Poland: The Wieliczka Salt Mine

One of the most spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited this year was the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. It was founded in the 13th century to mine the rich deposit of salt. Salt mining stopped in 1996 when the low price of salt on the world market made it too expensive to mine and the mine was slowly flooding. But miners did more than just extract salt. They left behind them a breathtaking record of their time underground in the shape of statues of mythical, historical and religious figures.  Part of the salt mine became an art gallery, chapels, cathedral, and underground lakes. Today, Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the most visited National Monuments in Poland.

For safety reason, less than one percent of the mine is open to visitors, but even that is almost four kilometers in length. There are 20 chambers to visit and 800 steps to climb of which 350 at the beginning take you down into the mine. You can’t just visit and wander around on your own. All of the visits are scheduled and guided.

Our tour began with a descent down Danilowicz Shaft to Level 1 of the mine, situated 64 meters deep. I felt a gush of breeze once the door was opened. I learned something about the ventilation through the doors that open and close, from one door to the next 20 meters down. If one door isn’t closed you can’t open the other because the wind will just brush right the way through. Our guide made sure that nobody in the group was left behind before shutting the door.

We walked through the long tunnels made of wooden structure to see chamber after chamber - from the 13th century to the 19th century. There were galleries depicting mythical, historical and religious figures. In the first chamber, we saw a gallery of mythical figures depicting the legend of Kinga, the patron saint of the salt mines. Legend has it that the Hungarian Princess Kinga asked her father Bela IV of Hungary for a lump of salt, a precious mineral in Poland. Her father took her to a salt mine in Maramos where she threw her engagement ring in one of the shafts. The princess asked the miners to dig a pit until they come upon a rock. The miners found a lump of rock of salt and when they split it in two, they discovered the princess’s ring. 

There were galleries showing the history of salt making, and how the salt was transported. I learned that up to 2 tons worth of salt were transported from the shaft. Figurines of a Hungarian dog and men pulling the pulley were on display.  

We saw beautiful chapels, but the largest attraction was the St. Kinga Chapel founded in 1896. Pointing to the enormous cathedral below, our guide said that it was possible to have weddings there, and organized concerts are held due to very good acoustics. We walked down the stairs to reach the floors of the cathedral at 101 meters deep and to admire the original works of miners. All of the artwork on the walls was carved out of rock salt, which naturally comes in different shades of gray, including the two most remarkable: The Last Supper and the one Jesus appearing to the apostles after the crucifixion and showing the doubter, St. Thomas, the wound on his wrist. Most of the religious figures were made from salt. Amazingly, even the chandeliers in the cathedral are made of salt. It was interesting to hear the work and patience that went into the creation of the chandeliers: the most painstaking process of extracting the salt, dissolving and reconstituting the salt to remove impurities to achieve a glass-like finish. 

We then descended 110 meters deep to the Adam Mickiewicz Lower Level II. Along the way, we heard the sound of water dripping from the small channel and larger channels to distribute the water out to underground lakes.

In the second half of the 19th century, massive wooden pillars were installed to support the large chamber. We also saw the largest chandelier in the salt mine - 6 meters and 600 kilograms.

After passing the Kazanow Split Level II, we saw the Josef Pilsudski Grotto.

We found the largest chamber at about 134 meters deep. Our guide mentioned that two things have happened in the largest chamber: Bungy jumping and an indoor hot air balloon (the balloon only flew 2 meters).

At the end of the tour, we gathered around the edge of one of the underground lakes to watch a light and sound show accompanied by the music of Chopin. Perhaps the tour was designed that way in order for the visitors to experience the great acoustics.

Touring just 1% of the salt mine gave me a sense of perspective, and great appreciation not only for the extraordinary iconographic artworks but for the miners who created them. So, it was of no surprise to me that the Wieliczka Salt Mine was placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Press play and enjoy the tour!

PHOTO GALLERY: (From the Kinga Chapel)

The Altar - The Statue of  St. Kinga made entirely from salt
The Eucharistic Table
Religious figures carved out of the rock salt

Iconographic Folk Arts carved out of the rock salt

Statue of John Paul II made from salt

All photos and video by the author



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