The Salt of Poland: Going Down the Wieliczka Mine

The cathedral in the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland.
The cathedral in the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland.

By James Michael Dorsey

church inside the mine
The church inside the salt mine.

So what’s worth seeing in a salt mine?   A whole lot more than salt!

Visitors entering the Wieliczka mine, 30 miles, (19km   ) outside of Krakow Poland descend more than 800 stairs beneath the rolling countryside into a vast and sprawling magical land of dwarves, gnomes, and mythical creatures that all stand guard over a shrine to a national religious icon 1000 feet(330 mtr) below.

Long ago and far away, some 13,500,000 years gone by, in what Geologists have tagged the Miocene era, modern day Poland sat beneath an immense sea, and as the waters receded over some 20,000 years the Carpathian Basin near Krakow filled with vast deposits of salt, {Sodium Chloride.}   In the 13th century the Wieliczka mine began extracting it and did so nonstop until 1996.   For such a small country, Poland is ranked number 13 in world salt production.

1073 Feet Deep

A fresco of the Last Supper.
A fresco of the Last Supper.

For countless generations the salt miners of Krakow have tunneled beneath their homeland producing a final labyrinth that is 1073 feet deep, {327mtrs} and 178 miles long, {287km} containing eight different levels.   Today, the entire complex is a UNESCO Heritage Site and is rightfully one of Poland’s major tourist attractions.

In days long gone it was common for miners and their work animals, especially horses, to live in the mine for weeks if not months on end exchanging sunlight for oil lamps and candles, and with little to do in their free time the laborers became not just artisans, but artistes.   They started carving salt and they were very good at it.

Entering the mineshaft.
Entering the mineshaft.

Today the Wieliczka Mine is one of the world’s largest museums and art galleries filled with both realistic and fanciful creations that tell the history of both the work and the people, mythological and historic beings, and even a full size church, all sculpted from natural salt.

German Weapons

Visitors walk with a guide immersed in local history and lore.   You learn tidbits such as how during the Second World War the Wieliczka mine was used by the Germans for weapons manufacturing and also to hide looted art from across Europe.  

You wander down long tunnels punctuated by larger than life dioramas of prolonged life beneath the surface.   Men worked, ate, and slept, side by side with their horses and dogs, and these moments along with towering sculptures of national heroes such as Copernicus and Chopin greet you at the most unexpected places.

Old rail cars once used in the salt mining operations.
Old rail cars once used in the salt mining operations.

This is grand folk art, beautifully rendered statuary alongside mannequins, both stationary and animated, all telling the history of the mine.   On occasion, in dimly lit side tunnels you will still hear the clank of steel against hardened salt and catch a silhouetted glimpse of modern miners who still extract small amounts of table salt.

A gorgeous emerald green lake features underwater lighting to peer into its depths and notice the myriad of coins pilgrims have tossed in to ask their patron saints for favors.

One of the more interesting dioramas depicts the “methane burners” of olden days; miners who soaked their long robes in water then crawled into newly carved caverns with torches at the end of long poles. Under low ceilings natural methane gas tends to pool.  

The job of the “burners” was to crawl in as low as possible and lift up their torches until it lit the methane and burned it off but if they raised their torch too quickly the result was often self -incineration.   Thankfully, modern ventilation makes such

A statue of the Madonna in the mine.

dangerous work obsolete but it is a fascinating part of the history.

By far the most stunning attraction of the entire mine is the chapel of Saint Kinga. When you enter the cavern at 330 feet, {110 mtr} it takes your breath away.   It is a poor man’s Sistine and you have to remind yourself that it is carved entirely from salt. The story goes that in the late 13th century, the lady Kinga endured an arranged and chaste marriage to a gentleman who eventually became Prince of Krakow, thus elevating her to the title of princess.  

The vast cathedral down in the mine.
The vast cathedral down in the mine.

Upon his death she renounced all claim to rule and entered a nunnery to spend her remaining days in quiet contemplation.   The legend is that before doing so she cast her engagement ring into the nearby Maramures salt mine and after a few years the ring miraculously traveled through layers of salt and over miles to the current site of the chapel in the Wieliczka mine.   Today, Princess Kinga is a canonized saint of the Catholic Church and patron saint of Poland.

A Stunning Masterpiece

The chapel is a stunning masterpiece of bas relief bible scenes, alcoves with quoted prayers and free standing statues whose crystal pure salt allows the back lighting to appear transmitted from inside; the statues literally glow with life. The entire vestibule, communion rail and altar; Even part of the overhead electrical chandelier is made of salt.   Regular church services are offered in the chapel and it is available for rent for weddings and special occasions.

Before leaving visitors are treated a light show inside a massive cavern, followed by restaurants and bars, and several fascinating gift shops that feature dvd tours of the mine and statuettes and fetishes carved from salt, “Go ahead and lick it,” the salesgirl told me.   There are gorgeous geodes and minerals for sale, all taken from the mine, and is there even a complete set of Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarves action figures as they were of course, all miners.

The church pews.
The church pews.

Even exiting from the mine is an exciting thrill ride.   Each visitor must walk through the mine to the end, but to exit from over 1000 feet, {330 mtrs} you are crammed 36 to an elevator the size of a linen closet.   Then without warning you are shot to the surface in less than 30 seconds.   Few amusement parks have such a thrill ride and some people told me they come to the mine just to ride the elevator.

You must make one of three offered trips with a guide.   There is a tourist route that takes about three hours of rather strenuous walking and climbing stairs, a rather rugged, real spelunking tour that requires overalls, a hard hat and miners light plus the ability to slither and shimmy through narrow and dark opening and there is a much abbreviated children’s tour.                    

There are other mines open for tours but none has the history or beauty of the Wieliczka mine of Krakow.

Going to the Mine

James Michael Dorsey with his wife.
James Michael Dorsey with his wife.

Minibuses to Wieliczka (3zł) depart Kraków frequently between 6am and 8pm from makeshift bus stands along ul Pawia, across the street from the Galeria Krakowska shopping mall (adjacent to Kraków Główny train station). Several tour operators, including Cracow City Tours , run bus tours to the mine for around 130zł, including admission.

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