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Exploring Poland’s “Underground Salt Cathedral”, the Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt Mine Tour 10-2015 (90)

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is situated in southern Poland, in the town of Wieliczka. less than a half hour’s drive from Krakow.  It’s a historic place with salt having be excavated here since prehistoric times and the mine itself opening in the 13th century, making it one of the world’s oldest salt mines.  The mine produced table salt until 2007 when it closed (because of the low price of salt at the time and flooding of portions of the mine) and turned its attention to tourism.  It’s become a popular tourist site with over a million visitors a year.  More than 38 million visitors have seen the attractions in this mine since it opened to the public.

In 1978 the Wieliczka Salt Mine was placed on the first UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites.  The mine was declared a Polish national Historic Monument in 1994; it is often called “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.”

Exteror, Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Exteror, Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

The mine has dozens of statues and four chapels that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners over the centuries.  The spaces in the mine are memorable, even beautiful, and the carvings intriguing and generally quite sophisticated.  Even the crystals of the chandeliers you’ll find here are are made from salt that has been dissolved and reconstituted, giving it a clear, glass-like appearance.

The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a depth of 327 metres (1,073 ft) and is over 287 kilometres (178 mi) long.  Its deposits of salt vary greatly in color, from pale gray to light brown (the colors caused by impurities).  The mine has an underground lake and many exhibits on the history of salt mining.  The underground temperature is a cool but comfortable 15 degrees C, but I’d recommend everyone have a light jacket as the tunnels can be drafty.

Underground corridor, Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Underground corridor, Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

To visit the mine you need to take a guided tour, offered in a variety of languages.  These tours run throughout the day and require reasonable physical mobility.  You descend down hundreds of stairs to the first level of the mine and begin a 3.5 km (2.2 mi) walking tour that covers less than 2% of the mine passages.  But this walk includes some historic statues and figures carved of salt, and the route takes you progressively lower and lower down a series of steps.  You end your tour in an area with a cafe and gift shop and enter a que to take one of two elevators back to the surface.  (Note;  You will need a permit to take photos underground which costs around US $3)

There’s a large number of carved exhibits, too many to discuss in this post, but especially noteworthy were the displays about this history of salt mining, including an exhibit from ancient days highlighting how some miners used long flaming sticks to burn pockets of methane gas, how horses were used in the mines, and different types of machinery that made mining easier.  Equally interesting were the many religious displays, a reflection of the deeply held Christian beliefs of the Polish people.

The most spectacular of the spaces is the Chapel of St. Kinga.  Illuminated by crystal salt chandeliers, you’ll walk on a beautifully carved floor but you won’t be looking down.  Your attention will be drawn to the dozens and dozens of amazing carvings all around you, each telling a Bible story.  Most of the art in the mine recalls the life and times of Jesus, from his birth to his crucification to the resurrection.  Seems we were allowed to spent about 10 minutes in the chamber, which didn’t seem nearly enough time.  As you walk out, you pass a recent statue of Pope John Paul II.

Overall the tour takes about 3 hours and it’s an interesting half day diversion and quite a unique experience.  The following photos were taken in sequence during the tour and hopefully give you a better understanding of what visiting the Wieliczka Salt mine was like:

(Click on thumbnail to enlarge, right arrow to advance slide show)

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