A Billion Grains of Salt
Six miles southeast of Cracow is one of Poland's most unusual monuments: the Salt Mine of Wieliczka, whose first shafts were dug in the 1300's. The caverns descend 1,000 feet across nine levels, incorporating some 200 miles of dimly lit, labyrinthine tunnels. But what's most intriguing about the Wieliczka complex is what the miners have done -- over a span of 400 years -- to make this harsh place more tolerable.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, one out of every 10 miners died in an accident. In constant fear for their lives, workers sought solace in folklore and religion. They built underground chapels where they would pray for safety, and carved devotional statues and artworks of pure salt. As their sculpting techniques became more sophisticated, the makeshift chapels grew more spectacular. There are now 34 such rooms in all. The greatest of these, the 9,880-square-foot Chapel of the Blessed Kinga -- dedicated to Poland's beatified Princess Kinga -- was begun in 1895 and only completed in 1963. Finely wrought statues of saints and monks adorn the altar; biblically themed bas-reliefs decorate the walls. Everything in the chapel -- the pulpit, the bas-reliefs, the intricate floor tiles -- is made out of salt. Today, with electric lights installed, the chapel is often used for concerts and wedding ceremonies.
A guided tour of the mine takes about 90 minutes and begins with a dark, narrow staircase descending 378 steps to the first level. The tour covers three levels in all, ending at a museum of artifacts and a shop.
A Walk in the Woods
One of Europe's last primeval forests straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, 370 miles east of Warsaw near the Polish town of Bialoweiza. Preserved over the centuries as a private hunting ground for a succession of kings, czars, Nazis, and Communists who ruled Poland, the 580-square-mile Bialoweiza Forest remains a rare and remarkable wilderness, with towering 500-year-old oaks, substantial populations of elk, beaver, and wild boar, and approximately 550 European bison. This magnificent beast, slightly smaller than the American variety, had disappeared entirely from the forest before being reintroduced in 1939.
In 1921 the Polish government converted a huge swath of Bialoweiza Forest into a national park, banning hunting and logging while making much of the forest accessible to visitors. An 11,700-acre Strict Nature Reserve was also created, and it is here that the primordial forest survives in its purest form, virtually untouched by humans. Though parts of the reserve are open to the public, visiting times are limited and reservations for tours (with a guide) must be made in advance.