When in Krakow the Wieliczka Salt Mines are a must see, only 10km outside of the city and a 30-40 minute ride the UNESCO heritage site is the pride of Poland representing the generations of miners who carved the magnificent features and their work ethic. It is one of the most popular attractions of Poland and one of the oldest salt mines in existence producing table salt from the 13th century until 2007!
This visit ended up being a little different to what we expected. Unlike places such as Auschwitz in which you can choose to visit without a tour the mines must be guided. After this information we took our eye off the ball a little and didn’t research the other options available. In the end we opted for an organised tour, which is something we usually avoid like the plague, to include transport as well and the entrance fee.
We found the tour a little rushed at times and felt we would have liked to have a little more time to take photographs and take in the majesty of some of the chambers. I am not sure how much of this is avoidable as our guide was a museum employee. Having to follow a woman with a paddle to safely negotiate from the carpark to the entrance the day after making our way to and from The Ukraine felt just a little patronising… don’t even mention the badges they tried to make us wear!!
Most take the “Tourist Route” which is what we ended up on and although this contains the most revered attractions and features of the mine. There is also the “Miner’s Tour” and the “The Mysteries of the Wieliczka”(needs to be booked 2 weeks in advance) which is much more in line with the experience we expected. The miners tour is also actually 50% cheaper when booked with the tourist route and my advice would be to make your own way and combine one of these alternative tours with the tourist route to get the most out of it.
What we expected was something more along the lines of some of the places we have explored underground ourselves such as Stockport Air-raid shelters and Victoria Arches, dripping stalactites and stalagmites, salt encrusted ladders, rusted train tracks and decaying carts. Instead we felt it was a little sterile and sanitised at times with the models and reconstructions feeling somewhat theatrical and construed.
Having said that I think that you should always try and make the most of any situation even if it isn’t exactly what you expected, and we definitely did that! We had a real laugh hanging about at the back and attempting to sneak off from the group, I even licked on of the carvings I was so convinced that it couldn’t be made from salt… it definitely is salt! As urban explorers, climbers and cavers it was quite funny seeing the reactions of some of the group to being below ground in a low lit environment!
The tour starts with a thigh burning and dizzying 380 step decent down to the 210ft depth below, thankfully there was a lift for the way back up! What is most mind boggling is that the route we took, which lasted for just under 3 hours and covered around 3km of meandering corridors, tunnels and chambers, is in fact only 2% of the total length of the complete mines which is thought to be around 287 kilometres (178 mi) long and consisting of nearly 2,400 chambers!
Generations of miners not only risked their lives mining for salt but they also left a legacy of exquisitely carved chambers, chapels, statues and fascinating works of art once the mining had moved on to the next chamber. Seeing as mining was such a dangerous job the works sought out celestial protection and as such created the many sculptures of sacred figures, crosses and chapels.
Among the many magnificent chambers was the jewel in the crown of the mines, the “Chapel of the Blessed Kinga”. This enormous space is entirely carved out of salt, even down to the altars, chandeliers and floor tiles.
This stunning chamber features intricately detailed bas-reliefs depicting the New Testament and even a recreation of Da Vinci’s last supper, you can see why many people choose to get married down here! This underground cathedral has been a place of worship since 1896 and even more impressively was carved by a group of self-taught miners over the course of 100 years.
The mine is also home to many saline lakes which create a beautiful and reflective glowing scene deep underground. The Weimar chamber is one of the most impressive having been created in the early 20th century after the excavation of a huge block of green salt before being flooded with brine to create the lake. The space here is absolutely massive and is lined by several wooden galleries and walkways used to maintain the space.
Another famous but much smaller lake lies in the Jozef Pilsudski grotto which includes a pretty wooden tunnel which links this and another chamber. At one point this was part of the Austrian tour route and could be sailed through on a small ferry, this seems quite romantic until you learn of the reason for the accompanying 19th century statue of St. John Nepomuk, the patron saint of the drowning. In 1915 several Prussian soldiers met a gruesome end here when their ferry tipped trapping them underneath due to the density of the salt water and weight of the boat, with no way to escape eventually they suffocated.
One of the highlights for us was the enormous Michalowice Chamber, this 35m high space is filled with intricate hand built timber scaffolding and is an amazing sight. To think that this massive space was excavated and supported without machinery is almost unbelievable, in fact this deposit was so large that is was exploited for almost 100 years.
So, overall what an amazing experience it was to be able to see such faith, commitment and artistry in such a unique location. I only wish we had done a little more research before hand in order to fully make the most of all the mines have to offer and to see sections more relevant to our interest, but in the end an un-missable and unforgettable place!
We used to company “See Krakow” and although we usually don’t like tours and would generally advice making your own way but it wasn’t too bad and if you are a little unsure and want to use a tour we would recommend them. The tours can be booked online, around the city centre or through your accommodation as we did. Here is their website: