salt of the earth

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Poland’s wealth in the Middle Ages lay buried deep beneath the ground. There, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, miners dug, chipped, and carved away salt out of rock. The deeper they went, the larger the caverns became. The miners lived and breathed beneath the world. As they carried away the salt of the earth, hoisting it to those who lived above the ground, they shaped the empty spaces into places of beauty. These salt miners carved out of stone not just the practical spaces to eat, sleep, and keep the livestock (yes, they kept horses underground to help turn the great wheels), but they also carved places of worship. The grandest of these is the Chapel of St Kinga, dedicated to the thirteenth-century queen of Poland whose wedding gift to Poland was the miraculous transfer of a salt mine from her native Hungary.

Here, in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, all is an eerie grey, save for where the rock salt is carved so thinly that the light shines through a pale orange. One has to remember that the grouting in the floor is carved; the floor is not tiled. The “bricks” along the walls have also been carved into stone. The entire chapel — from the stairs, the floor, the wall carvings depicting different scenes from the Gospels, to the altar itself — is all carved out of living stone. Here, deep beneath the earth, is an example of devotion.

Photo: Chapel of St Kinga in the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland.

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sunflower tea

1001 nights of summer

A step inside, off the bright, busy street and into a dark corridor. Before your eyes can adjust you are moving, down a spiral staircase into a small room brimming with cushions and low tables. On the tables, candles, flickering the shadows of teapots on the walls. You order tea. When the tea comes, you pour it over the rock sugar in the bottom of your cup. The tea is golden, a hypnotic blend of black and green tea and sunflower petals. No words can describe the flavour, and yet, you can never forget the taste. It is the lazy gold of a summer’s afternoon, distilled into a cup of tea.

Photo: 1001 Nights of Summer at Same Fusy in Warsaw, Poland.

#chestnutfail

Lola and I had observed several Polish people in the parks in Warsaw gathering chestnuts. Curious, and feeling adventurous, we decided to experiment.

So I climbed a tree, shaking a couple of the branches to rain down chestnuts to the ground, where Lola gathered them up.

 

Later, we looked up how to roast them. When Lola pulled them out of the oven, I set to peeling them. Then popped one of them into my mouth… and spat it out again. They were incredibly bitter. We decided that maybe roasting chestnuts wasn’t for us after all…

(More about Poland when I’m back in Scotland and have uploaded my own photos, instead of cheekily using Lola’s!)

The Lady of the Vistula

I never did finish posting about my trip to Poland. Well, after Krakow and the Wielizcka Salt Mines, Lola and I went to Warsaw.

First we went to the Palace of Culture, which was a gift from Stalin to the Polish people. People say that it offers the best views of Warsaw because you can’t see the Palace of Culture, but I thought it had more character than the ugly modern skyscrapers built around it. Why is it called the Palace of Culture? Well, it’s one of the largest buildings in Europe, consisting of a number of auditoriums, museums, theatres, and various arts centres. Near the top of the Palace of Culture is a viewing terrace which does, in fact, offer the best views of Warsaw.

I particularly liked that from above you could see that the crosswalks are painted to look like a piano keyboard. Frederick Chopin is from Warsaw, after all. His heart is buried in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw (his body is in Paris).

Copernicus is also from Poland. One of the (many) statues of him has him looking down on a model of the Solar System. Lola and I have a long-running joke that I’m ‘like the Earth!’ so I couldn’t pass up a photo-op of being the Earth.

We spent most of our time in Old Town — wandering around and doing some souvenir shopping for me. On our way to the Warsaw Renik we passed Death and the Bear. Death bore us no ill will. Upon learning that the bear is an enchanted prince, cursed until his true love kisses to wake him, I kissed his nose — but alas, no Polish prince for me.

In the Renik is the protectress of Warsaw. This guardian who defends Warsaw from harm is none other than a mermaid from the Baltic Sea who came to live in the Vistula river. More a siren, or syrenka, than a mermaid, she is fearsome to behold.

(Yes, I did buy a replica of her. How could I not? She is too much like Melusine to be left out of my desk collection of medieval romance figures.)

In a basement in Old Town is one of the best tea houses I have ever been to. Same Fusy was small and cosy, with tables made of tree trunkes, candlelit, and Agnes Obel softly playing from the speakers. We spent ages choosing which specialty tea we wanted and chose 1001 Nights of Summer. I have never tasted more delicious tea.

  This, my friends, is the perfect essence of tea.

Wieliczka Salt Mines

The Wieliczka Salt Mines are simply breathtaking. The salt mines are found in the town Wieliczka, a little ways outside of Krakow. According to legend, the mines were an answer to a prayer of Queen Kinga (later a saint), who prayed that she would give inexhaustible wealth to the Polish people as her dowry. On her journey from Hungary to Krakow, she stopped in the village of Wieliczka where a man presented her with an unusual rock. The rock contained her engagement ring — which she had thrown into Maramures salt mine in her own native Hungary. There she commanded the miners to dig, and there was founded the oldest, continuously mined salt mine in Europe.

To go down into the mines you have to take a guided tour, which are offered in several different languages. The tour lasts two hours, with an extra hour if you want to go through the museum as well. The tour goes through a small section of the first three levels. The mine itself  has nine levels going down to a depth of 327 metres (1,073 feet) and is over 300 kilometres (190 miles) long. The museum has a map of the town superimposed over the mines. The entire mine is beneath the whole town!

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Dragons & hot air balloons

Last week I went to Poland.

To be honest, I don’t know very much about Poland as a country. I still don’t, though I do know a little bit more now having visited there. I went to Poland to visit one of my longest-ever-best friends, Lola, who is there on a Fulbright grant.

 

She met me in Krakow, where we spent the first couple of days. We walked around the Rynek, or big plaza, and the Cloth hall market. We visited the Wawel (pronounced Vavel) Cathedral in Wawel Castle, and I hugged the Wawel Dragon (he even breathes fire!). We ate lunch at the Restauracja Gessler, drank Israeli coffee at the Cheder café in the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, and ate dinner at a sushi restaurant in the same area of town. The Jewish quarter is now the trendy part of Krakow, and apparently sushi restaurants = Western/modern!

We even rode in a hot air balloon.

Yes, we did this all in one day. I realised shortly after I arrived in Poland that this was the first country in which the language was truly unintelligible to me. I have enough Spanish background, with a smidgen of Latin and French, to navigate around most Romance-speaking countries. Even Cyprus wasn’t entirely foreign: not only was English widely spoken, but I recognised enough Greek letters to read place names and identify cognates. Polish on the other hand… I have no clue. Different sounds are assigned to letters I thought I knew. I entered the country only knowing how to say ‘wróżka’, or ‘fairy’ in Polish. By the end of five days I could say ‘dziękuję’ (thank you) and ‘tak’ (yes). Fortunately I had Laura as my translator and guide!

The next morning we had a delicious breakfast at a charming café called Camelot.

After breakfast at Camelot, we went to the Wieliczka salt mines, but that is worth a post of its own. Krakow is a beautiful city to walk around, and a day and a bit isn’t really enough to give it justice.

Tune in tomorrow for the Wieliczka salt mines!