One of the world’s oldest salt mines attracts a million of visitors annually because of its long and history and the fact that it houses beautiful chapels with incredible artwork made by salt.
What and Where is Wieliczka?
Wieliczka, as it is called in short, is a name for one of the oldest salt mines in the world, which was declared one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978. It is actually called the Wieliczka Salt Mine or Kopalnia soli Wieliczka, as it located in the town of the same name, in southern poland, near Krakow - about 14 kilometers away, to be more concrete, but most people think of the mine when they say Wieliczka. The town holds the mine as well as a health resort, and counts about twenty thousand inhabitants. The town was founded in 1290 buy Duke Premislas II of Poland.
The mine was opened in the 13th century and produced table salt commercially until 1996, until the price of the salt went down and the mine flooded, and then up until 2007, when all production ended. Today, it is a site for tourism and art, because of the fact that it houses numerous sculptures and chapels all carved out of salt, from all moments in history.The mine itself holds an underground lake as well. The tourist route that goes through the mine represents just 2% of its overall construction.
The History of Wieliczka
A legend says that a Hungarian princess, named Kinga, who was about to be married to the Prince of Krakow, Boleslaw V the Chaste, asked her father for a lump of salt a part of her dowry, instead of jewels or gold - salt was very priceworthy at the time. Her father took her to a Hungarian salt mine, where she, to everyone’s surprise, threw her engagement ring away. Then, asking everyone to follow her, she went to Poland and told the people to dig the ground. Once they did, they found a lump of salt, and inside - the same ring she threw away. This is a legend of how Wieliczka came to be, and Kinga remains a saint and a patron figure to all the Polish miners, with a chapel dedicated to her name, in the underground world of the mine.
Rock salt was first discovered in Wieliczka Salt Mine in the 13th century, and it was in the Middle Ages still when the central building, called the Saltworks Castle, was constructed. It served as the head office till 1945. Numerous shafts were dug all through time the mine was in operation and they came in handy in the World War II to the Germans who were occupying Poland, as they were used for different purposes. The Nazi also transported a few thousand Jews to work in an armament factory they set up there, but never had the chance to use. Today, the mine is one of the official national Historic Monuments of Poland, and it is on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, along with the Poland’s oldest salt mines that lies nearby, Bochnia Salt Mine and the Zupny Castle, a Gothic castle that was once the headquarter of the two salt mines, as well as the headquarter of the Zupy krakowskie mining company, founded by the Polish Crown and known as the Royal Salt Mines, which owned the mines all through their official operation.
The Art of Wieliczka
The underground world of Wieliczka holds numerous mysteries and interesting elements. The mine holds a private rehabilitation and wellness complex, as well as a reception room used for private functions and weddings, but is otherwise known for its beautiful guided tours that take your through one of the routes of the mine, through which you can not only get to know a bit more about the life of a miner, but also see beautiful artwork and chapels, all made out of rock salt by the miners, though some older sculptures have been repaired by contemporary artists. The chapel called Saint Anthony holds figures that have been slightly washed out figures due to the causes of nature. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, created in the 19th century hold statues of saints older that the chapel itself, along with the sacred object. The Chapel of Saint John has a wooden decor and a valuable statue of the crucified Christ. The Chapel of Saint Kinga has been decorated over the last century, and is often used for events of the Christian faith, like masses, services, weddings and even concerts. The Chapel of St. John Paul II, previous Pope of the Catholic church has been created in 2014.
The art of the mine can be seen not only in the underground, but also in the Saltworks Castle, all forming together a Saltworks Museum.
Visiting Wieliczka Salt Mines
Unfortunately, visiting Wieliczka is often not the top priority of people visiting Poland or even Krakow due to the fact that the country and the city itself offers so much to see, but it definitely should be on top of the list for anyone planningon spending a few more days in Krakow. Still, about a million people visitit each year, so it’s not like it’s a forgotten spot either.
You can combine your visit to the mine with the stay in the Grand Sal hotel, located just a few steps from the entrance to the mine, which will give you the whole adventure not only the educational experience, but also one of relaxation.
When planning your trip, prepare for the fact that you will have to spend quite a few hours inside, and that only guided tours are allowed, because of the high emotional and symbolical value of the mine, and also because of safety reasons.
Visiting Wieliczka costs about 20 dollars, depending on the type of the visit. You don’t need to make reservations: if you are alone, or in a small group, you will just have to wait for the tour guide to take you through the mine. There are different types of organized tours you can choose from, like a classic tourist route, miner’s route (through the historic section of the mine where you can take a glimpse of the life of a miner), pilgrim’s tour (where you can learn about the religious aspects of the underground sacrum), a group adventure or a tour dedicated to the mysteries of the mine. Whichever tour you choose, you will be overwhelmed by the beauty of the mine. Be sure to lick your lips now and then, because you will soon see that they will become salty!
The classical tour takes you through about 3 kilometers of corridors, 800 steps to climb, and into the 135 meters of underground. The tour has resting spots along the way, but they might not be available at any given moment, so prepare yourself that you might not be able to go to the bathroom or have a snack on a whim - and even though children are more than welcome, it might be best to wait for your kids to be big enough to become interested in the mine, so that you don’t have to worry about entertaining them along the way, as the average route takes about 3 hours to complete. Plus it might be difficult getting around with a stroller, but in case of a wheelchair, there is part of the mine and a route adapted so that every visitor can feel comfortable inside. Also, be sure to have warm clothing with you even in the summer, as the temperature underground ranges between 14 and 16 degrees Celsius. Photography is allowed, but you need to pay a special fee if you are planning on taking pictures.
Hopefully you will make it your plan to visit the town and the salt mine of Wieliczka, as it will surely a one of a kind experience!