy, and that’s when the singing started, but please set aside any thoughts of dapper gentlemen singing old jazz tunes, instead the orchestra was accompanied by a Polish hip-hop artist rapping to the smooth sounds of trumpets and saxophones, clarinets and flutes, and everything in between. I must say, although I’ve never considered pairing the two, the unconventional coupling worked, and it worked well. Before we knew it we had been watching for quite some time, and the spell was only broken when the heavens opened up and rain began to patter down. Taking refuge beneath the shelter of the cloth hall, and with the night wearing on, we bid our goodnights and headed home for a much needed rest; we would be waking early to see my favourite couple off at the train station.
As I lay in bed, the tunes of the performance danced in my mind, and I basked in the fact that our day had seen us treat our all of our senses to the wonders of this place. We had seen, tasted, smelt, felt, and heard beautiful things today, and it was food for the soul. I dozed as I reflected once more on the salt mine, and in doing so I couldn’t help but think how much of a better deal salt miners had, as oppose to coal miners; one ended up with black lung and died, and one breathed some of the healthiest air around. The closest most of us will ever get to a toxic work environment in this health and safety regulated world, is having to work with a less than desirable colleague. We are more at risk of mental injury from workplace bullying than we are of physical factors. That’s not to say mining today doesn’t come with risks, but we have certainly come a long way from waving lit torches in chambers and hoping they won’t explode, or hanging cages of canaries along the way in a rather twisted test of air quality. Sometimes I think we forget to be grateful for the advances in modern safety. We live in one of the safest times ever in history; our cars have airbags and stability control; our houses have fire detectors, and many have sprinkler systems; we have immunisations for more than a dozen diseases, and we come up with new treatments every year, we have become so good at it that we have been able to partially or completely wipe out entire strains of illness from smallpox to polio; almost every industrial appliance and tool comes with some sort of safety guard or emergency cut off switch; most major public buildings like train stations and airports have a defibrillator; every workplace has a first aid kit, and almost all of them, especially those with higher risks of injuries like kitchens and other trade jobs, legally require someone on site to have basic first aid training; and literally everything comes with a safety tag (for those of us in the world not smart enough to understand that using a hairdryer in the shower is not going to end well). Even if all of that fails, for the most part, help is only a phone call and a relatively short wait away. The media likes to paint the world as a dangerous place, where there is war, crime, and disease are around every corner; they make us live in fear of everyone and everything until we end up disinfecting every surface, and cotton-wooling our children until they lack the ability to build a fully functioning immune system, and fear going anywhere other than in front of a screen in their house. If travelling has taught me anything, its that the world is not half as scary as they would have you believe. By all means use a fraction of common sense, get the travel vaccinations, don’t walk down sketchy alleys at night, and be cautious when interacting with strangers; but by the same token remember that the world is, for the most part, the safest its ever been for us as individuals. Fear less, live more.