Take A Day Trip to the Extraordinary Wieliczka Salt Mine
Fourteen kilometers south of Kraków, embedded more than 325 meters beneath the surface, is a mystical, otherworldly place that intrigues and fascinates over a million visitors every year. And while Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and the Coliseum may be more famous – they are, after all, above ground – the Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland is an unforgettable experience and provides an enchanting glimpse into a slice of Poland’s rich past.
The mine itself stretches down nine levels into the earth, and its 287 kilometers of tunnels meander through eerie, magical chambers, pits, chapels, statues, monuments, chandeliers, and wall carvings, which are all made out of the same stuff as the mine – salt. Who created them? The stunning masterpieces are the result of the collective efforts of dozens of generations of those who worked in the mine - the miners themselves.
A brief look into the history of Wieliczka Salt Mine reveals how the mine went from a small, local operation to a UNESCO World Heritage site and world-class tourist attraction.
From Small Beginnings
Scientists believe that the salt deposits in the area formed during the Middle Miocene Epoch about 13.6 million years ago. Humans came along much later, of course; there is evidence of early settlements in Wieliczka from the early medieval period (c. 10th-12th centuries).
The earliest records of extracting salt in this region date all the way back to the 12th century. One hundred years later, the first shafts were dug and the official mine opened. Thus, Wieliczka Mine is one of the oldest salt mines in the world and the only one that has been in operation since the Middle Ages. Even at that time, the miners were displaying their creativity; the town of Wieliczka was officially founded and granted civil rights in 1290, and the same document refers to the making of snowmen out of salt (a practice that continued until 1876). The Academy of Kraków was founded in 1364, and revenue from the salt mine was used to pay the professors who taught there.
In the 13th century, a defense structure was built on the site. It was rebuilt, changed, and enlarged over the centuries, becoming known as Saltworks Castle, and it served as the head office of the mining operation from medieval times until 1945. It is made up of three buildings: the Middle Castle (13th-14th cent.), the Northern Castle (15th cent.), and the Southern Castle (19th-20th cent.). The tower itself dates to the 14th century. Today, the castle houses a museum where visitors can learn more about the fascinating history of the castle and mine and see a unique collection of wooden, glass, silver, and ceramic salt shakers that span the ages.
By the end of the middle ages, there were nearly 350 people working in the mine, and about 8,000 tons of salt were being produced each year. As early as the late 1500s, the excavations had all been named and various professions associated with the mine had been codified. Both rock and evaporated salt were being produced, and tours were given to the public. New shafts were dug over the centuries. The most productive era was from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries, when about 2,000 people were working to crank out some 30,000 tons of salt annually.
Commercial mining continued until 1996, and table salt was produced there until 2007. For its entire existence, the mine was operated by the Żupy Krakowskie Salt Mines company.
What You’ll See There
Think of an underground museum where everything is made out of sodium chloride and you’ll begin to get an idea of what a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine is like. Not all of the mine is open to the public, but the areas to which visitors have access are nothing short of astounding. Twenty two different chambers connected by galleries extend from 64m to 135m underground. Here are a few of the highlights:
• Chapel of St. Kinga. Because of the inherent danger of working in the mine, the miners – mostly Catholic – carved chapels out of the salt where they could pray, gain strength, rest, worship, and reflect in their underground workplace. And this chapel – one of several – is, without a doubt, the main attraction and centerpiece of the mine. At 54m x 18m, it is the largest chapel in the mine – the ceiling soars to a lofty 12m. Services are still held there as are concerts and weddings. Chandeliers, bas-reliefs, altars, and sculptures, all made from salt, adorn this exotic and sumptuous underground church, and the light reflects eerily off of the intricately carved floor. The central figure, a sculpture of St. Kinga herself, is made of crystal-clear salt. The chapel was completed in 1895. It took decades to build, and 20,000 tons of rock salt were removed in the course of construction.
• Chapel of St. Anthony. Although it was later overshadowed by the Chapel of St. Kinga, many consider the Chapel of St. Anthony to be the most luxurious and beautiful place in the entire mine. St. Anthony was the miners’ protector, and given the tragic accidents that sometimes occurred, it was only fitting to build a chapel to him. This is the oldest chapel in the mine, dating to the 17th century. It is illuminated by a gorgeous chandelier made from salt crystals, and statues of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Dominic, and St. Francis stand at the ready in the vestibule.
• Salt Lake. In the Erazm Baracz Chamber, the saline lake contains 320g of salt per liter of water.
• Underground Spa. The atmosphere in the salt mine is remarkable for its health benefits. It is insect- and allergen-free, bacteriologically pure, and rich in elements such as magnesium and calcium. A spa is located at a depth of 135m, and overnight stays are possible. Breathing exercises and music therapy are featured as part of the treatment.There is so much more to see in the Wieliczka Salt Mine: a gigantic wooden scaffolding built in the 19th century for extracting salt, an abandoned ferry that was used for tours until several Prussian soldiers tipped it over and drowned in 1915 and traces of Austrian and German occupation when they wrote their own names in the various corridors on the walls. But the stars of the show are the magnificent salt sculptures and carvings that glisten in the mysterious light of this magical, underground world.