Although his entire body was made from salt, he didn’t appear snow white like you’d expect - more stony grey. He took his role seriously, watching over the millions of tourists that came to view his home: Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland, which he shared with hundreds of other salty artefacts. I nicknamed him Doc. My first glimpse of Doc was my most breathtaking moment, I was sure of it. To reach Doc I had to descend 378 rickety wooden steps which spiralled down and around until I felt nauseous and dizzy. On step 276 I came to a halt as I remembered, clear as crystal, or should I say salt, an interesting snippet from the February 1916 edition of the ’Popular Science’ publication:
“At the famous salt mines of Wieliczka, there recently fell a huge mass of salt weighing some two hundred tons. The great block evidently became detached from the roof of the chamber and came crashing down, demolishing a portion of a passage and heavy timbered barriers”.
With no way to go except down and a queue of growingly frustrated tourists stuck behind me, this was no time to become apprehensive. I sprang off the last step, relieved to be on solid ground, albeit 64 metres below the earth’s surface.
“You can leave your canary at home, the ventilation is good”, joked the jovial tour guide Marc, a stout, moustached Pole with a thick accent. Despite subjecting us to one too many salt puns for my liking (“some people say I look like one of the dwarves - that’s ok, I’m not in-salt-ed”), he provided an amusing narration to the excursion.
It would take us nearly three hours to walk three kilometres, yet we would see only one percent of this amazing underground city, a labyrinth of passages, caverns, pits, traverses, lakes, chapels and sculptures carved by the miners.
St. Kinga’s chapel is the mine’s trump card. As we entered, I stood in awe, frozen like one of the sculptures. Yes, this was definatley it, my most breathtaking moment. All my senses came alive. Everything glistened in a glorious kaleidoscope of sparkles as the light reflected off the salt walls, floors and sculptures and the chandeliers above (also made entirely of salt) glistened like illuminated Christmas trees. I could taste the sodium chloride in the air. Although tempted to lick the walls, I instead ran my finger across it and down onto the floor. It was smooth and shiny. The voices of other visitors rebounded off the walls and echoed off the ceiling.
Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ is exquisitely carved into a wall of rock salt, in such fine detail that even the items on the table are visible. I stand corrected,: viewing this was it – the most breathtaking moment of my life…. I think!
I’d been so absorbed in conversing with Marc that I hadn‘t realised we’d meandered around the penultimate corridor and into the final chamber of the tour, which housed a souvenir shop and a restaurant offering tempting Polish cuisine, seasoned with salt of course.
“Before you go, make sure we haven’t raised your blood pressure or your cholesterol”, joked Marc.
A cage elevator thrust us 135 metres back up to the surface. I bid a silent farewell to Doc and vowed to return one day. Next time I’d introduce myself.