The Wieliczka Salt Mines are simply breathtaking. The salt mines are found in the town Wieliczka, a little ways outside of Krakow. According to legend, the mines were an answer to a prayer of Queen Kinga (later a saint), who prayed that she would give inexhaustible wealth to the Polish people as her dowry. On her journey from Hungary to Krakow, she stopped in the village of Wieliczka where a man presented her with an unusual rock. The rock contained her engagement ring — which she had thrown into Maramures salt mine in her own native Hungary. There she commanded the miners to dig, and there was founded the oldest, continuously mined salt mine in Europe.
To go down into the mines you have to take a guided tour, which are offered in several different languages. The tour lasts two hours, with an extra hour if you want to go through the museum as well. The tour goes through a small section of the first three levels. The mine itself has nine levels going down to a depth of 327 metres (1,073 feet) and is over 300 kilometres (190 miles) long. The museum has a map of the town superimposed over the mines. The entire mine is beneath the whole town!
As you go through the mine you have a chance to see the history of mining techniques (to even more detail in the museum section, which I highly recommend!). A fun fact is that unlike in coal mines, horses used in salt mines don’t go blind. This is because salt dust is not as abrasive as coal dust is. I’m glad that the horses in the salt mines had a (slightly) better quality of life than their coal-mining cousins.
The larger chambers in the mine are lit by chandeliers. These aren’t ordinary chandeliers though. The crystals are made out of halite, or pure salt crystals.
Because mining was such a dangerous profession, and Poland is a very religious country with a rich religious history, the miners carved chapels underground in which to pray for their safety. The tour passes through a few of these. The first one or two’s statues have all but melted — the statues are carved out of pure rock salt, and at some point in the history of the mine the shafts changed, meaning that moisture from the surface gradually melted away the salt. The largest, most impressive, most stunning chapel is St Kinga’s chapel, named after the patron queen herself. My pictures are a poor show of the real thing, but here they are:
This chapel has been a place of worship since 1896. The reliefs, statues, and other decorations have been added over the last century. It is carved completely out of a solid block of rock salt. (Click photos to enlarge.)
Yes, they even carved grouting into the floor to make it look tiled.
The miners carved other statues to decorate the mines as well: statues of Copernicus, Chopin, John Paul II, and many other famous Polish figures, and also gnomes.
Another fun fact: rock salt, when it’s clear enough, gets that glowy colour when it’s illuminated from behind. Outside the mines there were lots of touristy shops that sold salt lamps and candle holders.
Going through the mines didn’t feel clausterphobic at all. The tunnels were wide and high — they had to be, to fit horses through. There were several caverns that were simply vast in their height. The largest one was 37 metres high. Also underground is a salt lake, which you get to see during the tour as well.
The air is so clean and dry in the salt mine because salt is naturally antibacterial. As a result, there’s a hospital (or ‘sanatorium’) on the second level of the mine. It mainly treats asthmatics. Apparently they do physical therapy and singing exercises to get them to take deep breaths of such clean, clean air.
It’s no wonder that the Wieliczka Salt Mines are a UNESCO heritage site. If you ever are in Krakow, they’re worth the visit!