Something I never thought I’d be interested in visiting… the salt mines!
Wieliczka Salt Mine is a popular day trip from Krakow, Poland. Many trips to Auschwitz are, oddly, teamed up with a trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine. I booked a tour of both. If you’ve read my blog on visiting Auschwitz, you’ll know my tour was pretty mediocre. My tour company told me I’d have a half hour for lunch, so I’d packed my own. We actually ended up having an hour and a half at the pub opposite the mine. This was when the lovely Brits on my tour decided to get absolutely plastered.
I, on the other hand, decided to go for a bit of a walk through the town, learning more about its history.
Where is Wieliczka? Why is there a Salt Mine there?
Wieliczka is about 14km from central Krakow. It is a small town, home to a very popular tourist attraction. Located 135 meters (443 ft) underground is the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine.
The deposit of rock salt in Wieliczka has been mined since the 13th century, making it one of the first major industrial operations in Europe. The rock salt is naturally gray in various shades, a looks a little grubby – a bit like unpolished granite, rather than the white you would expect.
In the middle ages, salt became recognized as one of the most important staples in the food and preservation industry, leading to the advancement of salt mining technology and further excavation. During the Renaissance, the mine was one of the largest business ventures in Europe. It was around this time that royal tourists started to flock to the mine, lured there in part by the developing Renaissance taste for humanism and culture. By the late 18th century, Austria gained control of the mine and brought new forms of organization, as well as further technological advancement – many of which are responsible for the longevity of the mine. The birth of general tourism in the mine occurred during Austrian rule. During World War II, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans as an ad-hoc facility for various war-related industries. (AtlasObscura)
The mine produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation.
It also played a large part in the local economy. Our guide came from a family that have worked in the mines for the last four generations – initially as miners, and later as guides.
What’s so special about it?
The mine continues to attract thousands of people each day. Why? It’s pretty darn gorgeous. It is also a world class monument, featured on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List.
Visitors have been flocking to the mines since 1722, exploring the over 300kms of underground corridors. These days, you have to take part in a tour to visit the site. The typical tourist route takes you past just 2% of the corridors available – let’s face it, I’m sure the owners do not want people lost underground!
The thing is – the people working in the mines spent an awful lot of time underground. Sometimes, more than the time they spent above it. There were horses that spent their whole lives inside the mines, never seeing daylight. Underground, there exists a whole little town which the workers used to frequent. Devout miners working in dangerous conditions dedicated themselves to building four chapels in the mine. The oldest is nearly 400 years old.
Throughout the mines are many alcoves full of statues carved of salt, as well as natural formations. There are even beautifully hued lakes underground.
Chapel of St Kinga (Kaplica Św Kingi)
Many of the annual 1.2 million visitors travel to Wielizcka for the sole reason of visiting the Chapel of St Kinga.
From 1895, it took over 30 years for three men to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed. It’s pretty impressive. Everything is carved from salt, even the chandeliers. It is dedicated to St. Kinga, the patron saint of salt mine workers. It’s surprisingly light in there, with the splendid chapel (54 meters in length, 12 meters in height and 18 meters wide) lit with the aforementioned salt chandeliers.
Though I’m not religious, I can appreciate hard work when I see it. If you are Catholic, you can take part in special mass celebrations at various times during the year.
What is the mine used for today?
Apart from people visiting the tourist route, there is actually quite a lot of activity at the mine. The adjacent Grant Sal Hotel has a spa resort nestled deep underground. There is accommodation underground, but its open-air, backpacker style. If you want, you can have a conference in the old mines, or get married there. I can only assume they have a better lift than the tourist one I used… (more on that under ‘How do I visit?‘).
In addition, there are a series of health benefits that are claimed to result from a visit to the mines. You can seek treatment for all sorts of ailments, and take part in physiotherapy and ‘day health’ events. People have also been known to set some pretty funky world records down there!
How do I visit?
Oh, and some advice. It is 810 steps down the mines. This is quite a long trek. Several of our British friends nearly threw up going down. Don’t get drunk beforehand and nearly pass out going down the stairs. Please.
Coming back up, you’re crammed into a tiny miners lift, with no lighting, that rattles and creaks. It doesn’t take long to get to the top, but your method of ascent can be a little disconcerting!
The temperature in the mine is 14°C, year round. It’s worth taking a sweater with you. In July and August English-language tours depart every half-hour from 8.30am to 6pm. During the rest of the year there are between six and eight daily tours in English. The walk is around 2-2.5KM, so wear comfy shoes. The tourist route costs 59PLN.
I took the tourist route, but you can take a miners route which is a bit more challenging, and requires stylish hard hats. The tourist route is a bit tacky, yes, but it’s well worth it to see that magnificent main chapel.
Minibuses (3zł) depart Kraków often between 6am and 8pm from stands along ul Pawia, across from the Galeria Krakowska mall (which is a really good mall, by the way – handy for groceries!)
Oh, and if you are wondering, the air did taste kind of salty. But maybe that was just my imagination running away on me!
Is it worth exploring the town of Wieliczka?
If you’ve got spare time, yes! I only had about an hour, but enjoyed wandering the quintessential Polish town. Founded in 1290, there are various little parks and buildings to explore. I found a number of statues – including a stylish one of Pope John Paul II up the hill from the mine.
If you’d like to purchase souvenirs, there is a small market located on the street before the mine’s main entrance.