“When you’re in Krakow, you must visit the salt mine,” my friend said. I was underwhelmed to say the least. If this fun-loving Polish gal couldn’t come up with anything better to see than an old mine, how exciting could Poland be? Luckily she emailed me the website of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This is one mine you have to see to believe.I’ve seen my share of mines over the years: salt, coal, and other dirty yet vital things we dig up from underground. But even though there is still salt being extracted from the Wieliczka Salt Mine, its main function these days is hosting hundreds of tourists each day.
A UNESCO World Heritage Salt Mine
In fact, the Wieliczka Salt Mine (Kopalnia Soli in Polish) is so special it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 1978.
“The historic Salt Mine in Wieliczka is the only mining site in the world functioning continuously since the Middle Ages. Its original excavations (longitudinals, traverses, chambers, lakes, as well as minor and major shafts) are located on nine levels and extend for the total of about 300 kilometres: reaching the depth of 327 metres they illustrate all the stages of mining technology development over time.”
But its age and demonstration of mining technology are only a small part of what makes this mine so fascinating. There are close to 3000 chambers in the mine and over the years, many of these chambers have taken on new functions.
To explore these chambers, visitors to the mine must take a guided tour. They are available in a variety of languages and English tours depart every 20-30 minutes.
You begin the 3 km tour (only 1% of the mine’s total 300 km length) by descending 378 stairs. Luckily, there is an elevator to take you back to the surface at the end of the tour.
Carving the Salt
According to our tour-guide, the miners were very religious and, because they spent most of their time underground, they began constructing small chapels out of wood. In 1697 one of these chapels caught fire resulting in a ban on the use of flammable materials. The miners turned to the one thing they had readily available – salt. The tradition of salt carving began resulting in the incredible works of art you can admire today.
The salt chapels are filled with religious icons and figures, such as the pope. There are carvings of biblical scenes from the nativity to the last supper. There is even a full-sized cathedral, complete with salt-crystal chandeliers, which can be rented for your very own underground wedding.
Besides chapels and religious figures, the mine includes carvings of a range of historic figures from Copernicus to Goethe. There are illustrations of Polish legends and displays of how the mine looked and functioned during different stages of its past. There are also several chambers where you can admire the beautiful underground lake that takes on an aqua-green colour because of the salt.
You can also spend time in the private rehabilitation and wellness centre and enjoy the curative properties of the salt. Or you can book the conference centre for your next business meeting.
At the end of the tour you can enjoy a meal in the underground Miner’s Tavern and, of course, you can by all of your salt related gifts in the salt mine gift shop.
Getting to Wieliczka
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is an easy 40 minute public bus ride from central Krakow on line number 304 disembarking at the Wieliczka Kopalnia Soli stop. You can also take one of the many private bus tours lead from the city centre.
Ticket prices are 65 PLN for foreign language tours (about 16 Euro) for adults. There is also a 10PLN charge to film or take photos while on the tour.
Stay tuned for our adventures in rural Poland at our first Polish Wedding.