Salt sculpting

Salt sculpting

The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland perhaps pays the best tribute to salt with its 1,073-ft-long underground  salt mine, which displays everything built using the household item, writes Brinda Suri

Take a look at the images accompanying this article. These are sculptures made with ‘white gold’. Seems an erratum, did you say? Er... in the days of yore, that coveted sobriquet was reserved for something you’re very familiar with: salt! Yes, the only material used for these artistic creations is pure rock salt.

That’s not all. These art works date back a few hundred years and can be found in perfect form many metres down under, inside the well-preserved 13th century Wieliczka Salt Mine in the neighbourhood of the celebrated city of Kraków, southern Poland.

Wieliczka is among the world’s oldest salt mines. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place to call it a museum unto itself. In recognition of the artistic treasure preserved within its precincts, in 1978 it was placed on the original UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites.

Worth their salt

Apart from producing table salt, devout miners at Wieliczka gave an expression to their Catholic faith and carved an underground world of statues, panels and chapels, all in rock salt. It must have been an arduous task, for salt is hard and brittle material that easily gets chipped.

Among walls filled with religious bas-reliefs, there’s a remarkable replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. That miners’ work was truly a labour of love, for their god is reflective in Virgin Mary’s statue that portrays purity and benevolence only a faithful could have chiselled.

One of the most striking spots inside the mine is the chapel of St Kinga, a Kraków princess who was canonised and is considered the patron saint of salt miners in the region.
Visitors reach here after almost half the tour is complete. Till then it’s been a trip through relatively darkish alleys, quite a contrast to the large illuminated chapel. What takes one’s breath away here are sparkling chandeliers, their crystals made with purified rock salt.

Tour guides — always dressed in a uniform with lots of brass buttons, fashioned after miners’ attire dating back to times of the Austrian Empire — have become accustomed to the exclamations from guests at this point and knowingly smile as they answer queries and direct you to the vantage positions to get the best pictures for your album. The chapel’s polished salt floor carved as tiles adds to its glory. Regular Sunday service is held here.

Down under

Every space you touch during the tour is salt, and guides often encourage you to lick the walls. Before you attempt that, be aware that millions before you have done the same stuff! Also, don’t expect to see sparkling white crystalline salt, as you’re used to in the packaged versions. This rock salt naturally exists in shades of an unimpressive browny-grey, and had it not been for the artistic elements on display, a trip here would have been more geological than artistic in character.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine touches a depth of 1,073 ft and is around 300 km long. The area open for visitors is minimal, yet there’s suspense at every corner, aesthetic lighting and interiors adding to the overall effect.

A rudimentary, non-illuminated miner’s lift (that evokes excited screams from its passengers as it begins its descend) transports visitors to base stage in 30 seconds, after which begins a three-km guided tour through three levels (out of a total of nine) that takes about two hours.

A 378-step wooden staircase provides access to various elaborate chambers. And by the time the tour ends at a lake, you are 443 ft underground! Thereafter, one sees new additions to the mine: a little restaurant, souvenir shops and a banquet hall, that, believe-it-or-not, hosts weddings, music shows and conferences.

Wieliczka was part of Kraków’s Royal Salt Mines, the other being Bochina, 24 km away, which too offers a smaller share of carvings. Though Wieliczka still produces salt, commercial mining operations were suspended in 1996, after it became unprofitable. The price of salt the world over did not command the rate it used to, as sea-salt had gained in preference. History tells us how Poland became one of the richest countries of Europe by the 15th century on account of salt trade. Salt was not easily available then, the reason it was considered as worthy as gold. Legend says Roman emperors used to pay their soldiers in salt. In fact, the word salary is said to have originated from the Latin ‘salarium’, which translates into ‘salt payment’.

Historical Kraków

The salt mine (or kopalnia soli in Polish) is in the Lesser Poland region locally known as Malopolska (or Minor Poland). Its capital was the city of Kraków, considered one of the most culturally rich in Europe. Situated by River Vistula, Kraków or Cracow remained the nerve-centre of arts and politics in Poland until the 17th century, after which present-day capital Warsaw gained prominence.

Krakow’s centuries-old heritage includes a noteworthy mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and its historical old town boasts of the biggest Medieval market square in all Europe. Called Rynek Glowny or Main Square, this is the hub of town and bustles with assorted activities the year through. A cosy, friendly city, its string of museums, crafts market, historical venues, cafes and fine-dining restaurants makes Kraków a perfect vacation destination, an ‘absolute must’ while touring Europe.

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