As our elevator went deeper into the abyss of the salt mine, the tour guide cheerfully told us we can eat as much as we want off the walls. One thing though, she noted, utensils or tools to scrape the salt are not allowed. We would have to lick it off. Don’t worry, she assured, salt is a great antimicrobial. Goethe himself, it is rumoured, licked these walls when he visited in 1790 as the guest of Grand Duke Karl August. I wondered if I could lick the same spot.
The tunnel we arrived in was dimly lit by a chain of lamps hanging from hooks carved straight out of the rock. Our guide turned to face the group and said there are approximately two-hundred-eighty-seven kilometers of tunnels there. Some have not been checked in hundreds of years. With a giggle, she suggested someone could live there and nobody would be the wiser. With less off a giggle, she told us that they wouldn’t find anyone who got lost. They don’t even look, so please stick to the group.
The guide took us through a labyrinthine series of tunnels and caverns. We were impressed by the magnificent chambers carved from salt over hundreds of years. The basilica that the workers have carved out for themselves to make sure God’s grace reached them here, three hundred meters below ground, was particularly impressive, illuminated by candles and lamps, the light reflecting off the salt in the high ceiling. People still die in the mine, workers or careless tourists, I supposed the operator wants to make sure any believers don’t get lost on their way to the afterlife if that happened. A priest comes down once a week to perform mass.
Near the end of the tour, past the gift shop and cafeteria (also carved in salt), we came to a statue of Goethe, commemorating his visit. It was one among many carvings in a gallery celebrating the mine’s most famous visitors. The statue is much larger than a regular person. Goethe’s features smooth and reflective, with a roughness around the edges suggesting seriousness of character and of his interest in salt.
I had already purchased a pouch of salt to take home, more as a souvenir than for use in the kitchen. But, standing in front of Goethe I couldn’t help myself. I looked around to make sure nobody was looking and sized up the statue to find the spot I thought would be most memorable, most delectable, saltiest. As I edged closer, nervous someone from the group would spot me, I realized I wouldn’t be able to reach far. My choices limited to the writer’s boot or ankle. I leaned in, realizing there’s only one choice, and scraped my tongue along Goethe’s salty boot. My spit instantly turned to brine. I thought I could detect notes of citrus, along with a certain hint of earthiness. Maybe I just imagined these flavours? I stepped away quickly to not draw attention to myself, and the group soon left the chamber.
On the elevator back to the surface, I could still taste Goethe on the tip of my tongue, salty and a little sour.
Maks Sipowicz is a writer and academic living in Melbourne, Australia. His writing has appeared in Ink, Sweat, and Tears, Australian Book Review, 3am Magazine, Colloquy, and Parergon, among others. He blogs at Philosophy After Dark and tweets @callmesipo.