Listen here to the podcast: Salzberg of Success – Bochnia
You have probably heard about an iceberg of success where the entire invisible hard work is under the water’s surfece and the only visible part, the actual success, is merely the tip of the mountain.
This is the story of Bochnia.
Bochnia is a city that, like Rome or Lisbon, is situated on seven hills. It is the oldest city of Małopolska – Lesser Poland region and one of the oldest in Poland. Situated on the river Raba, embracing the city from the north, it is only a stone’s throw away from the highest of Polish mountains in the Zakopane region, on the border with Slovakia.
The first written surviving mention of the settlement under the name Bochnia (“Bochegna”) comes from 1198, in which Patriarch of Jerusalem, Monachus confirmed the granting of salt from this place by the knight named Mikor Gryfit, to the monastery of the Order of Bożogrobców from Miechów.
Of course, the salt mentioned here refers to the evaporated salt, obtained in Bochnia from salty springs known already in the Neolithic. It is believed that the Polish name of Bochnia derives from the Slavic word “bohy” which stands for swamps, wetlands. The reason behind it may be that the first brines and brewhouses were located in such areas around the Babica river – a second river that flows through the town’s centre.
The city was located along the very important trading routes. Given this and the ability to produce such an important back in the days product like salt, commonly used around the world as a preservative of all types of foods imaginable, it would most likely always thrive. However, discovery of rock salt in 1248, changed its history forever.
The legend has it that Little Bolesław, later known as Shy, a future king of Poland, who sadly lost his royal father very early in his life, often visited the Kingdom of Hungary. He would play with a few years younger than him Princess Kinga there and together they would enjoy lovely, salty in taste pancakes.
He could not understand why they did not have such lovely pancakes back at home, in Poland. His Russian mother, Grzymisława, explained it to him that sadly there was no rock salt in Poland and the amounts of salt avilable were only sufficient for more important matters.
Little future king could not stop dreaming about it. He wished for nothing more than to one day feed his people with such lovely pancakes.
When the two kids grew up, then, the Duke of Kraków-Sandomierz, Bolesław the Chaste or Shy himself, asked for the hand of the Hungarian princess Kinga. They moved over to Kraków and resided at the Wawel Castle.
Prior to their wedding however, Kinga asked her father, King Bela IV, not to present her with valueables as they are filled with human tears and sweat, nor the servants, as this was a sign of pride. She wished for the gift of salt, but not for herself. She wanted it for her people.
One autumn King Bela IV invited the young couple for a visit. Sadly Bolesław was unable to come but Kinga was very excited to see her family again. Along the way, she devoted plenty of time to prayers in the many roadside chapels.
Once arrived and unpacked, young Princess asked her father for a ride around the kingdom, particularily wished to see the salt mines though. They rode over to the richest of mines of Transylvania in Maramureş (then Hungary, today Romania), which she remembered well from her childhood times.
Standing there and playing with the rocks of salt, she turned sad and thought how this mineral could change the lives of the people in her new coutry. Her father noticed her sadness and knew that he could do no better but to present this mine to her.
At that moment Kunegunda (Kinga) approached the salt shaft, removed precious engagement ring from her finger and threw it directly into the shaft. The ring disappeared in the depths of the abyss. Unusual light however appeared in that darkness.
When returning to Kraków, she took experienced Hungarian miners with her. Once more, she did not miss any of the chapels along the way, making sure to leave a crystal of salt from the Maramureş mines in each of them. She remained so absorbed by her prayers that did not say a word out loud the entire way.
Upon arrival, she confessed to Bolesław that she sacrificed her engagemet ring for some greater riches. She then asked him to accompany her on a little horse ride. They arrived at a beautiful rural area where the people were particularily kind.
They were in Bochnia. Bolesław explained that this area abounded in salt springs called brines and it was from there that the local population obtained brewed salt by evaporating the water. Sadly, recently no salt could be obtained from these springs despite of deepening of the brine wells.
