The centuries-old “Underground Salt Cathedral” of Poland is so vast, it’s possible to go bungee jumping

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There is an immense mine in a town called Wieliczka in the southern part of Poland at a depth of 1,027 feet and spreading over 178 miles. It is a truly gigantic place and up until the day it closed, it was among the oldest salt mines in the world.

The beginning of this mammoth mine can be traced back to the start of the 13th century. At this time, rock salt was discovered for the first time in Wieliczka and thus the first pits were dug. Over the centuries, the mine kept expanding farther and deeper, with more shafts being added.

Needless to say, over the years, the mine used a number of technologies to bring the salt up to the surface; for instance, there is the so-called “Hungarian-type horse treadmill” technique or the “Saxon treadmill.”

Given the sheer size of this place, it is no wonder that it became known as “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.” Truth be told, this mine does, in fact, have a couple of cathedrals deep down in the darkness, where miners could say a prayer or two and ease their thoughts.

The underground cathedral’s statue and monuments were hand-carved by the miners themselves, except for a few statues made in modern times.The largest of the chapels is called the “St. Kinga Chapel,” itself some 295 feet underground. Found within its dark gray walls are a number of statues that depict the most central moments in the life of Jesus Christ, such as the Crucifixion and the Last Supper.

Even though these cathedrals are hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, that doesn’t mean that they are any less luxurious than one above ground. In one of these chapels are two colossal chandeliers made exclusively of the salt crystals quarried from this mine.

As a matter of fact, this place is so big that it has several chandeliers hanging from its ceilings, a bungee jump was successfully accomplished, and a windsurfer even glided across one of these vast chambers.

Places this old are not without their fair share of legends, myths, and tales. One such legend is about Saint Kinga of Poland. Back in those days, Kinga was a princess who was about to become the wife of Bolesław V the Chaste, a duke of Sandomierz. For her dowry, she asked for nothing but a piece of salt, for back in those days, salt was a luxury item.

For this purpose, the king took his daughter to a salt mine. Then the princess chose one of the pits and dropped the engagement ring that Bolesław had given her, and left for Poland. Upon her arrival in Kraków, she tasked the miners with the digging of a very deep mine pit.

And they were to continue digging until they hit a rock. Once they did, the miners found a piece of salt. Upon splitting this piece of salt in two, the miners found the engagement ring. From that day on, the princess became the patron saint of the salt miners.

Once the Second World War began, Poland fell under Nazi occupation. Thousands of forced workers were sent deep down this mine, where the Germans had built an armament factory. But things took a different turn and the Germans never got a chance to activate this factory, for the Red Army was closing in.

The mine was officially closed in 1996, for the prices of salt took a nosedive, which subsequently meant that the production no longer justified the costs. On the other hand, the miners were in a constant battle with the water table anyway, and the shafts were all too often flooded.

Today this salt mine is a popular tourist attraction. A great number of famous people, scientists, writers, and composers, such as Dmitri Mendeleev, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Fryderyk Chopin, among others, have seen it. A rough statistic indicates that so far 40 million tourists have come to marvel at the utter beauty of this underground wonder of the world.

 Brad Smithfield

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The cheeky Gnomes taking over Wroclaw

Cute as they may be, each statue is a nod to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement that helped bring down Poland’s oppressive communist regime in the 1980s.

Wrocław is Poland at its most charming and, for many, its least pronounceable (it’s ‘vrohtz-wahv’). Situated sublimely on the banks of the Odra river, the ‘Polish Venice’ boasts 130 bridges connecting 12 islands, one of Europe’s most breath-taking market squares, and a parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions flanked by gas streetlamps that are still lit by hand each night.

But hidden beneath the city’s Gothic spires and Baroque palaces, there’s a tiny world waiting to be discovered: a legion of little people, each no more than a foot tall, lurking in the alleyways, peeking out from the doorways and swinging from the lampposts. Cheeky, bronze and oozing with personality, these pint-sized statues are the dwarves of Wrocław, and they’ve started running rampant.

A parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions ring Wrocław’s massive Market Square (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

A parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions ring Wrocław’s massive Market Square (Credit: Eliot Stein)

 

No-one knows just how many of these merry munchkins exist anymore, but officials estimate that there are now more than 400 of the little fellas going about their business. On my way from the bus station to the Old Town, I spotted a reclining dwarf cheerily sunning himself in the park, stubbed my toe on a bearded blighter working on a laptop near a cafe, and instinctively moved out of the way when I saw two boot-sized firemen rushing to put out a blaze.

Most visitors have no idea why these gnomes are so important

Stay long enough and you may find an entire society of dwarf merchants, bankers, buskers, professors and postmen. There’s a doctor holding a mini stethoscope, a gardener pushing a teeny wheelbarrow and a dwarf dentist extracting itty-bitty dwarf teeth. One is snoring by a hotel, two are kissing in front of the marriage registration office and 19 are performing a dwarf symphony outside the city’s concert hall.

“We lost count of their population several years ago,” admitted Robert Rasała, who manages the official dwarf information centre in the city’s market square. “Now, people are coming from all over the world to hunt for them, but most visitors have no idea why they’re so important.”

A tiny bronze dwarf withdraws money at the ATM steps away from a bank in Wrocław’s Market Square (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

A tiny bronze dwarf withdraws money at the ATM steps away from a bank in Wrocław’s Market Square  (Credit: Eliot Stein)

Twee as they may be, each statue is actually a nod to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement born in Wrocław that used dwarves as its symbol and helped topple Poland’s oppressive communist regime in the 1980s.

The dwarves gave us something to laugh at

Armed with spray cans and led by an artist at the University of Wrocław named Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, the group peacefully protested the government’s censorship of free speech and public gatherings during the period of martial law from 1981 to 1983 by defacing communist propaganda with surrealist-inspired street art – specifically, paintings of mischievous little gnomes.

“It was a terrible, dangerous time. You couldn’t go out on the streets at night and there were tanks and soldiers in the main square,” said Arkadiusz Förster, a journalist for Poland’s national Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “The dwarves gave us something to laugh at, and that was the whole idea: to show how absurd the situation was and encourage people not to be afraid.”

Wrocław’s two most famous dwarves, nicknamed Sisyphus, push against each other (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Wrocław’s two most famous dwarves, nicknamed Sisyphus, push against each other (Credit: Eliot Stein)

As the movement gained popularity, Fydrych began leading whimsical public marches through the streets of Wrocław, advocating for ‘dwarves’ rights’. Police tried to crack down on these subversive pro-gnome gatherings, but the resulting arrests made national news and only succeeded in making the authorities look ridiculous. Soon, tiny dwarf drawings began popping up on streets throughout Poland. The movement culminated on 1 June 1988, when 10,000 protestors descended on downtown Wrocław wearing orange cone-shaped hats and chanting ‘Freedom for the dwarves!’.

“That event became known as the Revolution of Dwarves,” Förster said. “It showed the world that communism was unravelling, and that people of all ages could join together to fight against the system peacefully.”

It showed the world that communism was unravelling

In 2001, the city decided to commemorate its history of artistic anti-communist rebellion by placing a bronze statue of a large dwarf – named Papa Dwarf – on Świdnicka street, where members of the Orange Alternative used to gather. Four years later, a local sculptor named Tomasz Moczek had an idea: what if he created tiny bronze dwarves, each representing a different part of Wroclaw’s history or daily life and placed them around the city?

Tomasz Moczek’s favourite dwarf, The Butcher, peers solemnly towards Wrocław’s medieval slaughterhouse (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tomasz Moczek’s favourite dwarf, The Butcher, peers solemnly towards Wrocław’s medieval slaughterhouse (Credit: Eliot Stein)

Seeing the Dwarves

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Today, there is only one original dwarf drawing on the walls of Wrocław created by the Orange Alternative. To find it, head to St. Smoluchowskiego 22.

