Sunday 20 May 2012

The Poland trip – down the Salt Mine

Our second day we took a trip to a salt mine. It’s a working mine but didn’t feel like it, prettified for the tourists so that oddly any sense of the toil and the ever present danger of deep mining is gone. Gone from the public levels at least. We’re taken down to 900 metres. Three levels for tourists. Another six levels below. One sixth of the total area is opened to view. And what we’re shown is massive. It would be very easy to get lost in the maze of tunnels and caverns.

The 14th century parts of the mine are deemed too dangerous so some of the carvings and chapels (all made by the miners) have been restored and moved so they can be shown off to group after group of tourists.  Most of the carvings are salt, but in one place a 200 year old wooden Jesus gruesomely nailed to a wooden cross is watched by a wooden Mary from across the cavern. The colours are vibrant and exactly as they were when the carvings were done 200 years ago. The wood  hasn’t been touched in all that time. The salt preserves it.

Ornate chandeliers are hung with pure crystal salt, transparent and luminous. There are many religious figures, but also mythical creatures, dwarfs and so on, some being the miners’ friends, others not. The place is steeped in both superstition and religion. The mine houses Europe's largest underground chapel, though we wonder how much competition there can be for that title.

Cauliflowers of salt show where water seeps through. This spells danger. Water washes salt out, collapses caverns, and creates deadly sink holes at the surface hundreds of meters deep. In one place a lake has been created to make the cavern look better for the tourists. Not dangerous we’re told because the water is super saturated at 33%. However, a monster is said to lurk in its nine meter depths.

Myth has it that salt was originally brought to Poland from Rumania by Queen Kinga. There is a story of a wedding ring thrown away in one country and reappearing in another. The real story is shown in the archaeology of the stone age.

Everywhere are carved figures of miners working, of kings and queens, of religious figures, a recent one being a larger than life Pope John Paul II carved for the millennium, having taken one man 6 months to complete.

The huge cavern where masses, concerts and weddings are held took three men 67 years to build. When the first died, his son took over the work. And when the son died a third man took over and completed the work in the 1960s.

As we are hurried by our guide through tunnels and caverns, from galleries to staircases, real miners flit in and out of sight disappearing behind doors forbidden to us, wearing lamps and battery packs. They shake hands with our guides but ignore us. A surreal reminder that this underground tourist theme park is still a real working mine.

We pay to be allowed to take photos underground but none of mine come out.

1 comment:

  1. Shame about the photos, Penny. But thanks for an honest and atmospheric commentary on the experience.