Of the world’s 1,052 sites listed under the UNESCO World Heritage List, Poland has 14. Auschwitz is probably the most famous but within a short drive of Poland’s second largest city, Kraków, is another on a grand scale, but unlike Auschwitz it can all be found underground. The Wieliczka Salt Mines, although no longer in operation, are now visited by tourists instead of the miners that once helped to create the vast network of tunnels that reach a depth of over 300 meters (984 feet) deep. The 3.5 km (2.2 mile) tourist route only covers a small fraction of the mine’s passages but they certainly pack in the most spectacular of the mine’s chambers. If you can imagine that a bungee jump has taken place here as well as a hot air balloon launch, then it might give you some idea of the sheer scale of the whole mine.
Some of the first mine shafts date back to the 13th century, but despite this it was producing a massive 30,000 tonnes of salt by the 16th century. Treadmills made of wood were used to move salt to the surface of the mines and many horses lived much of their lives working in the mines, alongside their human companions. During the 20th century, the mine was also worked by Jews who had been transported from labour camps to work there under German rule.
The Chapel of St Kinga
The Chapel of St Kinga chamber is the most impressive of all the chambers visited on the tourist trail. It’s walls are adorned with artworks sculpted into the salt. One of the most impressive is that of a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’. Located 101 meters underground (331 feet) , it is even possible to get married here under the illumination of three sparkling chandeliers with hanging crystal-like pendants made from salt. If you manage to get a quiet moment away from the crowds, it is possible to imagine the chapel as the quiet place where the miners were able to pray. With the constant threat of danger, and their strong Catholic background, it’s no wonder the miners sculpted a number of Chapels in the mine including the Chapel of the Holy Cross, The Chapel of St John, the Chapel of St Anthony and the Chapel of St John Paul II.
There's something in the air!
The mine itself is said to have therapeutic qualities and the air so pure that it can help those suffering with breathing ailments. Due to the high concentration of salt, there is supposedly no allergens, bacteria or fungi found in the air. To take advantage of these qualities, the mine even has an underground health resort with a gym and overnight stays are also a possibility. The resort sleeps a total of 28 people and, despite its constant ambient temperature of around the mid-teens centigrade (around 57 Fahrenheit), it could take some getting used to staying underground with no natural light. A curious but novel idea, perhaps not for the faint hearted though.
For the adventurous
For the more adventurous, there is a ‘Mysteries of the Mine’ route, which is more physically challenging than the tourist route. Definitely not for those suffering from claustrophobia, the journey is most definitely a little narrower than the nice wide tourist tunnels. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden enroute so although there will be no photographic evidence of your journey, it will definitely give you plenty of stories to tell your friends.
The need to knows
The mine can be accessed easily by train from the main railway station in Krakow to the Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia station and is only a mere 13 km (8 miles) from the city centre and takes around 22 minutes and costs less than 48.88 PLN (13 USD). Alternatively, trips can be arranged from Krakow itself; visit the tourist information centre to find out more. There are a couple of routes to chose from so think about what you’d like to do in advance as you will need at least half a day for each tour.
Walking boots are recommended as the ground is uneven and at certain times of year it may be a little cool so take a jumper.
If you want to take photographs along the tourist route, there is a fee of 10 PLN (3 USD) or the equivalent in EUR payable during the tour.
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