I’m not really sure why I was inspired to visit a salt mine. I mean, seriously, touring a salt mine? Seems like a bizarre thing to do while you are on vacation (granted, not as bizarre as touring Chernobyl), but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and was supposedly worth visiting.
Until recently, Wieliczka was one of the world’s oldest continuously operating salt mines. Production of table salt began in the 13th century and ended only recently, in 2007, due to flooding. The mine is massive, stretching some 186 miles (300km) underground and reaching a depth of 1,072 feet (327m). That’s nearly twice the height of the Washington Monument (555 feet). The official tour route took us through 2 miles (3.5km) of these underground tunnels.
Our English language guide was Sebastian, a cute fellow, in that tall and lanky, Eastern Europe-accented English and great sense of humor kind of way. When he casually mentioned that we would be walking down 54 flights of stairs to begin our tour, I thought he was joking until he opened a heavy wooden door and we found ourselves hurrying down a seemingly endless staircase.
While walking through salt tunnels and caves is thoroughly exciting, it’s not the main draw of the tour. Over the years, artistically inclined miners have fought boredom by carving salt into grandiose sculptures that honor important Poles and the history of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
One of our first stops on the tour was the Burnt Out (Spalone) Chamber. In this chamber there are several carved figures that honor the men who worked as the mine’s “pentinents”. Prior to the installation of a proper ventilation system, the so-called pentinents were responsible for burning off the methane that would accumulate in the ceilings of the mine’s chambers. To accomplish this, they would dress in wet clothing and and crawl along the floor of mine chambers clutching a long pole with a lit torch on the end. As you can imagine, this was one of the riskiest jobs a man could hold at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and as such, they were often rewarded handsomely with…extra bags of salt to take home to their families (keeping in mind that salt was an extremely valuable commodity in the Middle Ages).
The “pentinent” methane burners. And yeah, I need to learn how to use my camera.
Gnomes…mining salt. Gnomes were the good luck charm of Wieliczka miners.
The air is pure, and the temperature a cool 55 degrees. Just don’t get lost.
Besides carving methane burners and gnomes, the miners undertook larger projects including a number of chapels, the largest being St. Kinga’s Chapel, which was carved out of a massive green salt block in 1896.
Walk down the salt stairs leading down to the salt chapel to view the salt carvings lit by the salt crystal chandeliers
They hold Catholic Mass here on special occasions, and if you’re so inclined, you can even get married down here, which someone apparently did the evening prior to our visit.
Bored with the floor’s design? Carve a new one.
Detail of the chapel wall
The Last Supper
Pope John Paul II
Great place for a dinner party
One of the many underground lakes
Laura, Sebastian, our Polish guide whose name I cannot remember but he was really nice, and me
At the end of our tour, Sebastian announced that the wait for the tour group elevators was too long, so instead we would be cramming into the service elevators used by the mine workers. It was amazing how many people we could fit into the small cages, which sped to the surface of the mine at a rate of 12 feet per second.
If you do find yourself in Krakow and have some time to spare, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is definitely worth checking out. And yes, you can buy little bags of salt to hand out to your friends and family back home.