|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
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|
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|
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|
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|
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$24), 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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