Don’t want to download an app or purchase an official Wrocław dwarf map to go gnome-spotting? No problem. Check out this Google Mapof some of the Old Town’s most famous little residents.

Pair history with dwarf-hunting during the free Dwarves and Communismtour.

Wrocław’s mayor commissioned Moczek to create the first five, and his early designs – including a hatchet-wielding butcher staring solemnly at the city’s medieval slaughterhouse and a trio of gnomes working together to push a human-sized shopping cart outside a city market – proved so popular that they’ve now spawned a sizable sub-population.

Today, Moczek has created more than 100 of Wrocław’s gnomes, and inspired a collection of young sculptors to design delightfully quirky dwarf statues for local charities, shops and organisations. As the gnomes’ population has grown, people from all over the planet have started coming to find as many of these remarkably imaginative 1ft-tall wonders as possible.

“I wanted to create something that’s completely integrated into the city – something that seems like it’s always been there that you’re just now discovering.” Moczek said in his studio, holding up a model of the first dwarf he ever created: a crouching gnome washing his clothes in the Odra river.

“How come that dwarf isn’t wearing shoes?” I asked.

“He took them off so they wouldn’t get wet,” Moczek said. “Each dwarf has his own distinct character. I just create them as they are.”

Sculptor Tomasz Moczek insists this dwarf removed his shoes because he didn’t want to get them wet while washing in the river (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Sculptor Tomasz Moczek insists this dwarf removed his shoes because he didn’t want to get them wet while washing in the river (Credit: Eliot Stein)

In fact, the city recently created an official website to help people better acquaint themselves with its littlest residents. Each has a name, a detailed backstory and unique habits. You can vote for your favourites, register new arrivals or catch up on the latest dwarf gossip. There are also dwarf-hunting maps, apps and walking tours; an annual September festival with a ‘Great Dwarf Parade’; and a winter tradition where locals dress the dwarves in little scarves, hats and mittens to help them stay warm.

After inviting me into his workroom, Moczek led me on a walking tour through Wrocław’s Old Town to point out his favourite petite progeny and reveal his process.

It takes three months to create each 4kg to 5kg creation, he explained, and it all starts with a sketch. He then creates a clay mould of the design that acts as a negative for the silicone and gypsum model that follows. Moczek makes four small holes in the model and carefully pours hot wax into it, making sure that the form has the same thickness throughout its body. After he completes any final retouching, he places the model into a 700C oven for 12 hours. The wax melts, leaving a cavity, and Moczek pours molten bronze into this area to make a cast. He then reheats it up to 1200C as the little dwarf gains mass and grows into a street-ready statue.

It takes sculptor Tomasz Moczek three months to make each gnome (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

It takes sculptor Tomasz Moczek three months to make each gnome (Credit: Eliot Stein)

“The hardest part is the moment I have to give them away,” Moczek said, bending down to examine Sleepyhead, who holds a teeny spear and was supposed to guard a knee-high gate leading to the mythical ‘Dwarf City’, but fell asleep on the job. “Sometimes, I like to go to their new resting places to see how they’re doing.”

As we approach Moczek’s most famous figurines – a pair of pals pushing a granite ball in opposite directions (named Sisyphus) – I asked him if he’s old enough to remember life in Wrocław during martial law, and he grew quiet.

“I was nine years old and wanted to get ice cream with my mother,” he said, staring at the ground. “We went outside and saw tanks coming and people running away. My mother fell down and got trampled. I didn’t know what to do so I just threw rocks at the tanks and hoped they’d stop.”

Tomasz Moczek: "Maybe it’s just art, but for me, it’s something more." (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tomasz Moczek: “Maybe it’s just art, but for me, it’s something more.” (Credit: Eliot Stein)

As Moczek raised his head, a stone-faced older gentleman slowly approached the two bronze figurines. The man bent down, snapped a picture and couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of mischievous little dwarves tramping through the streets.

“Maybe it’s just art,” Moczek said, flashing a smile. “But for me, it’s something more.”

By Eliot Stein 18 October 2017  BBC Travel