One of the best things about academia is the options it can offer for travel, to conferences and to collaborate. I've been particularly lucky in this respect: this month, it was a visit to Krakow for a project meeting. I took Andy with me and we decided to make a week of it, and see the city properly.
Around the same time, the lovely folks at Tinggly reached out to introduce me to their collection of gift experiences. And what a collection, seriously: there's everything here from motorbiking to Cambodian temples and underwater scooter rides in Mauritius, to whisky tasting in Scotland and Japanese cookery lessons in Tokyo. The beauty of the system is its simplicity: as the giver, you just buy a voucher (currently £45), and then the recipient can choose when and where in the world they want to cash it in. (As an aside, I think this might just be the world's most perfect wedding present: wherever the bride and groom are going on honeymoon, they can probably find something nearby to indulge in.)
Would I like to try out an experience from their range, they asked? Obviously I wasn't going to turn down a chance like that. I glanced at the interactive map, wondering vaguely if there was likely to be anything in Poland, or whether I'd just pick an English destination.
Wieliczka Salt Mine jumped out at me straight away: a tour for two, with minibus collection from my hotel in Krakow? Perfect.
I love visiting historical sites and learning more about how things were in days gone by... and aside from pure interest, it's also really great research for my books. I hadn't even really realised that salt was mined from rock, so I had a lot to learn on this trip.
The mines only fell out of use quite recently, when tourism proved to be more profitable than salt. Now they're set up as a walk-through exhibition, with life-size models illustrating some of the operation of the mines. You can even have a go at lifting a bucket of water using one of the original human-powered winches.
But the real shock comes when you emerge at the other end of your long walk through the tunnels, and discover you've covered only about 1% of the network. An utterly amazing day out, highly recommended to anyone visiting the Krakow area.
An abandoned mine shaft
Demonstration of floodwater being pumped from the mine
More demonstrative reconstructions
Excavation marks along one of the shafts
Ropes and pulleys were used to lift salt from the mines
The Wieliczka mine, however, is not only (or even primarily) famous for its mining history. The true stars of the show here are the carvings made by the miners.
Since mining is a dangerous trade, the miners were traditionally a very religious bunch, and this fact is amply demonstrated in their underground churches and chapels. Not only are the chambers themselves hewn from the rock, but they're decorated with intricate rock-salt carvings.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the miners did all this in their own time, after a long day at work, just to show their dedication to their faith. Impressive stuff.
Looking down into the cavernous main church
Christ on the cross, carved in salt
The altar and lectern are also carved from salt
A carving of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus
There's also a shop, right in the depths of the mines, where you can buy your own salt carvings, candlesticks, and of course, cooking and bath salts. I picked up a couple of flavours of seasoning: one with celery, and one with lovage. The prices are really reasonable, too, not hiked up for the captive market.
We took hundreds of photos; here are just a few more shots to give you a flavour of the mines.
Looking up into the galleries
Salt-encrusted wood is well preserved against the ravages of time
Even the crystals of the chandelier are made of salt
One of the underground lakes
It used to be easier to tick off all the Unesco World Heritage sites: Wieliczka and Krakow city centre both made the first list
Coloured salt crystals in the museum display