We weren’t sure about visiting the salt mines near Krakow. They have over a million visitors a year, so mightn’t they be, well, a bit tacky?
Actually no. It was quite a special experience. And a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
They’ve been mining salt in Wielicza since the 13th century. We walked down 800 steps to get to a depth of more than 300 feet to see some of the earlier workings. Further seams can plunge to a depth of over 1000 feet. Miners routinely walked down to their seams, or in the early days, were winched down on precarious rope hoists.
Salt encrusted wooden pit props.
English coal mining is the only mining history I know. So it was wonderful to learn that visiting these mines has been a tourist attraction since the 15th century. There are pictures of elegant 18th century balls being held in the more spacious caverns.
And which English coal mines ever had built in chapels? Miners constructed and ornamented these places of worship so they could give thanks for surviving another day in these dangerous surroundings. They would greet each other ‘God be with you’ (so you survive another day).
A man I talked to at the end said his Fitbit revealed that we had walked 5 km. in our four hours down the mine. Just think how much else I could tell you about this fascinating place if I put my mind to it.
This is a cavern where dancing and other events took place. The walls and floor are made of salt. As are the droplets of the chandeliers.
It’s a story that goes back to the 15th century, when Barcelona already had six hospitals. In 1401 these merged onto a new site in Raval, to offer improved care to the sick.
By the 19th century, these facilities were too small, too outdated, no longer really fit for purpose. A Catalan Banker, Pau Gil, put up the money to fund a truly enormous and visionary project: a whole community of buildings offering state-of-the-art care to the poor of the city. The plan was for facilities of the highest quality, designed in cutting-edge modernist style by cutting-edge Modernista architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
Modernism? Think of it as Art Nouveau, Catalan style. You’ll recognise it in the works of Antoni Gaudi. Montaner found inspiration from Moorish architecture. Playful looking mosaics and the light-flooded areas are the special feature of his buildings. What we noticed straight away was bold colour, bold decoration: rich-hued tiled roofs: and within, tiles and mosaics in sunny yellow, grass green, sky blue.
Sun, grass, sky. Why not remind the sick inmates of a cheerful world outside the hospital? Why not have light, airy, high-ceilinged rooms, tiled throughout for ease of cleaning, and because they would never become dingy and faded? Why not build underground tunnels, tiled in cream, so that patients could be moved round the site without being exposed to the elements? Why not build a decent well-lit operating theatre, well-stocked libraries for doctors to consult, and set all these buildings among gardens which patients and staff alike could enjoy?
This was a Christian foundation. Nuns provided nursing care until the 1990s, as they had done since the hospital’s earliest years Mosaics in the building told stories from the Christian tradition, such as that of Saint George slaying the dragon. Other carvings and statues relied on ancient legends. This frog nursing a baby frog, for example, is an old symbol of caring love.
Originally, men and women were separated, but later, the hospital was organised by specialism. Now, although research continues here, modern buildings behind continue the work of the hospital.
The foundation stone was laid in 1902, and facilities were developed until about 1930. Large parts of the site were never built at all, from lack of funds. This isn’t surprising. There is nothing of the workhouse about this place. It’s a beautiful, special site, fully deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status, acquired in 1997. It only opened its doors to visitors a few years ago, and it’s not yet truly on the tourist trail, despite being just up the road from then Sagrada Familia which is always surrounded by hordes of tourists. Visit it now, while it’s still an oasis of calm. It’ll be somewhere you’ll remember forever.
I’d intended to go into the story of this place in more detail. But a fellow blogger, Restless Jo, whom I ‘met’ only recently, introduced me to a series of posts by a blogging friend of hers, Jude. Here’s a link to the first one, from which you can reach all the rest. She tells and illustrates the history of this place so well that, quite simply, I don’t have to.
We’ve just snuck over to Barcelona. Just for two and a bit days. Just to see Emily, because the last time we were together was in South Korea last autumn.
This morning was sightseeing. I’ll just show you a single photo of the Hospital de Sant Pau, a truly wonderful complex of modernist buildings, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll get the full tour once we’re back home.
This afternoon was hot. No better way to spend it than catching up with Emily over a leisurely lunch sitting in a tree lined square. It’s what the Spanish do best.
