Many miles below the earth Vijaya Pratap stumbles upon an astonishing Polish secret

The Poles are very proud of their legacy. Rightly so, for Poland features prominently in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. As Jan Musial and Monika take me around Krakow, every time I stand dumbfounded, Jan chuckles, as if to say, “Wait till you see more”!

Finally, they take me to the Salt Mine at Wieliczka near Krakow, an astonishing Polish secret, little known outside Central Europe. This ordinary looking salt mine, lying over 200 mt below ground, holds a host of wonders created by the miners — salt rock carved into sculptures, chandeliers, galleries and chapels. What they left behind is a record of their time underground, a breathtaking history of 800 years.

As we go down 100 meters beneath the earth, lower and lower into the depths, it feels like we are walking down into Hades. Helena, our guide, starts to unravel the story of the mine, as she walks us through many caves, opening each heavy door effortlessly with an ‘open sesame’ like code. The real story, however, started 20 million years ago, when the sea covered this part of Poland, leaving behind buried treasure in the form of sodium chloride.

Salt was mined in Wieliczka from the middle ages until 1996. Before rock salt deposits were reached, salt was obtained by boiling brine from surface salt springs, a method prevalent since 3500 BC. As surface sources of brine were gradually exhausted, people started searching for brine underground, sinking wells deeper and deeper till they reached the first blocks of rock salt. From its beginning until 1772, the salt mines were owned by the Duke of Cracow, later the king of Poland.

The 3 km tourist route includes the most beautiful chambers, lakes and a unique museum of mining history that displays modern examples of equipment used as early as 13th century and protection devices for the miners.

There are statues of the great Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus and the bust of King Kazimierz the Great, Krakow’s most famous ruler, carved in green salt. A Saxon-type horse-operated treadmill, an authentic 18th century wooden machine used to haul salt from lower to upper floors, and a reconstructed horse stable, all take me back in time.

In the Janowice Chamber, six life-size figures illustrate the discovery of rock salt in Poland. Like all good fairytales, there’s a princess involved in this legend too. When Princess Kinga of Hungary became betrothed to a Krakow prince, she received in her dowry one of the salt mines in Marmaros, Hungary. She cast her engagement ring into the mine before leaving for Poland. Her ring along with salt deposits miraculously travelled to Wieliczka. When she arrived in Poland, following her order, miners started digging and, in the first block of salt, they found her ring. Since then salt has been plentiful in Poland. Kinga, the patroness of miners, later attained sainthood.

Helena points to salt crystal formations on the ceiling, called ‘cauliflowers’ and they indeed look like cauliflowers! At St. Anthony’s Chapel, life-size statues of Jesus and Mary glisten under the quiet, soft light. Work underground always meant great danger to the miners’ lives. They built underground chapels for mass every morning. In the Holy Cross Chapel, in front of the Mensa, are two much obliterated figures of kneeling monks carved in salt. The interior is lit by a chandelier made of wood and salt crystals.

St. Kinga’s Chapel is the most impressive and magnificent of the chapels, overwhelming in sheer size. Dazzling chandeliers, each teardrop made of purified, clear salt crystals, hang majestically from the ceiling. The rock salt floor, the balustrade, and the exquisitely carved biblical scenes on the walls are incredible. Solemn mass is said here on special occasions. Concerts take place often, making it a one-of-its-kind venue in the world.

In the Weimar Chamber, the green salt lake appears dramatic as the mini sound-and-light show transports me to a bygone era. The figure of the Warden emerges, the good spirit of the mines who workers believed warned them of the dangers of fire, cave-in or explosion. If the Warden appeared in an area of the mine, they would withdraw to a safe place.

The air is rich in sodium, calcium and magnesium chloride, hence healthy and therapeutic. On Helena’s advice, I breathe deep and fill my lungs, feeling superbly fresh. At the sanatorium 440 feet underground, chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays.

Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and flooding. For safety reasons less than one per cent of the mines are open to visitors. Brine, however, is still extracted to prevent flooding.

After the long walk, we relax at an underground restaurant created by excavating red bronze salt and dig into a fabulous lunch.

The cage lift brings us back to the surface in a jiffy. Still a bit dazed, I look back at the salt mine with renewed respect for Wieliczka’s forgotten heroes.