Deep in a Polish mine, statues, chandeliers, entire chapels made of salt

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A large salt chandelier in the Chapel of St Kinga. All through the mine are chandeliers like this one — made up of one ring of candles, whose light is then reflected off the thousands of salt crystals in the other tiers. (Karishma Kirpalani)

There’s a magical little town near the Polish city of Krakow. But most of the magic is hidden deep underground, in a salt mine. Descend into this subterranean world and you find chambers lit by salt chandeliers, a placid teal green salt lake, and statues, frescoes and chapels made of rock salt, crushed salt and salt crystals.

The workmanship is stunning enough — one of the chapels soars 12 metres overhead, with an elaborate altar of carved salt pillars. But it’s even more moving when you think of why that chapel was built.

Throughout the 700-year history of the Wieliczka mine, working in it was so dangerous that the miners built chapels and carved statues of saints to watch over them. The Chapel of St Kinga, the patron saint of miners, is one of the most beautiful. The interiors were crafted over 25 years and include recreations of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper and rock salt statues of St Joseph, the crucifixion of Jesus, Madonna and Child, kneeling monks and Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1999.

Deep in a Polish mine, statues, chandeliers, entire chapels made of salt 1

Working in the mine was so dangerous that miners built chapels and carved statues of saints to watch over them. In the Chapel of St Kinga, you’ll find recreations of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (above) and rock salt statues of St Joseph, the crucifixion of Jesus, and Pope John Paul II, who visited in 1999. ( Karishma Kirpalani )

CAN YOU DO IT?

  • It’s 374 steps down to Level 1, which sits 64 metres underground.
  • The walk will take about 30 minutes, but is surprisingly easy — perhaps because of the cool, dry air.
  • The air is unusually clear as well (pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are almost entirely absent), which is why some people take the walk down for the sake of their lungs.
  • There is an elevator that will bring you back to the surface in 30 seconds.

Many chambers are lit by tiered chandeliers that were also the handiwork of miners. Most have just one ring of candles; their light reflects off the thousands of salt crystals that make up the other tiers. A main hall on the uppermost level holds the largest such salt chandelier and is a sought-after wedding destination in Poland.

Two levels down, in the Weimar Chamber, sits a brine lake that is a strange teal green because of all the sodium chloride in it. It’s lit up by laser strobes that also pick out the statues along its edge. A special underwater installation lights up the interiors so that visitors can see the entire 9-metre depth, the sides and bottom encrusted with crystals of salt.

This is reportedly the saltiest water body in the world — with 320 gm of salt per litre, against the Dead Sea’s 250 gm, and the average ocean’s 35 gm.

All this used to be off limits. The mine churned out so much salt that it contributed for several decades to Poland’s GDP, and was visited only by bishops and politicians, visiting dukes and scientists.

Then the mining stopped, in 1996, amid increased flooding and a drop in the price of salt. The upper levels were opened up to astonished tourists. And you can now take a three-hour guided tour through 22 chambers of this national treasure and Unesco world heritage site.

When you’re done and ready to leave, take another look down the Antonio Shaft. It was once the only thing that connected the upper and lower levels. In the earliest days of the mine, men pulled wooden carts up this shaft, loaded with massive blocks of salt. Later, barrels were lifted to the surface by treadmills, powered by horses who spent their entire lives underground. Etchings of them at work stand are still visible on the walls, but the ascent back to ground level is now a 30-second elevator ride.

First Published: Aug 10, 2019 16:12 IST

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