1 of 7
2 of 7
3 of 7
4 of 7
5 of 7
6 of 7
7 of 7
Tchotchkes, pork chops and the search for the fifth dimension
We had just begun our tour when the tour guide said to us: every hour you spend down in the mine adds three minutes to your life. He was muscular, in his late fifties, dressed in a black suit with brass buttons that looked identical or almost identical to the miners’ uniforms displayed at the entrance to the mine. The tour will last three hours, said the guide, so by the time we finish today your lives will be extended by nine minutes. There were twenty-five of us in the group, part of an English-language tour of the Wieliczka salt mine just outside of Krakow, my hometown, where I was visiting with my girlfriend this summer.
We were in a huge cave-like chamber, 64 metres below the surface of the earth; the air was cool and you could taste salt on your lips. The ceiling and walls were grey and rough, like unpolished marble, with thick grooves running along the surface. The guide held up his hand: the colour of the salt in the mine results from certain minerals in the salt rock, he said; some salt mines are white, some are pink, this one is grey. He spoke English in the manner of Poles who have learned from the British: strained vowels and thick consonants. The walls, the ceiling, the floor are all salt, said the guide, you may test this yourself by licking the walls. In fact, you may lick anything in the mine, he said, except for your tour guide.
We followed him out of the chamber and down a wide corridor. The ground was gritty, and as we walked it sounded like snow crunching under our feet. We entered a chamber bathed in amber light to behold an enormous effigy of Nikolaj Copernicus carved in salt, at least 6 metres high, holding an orb in his outstretched arms. The mine has hosted many famous visitors, as you will notice, the guide said. We pulled out our cameras and began to snap pictures of Copernicus towering over us. Forty million people have enjoyed the spectacular beauty of the mine, said the guide. Among the many facts shared by him: more than a million people visit the mine each year; in Poland, only Auschwitz is visited more often; the mine began operating in the thirteenth century and stopped producing salt in 1996; it was designated as a UNESCO heritage site in 1978.
We filed down another long, wide corridor to a clearing, where in a sort of stage set back in the wall three men carved from salt stood before a kneeling man extending his hand to a woman with a crown on her head; they too were rendered in salt. Now behold St. Kinga, the guide intoned, who led the Poles to discover this mine when her ring was found right here. He pointed at the hand of the kneeling man.
Farther along we paused to gaze at a massive bust of Casimir the Great, carved in salt, a fourteenth-century Polish king who decreed that miners were entitled to a portion of their salt output. A huge beard spilled from his jaw and a grey crown was perched on his head, all dusted with whitish powder.
We pressed on with our bags and our cameras, down corridors, down stairs, through chambers, past rubber mannequins with wooden carts, into a chapel containing a Crucifixion of Jesus statue (wooden) and a room full of gnomes (rubber), and into another corridor. St. Kinga’s chapel, known as the treasure of the mine, is just up ahead, announced the tour guide. We rounded a corner and were halted by two men in baggy suits whose job was to collect a fee from anyone with a camera. We paid up and carried on toward a balcony looking down into St. Kinga’s chapel, a huge, spectacular room, two storeys high, shimmering in the soft light of five chandeliers made of salt, hanging from the ceiling. From the balcony we descended into the chapel; the floor was polished smooth. The guide ushered us along to an effigy of John Paul II, rendered somewhat smaller than Copernicus but still looming, with his pope staff and his pope hat, his salty grey face carved chunky, gargoylish, unlike the handsome, delicate face of the human John Paul II as I remembered him. You are now 105 metres below the surface of the earth, the tour guide announced; here you may have some free time to enjoy the scenery.
Elements of this scenery, adorning the chapel: several versions of Jesus rendered in bas-relief, the divine family in a group, a nativity scene, a monochrome version of da Vinci’s Last Supper.
