Thursday, May 24, 2012

Deep Underground: The Wieliczka Salt Mine

Where does salt come from?

Legend says that when the Hungarian princess Kinga, daughter of Bela the IVth, was married to Bolesław the Chaste, Duke of Polish towns Cracow and Sandomierz, instead of gold or silver, she brought salt as her dowry.

She did not have it brought in barrels or ox-drawn carts, however. In her homeland, she threw her engagement ring down one of the shafts of a salt mine. As she rode back to Poland to meet her new husband, she ordered the party to stop near Cracow.

"Dig here," she commanded. Can you guess what was found in the excavation?

Salt rock, and Kinga's engagement ring, glittering within the savoury crystal.

Wieliczka 2006
A salt carving depicting the legendary finding of the ring.

This is the legend of the great Wieliczka Salt Mine, which, indeed, dates back to the the 13th century, and the reign of Bolesław the Chaste and princess Kinga. To fully appreciate the significance of the story, one has to understand that in the middle ages, salt was an incredibly valuable mineral. We think nothing of it today, but it used to be the privilege of kings. You could buy whole townships with the proper amount of the stuff! By the 14th century, the gains from the salt sources around Cracow formed one third of the whole country's income.

Excavation of rock salt may have begun in the 13th century, but the site of Wieliczka had been giving up salt since the Middle Neolithic period (3500- 2500 B.C.) And the source itself is fifteen million years old! Water sources in the area were not potable, flowing with a salty brine, but when evaporated, they left behind the tasty mineral. This was known to the local peoples well over five thousand years ago.

The briny springs were a good enough source until the middle of the 13th century, when men had to delve deeper, and began to build the first shafts. When you visit the town of Wieliczka, you will see many signposts marking the sites of historical shafts, long ago exhausted and filled up.

But the larger part of the mine remains active and open to the public. And it is a stunning place to visit.

The Daniłowicz Shaft, one of many in Wieliczka. This is how you enter and exit the museum.

Wieliczka 2006
The tour begins with a walk down exactly 380 wooden steps. This is what you see if you look over the railing.

First, it's huge. At present, the combined length of the underground corridors is over 300 km. There are  almost two and a half thousand excavated chambers (!!), spread out on three levels, the deepest lying 327 metres below the surface of the earth.

Second, it's the only mine in the entire world which has been continuously active since the Middle Ages.

All right, you might say. It's still just a mine. A dark hole in the ground. What's there to see?

Oh, I don't about the huge chapel of St. Kinga, at 101 metres below the surface, carved entirely out of salt?

Wieliczka town and salt mine

Wieliczka town and salt mine

You see, once a large lode of salt is found underground, it can only be mined to a point before becoming unsafe. The miners would scrape out the centre of the salt block, leaving a hollow cavern and then moving on down the next corridor. And because mining was hard and risky work, the presence of God was very much welcome down below.

To this day, the customary greeting in the mine is 'Szczęść Boże': God bless. This is what you say when the lift starts going down. This is what you say whenever you meet someone on your way through the underground maze. It's a ritual, a sacred and unbroken custom, dating back to a time when the mine was a much darker and dangerous place.

Chamber after chamber was created by excavation, and over the years, miners would carve out sacred figures, crosses, and chapels in the salt rock, hoping for celestial protection.

Wieliczka town and salt mine
The chapel of St. John, built in 1859. In 2009 it was moved from the first level to the third,
and is now a part of the tourist route.

St. Kinga's chapel is one such work of piety, the deed of miners and self-taught sculptors from the late 19th and early 20th century. They were the brothers Józef and Tomasz Markowski, and Antoni Wyrodek. Today, Mass is still celebrated in the chapel on special occasions.

You can even rent it out for a magical underground wedding, and have the reception catered in one of the salt ballrooms.

Wieliczka town and salt mine

Wieliczka town and salt mine
Yes, that chandelier is made of salt. All of them are. Every single little crystal.

And those are only some of the stops on the three hour tour. Other chambers hold exhibits showing how men worked to extract salt over the years of the mine's existence. You will see an authentic horse-powered mill from the 18th century, a chamber burned out by an explosion, and amazing feats of underground architecture.

 For instance, the Michałowice Chamber:

Wieliczka town and salt mine

This huge, 35-metre-deep cavern is filled with a complex wooden scaffolding, erected in the 19th century with no help from any machinery, piece by piece as the vertical lode was excavated. This deposit was so huge, it was exploited for almost a hundred years!

