On a hot summer day, one of the best things you can do is just go underground. That’s what Jim and I decided to do the last time we were in Krakow. Part of the greater Krakow area, Wieliczka Salt Mine is an easy walk from the train station, so we headed in. Not only do we love salt, but this mine is famous for its salt carvings and statues as well as elaborate chapels and chandeliers.
Built in the 13th century, the Wieliczka Salt Mine was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. Considered a royal property, no longer does the mine produce table salt. Instead the elaborate network of tunnels and rooms holds music concerts, theater productions, has hosted filming crews, and in its tallest cavern even had a hot air balloon get off the ground. It’s a fascinating idea, to use the space and this unusual medium to produce works of art. Before going, I assumed that this was all done as a way to keep making money from a defunct business, but as it turns out the miners have been carving snowmen and other statues from the salt since the late 1800s.
Today as you amble through and around, across the lake, down stairs and more stairs you come across room after room of displays. As one would imagine, Wieliczka Salt Mine’s history, important visitors, fairy tales, legends, are all told underground with salt reliefs, altars, and statues. It is such a unique and almost absurd idea that has become one of the most famous and most important cultural monuments in Poland. The mine could be its own community, and it is easy to spend the entire day underground.
Upon first look, I thought Wow! Is it crowded? This is going to take forever, but even though there were lines cordoned off in at least three directions, they moved rather quickly. I did envy those that that had pre-booked their tickets. The lines were covered and there were plenty of seats. The initial entrance into the mine is a very deep shaft filled with over 700 stairs. The stairway is wooden and dark, and each step ahead of you is filled with people. As soon as you start descending, the stairs behind you are also filled with people. By three flights down, one girl ahead of me threw in the towel. She was claustrophobic and it was too much for her. I tend to be a bit worried about tight spaces, but not enough to give up on going into this salt mine I’d had on my list for a couple of years. I just had to keep talking myself out of panicking.
Once you finally reach the bottom, the rooms carved out of the rock are wide and spacious and had surprisingly high ceilings, so I was completely comfortable from that point on. Plus they promised us that we would ride an elevator up. 700 stairs down is one thing, but up…well, that’s another altogether. The tour lasts about two hours, and it was much more involved than I was expecting. After having a fantastic time at the Salzwelten in Hallein, Austria we were expecting a mere walk through the history of salt, but it was much, much more. The services included a café and shop in one area, then a much larger shop, a restaurant, a play area, a museum with temporary exhibits, and I just can’t name all of the options. We had decided not to eat lunch there, but after we left and didn’t find anything in the area that even came close to comparing, we were a little miffed at ourselves. They offered local dishes, and the prices were quite reasonable as well. I would recommend future visitors to take their time and eat at the restaurant.
Salt has always been a highly valuable commodity, and one of my favorite stories from the Wieliczka Salt Mine was about Princess Kunegunda. As the story goes, when she found out she was to be married to Bolesław V, who soon after became the Prince of Krakow, she asked her father for a salt mine for her dowry. He agreed, so she buried her ring in one part of Poland and it miraculously showed up in the mine.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine certainly is not like any place I’d ever been before. What sets it apart is all of the amazing sculptures, rooms, events that have happened there. Since its beginning the people of Poland have really embraced the mine, and they love it. I highly recommend it to anyone that is going anywhere near Krakow.