The Duchess of Kraków did not look worried. On the contrary, her eyes started to glow and when she saw a beautiful garden, with the permission of its owner, the shoemaker, she asked that a well be dug in this spot.
Once the shovels reached hard rock, the men thought it was a stone and that nothing else could be found there. One of the miners however noticed that this was salt. And he passed a piece of the rock to the Duchess.
In that lump of salt was a ring. The same precious ring that Kinga threw inside the salt shaft of a mine presented to her by her father.
Yesterday, the 15 March 2022, Bochnia welcomed a wonderful 3.2 tonne, new statue by Czesław Dźwigaj, depicting the Legend of the Ring of Saint Kinga. It is situated in front of the Sutoris shaft, which is one of the first shafts and some believe the very one where the ring had been found:
And only last July, Chloè and I were sitting there on this little square eating the best doughnuts this world has ever made, surrounded by masses of pigeons, and thinking how empty that place was and how it could do with, for example, a nice statue…. 🙂
The more realistic version of the story is that perhaps the discovery of the rock salt happened by accident, as a result of excessive deepening of brine wells by Wierzbięt Gryfit – the owner of the area at the time.
Either way, at first it was not easy to launch mining here, both from technical and financial perspective. This was done in 1251 when Cistercians from Wąchock were brought to Bochnia to manage the construction of the first shaft in order to enable large-scale extraction of rock salt.
Seeing the profits coming from the mines, Bolesław the Shy or Chaste, on the 27 February 1253 in Korczyn, decided to allocate numerous privilages to the settlement. A city was located on the Magdeburg Law, which was back in the day one of the styles in which cities were being designed. Kinda like a stencil which could be used to arrange the streets, create the net of the main city functions and positions, etc. – with the name of Salzberg – The Salt Mountain – Bochnia. Both names are mentioned in the foundation act as many of the newcoming settlers were from the region of Silesia, a historically mixed region, rich in coal mainly and endlessly fought for by Polish and Prussians.
The mine was a magnet for anyone who could make money out of salt, crafts and trades related to its mining. There was even maintenance paid to the inhabitants of the area. The first guild was created in 1316. In the years of the greatest splendor of the city there were 13 of them.
No other city in Poland would have been granted privilages similar to the ones Bochnia received. Kraków itself was not yet even a city for another four years to come and the neighboring Wieliczka, which now is probably the most famous of the Polish salt mines, was only a tiny village, dreaming about the discovery of salt in there.
The Salt Mine in Bochnia is the oldest salt mine in Poland.
Situated on trade routes from Western Europe to Ruthenia and Asia Minor as well as from Hungary to the Baltic Sea, Bochnia was included in international trade, becoming an important transit center.
The period of splendor of the city is the time of the reign of King Casimir the Great. This great ruler reorganized the saltworks by giving it the Mining Ordinance and expanding the saltworks castle, in which he visited many times together with his court. On his initiative, the first in Poland hospital-shelter for sick miners was established in 1357. The town, which at that time had about 3,000 inhabitants, was surrounded by defensive walls (in some parts by ramparts), and city councilors were in office in the stately, gothic town hall on the market square.
On May 29, 1871, a ceremony of unveiling of the statue of the king holding the Wiślica statutes, took place. Over two meters high, carved in pińczów limestone by a well-known sculptor Walery Gadomski, the form of the great king was placed on a neo-gothic column, on the pedestal of which – stone bas-reliefs depicting the granting of the Wiślica statutes, the foundation of the Kraków Academy, the Polish emblem and the inscription; “To the King of Peasants, their benefactor, Guardian of Cities Casimir the Great, Bochnia 1871”.
Jan Matejko himself, one of the greatest of Polish painters, was present at this ceremony. It was under his very suggestion that his brother-in-law – the then marshal of the county Leonard Serafiński made a plan to commemorate the great king.
