Updated: Aug 22, 2019
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the most incredible places on earth, with its cavernous underground trails leading to an awe-inspiring underground world. An adventure below the earth's surface is always worth endeavouring.
With only a handful of days to spend in the city of Kraków during our trip to Poland, my friend Marta and I decided to dedicate the better part of Day Two to exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. After endeavouring a three hour walk from our hotel in the heart of Kraków to the town of Wieliczka (pronounced "vyeh-leech-ka"), we eventually reached the entrance to the mine for the 11.30am guided tour that we had booked.
Following a relatively quick check-in process (we booked our tickets online in advance), we lined up in the designated spot for the Tourist Route tour to begin. Thankfully, we had saved a bit of money, thanks to the student discount that they offer; we paid 74 PLN instead of the regular 94 PLN fee charged during their high season. Although it was still quite pricey in terms of paid attractions, it's something that I've wanted to see for years, ever since I first heard about it over half a decade earlier (both from my first trip to the city with my high school in 2012, and from stories Marta's family had told me about their own trips there in the past).
Your journey begins at the Danilowicz Shaft, where you begin your 135 metre (445 feet) descent into the depths of the mine from the surface. Doing so was a bit nerve-racking; however, you have to push the thoughts of a potential cave-in from your mind in favour of focusing on the incredible underground exhibits, salt sculptures, and beautiful rooms and caverns that you are about to see. Don't worry, though. I haven't heard of anything of the like happening to tourists here, it's just my excitable mind making me think of these things!
The longer you spend diverting your attention to the incredible things that you are witnessing first-hand, the easier this becomes to distract yourself. On that note however, a word to the wise: if you are feeling nervous or are afraid of heights, avoid peering down through the centre of the 350-step stairwell, leading down into the mine. You can see why this is the case, in the image to the right. You're essentially peering down toward the centre of the earth.
The guided tour through the mine lasted about three hours and consisted of roughly three kilometres (nearly two miles) of wandering through corridors, with 800 steps to climb. 350 of these are the aforementioned descending stairs needed to reach the beginning of the underground tour. The only way you can explore the mine is in the accompaniment of a guide, as it can become quite dangerous if you're unsafely wandering about on your own.
With twenty chambers to visit, you're introduced to this magnificent world all thanks to the Hungarian-Polish Princess Kinga. As legend goes, this salt mine would not have existed without this her, when married Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, the young princess requested that her father, Béla IV of Hungary, provide her with a lump of salt; at the time, salt was prize-worthy in Poland. Conceding, her father brought her to a salt mine in Máramaros, where she tossed in her engagement ring. Upon arriving in Kraków for her wedding, she asked local Polish miners to dig deep into the earth until they came upon a rock. Of course, in doing so, they found a lump of salt that once split it in two, contained the princess's precious engagement ring. This was the site of Wieliczka. Consequently, thanks to this tale, the later canonized Saint Kinga has become the patron saint of salt miners both in and around the Polish capital.
However, the history of the salt mine is believed to go back much further than this. The foundations of the current mine are estimated to have been primitively excavated after the discovery of a rock salt deposit in ancient times. In the Middle Ages, as salt became commonly recognized as crucial for the preservation of food, the necessity for salt increased drastically.
The chambers located closest to the surface — where the tour initially begins — are the oldest parts of the salt mine. As time goes on and the salt from one level has been fully excavated, miners dig deeper to find even more. On these floors, you will find many of the original tools used during the mine's early days; despite the centuries passing, these are still intact thanks to the preservation benefits of being surrounded by salt for hundreds of years. Life-size figures 'work' the machinery, giving visitors an idea not only of how miners would have used the devices, but also what they would have worn while working underground.
In these various chambers, you can spot plenty of salt rock formations, including the "cauliflower", consisting of white salt taking on a 'fluffy' form similar to the head of a cauliflower; a protruding dark grey rock; or clear, crystal-like protrusions of halite, or rock salt.
The mine itself contains four chapels carved directly into the salt, where miners were able to pray while on their shifts. The first of these that I had the privilege of seeing on the tour was the Chapel of St. Anthony, the oldest among all the surviving chapels at Wieliczka Salt Mine. Dating back to the 1600s, the space is lit by a beautiful chandelier made with salt crystals and adorned with statues of several saints (of course, these are also carved from pillars of salt found within the mine).
As we wandered through this subterranean world, I found myself noting how much it resembled Tolkien's realm of Mordor. Though the majority of our excursion was visually breathtaking and extremely interesting, there were parts of the tour where the environment became intriguingly eerie (as in the grotto, pictured in photos I took in the collage directly below). In fact, in some spots, I wouldn't have been surprised if a glowering orc or troll waltzed right onto the pathway! Adding to the shroud of mystery in this historical excavation was the auditory accompaniments of Chopin's music, coming together to create the darkened chamber's ambience. Adding to this preternatural aura is the back story our guide shared about one of the saline 'lakes'.
