Suppose you were a bride--a Hungarian princess bride named Kinga, to be explicit--about to be married to a Polish king. You want to present your bridegroom with a valuable gift, and so you tell your father you want to give your new husband a salt mine. He tells you to drop your ring into the nearest salt-pit, and so you do. When you arrive in Poland, a trimphant bride, you direct a few servants to begin digging, which they do. They find your ring, encased in salt, and that marks the discovery of one of the oldest salt mines in the world, still in operation today.
That's the legend, anyway. Who can really remember what happened in the 13th century?
The salt mines in Wieliczka (just outside Krakow) are extensive. There are kilometers and kilometers of underground passages, underground salt lakes, winding staircases, vast eerie chambers, and amazing scuptures carved from rock salt. The salty air is supposed to be healthy, so a spa is operated on the premises, and tens of thousands of tourists visit the mines every year. They are probably more lucrative than the salt.
If you wonder why a salt mine would be such a valuable thing in the first place, consider the time of its inception. Salt was highly prized for its preservative power, and very valuable. The Polish kings received much of their wealth from these vast, productive mines. It could not have been pleasant to work in them, and part of the interest of the tour is to observe the evolving methods of mining the salt. At one point, they even had horses living underground to work in the mines!
Artists carved salt statues, bas-relief salt pictures, and made salt chapels. One enormous chamber has been fashioned into an underground cathedral. It looks as if it were paved with marble, but the floor is carved from the salt. The crystal chandeliers are made from salt crystals. There really isn't anything in this mine that isn't salt, and if you lick the walls, they will taste salty. (At least, that's what the tour guides tell you. And my kids.)
I realize that most of my readers will never get to visit this unique place, but if you like, take a virtual tour. Here's a short slide show featuring statues of "the finding of Kinga's ring" and one of the salt chandeliers. Here's a couple of film clips that will show you part of what the tour is like, including the small passages and the huge cathedral. (Click on the picture links at the bottom of the page.) You'll also hear spoken Polish.
If you visit Krakow, this is a must-see place, unless you are physically unable to manage the tour, which is a bit taxing. You begin by walking down about 430 steps, but you descend many more as the tour continues, and walk about 3 kilometers through the passages. Thankfully, they have an elevator (albeit an old mining elevator, unlighted, so you ride up in the dark) to take you back to the surface.
Take a look and tell me what you think! I've been there several times, but not recently.
(Oh, and P.S.--please say "Vyeh-LEECH-kah")