Wieliczka Salt Mine (Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli), a World Heritage Site since 1978, and beloved by Polish people
Not just a huge salt mine, not just a museum about the story of salt, but also an underground health resort and perhaps most amazingly…the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland, where deep underground we find a sparkling salt-crystal chapel.
(Note: we had too many photos for a blog story, so see extra ones here: http://www.viviennemackie.com/Eastern_Europe/Wieliczka.html )
A visit to the Salt Mine is one of the top tourist attractions out of Krakow, and is easy to do, as the town of Wieliczka is only about 9.3 miles to the southeast of Krakow.
It’s definitely worth a visit, even though it’s now rather “touristy” and parts of the tour are a little “tacky” we thought.
The first official underground tourist trail opened in the mid-19th century and it’s been booming ever since. Around 1.2 million people visit each year—people have been visiting the salt mine for centuries, with notable guests including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Frederick Chopin, Robert Baden-Powell, Pope John Paul 11, and former US president Bill Clinton. In fact, it’s not only tourists who come here—in a recent survey, Krakovians voted this their number one favorite thing about Krakow.
Because of the unique saline microclimate and innovative engineering, the mine is well preserved and is used for historical, medicinal and tourist purposes. The salt mine tour is the main attraction for most visitors, but there’s also a health resort (established 2003) and the Castle, the former HQ of the Saltworks Management, now the Saltworks Castle Museum.
Bit of History:
Salt has been important to humans for thousands of years, as humans and mammals, and even some plants, need some salt just to survive. However, it was difficult to obtain, so was a highly valued trade item and sign of wealth, especially as it could preserve food, and was used as currency before there was money. Roman soldiers who performed their duties well were said to be “worth their salt” and the word “salary” comes from the Latin “salarium” used to describe their wages in salt.
About 20 million years ago, Krakow and surrounding area were at the bottom of a shallow, salty sea. The salt deposits were shifted hundreds of meters underground by tectonic movements.
Salt extraction by boiling water from brine pools near Krakow goes back to the middle Neolithic era (about 3500 BC), but when underground rock salt was found in the 13th century a new industry was born. The first mine opened at Bochnia near Krakow in 1252, and the one at Wieliczka opened in the 1280s. By the end of the 13th century, Krakow Saltworks was established to manage both mines, with headquarters in the Wieliczka Castle complex.
This was one of the first companies in Europe and brought great wealth to the Polish crown for the next 500 years, until the first partition of Poland in the 18th century. In its heyday (16th and 17th centuries), it employed around 2,000 people and produced more than 30,000 tonnes of salt, a third of the state treasury revenue.
Under Austrian occupation (1772-1918) production increased even more as they mechanized the mining works with steam, and later electric, machinery, and they opened the first tourist route. But, over-exploitation and neglect of protection works began to destabilize the mine’s condition, and the decreased market value of salt made the works less viable.
In 1964 extraction of rock salt on an industrial level was stopped at Wieliczka and the mine began to produce only evaporated salt. From 1996, the mine produced evaporated salt only as a product from desalination of the mine spill. However, conservation works yield rock salt that is used to make memorabilia. You can buy Wieliczka salt for your table in any Polish supermarket I’m told.
The tour of Wieliczka starts at the Danilowicza Shaft where you buy/pick up your ticket and check the time of the next guided tour in your language. It’s such a popular site that you may have to wait, but there are many little shops and cafes around. The regular ticket is valid for walking the Tourist Route and underground exhibition, and visiting the Underground Museum, although some guides don’t take you to the museum unless you ask. There’s also a handicapped-accessible route, a Pilgrims’ Route, and a Miners’ route, in which the tourists get a role to play as they experience the daily routine and rituals of working underground.
The temperature below ground is a constant 15 C (59F) and there’s a lot of walking but it’s well worth the effort. The tour begins with 380 wooden stairs down, down to the first level 210 ft underground (luckily later there’s a lift back up!) The tour takes you to the first three levels of the 9 levels in the mine to a depth of 443 ft.
For about 2 hours you follow your guide underground, walking a little over 2 miles in the labyrinth of corridors. Our English-speaking guide, Joanna, was very good—informative and amusing. As we wandered along the timber-reinforced tunnels (can’t use metal as it corrodes), we learned a lot from Joanna about the history of the site, the methods used to extract the salt, and the lives of the men who worked here. We saw geological samples, paintings depicting the work and lives of the miners, replicas of ancient buildings, a recreation of Wieliczka as it looked 350 years ago, and old mining equipment and tools.