Bochnia was so thriving between 14th and 16th centuries that already back then it had a municipal water supply. The wealth of the city also brought culture and developement. A number of Polish kings, including: Kazimierz Wielki, Władysław Jagiełło, Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, Zygmunt Stary with Bona and their son August, as well as king Stefan Batory visited here. During Middle Ages and Renaissance, numerous artists including painters, writers or goldsmiths were being employed either by the city or in the nearby castle at Nowy Wiśnicz, which I mention in my other blog post, see here:
Various and rich book collections and a parish school operating since the end of the fourteenth century, associated with the Kraków Academy, currently Jagiellonian University, were a proof of high educational level of the townspeople of Bochnia.
Unfortunately, all these testimonies of the splendor of Bochnia and the wealth of its citizens have not survived to our times. The seventeenth century was for Bochnia a series of constant misfortunes: epidemics, marches of troops, arson, robberies.
In the mid-seventeenth century, during Swedish wars, the town fortifications, the parish church, and the town hall were ruined. Swedish army stayed in Bochnia, plundering it completely. The devastation was continued by the Transylvanian troops of Franciszek Rakoczi, and later the Cossacks. As a result of all that, in 1664 only 54 houses survived in the city.
The initial decline of Bochnia’s splendor turned into its eventual fall. Its development was shaken by further fires, but the most devastating of all was the regression of Żupa – as we call the rock salt there, which occurred as a result of negligence in the exploitation of the deposits and the thefts done by the mine’s administrators.
In February 1772, Russian troops occupied Bochnia and in June of that year, as a result of the First Partition (there were 2 more), Poland was torn between Russia, Germany and Austria and disappeared completely from the maps of Europe till 1918. Austrians, or Habsburgs if you prefer, took control over southern Poland. This region was known then as Galicia.
After multiple rebellions, the Bochnians finally started to see the revival of their town in the early 19th century.
A gymnasium founded in 1817 contributed to the intellectual revival of Bochnia. Later, the bishopric of Tyniec and the seminary had their temporary seat in the city. At the end of the nineteenth century, the railway line Vienna – Kraków– Dębica, running through Bochnia, has been lounched in 1856.
During this period, new houses were built, shaping representative streets. In 1908, one of the most modern municipal waterworks in Galicia was established and in later years the city was canalized. The salt mine was modernized too, but the rapid development of competitive East Galician salts meant that it never regained its former importance.
Bochnia at the turn of the century flourished in terms of cultural life. In 1886, the first public library was established. In 1913, the first permanent cinema was opened.
Bochnia city itself as well as its surroundings witnessed the fighting between Austrian and Russian troops during WWI. The Russian army ingloriously inscribed itself in the history of the city with numerous plunders and bloody murders.
In December 1939, one of the first Nazi executions in Poland took place in Bochnia, where the occupant applied the principle of collective responsibility. An attack of the resistance on the German police station ended up with the two leaders being hung up on the lantern poles in front of the building for 4 days afterwards and 52 others shot in a group masacre.
Round-ups, deportations to concentration camps and deportations to forced labor in Germany were an everyday occurence to anyone there, no matter the roots, including members of my family. Speaking of, the City Archives have a fascinating collection of the names of Bochnia citizens. I remember spending hours once going through them and could not believe the variety of the Bochnia people origins.
The Jews were many in Bochnia and those who believed they managed to survive the worst, ended their existance in the bloody liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in 1943. There is a well preserved and protected Jewish cemetery, a visit to which can be pre-arranged via Bochnia Museum office. Sadly, it must remain locked as it was desecrated and devastated by the Germans, who destroyed or took away many tombstones. This cemetery was a place of numerous executions of Jews and the burial place of murdered both in the ghetto and outside of it.
There is a guide of this place written by Ms Iwona Zawicka.
Over the last few decades, Bochnia has increased its area and population and currently covers about 30 square kilometers and has about 30,000 inhabitants. It is the seat of the authorities of the Bochnia Poviat and is a part of the Lesser Poland Voivodeship.
