Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow’s white Gold

Krakow grew as a trading city in the medieval ages because it was the located conveniently near to white gold – salt.

Incredible as it may sound to us now, salt was once as precious as gold was, not unlike how coal and petrol is precious today.

Salt, the most basic and important flavour imparting ingredient in almost any cuisine, a little bit of salt can elevate a meat (from a plain piece of beef to a flavourful steak), can add a fun tang to a otherwise sweet dish (salted caramel or salted licorice for example), it is also a health supplement – used in spa treatments and the like. It is the only rock that we eat and a very important part of our most people’s diet.

And it was in the small town of Wieliczka, a short distance away from Krakow that the city got rich; for deep inside Wieliczka was a salt mine, the mine that gave Krakow its riches.

The salt in the Wieliczka has been there through brine since the Neolithic Age, and it was in the 13th century that the brine that bubbled up to the surface was processed into salt and sold. Mining began soon as this magical ingredient became desired by traders.

So important was the trade and so respected the miners that King Casimir III built a hospital in 1363 near the mine to treat any injured miners. For a mine that has been in operation so long, it is inevitable that myths and legends emerged around it. The most famous being one about Princess Kinga, a Polish princess. “A legend about Princess Kinga, associated with the Wieliczka mine, tells of a Hungarian princess about to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father, Béla IV of Hungary, for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father King Béla took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when they split it in two, discovered the princess’s ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital. (Wikipedia).

Digging continued and over the centuries more and more chambers, deeper and deeper into the earth were dug.

What was perhaps more fascinating to me about the pit was how the miners brought their faith into the pit with them, with a whole host of chapels built all around the mine.

The mine lost its economic value only in 1996, when salt mining was shut and the site was then converted into a tourist site and historic monument, as our guide said, “we make more money with less effort and risk by taking tourist than mining salt.” That line said more than our guide meant it to, it was a reflection on the capitalistic nature of humans – when a resource is rare its value rises and people risk their lives to get it. The same product can however suddenly lose its value when we are able to easily obtain it.

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