In 1132, thirteen Benedictine monks from York fetched up in a wild and isolated place we now know as the manicured and lovely parkland setting of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. The Archbishop of York had offered them the land so they could establish a pious community based on silence, prayer and simplicity.
Over the years – over the next four centuries – they built a community with all the trappings of a large village: sleeping, living and working quarters, an infirmary, guest accommodation, a mill, a tannery, quarrying, as well as the daily focus of their lives, the Abbey church itself, where they worshipped eight times a day.
Their principal source of income was from sheep, whose wool came to be valued at home and abroad. Merchants from all over Europe to buy and trade.
The Abbey site could not sustain enough sheep for this thriving business. Lay brothers (the manual workers of the monastic world) were sent further and further afield to establish small working sheep farms – granges. During the 15th century they came here, and built the house in which we now live.
It’s changed a bit of course. Who knows how much of the house is truly original, though the stone-built walls are a traditional, sturdy and strong build? We no longer live in an upstairs dormitory, as the lay brothers did.
The Victorians divided the place into rooms for the servants of the country house which was built and attached to the grange in the 18th century. The animals and working quarters are no longer downstairs, though the old, spacious and business like kitchen hearth still exists.
As I make the eight mile journey from here to Fountains Abbey I like to think of the heritage our home shares with this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage site. Aren’t we lucky?
1592 was a terrible year for Korea. The Japanese invaded. They raged through the land destroying all they saw. They burnt ancient temples and state-of-the-art palaces as well as ordinary homes. Little was left.
Imagine an England in which every cultural icon was destroyed in WWII – Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, York Minster, Salisbury Cathedral, Chatsworth….. that’s the kind of morale-destroying disaster Korea faced in 1592.
Rather than accept these losses, Koreans rolled up their sleeves and built everything again, on the same site, and to the same design. Not just once, but in some cases several times, as a consequence of later invasions and revolts. Unlike our own historic buildings, these structures are made not from stone or brick, but from the wood from monumental long-lived trees with statuesque trunks and mighty branches. These palaces and places of worship are carved to traditional patterns and painted in an accepted range of colours with time-honoured designs and images. To our eyes, these palaces and temples look fairly similar. But once we overheard a group talking – ‘Look, anyone can see that’s twelfth century: not a bit like the 15th century style we were looking at earlier’.
Here’s Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace. It was first built in 1408 for the Joseon royal dynasty and designed with an extensive natural garden in harmony with the topography of its surroundings. The Japanese burnt it down in 1592. It was rebuilt in 1608, burnt down during a political revolt in 1628, and again by the Chinese Manchu-Qing. Each time it was faithfully restored to its original design. The long Japanese occupation of Korea from 1911 to 1945 saw it heavily damaged yet again: once again it’s been restored, though only about 30% of the original buildings remain.
Against the odds, this palace and its grounds together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised as a fine example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design in harmony with their natural setting. This is a fine and tranquil place.
When teachers bring parties of children to Fountains Abbey, we often tog them all up in monastic robes, and explore the site with them .We want them to get a feel of the day-to-day life of a mediaeval monk. What? Prayers eight times a day? No underclothes? No talking? No heating? They’re impressed, in a horrified kind of way.
Then they go away, with only brief notions of the story the Abbey itself has to tell. Or why the place is a roofless ruin.
Until this year. Now they can come with their teachers and ‘Act the Facts’. They’re given props – perhaps a simple cape, a feathered cap, a woollen robe, a crown . These turn them into an early monk, a master mason, an Italian wool merchant, a dastardly baron, or even Henry VIII.
They have a script. It’s a melodramatic pastiche telling the Abbey’s turbulent history. Simple God-fearing beginnings, then powerful prosperity, then war, plague and corruption all leading to the final action. Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries.
The question at the beginning of the play is –
‘Who destroyed the Abbey?’
Acting it out, the children lose their places, stumble over words like ‘Cistercian’ and ‘lavatorium’, and forget which character they’re playing.
Honestly, what’s the point? It’s too complicated. They’re learning nothing.
Then they reach the end. We ask them to line themselves up. Twelfth century characters first, then thirteenth… and so on, through to those who bring the story to an end in 1540. We ask them which century was best.
