Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Back to the salt mine

Returning to work after any break, you could be forgiven if the idiom "back to the salt mines" crosses your mind.

But perhaps this turn of phrase gives salt mines a bad rap.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine
Miners at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, just outside Krakow, Poland, were sufficiently inspired by their subterranean workplace over the years to carve sculptures, artworks and even an entire chapel out of the rock salt.

Some days I struggle to craft a coherent sentence while sitting at my computer.

If these miners' efforts are anything to go by, salt mines are a hub of creativity and artistry.

What you expect to see in a salt mine: salt
First built in the 13th century, the mine was commercially operated for about 800 years.   During this time, salt was worth more than gold because of its ability to preserve food, but it was difficult to obtain.

Today, the Wieliczka mine reaches a depth of 327 metres and has more than 287 km of underground passages across nine levels.  This place is massive, but given it is underground it's hard to appreciate the scale.

What you don't expect to see in a salt mine: rock salt statue of Copernicus who once visited the mine

But a visit to Wieliczka is not about wandering around endless, featureless tunnels, it's more like visiting an art gallery.

In fact, given the UNESCO World Heritage Site also has dedicated exhibition and conference facilities, along with spaces for theatre, concerts and even staying the night, it's probably more akin to visiting an arts and entertainment precinct.

The rock salt bust of Poland most famous ruler, King Kazimerz the Great
A visit here takes you through just 3.5km of salt mine passages - less than 2% of the total mine.

The mine's centrepiece is St Kinga's Chapel - a vast underground church created more than a century ago, complete with wall carvings and salt crystal chandeliers.   You feel like you have journeyed to the centre of the earth when you suddenly enter this vast underground caven after walking through mine tunnels.

The mine's centrepiece - St Kinga's Chapel 
Wall carvings in St Kinga's Chapel

So who was St Kinga and why does she get a subterranean chapel?  

Quite fittingly, it's all about salt.

As legend goes, a young Polish prince asked Hungary's Princess Kinga to marry him.   When Kinga's father asked her what she wanted from him as a wedding present, she said she did not want gold or jewels as they only brought unhappiness (others may disagree with her on this).  Instead, she wanted salt - something that could serve the people.

So the King gave her Hungary's biggest salt mine, but given she was off to Poland with her new husband it appeared this would be of little use to her (perhaps that's why her father gave it to her in the first place?).

Rock salt Kinga being proposed to
Before heading to Poland, Kinga she visited the mine, kneeled to pray and then suddenly threw her engagement ring inside.   I'm guessing this isn't what brides normally do a the beginning of a marriage.

Back in Poland and approaching the town of Krakow, Kinga stopped and asked miners to start digging.   They hit a lump of salt and when they broke it they found Kinga's engagement ring inside. She had brought salt to Hungary.

Rock salt Mary, Joseph, Jesus and donkey carved into the wall of St Kinga's Chapel

So if you ever feel like you're heading back to the salt mines, perhaps see if you can go to an interesting salt mine... and perhaps just keep an eye out for stray royal engagement rings.


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