Today, when visiting the mine, you sign yourself up for a real treat. Approximately 2.5 – 3 hours walk, between 60 and 212 metres under the ground 🙂
Tourists start their descent via lift at the Campi Shaft which dates back to the 16th century and is the most remote of all Bochnia shafts. It took 12 years to dig through the hidden layers of wet soil to find rich rock salt deposits here. Initially it was named Fajgel, from the name of the shaft builder but later on, due to its remote location on the outskirts of town, it took the current name Campi from the latin campus – field.
There is a restaurant here and a little souvenir shop where you can choose between some true art pieces made of salt, including salt lamps and salt sculptures.
It is also in this area where you can visit the Settlement of the Seven Ploughmen, a scansen that brings to live the times of early settlements in the region.
There is one major rule when visiting the mine – you walk with a group and follow your guide.
The tour starts with a short train ride along the old tracks and it ends in the Chapel of St. Kinga where many o’masses take place, even Christmas Eve mass at midnight called Pasterka, and where absolutely everything is made, out of salt or wood. You can get married here or babtise your baby if you wish.
Miners were very religious people. The type of danger which could have been encountered only in the mine, led to the creation of a special type of religiosity here. When walking around, you can see pictures of saints in little niches and religious engravings on some walls.
Chapels were being established on the main communication routes, of which there were many. The chapel of St. Kinga is the largest and best preserved of all chapels in the Bochnia mine. Until 1782, named the New Chapel of Guardian Angels, it was a small niche measuring 1.65 m by 1.65 m, hollowed out in 1747 in the northern longitudinal bay of Augustus Shaft at 212 metrers under the ground. Later, the chapel was widened several times, traces of the progress of mining works are visible in the form of lines and inscriptions on the ceiling and walls. We owe the interior design to the work of professional artists as well as talented miners.
The work of a salt miner was not an easy one. As well as extremely dangerous. The biggest enemies of the miners were two: water, which of course had to be drained non stop and sadly not once or twice it flooded the shafts. Salt, as we know, dissolves in water, but before it gets this far, it softens, turning walls into mash. On some of my photos you will notice little areas of white salt. This is there due to water leaks. These formations look like small stalactites. What you see on the walls and ceilings and what is gray in color is the real rock salt, the mineral worth more than gold.
Another enemy is methane.
As you walk along the many tunnels, deep under the “world”, which in the slang of the miners means the city level, you will take part in the interactive tour where stories are being told by the holograms of kings, tradesmen and miners who visited, worked and influenced Bochnia salt mine throughout the centuries. The guides will also talk you through more detailed and super interesting facts. One of them is about the methane searchers who’s job was to find the sources of any leaks and of course they were the kamikaze of the mining business as the moment they found a methane source, they most likely ended their lives there and then.
Methane was and to this day remains a most dangerous source of majority of serious mines’ catastrophies. However nowadays it is also utilized as an energy source. As such, many mines use energy generators that gather, absorb and convert methane into something positive. Yet another, after water, wind and solar power, brilliant source of energy given to us for free by Mother Earth.
Horses were an important source of mine power throughout the centeries. In Bochnia, as anywhere else in the world, they would permanently live under the ground until they no longer managed to do the work. And the work was hard. They pulled heavy chunks of salt called “bałwan” which literally translates as “snowman” into English. In the Middle Ages one of these could buy you a village.
In Poland we say “pracować jak w kieracie” – “work like in a treadmill” sort of reflects the idea. Kierat was a huge wheel based construction, to which horses were tied. They then would spend their everyday up until the end of their existence pulling the threadmill, which main function would usually be the drainage of the mine.
There has been a study made on the Horse Behavior Physiology and Emotions during Habituation to a Treadmill, which I think is a great read for anyone who ownes horses and loves them. Simply hover over and download pdf for free.
It actually might not be of harm for the leaders, bosses and managers either to perhaps have a read and ensure the feelnigs of their employees are non comparable.