And that’s when we realise how much they’ve learnt. They talk passionately about the simple piety of the early days set against the laxity of later centuries. They discuss austerity versus comfort. They talk feelingly about the plague, and the reasons for the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
And in telling the story of the Dissolution, they’ve solved the mystery of why Fountains Abbey is a roofless ruin.
Back at school, there’s so much for their teachers to build on. The ruin has brought history to life.
Come and see it for yourselves. We can’t promise you a feathered cap, or a cardboard crown, but you could join one of the regular tours. You’ll get a real taste of history as you soak up the special atmosphere of this special site.
A few months ago, I got a job. Not for the pin-money, because I’m not paid a penny. But I’m richly rewarded. I signed up to be a volunteer for the National Trust, at the property nearest our home, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Cistercian Abbey, Georgian water garden and mediaeval deer park…. no wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Since we moved to Ripon, we’d loved spending time there, so I got to wondering….what would it be like to volunteer there? What could I do? What might be involved?
The answer turned out to be…almost anything you want There are dozens of different roles, from gardening to guiding. You could drive the mini-bus or form part of the archaeological monitoring team. You could work in the shop, or in the admissions areas. Badged up, you could wander the grounds, being alert to the needs of visitors who’d like a potted history lesson or to find their way to the toilets. You could work in the wildlife team, helping look after and monitor all those ancient trees, or the herds of deer. You could turn to when there’s a special event, and put out chairs. And you’re quite entitled, over the years, to change your mind and try something else.
I for instance, started out as a visitor assistant at the Victorian High Gothic Church of Saint Mary’s in Studley Royal Park. It’s a real masterpiece of Victorian architect William Burges, but it turned out not to be ‘me’. I admire the building hugely, but it doesn’t involve me at an emotional level as the ruined abbey does. So I quit. No hard feelings
But I shan’t be quitting the Learning Team. Our bread-and-butter is sharing a Day In the Life of a Monk with schoolchildren. The children dress up in monk-style habits, and tour the site getting in touch with the brothers’ silent and family-free routines, led by one of the team. We examine the roofless, windowless Abbey and try to picture the church back in its prime. We imagine the vast space, illuminated only by candles, as the monks worshipped there eight times a day, from 2.00 a.m. onwards. We visit the refectory where the monks dined, in silence, once a day. Did those monks eat meat? What about potatoes? No? Why not? We visit the Warming Room and imagine having just four baths a year, shaving our tonsures with oyster shells. We discuss bloodletting. We talk about all the daily routines. Maybe the children remember only a few of the facts later, But we hope they are moved by these atmospheric ruins, and return later with their families.
They might come though, to experience the natural environment of the grounds: they might go pond dipping, or on a walk where they try to use all their senses by listening, touching , seeing, smelling and so on. Or make mosaics based on what they’ve observed. Or go den-building in the woods. They’re as sure of a grand day out as are the volunteers in the team.
I’ve ended up doing all sorts of stuff I’d never have thought of attempting. Car park attendant on Bank Holidays? I didn’t think so. But it turns out to be fun togging up in a hi-viz jacket, barking out radio messages on the walkie-talkie system, getting in touch with your inner traffic cop, and generally being a welcome face to visitors as you help them manouevre themselves into the busy car park.
And some things are quite simply, a privilege. I wish you could have joined me on Sunday evening. After dark, the site was opened to less mobile visitors. For one night only, cars were welcome on site, to be driven s-l-o-w-l-y past the floodlit Abbey buildings. The evening was cold, misty, moody, atmospheric. Night birds swirled above the trees, dampness dripped from the trees, and monks could clearly be heard from within the abbey, chanting their plainsong (a recording, actually, but none the worse for that). I talked to some of the visitors, often very elderly, as their cars and drivers made their stately way through the grounds. Their appreciation of the staff and volunteers who were there helping the evening to go smoothly, though nice to hear, was quite unnecessary. I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything. A special evening indeed.
And there are other perks. A couple of times a year there’s a ‘works outing’, when volunteers can take a trip to properties in other parts of the country. Here’s one. There are winter lectures for those who want them, to widen and deepen their knowledge of the history of the place There are times to socialise – a barbecue, a quiz night, meals. We’re very well supported, properly trained, and appreciated by the regular paid staff. I look forward to every single thing I do as a volunteer at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. I feel very lucky.