Saturday, April 27, 2013

#839 Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland

Listening to 'Salt: A History' on my way to work this morning reminded me of one of the most amazing mines I've ever visited: Wieliczka in Poland, which is around 15km from Krakow and has been operating for centuries (built in 13th C) right up until 2007, when falling salt prices and mine floods made commercial mining no longer viable. 

After descending 378 tiny stairs 64m deep into the ground -- it is 327m deep -- you reach a 3km series of tunnels, beautifully laid out, with intricate salt carvings, and even a cathedral (54m x 17m x 12m high), with everything, even the chandelier, being made from salt. It stretches an impressive further 287 km into various chambers and tunnels, some used by the Germans in World War II for various military industries.

Though we didn't see the underground lake, the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, built between 1895-1927 and showing the extraction of around 20,000 tonnes of salt, was impressive enough.

Wikipedia gives a charming story of the origins of the Chapel's name: "There is a legend about Princess Kinga, associated with the Wieliczka mine. The Hungarian noble was about to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father King Béla took her to a salt mine in Maramureş. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when split it in two, discovered the princess's ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the capital.[4]Retrieved April 2013.

Because of the mine's importance in Polish history (and also that of the empires that controlled it), there have been many famous visitors over the centuries, from royals to scientists (such as Copernicus), musicians (such as Chopin), popes, presidents, and more. And why not -- with its own performing band and supposedly the best acoustics of any area in Europe, it is built to impress!
'The Last Supper'
Update November 2013: Apparently the mine has ceased producing Salt and has been turned into a tourist resort with hotels and a theme park of sorts. You can read more about it here.
Source: Lonely Planet Eastern Europe 8th Edition

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

#840 Byblos (Jbail), Lebanon

Spectacular and quaint Byblos  halfway between Beirut and Tripoli is famous for its churches, its majestic Roman ruins, its crusader castle and its pretty fishing port.
Byblos was important well before the Romans, in fact it is one of the oldest continually inhabited places, settled from the 5th millenium BC. Colonized by the Pheonecians in the 3rd millenium BC, they made it a religious center with the Temple of Baalat Gebal, which was famous throughout antiquity. Close connections with Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mycenae helped to influence its culture and style, as did the invading Amorites, who built the underground royal tombs and the temple to Resheph, and the invading Hyksos from Western Asia. In subsequent periods it was ruled by the Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Neo-Babylonians, as well as Alexander the Great.
Rome, then Byzantium, then the Muslim invaders in 636, then the Crusader Raymond de Saint-Gilles, Count of Tripoli. 1266 it went back to the Muslims, and in 1516 to the Turks. It was known as Gebal in the Bible and Giblet by the crusaders, now Jbail in Arabic. Byblos, however, is said to come from the Greek word for a collection of papyrus due to it being a stop off point for ships going from Egypt to Greece, and it is to it we obtain our words books and Bible.
With a deep moat around it, the crusader castle is by far the most dominant structure in the ruins, and was made with Roman stones from the area. Built by the Franks in the 12th Century, it is 49.5m by 44m and has a huge cystern making up the bottom basement level.

Source: Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon 2nd Edition

Sunday, April 21, 2013

#841 Gyeong Ju, South Korea

Capital of the Shilla Kingdom for 1000 years starting in 57 BC, Gyeong Ju is now a museum without walls due to the sheer number of grassy mounds, tombs, temples, rock carvings, palaces, pagodas, and castles. They were powerful enough to conquer neighboring kingdoms Goguryeo and Baekje to make it controller of the whole peninsula.
Covering approximately 1300 sq. kilometers, it is not a simple place to visit! Tumuli Park in central Gyeong Jo is a good place to start, with its grass covered tombs, yeilding fabulous treasures, such as from the open tomb Cheonmachong. 
Wolseong Park yeilds the oldest observatory in the region, Cheomseongdae, constructed in the mid 600s AD from an intricate mathematical design with number of stones representing months, days and able to show certain star positions. 
16km out of the city is the most famous palace, Bulguksa, a UNESCO recognized structure of beautiful architectural and aesthetic design. Among knarled pine gardens on a series of stone terraces, with impressive stone steps (national treasure 'bridges'), this is a beautiful structure, if quite crowded due to its popularity!
Source: Lonely Planet Korea 7th Edition