Do you ever feel claustrophobic?” queried Thomas Fassola, our Polish driver. His question baffled me as I wasn’t quite clear with the premise. He explained that I would have to descend 350 steps and 135 metres, and walk for three hours through meandering corridors, underground saline lakes and timber constructions.
I was on my way to the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland. Salt, I assumed, was acquired from the ocean. I was proved wrong when I reached the bowels of the earth into the chilly confines of the salt mine that was created by nature. Some 15 million years ago, the Wieliczka salt deposit was formed after the Miocene sea evaporated, which resulted in the uplift of the Carpathian Mountains. Archaeological evidences suggest during the Neolithic period, locals started to obtain salt from brine in Wieliczka. Dominica, my genteel Polish guide, takes me around the salt mine peppered with 20 magnificent chambers chiselled in rock salt.
Dominica tells me a theory states that the surface salt springs might have exhausted and led to the construction of wells to draw brine, leading to the discovery of the mine. The air in the mine with high humidity and salt is good for the lungs.
In Janowice Chamber, I am a rapt spectator to the legend of Kinga, daughter of King Bela IV of Hungary. The story goes that the princess received a salt mine at Marmaros as her dowry. She cast her engagement ring into it and asked for a well to be dug in Wieliczka. Instead of water, salt was discovered, and her ring was also found at the same spot. Thanks to the story, she soon became the patroness of the salt miners as St. Kinga.
The mine was operational from the 13th century until 2007. The white gold was in huge demand around the globe to produce gun powder and for preserving meat, butter, fish and tan hides. The miners quarried salt by constructing drawing machines and harnessed horses for transportation.
The mine is a museum open to visitors and is enlisted by UNESCO in the World Cultural and Natural Heritage list.
A miner’s job was dangerous and many got killed or were injured, so their work made them religious. This led to the erection of chapels and crosses erected on the spot where a miner died. Beautiful rock salt sculptures were carved by the miners in the depths of the earth, such as the multi-tiered chandeliers made of white gold adorning the roofs of the cavernous St. Kinga’s chapel, which can be rented for a holy mass, wedding or musical concert.
All the miners who carved weren’t trained sculptors, except for Antoni Wyrodek, who studied art in Krakow. Before turning into a professional sculptor, he carved the 12-year-old Christ preaching in the temple. Wyrodek’s works of art, Doubting Thomas and The Last Supper, are mesmerising.
I stand in silence admiring the bas-reliefs in the glow of the salt chandeliers. Did I hear them tell me stories of the bygone era when chisels feverishly scrapped the caverns sparkling with white gold?