‘How many times a day do you say ‘salt’?” inquired Martin from Malta.
Kaja, the guide for our visit to the Wieliczka Mine, was momentarily flummoxed.
“I’ve never been asked that before,” she replied. “Perhaps I need to count one day?”
For a visit to the mine at Wieliczka is all about salt. It’s everywhere. From the roofs, down to the floor. In the ‘crystals’ hanging from elaborate chandeliers to the walls, which we are encouraged to touch and lick.
Wieliczka – A mine of history
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, 12 km south-east of Kraków, is over 700 years old. Although exploration was halted in the 1990s, partly to preserve the mine’s historical status but also because of the risk of flooding, it still produces 15,000 pounds of salt each year.
The mine has been a tourist attraction since the19th Century when the Russians opened the first tourist route with miners acting as tour guides. As a nod to Wieliczka Salt Mine’s provenance as a tourist attraction, today’s guides wear uniforms modelled on the miners’ workwear.
A mere 1% of the mine’s 300 km labyrinthine network of tunnels is open to the public. Over the years such luminaries as Goethe, Chopin and Pope John Paul II have paid a visit. In 2017, 1.7 million visitors descended into its salty depths, making the Wieliczka Mine one of Poland’s biggest tourist attractions.
What to expect on a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine
At the start of the tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, you first descend 47 flights of stairs, helpfully numbered, to the first chamber, ‘The Bono’, at 64 meters below the surface. I’d like to think that there is a connection between this chamber and U2’s frontman but think that this is unlikely.
From here, the tour takes you from chamber to chamber, through narrow corridors hewn into the mine’s salt base, which are supported by cylinders of pale wood ‘painted’ with a mixture of brine and lime. Kaja assures us that they only lose one tourist a month.
Natures’ white gold
Salt played a major role in the fortunes of the Kingdom of Poland. During the reign of Casimir the Great (1310 – 1370), one-third of the royal revenue came from salt. Casimir gave refuge and privileges to Poland’s Jews and Kraków’s Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, is named after him.
Going back even further to the Neolithic Age, 6,000 years ago, salt was known as ‘white gold’ as it was the only means to preserve food. The word ‘salary’ is a Roman term derived from the word ‘salt’.
Wieliczka Mine’s chapels
But salt mining was a risky business. Fear was the miners’ constant companion. The fear of being poisoned by methane gas, the fear of flooding. Asking God for his protection and giving thanks for this was important to these miners, and they created a number of underground chapels at the Wieliczka Salt Mine where they could pray.
The most spectacular of these chapels is the St. Kinga’s Chapel. Hewn from a single block of salt in 1862, this is pure sodium chloride, right down to the ‘icicles’ hanging from the chapel’s Christmas tree. Elaborate bas-reliefs of scenes from the life of Jesus are carved into its walls, including a copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. When I visited on 26th December, there was an exquisitely detailed nativity scene carved out of salt.
A salt statue – what else? – of St. Kinga takes centre stage on the altar, flanked by Saints Joseph and Clement. At the rear, a statue of Pope John Paul II towers over an adjacent illuminated Virgin Mary.
Are you searching for an unusual wedding location? Then why not get married at St. Kinga’s Chapel? It is available for hire and, at just over 100 meters below ground, it really will prove How Deep Is Your Love.
Indoor hot air balloon ride anyone?
Leaving St Kinga’s Chapel, we pass a small salt lake, which is saltier than Israel’s Dead Sea. It is said that if you are determined to sink the nine meters to its bed, you would need to strap on a 40 kg ballast.
The final chamber is the deepest at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, at a depth of 135 meters. Reaching a height of 36 meters, the Stanislaw Stasiz Chamber has been the setting for two records. These were the first indoor bungee jump and the first indoor hot balloon flight.
Tour over, we exit through the gift shop. Salty souvenirs anyone?
Is it worth visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mine?
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is super- touristy and you could be devoting your time in Kraków to other, more cultural, activities. It is expensive by Polish standards and I did get the feeling of being processed through the site. I visited Wieliczka at a quiet time of year and I shudder to think how rammed it becomes during peak season.
But having said that, it’s not often that you are given the opportunity to visit a Disneyfied mine complete with chapels made from salt. Embrace the kitsch!
On balance, if you have a half-day to spare, a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a good option, if only to see something unique. However, if time is short, skip it. You are better off focusing on exploring Kraków, its churches and its museums, and taking a day trip to Auschwitz.