KRAKÓW, POLAND: Wieliczka Salt Mine

Less than 15 kilometers from central Kraków is the industrial town of Wieliczka, home to an attraction that might accurately be described as a wonder of the world: the Wieliczka salt mine.

Opened in the 13th century, salt was commercially mined continuously until 1996 and the mine actively produced table salt until 2007. What I found most compelling, however, was not the history of more than 700 years of mining salt but what many generations of miners created below the surface in the process.

Entrance to mine

Over the centuries the miners, most of whom were devout Catholics, dug more than 300 kilometers of underground tunnels as they mined countless tons of salt. On their journey to the lowest point in the mine, some 327 meters below the surface, they also carved out four chapels, including the largest and most amazing: The Chapel of St. Kinga.

Born in the year 1224, Kinga - the daughter of King Béla IV of Hungary - was pledged to marry Bolesław V the Chaste, who was in line to become the Prince of Kraków. As the legend goes, Kinga threw her engagement ring into a shaft at a salt mine in Máramaros, Hungary, before leaving for Poland. The ring miraculously traveled along with salt deposits to Wieliczka where it was later rediscovered.

View of the Chapel of St. Kinga from the stairs

Princess Kinga was beatified in 1690 by Pope Alexander VIII and was canonized into sainthood in June 1999 by a fellow Pole, Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul II was born in Wadowice, Poland, approximately 50 kilometers southwest of Kraków and was Archbishop of Kraków when elected pope by the College of Cardinals in 1978. Statues, icons, images and shrines to the late pontiff are common in the area where Roman Catholics hold the man, canonized Saint Pope John Paul II, in the highest esteem.

The miners dug the Chapel of St. Kinga out of solid rock salt approximately 101 meters beneath the surface of the earth. They also formed the statues out of the rock salt, carved frescoes into the walls, dissolved and reconstituted rock salt to make clear glass-like crystals for the chandeliers and etched the floor to give it the appearance of individual tiles when in fact the floor is the natural rock salt.

Descending the stairs to the chapel, which are also carved out of rock salt, I was struck by its size. It is 31 meters long by 15 meters wide, with a ceiling approximately 11 meters high. Its floor space of about 465 square meters can accommodate up to 400 people. The apex of the regular tours through the mine, the chapel is also used for Holy Mass, weddings and concerts.

The Last Supper carved into the chapel wall

While the Chapel of St. Kinga is the high point of the tour, the entire journey is an experience not to be missed.

Tours, which are offered in several different languages, start by descending literally hundreds of narrow wooden stairs before alighting in one of the first of many shafts dug out of the salt.

Guides pause briefly at many points to explain the significance of what visitors are seeing. Signs at various locations give the name of the feature – whether mine shaft, passage, or other aspect – as well as the date it was opened or the dates it was excavated. For example among the first stops are the Upper Urszula Chamber, which was excavated between 1649 and 1685, and the passage leading to the Kręciny Chamber, which was dug “before 1666.”

Looking down the stairs descending into the mine

A salt statue of Nicolaus Copernicus (Milołaj Kopernik in Polish) was created to mark the anniversary of the astronomer’s 500 th birthday in 1973. It sits in the Milołaj Kopernik Chamber, which was dug “before 1785.”

As visitors descend deeper through tunnels and paths, dioramas depict how the methods of mining salt have changed over the centuries, from early man pouring salt-laden water into shallow troughs to evaporate and leave the salt crystals behind to more “modern” methods of using horse power to mine the mineral.

Statue of Copernicus

Along the way, visitors arrive at the Holy Cross Chapel. While far smaller than the Chapel of St. Kinga, it is replete with crucifix and statue of the Blessed Virgin holding the Baby Jesus.

Following the visit to the crown jewel of the Chapel of St. Kinga, visitors are lead to an underground lake which is so saline, we are told, that it would be literally impossible for a person to submerge.

After that is a stop in the Komoro Michałowicz (Michałowicz Chamber), followed by a stop at the obligatory gift shop where tour participants can also buy either a bottled water, coffee or soft drink. Adult beverages will be available father along the route.

Before wrapping up the tour, visitors stop in the chambers of Stanislaw Staszic which, we are told, is the site of the world’s record for an indoor bungee jump. Bogdan Kopka, founder of an “extreme sports” center, jumped from a height of 36 meters.

A multimedia presentation on the history of the mine signals that the tour is nearing a stopping point and those unwilling to add another hour to the 1-1/2 hours they’ve already spent underground will be able to head to the surface, but not before passing through the Drozdowice Chamber and past a bar that beckons, and the Budryk Chamber in which the Miners’ Tavern is located. Both food and beverages are available and include Polish cuisine specialties seasoned, of course, with Wieliczka salt.

"Horse power" harnessed to mine salt

Guests have the option of ascending to the surface in a lift used by miners. To say that it is cozy would be an understatement; those given to claustrophobia would do well to take one of the other options for getting “back to the world.”

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and is an absolute must for visitors to the Kraków area. Tours are 79 złoty for adults (approximately US$20), plus another 10 zł for a permit if you plan to take photographs. Local tour operators also offer packages that include the admission price with transportation to and from the area’s hotels. Ask the front desk or your hotel’s concierge for their recommendations, but do not miss the Wieliczka Salt Mine tour!

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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