There were also other type of horses that worked in mines, the “lower horses”, that would be used to pull heavy objects and access areas where it was impossible to use machinery or where humans would not manage.
Below you can see some of the photos of horses who worked in Wieliczka Salt Mine. The photos come from this mine’s archives.
Horses worked in Polish mines for as long as five centuries. Officially, they were withdrawn from the mining industry under a regulation of 1956. In some mines, however, they remained longer, as it was explained, “to help miners work in places where there is no chance of introducing machines”. An example of one such horse is Baśka, the last horse to leave Polish mines, who spent 13 years of life 135 metres under the ground of Wieliczka, the city neighbouring with Bochnia.
Basia left the mine on 14 March 2002. She was 16 years old at the time and lived for another 13 years in a sanctuary and among her horsey friends. She died in December 2015.
In Bochnia, Kuba was the last horse to leave the mine, but that was 30 years earlier than Baśka, in 1961.
It is unclear though when horses began to work under the ground in the Polish mines. Some claim that it took place at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the proof of which could be the mention of “kieratne” (those that pulled threadmill often situated in the higher levels of mines or even above the ground) and “lower” (working in lower levels) horses in the “Description of the Kraków Saltworks” from 1518.
Mr Józef Charkot, curator of the Kraków Saltworks Museum in Wieliczka says the following:
In the sixteenth century, Wieliczka mine kept a total of about 30 to over 90 animals. In the next two centuries, the number of these animals in the Wieliczka salina significantly exceeded one hundred. These quantities were not large, if we compare them with the number of horses working in the Silesian-Krakow led ore mines. In the mid-sixteenth century, in Olkusz itself, about 600 horses worked – mainly on drainage treadmills- and 700 horses in Tarnowskie Góry.
In 1782 in Wieliczka, underground transport was served by rolling stock consisting of 60, and treadmills located on the surface of 46 horses. In Bochnia, on the other hand, 20 and 40 animals worked respectively. Improved treadmill structures at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and deepened day shafts enabled direct transport of salt to the surface, even from the lowest floors of the mine at that time. These changes reduced the demand for “lower horses”, but the fundamental breakthrough in this matter occurred only in the 60s of the nineteenth century, when the construction of the underground railway and the installation of steam hoisting machines over the shafts began.
After World War II, horses helped miners only with renovation works and in places difficult to introduce mechanization. During that period, the Wieliczka saltworks initially kept four horses at the bottom, however since the 70s of the twentieth century their number decreased to two, and then to one – Baśka. Also four horses were in the 50s of the twentieth century in the underground of the Bochnia mine. The last of them, Kuba, ended his service there in 1961.
Horses that worked in mines pretty much never left the underworld alive. Only in some unusual situations. They would also often become blind.
The old stables areas are preserved and have now been converted into a little picnic spot where you can also learn some about the everyday lives of both, people – on and under the ground – as well as the mine horses. Also the so-called horse roads – safe communication routes built especially for these animals between the mine levels – were preserved, to preserve the memory of animals that for centuries helped miners in their difficult work and were very much loved by them in return.
I have already mentioned the geological uniqueness of Poland, which lies within the Transeuropean Suture Zone. See my blog post called A shaky story by clicking on the title here.
The mountain-forming movements are constant and obvious, very well visible in the area of the Christian and Ważyn Chambers in Bochnia’s mine. On the below photos, you will notice cracked sticks that were placed between rock massives to prove the existence of the tectonic stresses.
Salt is no longer mined in Bochnia. Only scarse amounts which are destined for souvenirs, such as salt lamps and cosmetics, which are plentiful and have the properties of the Epsom salts that are probably better known.
Rock salt is also a great sculpting material and you will find some beautiful artworks carved in it, both over and under the ground in Bochnia.
This city has so much more to offer and these days it is undergoing some incredible restoration. I smell a great revival in the air. But it truly deserves it. Its success story is full of tears and heartache. A Salzberg of Success, which by the way also helped my Mommy to bring me into this world…
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