Preserving Poland’s Subterranean Treasures for Future Generations.
As my fingers traced the mother’s face, her horror and anguish were transmitted straight to my heart through my fingertips. I was carefully exploring the figures in a salt carving depicting the Slaughter of the Innocents 300 feet below ground in the Chapel of St. Kinga. This was one of many treasures we had the privilege to encounter in Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Touching the salt sculptures in the Wieliczka Salt Mine is prohibited, but an exception was graciously made for me. And this wasn’t the only unusual aspect of our tour. Our private guide was Krzysztof Dzidek, from Public Relations, who treated Simon, Otto and me to a three-hour adventure that was unlike anything we had ever experienced before. A photographer who shadowed us throughout much of the tour made us feel a bit like celebrities. But, if the truth be known, it was Otto who was the cause of all the fuss. He was only the second guide dog to visit the mine, and the occasion needed to be appropriately documented.
Located 8.7 miles from the historic city of Krakow, the village of Wieliczka lies peacefully atop the 1,000 deep salt mine that bears its name.
A complex network of tunnels, approximately 185 miles in total, make up the nine levels of the mine, one percent of which is open to the public. Krzysztof took us into chambers and chapels, carved out from the salt over seven centuries by miners. We walked alongside an underground salt lake, and Krzysztof treated us to tea at a café 380 feet below ground. He kept up a narrative that had us spellbound and answered our many questions. Here is a small sample of our visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
An Introduction to the Wieliczka Salt Mine
Our tour began in a shaky cage-like miners’ elevator that deposited us 192 feet below ground. This was the first of the nine levels comprising the Wieliczka Salt Mine. The ninth level is nearly 1,000 feet deep.
During the over 700 years of the mine’s existence, miners created a labyrinth of 3,500 chambers connected by approximately 185 miles of tunnels. We walked through areas excavated between the 16th and 20th centuries. The oldest parts of the mine are off limits to the public.
Mining for commercial purposes was stopped in 1996, because of dwindling profits and continuous problems with leakage. Today, a team of miners and engineers maintain the mine. Still, Wieliczka is the oldest working mine in the world.
Instead of the cold, dark, damp passages we expected to find, we were greeted by a clean well-lit environment, an arid, but comfortable, temperature and a strong breeze from the ventilation system. The mine must be kept as dry as possible because humidity would dissolve the salt carvings.
Krzysztof dispelled another mining myth for us: that of working conditions for the miners. Unlike historically accurate horror stories of brutality and forced labor in coal, gold, and other mines, Polish salt miners enjoyed a much more normal existence. They worked eight-hour shifts, even in the middle ages, were paid well for their dangerous work, received privileges such as a generous salt allowance and were comfortably off. “No child labor slaves or prisoners,” Krzysztof insisted.
Surrounded by Salt
We knew were in a salt mine, but the stuff was everywhere: the walls, chambers, chapels, art, and even chandeliers, were carved from the mine’s natural salt. My biggest challenge was keeping Otto from trying to lick the walls.
A section of wall where leakage followed by drying had left salt crystals whose texture felt like small cauliflowers. A large strip of wall at face level was smooth from the hands of millions of tourists. No wonder touching the precious salt carvings is a serious no-no.
We stopped several times along our route, so I could run my fingers over different sections of wall. Some were smooth, while others were rough. Some areas had gouges and crevices from pickaxes and other tools that had been used to extract the salt.
Although Wieliczka no longer mines salt, the water that seeps into the mine’s lower levels is put to good use. After it’s pumped out, the salt is extracted to produce many of the salt products sold in the gift shop. Approximately 1,000 tons of salt per year is harvested in this way. This was what Krzysztof meant by mine maintenance. As a commercial mine, Wieliczka was the source of more than ten times that amount.
Wieliczka salt comes in a dark gray, because of impurities in its composition: sandstone, magnesium, calcium potassium and other minerals. Still, it’s 90 percent sodium chloride. Although pure white salt has been the norm for over a century, the gray salt was highly valued and made up 20 percent of Poland’s economy during the middle ages. And, if you don’t mind a small amount of sandstone in your salt, the minerals make the gray salt a healthier option.
Chambers, Chapels, and Passages
When the Wieliczka Salt Mine opened in the 13th century, miners extracted blocks of salt with pickaxes, shaped them into cylinders, rolled them to the shaft and brought them to the surface via a system of ropes and weights for counterbalance. Later, horses were brought down to transport salt to the shaft. Mechanical tools and explosives, along with better mining techniques, made extracting salt more efficient, and eventually evolved into the high powered tools and systems used by today’s miners worldwide.
Over the centuries, miners carved out a series of chapels and chambers, and lovingly decorated them with salt carvings creating the marvels we see today.
Krzysztof led us downward in an uneven spiral. Each chamber seemed to have its own unique acoustics. One echoed, while in another, our voices sounded like they did in the passage.
In one chamber, we witnessed a simulated methane explosion. Unlike the dust in coal mines, salt doesn’t burn, so the fireball extinguished quickly. The danger of methane explosions was cause for much concern, so miners, known as “Gas Burners”, kept the explosions at bay by burning it off before it could cause mayhem.
One of the most fascinating sites was the Chamber of Copernicus. As a student in 1493, the budding genius visited the mine. Back then, tourism could only take place by permission of the king. In the middle of the 20th century, there was a realization that the salt mine could become a “gold mine” by making it a tourist attraction. This chamber held a carving of Copernicus created in 1973 in commemoration of his 500th birthday.
The largest chamber, 112 feet in height, has attracted certain types of thrill seekers. Both the first underground balloon flight, as well as the world’s first underground bungee jump were recorded there.
