The crystal chandelier is elegant--and made of salt. The bas relief of "The Last Supper" is delicately carved--and made of salt. And the statue of Pope John Paul II? His Holiness is made of salt, too.
We're visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mine just outside of Krakow, Poland. We've left the peaceful isolation of Krakow's Old Town, traveled for about 30 minutes through traffic so snarled it made one long for I-95's Springfield interchange at rush hour, and found the ultimate place of peace and isolation.
Wieliczka, which is expected to wind down its mining operations by 2005, has been producing salt for the past 700 years and once accounted for a quarter of Poland's annual revenue. As the "green" (actually charcoal gray) salt was removed, miners crafted statuary, staircases and even furniture from the material most readily at hand. Although the carvings looked to us at first like rock or plaster, our guide placed a flashlight behind one of them to demonstrate its translucence.
As an indication of the scope of the operations here, at the 300-foot level (i.e., about one-third of the mine's total depth), there is an underground church the size of a small Metro station. It has been used for symphony concerts and a testimonial dinner for then-President George Bush. Another chamber has a ceiling so high that the room was the site of a Guinness-record bungee jump. There are underground lakes (one with a wave machine) and more than 100 miles of tunnels. The tons of salt were excavated by thousands of men and hundreds of horses. (Horses? In a salt mine? Don't even think about it. Anyway, they're gone now.)
Some of the smaller chambers are chapels where workers could pray--probably for a safe day at work. Water can (and recently did) flood into the mine; accumulations of methane could explode. Not surprisingly, the miners developed superstitions and tales of the supernatural. There is said to be a ghost in the mine, for example, who protects and occasionally tricks the miners. A carved salt gnome, on the other hand, assures good luck to prospective newlyweds who can clamber up a slope to kiss his beard.
As someone who has spent most of his adult working life behind some kind of desk, though, I can't help wondering: When they finish their lunch hour, do workers here say, "Well, back to the office"?
Wieliczka is about nine miles southeast of Krakow on Route E-40. Frequent buses leave from Krakow's main train station. Or take a bus/tour package from your hotel (typically less than $25 per person). The temperature in the mine stays at a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Descent is by means of stairs--a lot of them--rather than via elevators or ramps, thus wheelchair access would be problematic. The tour takes two to three hours. For more information, check out the mine's Web site at www.cyf-kr.edu.pl/wieliczka.