More tour groups crowded in, and we had to cram in close to each other to photograph the statues, one another, ourselves. Our guide called us over and we pushed on again, down corridors and along tunnels. At one point we reached a gift shop, snack bar and washrooms. On display in the snack bar were shiny red and silver bags of chips and chocolate bars, orange bottles of carrot juice and red cans of Coca-Cola; two chrome cappuccino machines with blue lights gleamed on the counter. In the gift shop, displayed in vitrines: bags of official Wieliczka salt, miniature wagons and wheelbarrows, pickaxes, crystals, salt and pepper shakers.
As we left, the guide said, we are nearly halfway through our tour. It felt as if we’d been walking for days. Here it was, the labour of tourism: pay attention to every last banal detail, keep going at all costs, photograph everything, listen, see, experience!
The guide said, we have extended our lives by four minutes already.
The guide pressed on and we pressed on: more tunnels, more chambers, more stairs. Up next: the Weimar chamber, named in honour of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited in 1787, the guide declared with some excitement. Inside the Weimar chamber a pool of water shimmered in the light. Then the lights cut out and from the darkness emerged the sound of thunder crashing. The lights flashed again and the first delicate notes of Frédéric Chopin’s saddest étude, “Tristesse,” drifted forth from somewhere in the dark.
We pushed forth, down tunnels, down corridors, down stairs. The guide said, and now we are at the world’s first 5-D cinema. We waited in a line against the wall; as the door opened and thirty Japanese tourists marched out, we marched in and took our places on long wooden benches. The lights went dim and the salt wall before us was flooded by a stream of watery images—grey and blue and green—rushing down from the ceiling, accompanied by sounds of trickling, bubbling and gushing. Where was the fifth dimension? No one asked.
Two hours had passed and the guide pressed on, and we pursued him, down stairs, through tunnels and chambers, past a row of kings, generals, emissaries, all carved in salt, looking unpolished and dull in the industrial-strength lighting. Our guide recited a list of names: Nikolaj Copernicus, Johann von Goethe, Frédéric Chopin, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, Alexander I of Russia, Emperor Francis I, Francis Joseph I, William II, Pope John XXIII, Charles de Gaulle, Alexander von Humboldt, Robert Baden-Powell, Bill Clinton. Many of them are here now, he said, in the salt mine.
Eventually we arrived at another gift shop, 125 metres below the surface of the earth, where the souvenirs were more spectacular than in the first gift shop: huge salt and crystal sculptures, turquoise rocks with crystalline patterns, priced at hundreds of dollars. At one end, an enormous plastic sign advertising “the only restaurant in the world that is 125 metres underground.” On the menu a selection of beer and wine, cabbage soup, pierogies, pork loin, pork chop, chicken roulade, veal, baked salmon, Viennese cheesecake, fruit pie, millefeuille, panna cotta with raspberries, tea, coffee, juice. The washrooms were equipped with Dyson Airblade dryers, the kind that dry your hands in twelve seconds.
On our way to the exit we passed a cluster of tour guides without groups, milling about, mumbling into walkie-talkies. The tour is now ended, our guide announced; we could leave by the exit or we could hang around.
Finally we were stuffed into an elevator—ten at a time, shoulder to shoulder—and shot to the surface, where in the smothering heat of summer, half a dozen trinket stands offered miniature wheelbarrows, tiny bags of salt, postcards, pamphlets and maps of the mine.
The mine was 327 metres deep, over nine levels, connected by 300 kilometres of tunnels and stairs—we had traversed about 2 kilometres. A thousand miners used to labour here, digging tunnels, transporting slabs of salt by rope, by trolley, by horse. At one point in the tour we had been shown a display of three life-size mannequins crawling along the ground, holding up long torches, a method used by miners in the middle ages to detect poison gas, which would explode in contact with the torches. Later I found an article in Harper’s, published in 1862, in which the writer described a recent visit to the Wieliczka salt mine; he was lowered by rope deep into the mine, where he observed the miners at work: “a monstrous group: shocks of hair all powdered with salt; glaring eyeballs overhung by white lashes flashing in the fitful blaze of lamps; the brawny forms glittering with crystal powder and marked by dark currents of sweat!”