Friday, July 16, 2010

The Salt Road

In May we went for a short rafting trip on the Dunajec River in Slovakia, on the border of Poland. Our guide told us that the stone road along the river, through the gorge, was part of the salt road from Krakow to Vienna. The giant salt mine of Wieliczka is Krakow, up the Dunajec to where it joins the Visla. I've never been in the salt mine, but the rest of my family has, and there's a great description in Booker T. Washington's The Man Farthest Down. But that's all I know about his salt road. (I don't have the photos on this computer, unfortunately, so I've stolen somebody else's. It rained our whole trip down the river.)

A few weeks earlier we had been to the Slovak National Museum, an skansen in Martin, where they have put a lot of 18th and 19th century buildings from around Slovakia, and there was one building, an inn with stables that I found particularly interesting. This was where the guys moving stuff from place to place by horse-drawn wagon would stop overnight. They and their animals would get out of the cold, get something to eat and a place to sleep.

Perhaps because on both of these visits it rained and the sky was close to the ground, there was a feeling of unreality. Northern Slovakia is a place for magic anyway, with its castle ruins on every hilltop. And I could imagine quite clearly the commerce on the mountain roads that connect the East to the West, and the North to the South. And Slovak is a rough language, but a language of secrets. Finally, the Roma are everywhere, heralds of the other world, their hovels could be portals to someplace we normals can scarcely imagine. It was in Martin the home of the  Slovak National Movement and the Matica slovenská, a voluntary cultural institution which also had political significance. It was abolished by the Hungarians in 1875. Martin today is sort of post-industrial scrubsvilled with beautiful mountains all around. It was here that our computers were stolen.

After our visit to the skansen we went to a remote castle out of town, where the mountains really begin. Sklabina. I don't know anything about this castle but we had to wonder how the world must have changed for someone to have built it here, in a mountain valley far from anything of "importance." The adjoining village consists of two streets dead-ending at the trail heads for the Mala Fatra mountains and national park.

So there's a combination of settings, and an arrow toward an historical period (mid-19th century, with connections in other times) in which some sort of epic magical historial tale could be told. One premise is simply the taking of a magical object or person as part of the salt trade, from Krakow to Vienna. One would not even need to alternate history of Paul Park to make this neck of the woods and this period supernatural. The journey might take several millennia to complete, in fact,

The beginnings of the Wieliczka salt mine are connected to an apocryphal story and an enigmatic figure, St. Kinga, born in 1234 in Esztergom, Hungary, and given by her father the King of Hungary to Prince Boleslav of Poland as a bride. As a wedding present, Kinga asks for a salt mine. She throws her engagement ring in a salt mine in Hungary, and it is dug up when she commands the excavation of a salt mine in previously salt-starved Poland (near Krakow). Kinga and Boleslav ("the chaste") lived together in virginity and Kinga became mother to ALL the children, and eventually removed to a Poor Clare Monastary in Stary Sącz, on the Dunajec River near the border of what is now Slovakia. Stary Sącz was also on an important road to Hungary (and Austria). Salt itself is a sort of magical element.

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