Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Poland - 6th April 2012

No photograph can capture the ambience of this place
This subterranean monument is the result of 700 years of mining by generations of inhabitants of the Wieliczka region of Poland.
If you are familiar with the Lord of the Rings then this is Moria, the mines worked by the dwarfs.

2400 chambers, 245 km of excavations from 64 to 327 m deep, spread over nine levels, three of which are open to tourists.
You have to experience it first hand to appreciate the soaring caverns offset by claustrophobic tunnels and galleries.The tourist trail is of a high standard, sometimes having polished stairs and hand rails that wouldn't look out of place in a five star hotel and a lighting scheme designed to enhance the mine experience.

Miners going to work in the 17th century

However, the access for the early generations of miners is still visible. It is easy to visualise miners clambering over rough hewn stone steps and climbing down roughly constructed ladders with not much more than candle power lamps to light the way.

As the mines went deeper, the miners cut vertical shafts and constructed wooden machines. Man powered windlass that connect galleries and chambers by rope hoists. The rope lifts could lower miners and equipment in to the pit and bring blocks of salt up to the surface. Miners would dangle on the end of the rope in teams of about six and lower into the darkness with their primitive lamps, not for gold or silver, but for salt.

Timber roof support structures

Not much for a gardener to do down there. No green plant life where there is no light. All that grows are the salt stalactites and salt "cauliflower" covering the walls and ceilings.
Old tools left in the pit become the seed and are encrusted in large cube shaped salt crystals The brine lakes provide ideal conditions for growing the crystals.

One of the several salt filled (brine) lakes in the mines

Several caverns are decorated by sculptures and bas-reliefs carved into the salt walls. When visitors spilled out of one passageway onto a gallery overlooking the chapel of St Kinga, you could hear everyone in the group catch their breadth.
A huge chamber decorated with religious sculptures and carved shrines, lit by chandeliers made from strings of salt crystals. Some of the sculptures are backlit and the light passes through the salt with a diffuse glow. Quite an effect when you would swear the carving is solid rock.

All sections of the mine are impressive. Massive wooden machines for lifting and lowering salt, miners, equipment and horses ever deeper underground.

Wooden machines powered by horses used to lift miners and  equipment

Timber supports for the roof. Compare the staircase to the support structure

There are primitive wooden pumps designed by the miners for moving salt saturated water through the mine. Some caverns have sound and light shows depicting the lives of miner in the 16th and 17th century

Chapel of St Kinga with salt crystal chandeliers

Now, you can dine in a restaurant, post a letter, access the internet with wifi, or shop for souvenirs over 100 metres underground

So well done, the Wieliczka salt mine deserves its world heritage listing and I'm sure every one of the one million visitors per year are equally impressed.

There are other salt mines in Poland and our guide describes one as having pure white walls and floor as the salt continues to flake off the walls.
He also said that by the end of the tour of this mine his blood pressure had doubled. Salt will do this.
Polish humor, I think
But that's another story

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