Why would anyone want to descend into the dark depths when a crisp October sun was shining on the cobbles of the largest medieval square of Europe, flanked by a medieval Cloth Hall, the continent's second-oldest university, a Gothic church and Cukiernas dispensing the traditional creamcrammed pastry? As it turned out, this journey now ranks among my most mine-blowing experiences. For over 900 years, kings and scientists, engineers and humble miners have upgraded what nature created 15 million years ago.
The humungous Wieliczka salt repository is the relic of a sea which evaporated in the Miocene period. Salt was extracted from brine in this area 5, 000 years ago, but it became a true wealth creator somewhere between the 11th and 13th centuries, accounting for nearly one-third of Poland's royal revenues. Yet as early as 1368, King Casimir the Great, legally codified the rights of the miners.
My guide through these jaw-dropping depths was Patricia (I know the spelling is wrong because there's no 'cz' ). Her smart black jacket and trousers with velvet trim, braid and polished brass buttons was the ceremonial costume of the miners, and she marched as if to the beat of an imaginary band. Down rough hewn stairs cut out of the salt rock (I licked to check) and a lift (only of metal), we explored four of the mine's nine working floors. The walls of the uppermost level, 64 metres deep, were encrusted with pristine white crystals, but as we proceeded to 135 m they turned slate grey. We didn't go all the way down to 327 m, or trudge Wieliczka's total tunnel length of 300 km, but we did gawk at the 'working' models of miners, horses and actual ingenious equipment.
Remember Lot's wife in the Bible who turned into a pillar of salt because, disobeying Jehovah's orders, she turned back to look while fleeing her native and godless cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Well, salt was excavated in massive pillars, and meat and fish would be preserved in these primitive 'refrigerators'.
No wonder that this vital commodity has so many idiomatic references. 'Salt away' your wealth;sit 'below the salt'. A 'salt of the earth' type will never be a namak haram. And, Persian grandmothers warn that if you spill the precious grains, you'll have to sweep them up with your eyelashes in bahisht. Even salary comes from the Latin word for salt, salaire, because it was once the currency of wages. No, Wieliczka's miners couldn't chip off an unofficial bonus.
The hazardous job added greater depth to the Poles native religiosity. A cross was fixed wherever a miner perished, and regular services were conducted in underground chapels. The one dedicated to St Kinga is Wieliczka's most incredible sight, with religious statues, the artistic bas relief of The Last Supper, and crystal-dripping chandeliers - all made of salt, and all by devout miners. Now, not just weddings but even concerts are held here because of the vaulting chapel's amazing acoustics.
I never thought I'd use a loo in the bowels of the earth, but that's what I then proceeded to do. The next day, I balanced this tribute to Poland's deepest loo (135 m) with a similar offering at its highest, the one in Kasprowy Wierch, 1,986 m up in the Tatra range. That admittedly was not the sole purpose of my glide via two cable cars from Zakopane, the charming winter capital of Poland with its wooden houses and quaint triangular roofs.
Again, I was loathe to leave the blandishments of Cracow to shiver up to a place where I had to 'wear every woollie you are carrying'. Zakopane didn't stun with dramatic landscapes; it seduced me softly with cameos. The rays slanting through the firs on the gravestones of a cemetery seemed to form a pathway to heaven. The picture postcard market was ablaze with bright red real peppers and berries, and giant poppies made of leather. Most charming were the lines of little ladies with stands piled with the local GI-protected smoked, salted Oscypek.
In 2008, the highlanders won the right to continue making this sheep's milk cheese by hand, with wooden tools in primitive shepherds' huts, and not in EU-specified sterile, stainless-steel. Every spring, the grazing season is ritualistically opened with traditional musicians leading the sheep to church for Mass.
Poland has upheld the Catholic faith for 10 centuries, and the election of a Polish Pope during the hated Soviet rule was especially soul satisfying - most of all in his native Malopolska region. On the way up from Cracow, we hushed into the church in Wadowice where the baby Karol Wojtyla was baptised. And on the way back to Zakopane from the heritage enclave of Chocholow, surreally out of the moonlit silence rose a spectacularly stylised church. It was built in thanksgiving for the beloved 'Papa's' recovery after the 1981 assassination attempt.
Lows and highs got 'Polished' in ways sublime ways as well as in answer to my baser needs.