We learned about the horses that worked down here too. Some horses spent their adult lives down here without ever seeing the light of day. They were kept in the underground stables and used to pull large loads and set heavy machinery in motion. The last horse, a 16-year-old mare called Baska (short for Barbara, as St Barbara was the patron saint of all miners) left the mine in 2002 in good health.
We had the chance to operate a medieval winch for moving huge blocks of salt and some people were brave enough to lick the walls! Not me!
Some of the facts we tried to absorb:
Despite the significant hazards of the day (flooding, cave-ins, explosive gas), over the seven centuries that the mine was in operation, 26 access shafts and 180 fore-shafts connecting individual levels were drilled. 2,350 chambers were excavated with over 150 miles of tunnels reaching a maximum depth of 1072 feet underground.
Why so much? Once a large lode of salt is found underground, it can only be mined to a point before becoming unsafe. The miners would scrape out the centre of the salt block, leaving a hollow cavern and then move on down the next corridor.
Why are there chapels down there? Miners were always very religious, because they were working underground in constant danger, in darkness, and away from their families. As they excavated chamber after chamber, they created underground chapels as places where they could pray before facing the mine challenges, and ask the protection of the patron saints of the underworld. Shrines were created nearby the miners’ workplaces, at the major and minor shafts and places where tragic accidents occurred. Over the years, miners carved out sacred figures, and crosses in the salt rock to decorate their chapels and shrines. There are also a number of large statues of mythical creatures and prominent people, including Saint Kinga, Copernicus, King Casimir the Great, and Pope John Paul ii.
The tour visits many of these ancient chambers and chapels, in which almost everything around you is made from rock salt, including the floor tiles, chandeliers, sculptures, and stalactites hanging down. The beautiful altars, magnificent carved figures and details of the decor give the interiors a quiet sacred feeling, where you can pray and rest, and also take a step back from yourself and your daily life. They are also fascinating when you consider what they are and who made them.
A wonderful example is St. Kinga’s Chapel, first a chamber in the 17th century, and crafted as we see it today by miners and self-taught sculptors from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Why is it called the St Kinga Chapel?
There is a legend about Princess Kinga and Wieliczka mine. This Hungarian noblewoman was to marry Boleslaw V the Chaste, the Prince of Krakow. As part of her dowry, she asked her father for a lump of salt, since salt was valuable in Poland. Her father King Bela took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. When she arrived in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. They found a lump of salt there and when they split it in two, discovered the princess’s ring. So Kinga became the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital. Underground there is a salt carving diorama depicting the legendary finding of the ring in the Janowice Chamber.
This monumental and magnificent Chapel of St Kinga, accessed down a slippery salt grand staircase, is probably the highlight of the tour. The main artists were the brothers Józef and Tomasz Markowski, and Antoni Wyrodek, over a period of about 30 years in the early 20th century. The chapel is decorated with chandeliers made of elaborate patterns of salt crystals, numerous sculptures, and realistic bas-relief wall carvings. They are mainly of New Testament stories, notably the “Last Supper”. The chapel has great acoustics and is also used now for weekly Holy services, weddings and other events, such as concerts, Christmas Eve masses, and New Year’s Eve Ball.
Then you pass a lake with extremely salty water, and through another hall that is high enough to fly a hot-air balloon apparently. The tour ends in the restaurant, shops and restrooms area. Here there are also facilities for conferences, business meetings, training sessions etc. You then get in a line for the 36-person lift back up to the surface.
To this day, the customary greeting in the mine is ‘Szczęść Boże’ (God bless). You say this when the lift starts going down and whenever you meet someone on your way through the underground maze. It’s a ritual and unbroken custom, dating back to when the mine was a much darker and more dangerous place.
Some tour companies in Krakow offer this salt mine tour as part of a day tour that includes Auschwitz (which is what we did), but it is possible to get there by bus or train. You can buy tickets online beforehand, which is a good way of getting a timed tour.
Foreign tourists regular ticket price is 79PLN (a little over US$21)—going up to 84 PLN (US$22.50) in 2016. For Polish tourists it’s 55 PLN (almost US$15). Some discounts may apply.
Note: You pay an extra 10PLN (about US$2.50) per camera to take photos.
Close by is the 4-star Grand Sal Hotel if you fancy staying out here.
To see more pictures of the mine tour, go here