Sunday, July 16, 2006

Krakow: Part I, The Salt Mine

According to all the guidebooks and websites I read about Krakow before my trip, the Wieliczka salt mine is a Krakow attraction not to be missed. So on Tuesday, after a hearty breakfast at my hotel, I set off to explore it. I’d opted against an organized tour: the price seemed high, and the estimated length of the trip was much longer than I anticipated wanting to spend at the salt mine. A woman at the tourist office had told me how to get there on my own, so I made my way to a local “mini-bus”—Krakow’s version of a city bus—and paid just 2.5 zloty (about 50 cents) to get to the mine.

I didn’t really have an image in mind when I planned to visit the mine. That’s a benefit to planning a trip fast to an unexpected place—no preconceived ideas to support or refute, even in the back of the mind. At the mine, I bought a ticket then waited in a holding area with hordes of other tourists for the English-language tour. A French group entered the mine; then a large Polish group; then a Spanish group. I imagined the mine filling up with people. Finally, the English group filed in and immediately began a descent of almost 400 stairs. Mercifully, the mine was cold: Krakow had been swelteringly hot, and it took a long time for my skin to cool enough to require my sweater.

Our guide was a humorless Polish man named Dalik. “You cannot explore the mine on your own,” he told us before we descended. “You do not know the way. If you get separated from the group, you may die.” The group—all Americans and Brits—chuckled. Dalik didn’t. “You see I wear a hard hat,” he said. “The ceilings are low. You do not have hard hats. If you hit your head, you’ll be dead. You can remember that by the rhyme.” Again, the group tittered, but more uneasily this time.

The salt mine was, first and foremost, a mine: deep, dark, damp. Chambers carved from the salt were supported by thick wooden beams. The salt was gray and a deathly green, not white; it was like being inside an ashtray. What makes this mine so remarkable and so sought after by the hordes of tourists are the figures carved from salt that appear unexpectedly within the chambers. Through the years, miners have occasionally felt compelled to carve things from salt: human figures, religious figures, and, especially, dwarves. “That dwarf is carved from salt,” I thought to myself, impressed, at the first sighting. But after many dwarfs, and after veritable dioramas of salt-dwarves lit with multicolored lights, the effect dims. “This salt chamber is gigantic,” I thought, impressed, at the first gigantic salt chamber. But after many salt chambers, especially after a salt chamber in which a light-show is accompanied by a Chopin soundtrack that’s underscored with “sounds of the mine”—chink chink and so forth—the effect, again, dims.

The grand finale of the salt mine is a salt ballroom, with the floors, wall decorations, and everything else made of—yes—salt. Chandeliers—salt—hang from the ceilings (salt). Concerts and other events are sometimes held in the salt ballroom. On one end of the ballroom was a life-size salt statue of John Paul II.

After following a circuitous route to the exit, a route that wound through several underground souvenir shops, an underground restaurant, an underground museum, and an underground post office, I boarded an elevator that lifted me back to daylight. It was a relief to be back in the open air. The salt mine seemed, to me, little more than a weird tourist trap—a sight best left to tour groups and schoolchildren.

No comments: