Wieliczka Salt Mines

Unusually for Poland in mid-June, the rain was coming down in torrents. Our usual holiday past-time of lazing on the Vistula River banks to nurse our Żubrówka hangovers was out, and we’d already ticked off all the obvious major ‘must dos’ of the region. We asked the hostel staff for advice, and immediately in a tone that issued something of an incredulous disbelief that we had even come close to overlooking the option, our enthusiastic receptionist replied: “Wieliczka!”
Poland Wieliczka Salt Mines

On the outskirts of Krakow, Wieliczka was home to what was apparently one of the city’s most visited attractions, and another on the admittedly relatively long list of UNESCO world heritage sites in the Małopolskie region. With over 1.2 million visitors a year and advertising pamphlets that promised Jules Verne style excursions into a deep subterranean labyrinth more than 1000 feet under one of Krakow’s leafy suburbs, adorned with life-size figurines of stout, axe wielding dwarves and stalactites to boot, we simply couldn’t say no.

At the Mines

There were plenty of tour companies competing for our custom, but we took our own route and avoided the seemingly high-fees altogether by grabbing a local bus from Krakow’s central station to the town of Wieliczka itself.

As it turned out, we’d made the right choice. At most of Poland’s UNESCO sites (Auschwitz-Birkenau included), your entrance fee will include a tour, and it’s seldom that third-party operators are allowed to guide on the premises, rendering organised excursions from the city just glorified (and expensive) transportation and ticket-buying services.

The initial descent to the somewhat ominously named ‘level 1’ set the tone for the day. 400 steps down a roughly-hewn wooden staircase inside a vertical shaft that cut more than 200 feet into the earth served as the entrance way to a the first mysteriously dank and gloomy tunnels of the mines. At 68 meters below surface, it was, our tour guide informed us, literally downhill from here to the deepest recesses that lay more than 130 meters under.

In the Mines

As we delved further into the criss-crossing tunnels our tour stopped sporadically to hear tales of the myths and legends that had grown up around the site, all tactfully interspersed with some of the more believable aspects of the mine’s past; from its place as the leading salt producer of Eastern Europe, to the role of the Żupy krakowskie, one of the world’s longest running private mining enterprises that kept Wieliczka in action until 1996.
Poland Wieliczka Salt Mines descending

The real draw however was the endless array of quirky sculpture, art and architecture that often looked like it had been plucked straight from the pages of a fantasy novel. The further we descended the more elaborate it became, and before long we found ourselves immersed in a wealth of religious iconography and artistic grandeur that was chiselled from the very walls of the rock salt caverns themselves, the legacy of the thousands of mining artisans that had toiled in these tunnels since the 13th century.

he Depths of the Mines

The existence of a myriad of religiously inspired hot-spots, from the unassuming wooden apses of The Chapel of the Holy Cross, to its antithesis, the proudly elaborate Chapel of St. Kinga right at the depths of the mines, added another superlative to Wieliczka’s already well-equipped arsenal, that of the deepest underground church in the world.

An echoing cavity right at Wieliczka’s heart, the chapel of St. Kinga is the pièce de résistance of the mine tours, and one that doesn’t disappoint. Complete with a rock salt replica of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, the artistic wealth of this cavern has been praised by visiting luminaries since the site’s UNESCO designation. Today, the intricate carvings and mesmerizing chandeliers (that are also crafted entirely from salt) are an awesome sight to behold, and left us all wondering what possible phenomenal feat of engineering and artistic vision could conceive and enact such an undertaking.
Wieliczka Salt Mines Lake

As we emerged from the pleasant cool of the underground tunnels, back into the stuffy mid-summer rain of Krakow, we had all learned something of Wieliczka’s place as one of Europe’s longest running and most profitable natural salt mines, and its role in securing Krakow as a powerful city at the centre of medieval continental power struggles. But, over and above that, we were all simply in awe of the altogether dramatic and unique artistic endeavour that lay sprawled in the subterranean labyrinth below us.

About Rich

Rich is young and energetic writer with a versatile form and published pieces in an eclectic range of subject areas - from medieval witch trial manuscripts to jungle trekking in Southern Thailand.