Wieliczka town and salt mine

Wieliczka town and salt mine
Salt covers the walls of the mine corridors. The floor tiles are also carved out of salt, by the way.

What other mysteries does Wieliczka hold?

If you're very lucky, you might meet Skarbnik, the legendary spirit of the mine. 'Skarbnik' means 'Treasure Keeper', and salt, of course, is the treasure in question. Skarbnik is a good spirit, but he always comes bearing a warning. If he should appear, that means there is dangerous gas, or a cave-in up ahead.  Turn back!

Wieliczka town and salt mine
The Weimar chamber, named after the prince of Weimar who visited it in 1790 in the company of Goethe.

Besides legends, there are many, many true stories that Wieliczka keeps in her memory. An often overlooked, yet important symbol is a Star of David carved deep into the face of the Staszic Chamber. Why is it there?

In 1944, the Nazis decided to use the chambers of Wieliczka as a war factory. In the Staszic Chamber, they set up an assembly line for aircraft machinery. The forced labourers, as you can probably guess, were Polish Jews.

In secret, they carved out the Star of David, a symbol of their people and religion, not only as a spiritual mark, but as a proof of their imprisonment and slavery. They wanted to make certain that whatever happened, in the future people would know they had been held there.

Visit to Wieliczka

Another interesting tale will lead you to the Piłsudski Chamber, where a 19th century statue of St. John of Nepomuk stands guard by a disused ferry. This was once part of the Austrian tourist route, until 1915 when it was witness to a rather gruesome accident. Several Prussian soldiers tipped over the ferry, and fell into the brine.

Now, as you probably know, bodies of water with a high density of salt are practically impossible to drown in. The salt keeps you afloat, pushing you up and out of the water.

And yet, the soldiers died. They could not drown, but the raft tipped over and trapped them underneath it. They could neither lift it, nor dive into the salty water to swim out. They suffocated under the overturned ferry.

Wieliczka town and salt mine

Hmm, all that salt in the that healthy?

Yes, yes it is!

The mine actually has an underground spa, where people come to cure respiratory ailments and allergies. They have been doing so since the 19th century. The microclimate in the mine is very special- bacteriologically pure, allergen-free, rich in microelements such as sodium chloride, magnesium and calcium.

Good breathing!

Visit to Wieliczka
The Wessel underground lake. Therapy sessions take place alongside it.

Visit to Wieliczka
These stables, built in 1913, have been converted to a dormitory for the spa patients.

Patients ride down to the third level of the mine, 135 metres underground, and spend the day beside a brine lake. There is a library, a gym, a brine fountain; patients participate in breathing exercises, musical  therapy (underground sing-alongs!) and other activities, all under medical supervision.

Wieliczka town and salt mine
Light physical exercise at 135 metres under the surface of the Earth.

Wow! But that's got to be all, right? That's all we can see?


If you book a couple weeks in advance,  you can also take a special tour which will take you off the regular tourist path, and deep into the abandoned parts of the mine.

Wieliczka 2006
You get to wear a stylish hat.

You will ride down with the miners, in a hard hat and with a flashlight as your only source of light.  The corridors are much grungier here than on the tourist route, with beautiful salt crystals forming everywhere. There are lost chambers, forgotten monuments, deep, salt-covered mineshafts that seem to have no bottom. Geology enthusiasts will be delighted as the structure of the mineral deposit is revealed to them. History buffs will find traces of Austrian and German invasions where corridors were named and renamed again according to whichever force held the mine.

Wieliczka 2006
On this Austrian sign, you can see ink graffiti from 1898(sic!),  disputing the renaming of the corridor
after a foreign nobleman, when it was originally named after general Tadeusz Kościuszko.

And those among you who simply want to feel the thrill of adventure will love the mysterious corridors, the narrow spaces, the sudden drops, the old wooden ladders and unbelievable darkness of the mine.

Wieliczka 2006

A few extra facts about the mine:

-The Wieliczka trademark is the first in Poland, and one of the oldest in the world. Very early on in the mine's history, special white, so-called 'royal' salt transports meant only for royal consumption were stamped with the mark.

-The mining of salt in Wieliczka ended in 1996, but conservation works yield rock salt that is used to manufacture memorabilia, and the mineral is still drawn from the brine water. You can buy Wieliczka salt for your table in any Polish supermarket. :) Just look for the trademark!

