Red Corner: Going to the Salt Mines

As a youngster growing up during the Cold War in America, I naturally assumed that any Warsaw Pact communist who did not toe the party line received a one-way ticket to either Siberia or the salt mines. Having now visited both locales, I’m inclined to think that dissidents had it rather nice during communism.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, just 13 kilometers outside of Krakow, Poland, was not at all the horrific, underground chamber of brackish hell I had imagined it to be. Instead, the mine is a protected UNESCO site. Since the 14th century, Polish miners have carved enormous churches and chapels directly into the shaft. Artists have also decorated the mine with alters, pulpits, bass-reliefs, statuary, busts, gnomes, and even a replication of the Last Supper-all hewn magnificently out of salt. Unbelievable.

I had no idea what to expect when first visiting the mine. I imagined an underground world made out of Morton’s Salt where everything was stark, blinding white. This was not the case at all. Instead, the tunnels, caverns and artwork of the Wieliczka Salt Mine are all black and green and sparkly. The mine’s official website offers a nice virtual tour but fails to capture the eerie feeling of descending 600 feet into the salty air of one of the strangest and most unique art galleries I have ever visited.