A spell in the salt mines

Last week I spent a couple of days in Katowice, with the EFD Group.  (No, I’d never heard of Katowice either, until the Group arranged the meeting, but it’s in Poland).  We were there for a conference to plan a challenge to the EU’s 20-20-20 energy and emissions strategy (of which more in a couple of weeks).  I was there in my rôle as UKIP Energy Spokesman.  But at the end of our two-day session we found time for an evening visit to the Salt Mines at Wieliczka, close by Cracow.

We were treated like minor royalty, with a police escort for our coach, lights flashing and ha-has shrieking.  I was reminded of a visit I made twenty years ago to Bangkok with the Johnny Walker Classic golf event, where we were honoured with a couple of dozen police motorcyclists as outriders.  Bangkok was delighted to show its respect for an organisation bringing rather a lot of money into the city — and I suspect that Wieliczka had much the same motivation.  A great deal of EU funding has gone into the salt mine, which is now a major tourist attraction (in addition to being a working mine), and had 1.2 million visitors last year.

Beneath the ground — and beneath a thin veneer of touristic amenity — is a vast labyrinth carved into the salt rock in the bowels of the earth.  I found myself wondering if J.R.R. Tolkien ever visited the mine.  It could have been his inspiration for the Mines of Moria, delved by the Dwarves in ancient times in the Lord of the Rings.  There are miles and miles of passageways, branching in different directions, vast abysses disappearing into infernal depths, side rooms that the orcs would relish as guard-rooms, endless stairways both up and down.

And there are vast caverns and grottoes, some of them containing lakes of brine.  One had a dramatic illuminated staircase cutting zig-zag up the wall like a bolt of lightning, ascending to unknown heights.

St. Kinga’s underground Chapel, carved from the salt rock

The miners were (exceptionally for early salt mines), free men, not slaves or prisoners.  They were highly paid and (we were told) attractive marriage prospects for the local girls.  For many years they used horses in the mine to move many tons of salt.  These horses fared better than those in coal-mines, where the coal-dust could cause a range of ailments, including blindness.  The air of the salt mine, we were told, is salubrious, healthy and antiseptic.  The last two horses left the mine only ten years ago: they were named Bishek and Smaug.  And we were told that “Smaug” means dragon.  Another direct link to Tolkien, perhaps.  (My wife has since suggested that a thin slice of dragon meat on bread might be the origin of “smorgasbord”).

Horses in the salt mine: Bishek & Smaug


The miners were also artists and sculptors.  They decorated the caves with representations of Poets, priests and Popes, of dwarves and dragons and saints and wizards and mystical beasts, and the busts of half-forgotten Kings.  Apparently salt is easier to carve than marble, but gives a rather similar surface.  But it needs to be protected from water, or it rapidly erodes.  Some saints had lost their faces.

A half-forgotten king

Being deeply religious, these miners also created the most extraordinary religious monuments.  The picture at the top shows the astonishing Chapel of Saint Kinga, which is 100 meters below ground.  It is said to be 50m wide and high, and 70m long.  It is elaborately decorated with very fine bas-reliefs illustrating Biblical scenes like the Last Supper.  There are chapels and shrines opening off the main church, and complex gothic arches and decoration.   We entered onto a balcony above sloping ranks of seats, the vantage point of the photographer.  Note the splendid chandeliers, made of course with rock salt crystals rather than glass.

The mine has created a sort of Polish Son et Lumière show.  When we were assembled on the balcony, they played “Rule Britannia” (a pretty compliment to their English visitors), and lo and behold the lights illuminating the vast space rose and fell with the crescendos of the music.  Wonderful.  And then — glory be — they played Va Pensiero, Verdi’s chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from his opera Nabucco (out of respect to their Italian visitors).  This must surely be one of the finest melodies ever written.  When it ended, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.

As mentioned above: watch out for the campaign on the EU’s disastrous climate and emissions policy.  Coming soon.

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2 Responses to A spell in the salt mines

  1. I really likes this article because it reminded me of a very happy visit. They are a real credit to Poland. Katowice is the saddest monument to Polish railways, though. The huge unused station.
    Yesterday I came back from Singapore. The railways from there to KL is now closed – much better by luxury bus. The local railway system, however, works perfectly.
    Polish railways are, actually, a disgrace.
    Silesia – what a rust bucket!

    • rfhmep says:

      I envy you, Mike. I loved Singapore. I used to ride my mountain bike down to Sentosa Island of a Saturday morning, and breakfast on the nasi goreng.

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