-There are no bugs or vermin in the mines- they couldn't survive! Any insects which get carried in on people's clothing quickly dry up in the salt-rich atmosphere. However, rats and mice did once live in the mines, back when its permanent residents were...

-Horses. Horses were kept in the underground stables and used to pull large loads and set heavy machinery in motion. The last horse, a mare called Basia (short for Barbara- st. Barbara being the patron saint of all miners) was removed from the mine in 2002, at sixteen, in good health. She is living out her retirement in a quiet pasture.

-Tourism is not a modern attraction in the mine. In the years 1772- 1918, when this part of Poland was under Austrian rule, visitors were first admitted underground.

-A new form of the behind the scenes tour called The Miner's Route will be opening this July. It involves lots of activities which will teach visitors about the realities of working in a salt mine. Personally, I can't wait!

-All tours are available in English and many other languages. You won't miss a thing.

-You'll have to find out the rest for yourself. Come visit! And if you do, let me know. I might just come with you. :)

I would like to thank the staff of Wieliczka, from the offices dealing with my requests to the miners, tour guides, geologists, therapists, cooks, everyone who was so kind and helpful during my visits. The Salt Mine is one of my favourite places in Poland, not just because it's a spectacular sight, but because of how unwaveringly friendly its people are.


Meta info:

Wieliczka official website:

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May Days and the famous Constitution of 1791

"Welcome, May, beautiful May,
 Poland is paradise today..."

So say the words of the May 3rd Mazurka. The lyrics do not refer to the chance of a nine-day weekend (see footnotes), but to the introduction of our first Constitution.

In Poland, May begins with a series of important holidays. May 1st is International Worker's Day, obviously very popular in our socialist years, and still an official day off. On May 2nd, we have Flag Day, when all flags should be up, if they weren't for May 1st  already. And on May 3rd, Constitution day. Displays of patriotism which are practically obligatory today were forbidden under socialist rule. Your flag had to be out on May 1st, or you would suffer repercussions, but if you dared to leave it up until May 3rd, you'd find yourself in much bigger trouble…

So, what was this Constitution, why did it bother Russia so much, and why is it still so important?

Manuscript of the Constitution
Let's go back a few centuries. Since 1385, Poland had been a sprawling empire often referred to as the Republic of Two Nations:  The Crown and Lithuania.  As the name itself suggests, it was a federal union between the two countries, precipitated among other things by a desire to strengthen the nations against the usual suspect: Russia.

The idea wasn't bad, but almost four hundred years later, the union was not faring so well. In 1772, the edges of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were sliced away and divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. That was the first partition.

Partitions were a direct result of the country being weak and unable to perform the reforms necessary to strengthen its military position. Why was this so? Well, the Polish nobility have a history of being a stubborn band of anarchists, and the great number of privileges they enjoyed under the Commonwealth made ruling the country in a unified manner troublesome. Nobles had immunity. Nobles could not be taxed. Nobles could not be controlled. Nobles came and went as they pleased, attending meetings of the Sejm (the Polish version of Parliament) with the pleasant certainty that they had more executive power than the monarchy. The law even allowed them the right to rebel against the king if he should violate any of their privileges!

But worst of all was the deputy right of liberum veto, which allowed any noble in the Sejm to end the current session and nullify all legislations passed. All he had to do was shout out: "Nie pozwalam!" (I do not allow this!)

The veto was not entirely a bad thing; in fact, in origin, it had served to curb the powers of the (elective!) monarch and keep noble landowners in control of the country. It was also a crucial tool in the upholding of religious tolerance, a weighty matter in a place as diverse as the Commonwealth, and especially important in contrast with the rest of Europe, where the faith of each country depended on the faith of its monarch. But the Republic could not function properly with every decision at the mercy of whim and veto. With the magnates enjoying their so-called Golden Age of Privileges, reform was all but impossible.

Piknik z Ułanami
Szlachta- Polish nobility in the 2009 Constitution Day Parade in Warsaw.

So, imagine you are radical political thinkers nobleman Ignacy Potocki and priest Hugo Kołłątaj, and you are sick of seeing your country fall prey to its neighbours while the magnates bicker among themselves. Imagine you have sat down and prepared a lovely new Constitution which decreases the privileges of the nobility and abolishes the liberum veto. How do you possibly get it legislated?

You get crafty and call a Confederate Sejm- a special kind of parliament meeting during which the liberum veto is prohibited and majority vote rules. And you call this meeting in secret, right after Easter, knowing a great number of the deputees most likely to oppose you haven't returned to the capital from their holidays yet.

