One place that Kaśka was very excited to see that she had never been to was the Weliczka salt mines, which is not only a national heritage site in Poland, but it was one of the first sites designated with this title in the world.
From the surface, the site of the mines seems modest- A few small yellow buildings that hold the entrances to the mines underground. It isn’t until you scan your ticket and the tourguide tells you to watch your step – over 360 of them – as the group descends to the first level of the salt mine tour.
The stairwell down is like one of those nightmares that irritatingly repeat seemingly forever – and in this case it was just a narrow, claustrophobic spiral staircase that went on for minutes [ I made the mistake of listening to the tour guide and peering through the middle crack of the spiral stairs to only have my stomach lurch since there was no bottom in sight it went so deep.]
Once at the bottom we were about to enter the mines. It is hard to describe the air so deep underground – it wasn’t exactly musty or stale, but it wasn’t crisp fresh air either, that is for sure. Smell or not, the tourguide told us to all take in a deep breath. Apparently we had just inhaled some of the cleanest, purest air in the world that was renowned for its health benefiting attributes. [Kaśka then seemed like she was going to hyperventilate she was breathing so much.] The air is apparently very beneficial for people with asthma or allergies and has little impurities and it is jokingly said that each breath that someone takes of this air adds 5 minutes to your life [don’t overdo it Kaśka – let’s live to see tomorrow first]
The first rooms of the mines showed some of the mechanisms used to produce salt from the underground. Huge chunks would be knocked out and rounded into a barrel shape easy for rolling. These would then be hoisted up using wooden crane and rope systems. This was amazing in itself, but what was more incredible was the fact that these practices were used for several centuries.
[ The Gnomes of Weliczka ]
There were cart rails, wood log walls for passage ways and support, and even horse stables for the horses that worked with the miners hundreds of feet below the surface. I don’t know what was more unbelievable to me, the fact that the huge tunnels below had so much materials built inside from above, or the fact I learned that the mines cannot be confused with caves, since there was no open space in the mines that wasn’t carved away by man first – meaning that the entire complex was man made over centuries.
On subject of the horses, apparently the last working horse was retired in 1996 from the mines and is still living healthily today – it is said because it breathed such good air for its entire life.
The initial rooms showcased the difficult work that was required to produce salt from the mines – but one room was dedicated to the men that burned the methane in the mines. That’s right, there would be pockets of odorless, colorless methane, that would rise above air in the mines. The men would crawl with long staffs with a flame, risking their lives as volunteers, to burn the explosive methane before anyone else would enter the room with candles or oil lamps. They apparently would receive 3 kilos of salt in return for their volunteerism – after all, salt was white gold for a very long time in Europe.
Deeper into the mines, there were more caverns that were decorated beautifully with sculptures of salt of famous Polish figures in history, as well as chapels and even chandeliers – all made of salt. There were many chapels underground, since the work was dangerous and many of the workers would pray when they had the chance during their risky work.
It was actually very difficult to take photos that would capture the mines in a good light. Literally, light drastically changed the perception of the mines – in fact, with the statues, many looked like marble, but when a flashlight was pressed to the side, it would glow proving its lack of complete opaqueness. With photo making of the rooms, the glow of the light in the mines would make the caves appear too dark and orangy – whereas a flash would make the rooms look completely white as if covered with snow. In reality, the surroundings looked like dark grey marble with frosty, powdery walls amongst the wooden tunnels.