The Polish Empire was built on salt. Back in medieval days, before the discovery of America and when the spice trade wasn’t always linked up and supplying the quickest, most premium quality of service, Europe was in a real pickle for tasty food. Really, all they had was meat, grapes, cheese, pickles, and pickled cheese (try some nakladni hermelin next time you visit Prague). All this to say, that they needed some flavor, and without refrigeration for the most part, they needed salt. Salt was the medieval "white gold".
Outside of the Polish city of Krakow, there is one such salt-based city that was the center of the Polish Empire for centuries, and was the wealth of it for nearly a millennium: the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
one of many many tunnels
Shortly after posting a blog about Krakow, we decided to head back to the town and explore the darker quarters far underneath one of its chief suburbs. The trek we made was about 3 kilometers long underground, and that was barely 2% of the mines. Just try to imagine that in your head. The place is massive!
Romance in the Salt
The Wieliczka Salt Mine opened in the 13th century and was active until a few decades ago, when it closed due to safety issues and the fact that tourism rakes in more money than salt these days.
The salt mine was started by the Hungarian Princess Kinga, who had been betrothed to the great and funnest nobleman at parties, Boleslaw the Chaste. She must have been real excited about this, because when her father was giving her a tour of a salt mine before she left – as we know all little princesses love salt mines – she decided to throw her engagement ring down one of the shafts.
salt carvings of the foundation story
Princess Kinga took off for Krakow to meet her betrothed, sans wedding ring. I can’t imagine Boleslaw was that impressed, and apparently Princess Kinga wanted to make it up to him. So she took his best shaft diggers out to a fairly boring part of land and told them to start digging.
Digging they did until they hit pay dirt. Or pay salt. Princess Kinga bent down and picked up a lump of that salt, which magically contained her engagement ring! Prince Boleslaw rejoiced so much that he married Kinga and they decided to both lead lives of chastity, thus ending the Lesser Piast branch of Polish nobility.
burning out excess methane gas
The miners of Wieliczka had a great deal of rights. Only free males were allowed down there, and they were compensated a great deal, leading to a number of wealthy guilds and families that tied their fortunes to the Polish crown and mines. Mining was an obviously difficult task, with methane gas build ups that had to be carefully burned out, along with collapses and slipping down steep chasms into the darkness below. As for the methane, we can only guess where that came from. Yes, miner farts were a huge source of danger in the salt mines.
The tour doesn’t need reserving, but can be, and if you’re a foreigner just jump into the foreigner line, which takes about 10 minutes, and reserve the next English-speaking tour, which happen every half hour. Other languages aren’t quite as lucky, and the Polish language tour had an absurdly long line. So even if you’re Polish, avoid that one and just do the English language one. If you're more particular about your linguistics, be sure to check the times at their website and book ahead.
the shaft down
The tour begins at the shaft. It goes straight down for what seems like an hour, just an endless chain of wooden steps. There are frequent stops because of the tours ahead, but be patient and read and write as much graffiti as you can. You come out of the shaft into a room that was dug out in 1635 and is some 64 meters below ground. That should be the first thing that blows your mind.
As the guide takes you through the chambers, it looks like the walls and floor are made of smooth granite, ornamented with dark granite statues. They’re not. They’re all made of salt. Everything is salt down there, and they’ve truly done some of the most incredible and impressive things with salt. They carved it to make it look like bricks and statues, horse stables, churches, engravings, and even chandeliers. The guide even invites you to test it and taste it, except where the statues are concerned, since the salt mine is understandably not so keen on having their statues eaten.
a monument to the mine's most famous visitor: Copernicus
The only thing that isn’t made of salt down there is the wood, and there’s a lot of that. It’s used to smooth out the terrain and make level platforms, walls, and supports. This is especially important when you reach the huge cavernous territories that miners were slipping down with the stairs only mildly carved into the salt. Many of the miners died in the descent, so it can’t be expected that tourists would be good at dealing with wet, salty ground.
wood stairs versus salt stairs
The tour of the mines descended three levels. On each level, there was a crank that was used to bring up loads of salt, and at one point they demonstrate how it worked. At various places in the mine, they’d use men to push the crank, and for the heavier loads, they’d have horses set up. At the horse stables, the guide explained how horses were born and lived their entire lives in the mines.
salt statues of a miner and his horse
There are statues spread throughout the mines. Some depicting scenes from Polish history, others of the mine’s history, and others with religious purposes. Indeed, there are two chapels on display in the tour, one small one with a salt crucifix, and one giant one that’s still used for mass and to hold weddings in. That’s right, you too can get married 90 meters underground in a salt church. Worried about the reception? Don’t worry, there’s a completely modernized party hall in the mines too, a bit further down and near the elevator shaft.
a saltine crucifix, not your last in a mine with a still functioning Catholic church
Also among the statues are a lot of scenes of dwarves. Dwarves were prominent in miner mythology, as that many miners believed that they would come out at night while the miners were gone and help them do their work. The sodium statues serve as a tribute to their salty helpers.
Hi-ho, hi-ho, we're off to work we go!
After 3 kilometers, passing through churches, across underground lakes of brine, and a modern auditorium, cafeteria, and kid’s playroom, you’re finally set to leave. But don’t worry, you don’t have to go up all those stairs again, they’ve a lift. That’s about another kilometer away, taking your tour to nearly 4 kilometers of walking through tunnels underground. And remember, that’s only 2% of the mine!
underground lake complete with a Chopin soundtrack
The room that will leave you with the greatest sense of awe is the main chapel though. It still conducts weekly services and weddings, and is arrayed with statues and carvings that were done by two brother miners in the 1800s.
the great chapel