Snap. May 3rd, 1791, the first codified Constitution in Europe (second in the world after the US) was declared in Poland.

So, what did the Constitution change?

  • It reformed the government, dividing it into legislative, executive and judiciary branches (after Montesquieu's model). It also decreed that ministers could be tried and judged.
  • It improved the rights of the peasants and decreased the privileges of the nobility, doing away with the liberum veto. The Sejm and Senate would now pass legislations by simple majority vote. The voting rights of landless nobles were also taken away, thus making it impossible for wealthier magnates to purchase their votes.
  • It made the peasants and townspeople political equals, and placed peasants who had previously been completely at the whim of their noble masters under the protection of the government. It also declared that refugees and new settlers would not be bound to any landlords.
  • It gave the citizens of royal cities the right to hold posts previously reserved for nobility, such as public offices and military commissions and even seats in the Sejm. It also guaranteed them the right not to be arrested without warrant. These rights could be extended to citizens of private towns.
  • It abolished free elections; the throne was now hereditary, with elections occurring only at the end of a dynasty. This was an attempt to decrease foreign influence on the choice of rulers (it was  starting to get silly). The instution of pacta conventa - a document each monarch had to sign to pledge his respect for the laws of the Commonwealth- was also preserved. 
  • It established Catholicism as the national faith, but preserved the earlier freedom of religion. 
  • It transformed the union between Poland and Lithuania into a unitary state called the Republic of Poland, which meant the armies and treasuries would no longer refer to two separate authorities. The Lithuanian deputies were concerned for their rights, many protesting the decision. To appease them, it was decided that Lithuanian deputies would hold a guaranteed proportional number of seats in the new government.

Detail from Jan Matejko's 1891 painting depicting the Crown Marshall of the Sejm being
carried out of the Royal Castle with the Constitution in his hand. At the left are Hugo Kołłątaj
and Ignacy Potocki, who helped shape the document. On the ground, deputy Jan Suchorzewski,
an opponent of the Constitution, threatens to kill his own six-year-old son if the document
is ratified. The painting may be full of symbolism, but, yes, this actually happened.

Unfortunately, the Constitution was short-lived. Fourteen months was all it took for the pot to boil over; not only was there a strong opposition within the country, but our neighbours did not take too kindly to our liberal reforms, either. Why would they? They liked Poland weak and chaotic, and thought of it as of a sort of land reserve with which to replenish their losses on other fronts. Catherine the Great found the idea of free peasants especially appalling- she feared a massive exodus from Russia.

So, in 1792, Russia attacked. Unable to push back, King Stanisław Poniatowski thought to stop the conflict by surrendering and agreeing to hand the reform over to a conservative confederacy mounted under the protection of...none other than Catherine the Great. (and just as a side note, the whole reason he was king in the first place was because Catherine, his former lover, supported his candidacy and staged a coup to get him the throne. The tsarina giveth, the tsarina taketh away...)

The results were disastrous. The Constitution was torn apart, almost all of its reforms scrapped, and many supporters forced into exile. Worst of all, Poland was once again forced under foreign heel and partitioned for a second time, losing over 100,000 square miles of territory to Russia and Prussia. Even the conspiring confederates hadn't predicted this one! The additional documents the creators of the constitution were working on- namely, a 'moral and economical constitution' which was to address the civil rights of all citizens, including the most overlooked peasants and Jews, were never completed.

Though the original Constitution was not a success (even its co-authors ominously called it "the last will and testament of the expiring Country"), May 3rd is now an extremely important national holiday in Poland, celebrated since 1918.

Piknik z Ułanami
Riders in historical uhlan uniforms on parade for Constitution Day, 2009

Not unusually, we applaud the Constitution for what it stands for rather than what it actually achieved. In most of its decrees it was a revolutionary and progressive attempt at reform and strengthening our position on the map, and the way it was subsequently taken away from us by foreign forces makes it into a powerful symbol of the fight for independence.

Meta information:

Wikipedia entry on the Constitution of May 3rd:,_1791

Wikipedia entry on the Second Partition of Poland:

Photo of the manuscript taken from Wikipedia:

A detailed analysis of Matejko's painting:,_1791_(painting)

About the nine day weekend:
Since May 1st and May 3rd are official national holidays, if May 1st falls on a Tuesday, all you need to do is convince your employer to give you Wednesday and Friday off in order to bag a nine day weekend. Yes, people do take advantage of this.