If you’re planning on visiting the Krakow Salt Mines, it’s probably not the best idea to do so with a raging hangover.
I was a bad tourist that day. I, and the rest of my friends (all tour guides, I should point out) were exactly the tourists we swear we’ll never be. But, I must also point out, we did get up. We picked ourselves up out of bed, cursed all the vodka of the night before (and especially the 3am kebabs) and made our way to the minibus to take us to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Via McMuffins and hash browns, of course.
We weren’t in too good a state. Ola and I actually proclaimed that the outside air was ‘refreshing’ and were delighted to find that ‘it’s not cold as yesterday’.
Ten minutes later, we discovered that it was -13 degrees.
Once I had half a litre of Coke and plenty of grease in me I was starting to feel a little bit better. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is about fifteen minutes out of Krakow proper, and I whooped with joy when our guide told us that down in the mine it was a balmy 14 degrees.
I listened pretty intently to the guide on the minibus. It was the least I could do, since I’d been in his shoes plenty of times and cannot stand hungover, uninterested passengers. It was at this point that I realised I couldn’t blame all my bad tourist behaviour on solely the vodka; I knew nothing about the salt mines. I had not a clue what to expect.
Once we got inside, we had to descend 378 steps. With every step my stomach churned, and I worried that the only way out was back up them again. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, though. There I was, about 100m underground, with over 300km of tunnels stretched out before me.
And how old were these tunnels? Oh, just a lazy eight hundred years old.
The tour went for a couple of hours and took us through about three and a half kilometres of tunnels. We slowly moved lower and lower, to the point where at one stage we met an underground lake.
There was plenty to see and quite a lot to learn. Being ignorant as I was to the whole salt mining process, I had no idea how precious salt used to be. For centuries it was only eclipsed in the precious stakes by gold; even silver was less preferred. The reason why? Because, before we all got fridges and freezers, it was the best way to preserve a lot of food, such as meat. Having salt meant you could – to an extent – stockpile food, and more food meant you were generally wealthier and healthier.
This meant Krakow, and other cities that boasted salt mines (there’s a few more in Poland, and there’s a large one near Salzburg, for example) were pretty well off from their mines. What’s more, miners actually wanted to work there. I’ve done a couple of other mine tours before – the coal mines in Valkenburg and the gold mines in Ballarat – but this was the first one where miners were rich. Why? Because they were allowed to take a handful of salt home, every day, for themselves.
I loved hearing about the miners, their jobs and their lives. Even in the twentieth century (the mine closed in 2007) miners could retire, on a full pension, after 25 years of work. These miners were rockstars.
The best reminder of the spirit and culture of the miners comes in the form of the pieces of art which can be found throughout the mine. All over, there are carved statues, chandeliers and murals, all made out of salt by the miners in their free time. Just like the Christmas cribs, these guys weren’t professional artists. But they managed to create some absolute beauties.
Religion was a major theme, with the last Polish pope, John Paul II, immortalised in salt.
Two hours in a mine sounds like a lot, but it went by ridiculously fast. Our guide too, was excellent; Ola eavesdropped on his Polish conversation with a colleague and confirmed that indeed, he liked our group and we were very enthusiastic. We gave ourselves pats on the back.
It was dark and confined through much of the mine (hence the bad photos) but at one stage it opened up to a massive space. As I’d done no research before I was completely knocked out by what I saw; a cathedral, right in the middle of a mine, more than one hundred metres underground.
Why? Why would they do that? It summed up old Europe for me so well; that so many things exist that we admire simply because our ancestors put the funds, time and effort in to make something that can be ordinary quite beautiful. Nobody would build a cathedral underground anymore. It would simply cost too much money, time and manpower. Instead, we get to look around and admire the skill and dedication of the people of a time gone by.
As you can see, we weren’t alone in the cathedral. Inside was a choir, all young people, singing the most beautiful songs. The acoustics, as you can imagine, were incredible.
And that, three-quarters of the way into the tour, ridded me of my hangover.