Salt Mines and Tunnels in Wieliczka, Poland:
The Salt Mine in Wieliczka, just 10 minutes outside of Krakow, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978, but its regional importance has gone back centuries. It was first formally mined in the 13th century, and has been expanded ever since, supplying a range of salts over the centuries. The Wieliczka Salt Mine Museum has taken over a part of the mine and opened it to tourists to show the full history and operation of this huge natural resource.
On entry to the museum you can choose a guide for your language (male or female) and are quickly led to the top of the visitors’ mineshaft. 400 wooden stairs spiral down letting groups of visitors climb ever deeper into the mine, descending about 70 meters. Looking over the edge the staircase seems to go on forever down into the earth.
(If you cannot manage the stairs, the mine has recently been fitted with full disabled and wheelchair access.)
At the bottom of the stairs you enter a network of corridors and tunnels that take you around the mine. Many of the tunnels appear to go on for miles, and I learn that indeed they they do just that, although not everywhere is open to the public.
Most of the linking tunnels on the museum tour are sided by wooden post supports, and these were put in place as the tunnels were being dug out. Many are painted white to try and maximise the available light from the oil lamps and candles used at the time of digging. Everything looks rather new, but because the salty in the mine acts to preserve the wooden timbers, many are centuries old but still look as if they were only put there today.
The tunnels link up a variety of vaults – large open excavations that have become large ‘rooms’ often with a specific purpose, statue or rest area carved from the salt. The underground tourist route is 2km long and takes you through 22 vaults, covering various different aspects of the mine and its history. This is however only 3% of the total mine size which is over 300km long and has 3000 vaults descending up to 400m down. It is still operational as a mine in places, but not at the level it was centuries earlier.
Many of the vaults you pass through have working dioramas and well explained tools on display that explain how the mine came to be and how it was operated. Unrushed by the guides, you have plenty of time to take in the scale of the operation and well as what life would have been like for the men and animals working there.
The tunnels and many wooden pathways take you through the mine, and there is considerable detail either side of the walkways that show how digging was done and the process of building tunnels and digging down to excavate the rich seams of salt.
Many small vaults are given over to churches or just simply places of refuge for the miners. All are ornately carved in the church style of the period and decorated either by carved salt statues or painted wooden icons, the salt keeping these century old items preserved as if they were painted yesterday.
The largest and best known vault is the St Kinga Chapel. It can hold 500 people, and has been used for regular religious sermons and weddings. It is available to hire and I am told there is a waiting list. As the temperature in the mine never changes from a fixed 14 degrees centigrade, and the humidity is always dry, then what to wear is never going to be a problem.
The attention to detail and dedication of the craftsmen is clearly amazing. My guide tells me with great national pride, that all the men who worked on the statues and sculptures were self taught and did it in their free time.
The shining ’tile effect’ floor was originally hand sanded salt rock, now polished by the numerous visitors walking over it. You need to keep reminding yourself that everything you see here has been hand carved out of the rock salt in the mine, and although looking fresh, could be centuries old.
As the mine is underground, there is always a need to pump out surplus water that permeates the salt walls. Much of this gathers in large lakes in the mine, some of which you walk over as you move between the vaults. The amazing colours come from the different salts in the water, as well as the numerous coins thrown in by visitors making a wish, the salts building up on them and sparkling like diamonds.
The museum and souvenir shop is at the base of the mine, actually at the bottom of a huge open vault hollowed out and rising 60m above you.
Examples of many of the different types of salt mined are on display. Many fluoresce in the dark, and in one area, where the lights dim down you can see the range of colours they give off. One can only imagine the mystery and illusion these would have had centuries ago when the miners had nothing but candle light to go by.
The trip back to the surface didn’t involve climbing any stairs; a specialist high speed lift raises you up to the surface from 137 metres below in under 20 seconds.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine really does deserve its UNESCO heritage status. It is the perfect blend of easy to comprehend history with interactive displays and an absolutely jaw dropping awesomeness about the tunnels and vaults. The fact it was most done long before electricity came to the mine just makes it even more amazing.
Now, after all that salt, it’s time for the 10 minute drive back to the centre of Krakow for a well deserved beer.
The Polish Salt Route is a tour that takes in the saltmine at Bochnia (20 minutes from Wieliczka) and the Saltworks Castle.