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Saturday, July 20: Day 89 – Wielizcka Salt Mine

This morning we visited the Wielizcka Salt Mine, a 30-minute bus ride from old town Kraków. Up to 9,000 tourists come here per day, over 1.7 million per year. The mine temperature is 57 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but it was much warmer years ago before air started to be pumped in.

Sodium chloride was formerly produced here from the upwelling brine and had been since Neolithic times. Movement of the Carpathian mountains caused folded layers and blocks of salt to form. When the salt water on the surface dried up, the people started digging.

In the 14th century salt was as precious as gold. Now rock salt mining is rarely done. It is easier and cheaper to evaporate sea salt.

The mine is a vacuum. As we proceeded, our group couldn’t open the next door before closing the door behind us. A few times the door slammed shut loudly.

The salt mine consists of almost 2,400 chambers connected with corridors 150 miles long in total. All this is situated on nine levels at depths ranging from 210 to 1,073 feet. We explored about 1% of the mine.

The salt mine was excavated between the 17th and 19th centuries by digging. It took them years to excavate one chamber. There are no natural shafts. Everything was hand dug. The mine opened to visitors in the 2nd half of the 18th century.

First we walked down 54 floors (380 steps) to reach the 210-foot level.

Our guide told us to stay together because it would be easy to get lost.

Many of the walls were bare rock salt. I wet my finger and touched a wall. It tasted salty.

In addition to rock salt we saw secondary salt that looked like cauliflower.

Some of the walls and ceiling supports were made of wood timbers.

In the begining I noticed a strong raw wood smell like in a woodyard at a paper mill and without the pine scent in an active forest. Wood doesn’t corrode like metal, and beams are preserved by salt. The oldest beams from the 14th century have petrified.

Imagine this for a job. You get to crawl through newly opened tunnels. You’re dressed in heavy wool clothes which you have soaked in water before starting. Your job is to find methane deposits and deliberately set them off with a burning bundle of sticks on the end of a long pole you push before you. If the methane gas is below 5%, it burns off. Above 5% it can explode.

Horses were used in the mine. A horse would be brought down one time and only leave the mine again when he was not longer able to work. Horses were used to move heavy objects and rotate winches that lifted containers of salt. Commercial mining ended in 1996. The last horse left the mine in 2002.

We passed an underground lake. Because of the salt content, our guide called it an underground Dead Sea.

We descended further to about 330 feet deep.

There were number of rock salt statues carved by miners that honor Polish people.

King Kazimierz the Great once owned the mine.

Typical Polish mine workers.

Pope John Paul II.

Copernicus visited this mine in 1493.

Along the way we saw ancient stairs that salt carriers used – no handrail.

The Holy Cross chapel was built in the mid-19th century. It is the largest underground chapel in the world and can hold 600 people.

There were a number of salt carvings in the walls of the chapel. This carving of the Last Supper looked very deep and more 3-dimensional than its 1/2 inch actual depth.

There is also a huge Warszawa Chamber room for receptions and other events. Maybe this is a destination wedding location for my next daughter to get married??

The second lower level is at a depth of 360 feet. There is an annual competition among firefighters to run from there back to the surface, about 800 steps. The fastest teams wearing full gear take about 4 minutes. Our tour guide said it took her one hour to walk out.

In the room below, the Stanislaw Staszic Chamber, occurred the first underground balloon flight and first bungee jump.

When it was a working mine, the miners prayed on their way down for safety and on the way up for Thanksgiving. That’s why there were 14 chapels in the mine. Sczcesc boze (God bless).

At the end we took a triple decker elevator back to the surface.

Late in the afternoon we went to a small theater to watch a movie titled “Cold War” in Polish with English subtitles. It was set against the backdrop of the 1950’s Cold War in Poland, two people of differing backgrounds and temperaments begin an almost impossible romance. The theater was located in a neighborhood block of apartment buildings. I walked past it the first time because I was looking for a typical theater building. After waiting a few minutes, we were led to a small room of seats where we watched the film with one other couple.

On the way home from the movie, we were crossing a bridge. Suddenly about 10 feet in front of us we became aware of a man standing on the other side of the railing. He was being held by a policeman and a woman. Quickly a few more people ran up and grabbed him. The group dragged the man back over the railing. The policeman held him on the ground but didn’t handcuff him. Then more police cars arrived along with a fire engine. Two police boats came up the river. This all happened in less than one minute. At first I though the man was trying to jump (suicide?), but it was only about 20 feet down to the water. Instead I guess he was a fugitive that they captured.

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