We continued along the route, sometimes walking on wood, sometimes on blocks of salt. We walked in the grooves made by carts, and down the center of train tracks. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is an ever-changing subterranean landscape, with historic and geological marvels to be seen everywhere you look.
The chapels, carved out by miners so they could attend religious services at the start of their day, showed a deep, unshakable faith. A full-time priest worked in the mine to give the men spiritual comfort and counsel.
The Chapel of St. Kinga
The largest chapel, dedicated to St. Kinga, patron saint of miners, was so magnificent, it deserves its own section. Measuring 102 feet long, 49 feet wide and 36 feet high, it was a space created by the removal of 20,000 tons of salt. And, the chamber is decorated with detailed New Testament inspired carvings, two altars and sparkling chandeliers, all fashioned from salt.
The miners believed in the legend of Kinga, a Hungarian Princess, daughter of the king and engaged to a Polish duke. She wanted to give Poland a special gift of salt mines from Hungary. The logistics of this seemingly impossible feat came to her in a dream, in which she was told to throw her engagement ring down a salt mine shaft, then look for a sign. As her party traveled through Poland, it reached the village of Wieliczka. Kinga saw a salt spring and told her miners to start digging. The first block of salt they unearthed contained her ring. Kinga was highly revered by the miners, and in 1999, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II. His carving stands on a pedestal in the Chapel of St. Kinga, draped in papal robes.
Standing on a balcony overlooking the chapel, we listened to music by Gershwin and Bach. The chamber’s incredible acoustics made it seem as if the orchestra was playing directly below us.
We descended the steps and explored some of the stunning carvings created by four miners over nearly a century, spanning from 1896 to 2004. The most arresting carving was The Slaughter of the Innocents, which had been created by a miner expressing his grief over the loss of his two daughters. I had a hard time tearing myself away from this painful scene, but Simon was getting ready to pose Otto in front of Doubting Thomas, so I had to move on.
The Chapel of St. Kinga is far more than a tourist attraction. Services are held every Sunday, and the space is frequently used for weddings, concerts and other events. With a capacity of 350, I couldn’t help think what fun it would be to get married 303 feet below ground with that many of my closest friends in attendance.
Going Underground for Lakes and Luxury
Krzysztof took us to the edge of one of Wieliczka’s salt lakes. The water contains so much salt, a person could simply float along without a worry of drowning. This lake seemed like a cross between the Dead Sea and the Trevi Fountain. Simon noticed the coins at the bottom, and we made our own contributions, in the hope at least one of our individual wishes would come true.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is renowned for its microclimate, and other health-giving properties. Treat yourself to the benefits of a spa and sanatorium, located 440 feet below ground. Pamper your skin, or take treatments for chronic allergies and other health issues. Or you can even spend the night of self-restoration in a comfortable room.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine Then and Now
Wieliczka’s abundant salt deposits can be dated back more than 12 million years. When men first began mining the salt in the 13th century, they were literally working blind. It wasn’t until 1645 that the mine was first mapped.
The single dark stain upon the history of the Wieliczka Salt Mine emanated from the horrors of the Second World War. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, thousands of Jews were transported from forced labor camps to the mine to work in an underground armament factory. Near the end of the war, these Jews were once more transported. This time to factories in the Czech Republic and Austria.
Today, shops, restaurants, and other amenities welcome visitors at 380 feet below ground. And remember the Chapel of St. Kinga? Well, you can have your Reception in a hall at the same level. Food and supplies for the reception hall and restaurants are brought down by elevator, but all the food is prepared fresh underground.
When Krzysztof began as a tour guide 12 years ago, the mine saw 300 to 400 visitors per day. Today, it’s approximately 4,000. “Summer is like New York at rush hour,” he said. Fewer people come to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the offseason, making it the perfect time to plan a trip to Poland.
In the coming years, 60 percent of the mine’s chambers will be filled with sand. The biggest maintenance issue is keeping the mine from collapsing. Therefore, chambers with no historical or geological value will be filled up for stability, especially areas running underneath the town.
The planners of this project have turned out to be forward thinking. If sometime in the future the chambers need to be reopened the sand can be easily washed out again.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine was designated a UNESCO First World Heritage Site in 1978, and in 1994, the President of the Republic of Poland proclaimed it a Historical Monument. Awards and accolades have followed, but the true worth of the Wieliczka Salt Mine lies in its rich history of hard work, abiding faith, artistic talent, and innovation. Time spent in its depths is time well spent and will leave you with indelible memories.
If You Go
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is open daily, with the exception of New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Holy Saturday, November 1, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when it is either closed or is open for limited hours.
From April 1 to October 31 hours of operation are from 7:30 AM, with the last group entering the mine at 7:30 PM
In the winter months (November 2 – March 31) hours of operation are from 8:00 AM, with the last group entering the mine at 5:00 PM
Reservations are not necessary, with the exception of group tours and individuals in wheelchairs.
Tickets can be purchased onsite or online. Due to a number of discount options and fluctuating exchange rates, be sure to check the Wieliczka website for accurate, up-to-the-minute ticketing information.
What You Should Know
- Tours range from 1 to three hours, however, bathroom facilities, shops, and restaurants are available within the mine.
- The Wieliczka Salt Mine welcomes visitors of all ages. Interactive exhibits, a playground, and changing tables make for a comfortable and enjoyable family outing.
- Children under four years of age are admitted to the mine free of charge.
- The use of strollers is not recommended due to the large number of stairs to be negotiated. They can be left in a luggage room, and retrieved at the end of your tour.
- Elevators are available, and some parts of the tour are accessible for individuals using standard-width wheelchairs. Tours for individuals with mobility issues, or who require assistance are available year round.
- The taking of photographs and videos is permitted for a small additional charge.
- Tours are conducted in 20 languages.