Located about half an hour from Krakow, The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a smybol of human creativity and ingenuity. It has have been in operation for over 700 years–ever since brine was collected at the surface. As time passed, the discovery encouraged miners to dig down, make tunnels and excavate the salt.
With the support of Polish King Casimir III the Great, this eventually led to an extensive tunnel system being built to bring up the salt. Before it finished operations in 2007, the mine had produced table salt for hundreds of years. It reaches a depth of 327 metres and the vast tunnels are 287 kilometres long. The mine has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978.
We were staying ion the old town of Krakow, so we walked over to the nearby Galeria Krakowska shopping mall (very modern and located right next to the train station) and the took the 304 bus to the centre of Wieliczka where the mine is located.
It was hot and crowded the day we arrived in August, and the lineups were long. Once you purchase your tickets you have to wait until your time is called and you join your group. Only groups are permitted inside so you can’t do the tour on your own. Each group is formed according to language, and you are given headphones that are connected to the guide who speaks into a microphone. it makes it easy to understand the guide even though our group was around 25 people.
Down we went, until we reached the first of many chambers. The early one showed models of people digging out the salt and carrying it up.
There were also scenes where the characters were made entirely from salt. These involved aspects of Polish history.
Along the way, the guide encouraged people to test the salt walls of the tunnels by licking them. Yes, it was salty!
We went deeper down wooden stairs past piles of salt
After reaching the bottom and going through more tunnels we reached on of the largest rooms. This was St. Kinga’s Chapel, considered to be the largest underground church in the world. The attention to detail in the room was amazing, as were all of the carvings and statues made of salt.
We reached a small lake called the Erazm Barącz Chamber, where the guide told us a story about it. According to the guide, 100 years ago people used to pay to be taken on the lake in a small boat. One time, the heavy boat tipped over and trapped the people underneath.
As the story went, the water was so salty the people were too buoyant to escape. They couldn’t dive under the water to get out from under the boat and eventually ran out of air under the boat. After that the lake was closed to boats. Not sure of the logic behind it, but that was the guide’s story!
At the end of the tour was a gift shop and restaurant, so we had a bite to eat before taking the elevator back to the surface.
After we finished in the mine we checked out the town. It’s a small town but quite pretty and it has a lot of history behind it. It’s gone through prosperity from the salt mine, plagues, invasions and occupations (from the Swedes, Austrians and Germans) and finally an inclusion into the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
After an hour in the town we went to the bus stop to wait for the bus back to Krakow. The bus was packed but we managed to squeeze in and get going. Krakow is a beautiful town in its own right, but if you are ever there, it’s a short trip to the salt mine and well worth the visit.