During the Second World War, when the Germans occupied Poland, curious Nazi soldiers entered the depths of Wieliczka Salt Mine to explore what these caverns had to offer. Of course, this was against the advice of locals, who warned of the dangers of the mine for those who were inexperienced in traversing it; naturally, these soldiers who were known for their defiance and hatred of the Polish people did as they pleased, taking a rowboat out onto the saline lake within the mines. The boat began to rock and capsized, with the soldiers getting stuck beneath it. Because of the water's density (from the high concentration of salt), they were unable to sink low enough to swim beneath the boat to safety. Eventually, they could not tread water any longer and drowned.
Stories like this are not the norm in Wieliczka though, as the salt mines contain much more magnificent feats of human technology than of their stupidity. One such example of the mine's grandeur is yet another holy space, the Chapel of St. Kinga. The largest and most lovely of the mine's chapels, this massive space entirely captivates your attention upon stepping into its vicinity. From the impressive chandeliers made of salt, intricately carved sculptures and murals or religious iconography, and the sheer fact that it took decades to carve out this thirty-one by fifteen by eleven metre (100 x 50 x 35 foot) chapel, you are left absolutely speechless.
You'll notice that St. Kinga's Chapel, pictured directly above, isn't the only space constructed nearly in its entirety from pure salt. The majority of the attractions within the salt mine are, with wood rarely seen within the shafts. Indeed, the Kraków Saltworks Instruction of 1743 forbade the use of timber equipment, as it could become the source of a fire if things were to go awry.
Yet you'll notice in the photo to the right, captured inside of the Michalowice Chamber, that plenty of wood has been used on these high rafters. Located 109 metres (360 feet) underground, this room stands out as being the only room on the Tourist Route constructed using such large amounts of timber, a design created by miners that continues to astound visitors to this day.
Despite the beauty of everything we were seeing, at this point, our mouths were both extremely dry. Every time I went to lick my lips, I tasted the saltiness of the air clinging to my skin. Nonetheless, when we reached the conclusion of the tour in the enormous Staszic Chamber, the first thing I did when I reached this area was stand on a bench and lick the salt wall (seen in the Boomerang video below). As you can probably guess, it was...salty. I'd recommend you trying it at some point during your time in the tunnels. Because salt is naturally drying and discourages bacterial growth, you won't find someone else's gross saliva contaminating the wall where you opt to lick. Just to be sure though, I had climbed to a higher spot to taste test the room. After all, when will you have the chance to lick one of the world's oldest functioning salt mines again?
In addition to the gift shop and a spot to eat in the Staszic Chamber, you can also take an elevator up to the observation desk for a small fee. Up here, you have the opportunity to view an exhibit on "The Extraordinary World of Minerals: An Exhibition in UV Light". A chance to observe fluorescent minerals from across the globe — including halite (rock salt), dolomite, aragonite, franklinite, calcite, zincite, marcasite, and barite — the lights within the cabinets holding these rocks change automatically. Fluctuating between regular white light and UV fluorescent lighting, you can compare the colours of the specimens with a simple lighting change.
You can see the change from regular white light (left) to the brilliant and vibrant colours under the UV light (right) directly below. This specific example is of a calcite from New Jersey in the United States.
Back on the ground level of the Staszic Chamber, prior to leaving, be sure to snap a picture at the salt mine's free photo booth, which emails the image directly to your inbox (you can see the photo that we took, below). Along this corridor, you can also find carbonized plant matter, dating back over thirteen million years, visible within the salt deposits making up the walls. If you run your finger along these black spots, you'll notice that the coal will leave a dark smudge on your skin.
Thankfully, you exit the salt mine via an elevator within the Staszic Chamber, meaning that you don't have to climb up hundreds upon hundreds of steps to ascend into the light of day once again. We were released into the Saltworks Castle, built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century and serving as the mine's head office from the medieval times until 1945. Now, it's the home of Kraków Saltworks Museum, which you can wander through before heading outside once again.
To travel back into central Kraków, we walked through the town of Wieliczka toward the local train station, which would bring us back to a more reasonable walking distance from our hotel (that is, compared to the endeavour of walking over three hours like we did that morning). As we made our way toward Wieliczka's train station, we were able to see a bit of the town itself, above ground. With the warmth of mid-spring settling over Europe, the trees and flora of Poland were in full bloom. Everything boasted a vibrant lushness that we couldn't help but linger a while to admire before continuing on our way. Several times, we found ourselves taking a seat on a park bench to admire the picturesque area surrounding us.
Wieliczka Salt Mine truly is a remarkable place to visit. This location offers an insight into one of the area's most valuable exports throughout history, amazing subterranean discoveries, and is truly a unique experience altogether. If you're in Kraków, you won't want to miss this.
To read more of our posts on Poland, click here.