327m down in Wieliczka
We continued our exploration of Poland today with a trip to Wieliczka, a small town on the outskirts of modern-day Krakow in the very Southern corner of the country. Wieliczka is one of Poland’s most popular tourist sights because this is where the Wieliczka Salt Mine can be found. We got to tour through the mine today and is was absolutely spectacular.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine was officially founded in the 1200s, though there is evidence that a early as 6000 years ago early human settlers in the area collected salt from salty above-ground springs. It is one of the world’s oldest and biggest salt mines, reaching a maximum depth of 327m and containing almost 300km of corridors and tunnels. The guided tour we took through the salt mine today took us through many of the original tunnels, where 300-400 year old salt-preserved wooden posts still hold the ceiling up.
During the tour we learnt how the salt was laid down by an ancient ocean, and how the sandstone in the region is dotted with large deposits of salt crystals – like a cake full of raisins. Our guide (a very funny Polish man who Anglicised his name to “Mark” for us) told us how the miners created artificial lakes in the salt caverns so that the salt was drawn out of the surrounding rock and into the water. The super-saturated salty water was then hauled up to the surface via winches and using horses and carts, where it was then boiled and the pure, crystalline salt residue collected and sold for a tidy profit.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine helped keep the Lords of Krakow wealthy and powerful for centuries; today it is owned by the Polish government and still turns a tidy profit, we were told. Even though mining stopped at Wieliczka in 1996 for economic reasons, tourism has turned the former salt mine into a gold mine of sorts (more than 1.2 million visitors go through the mine every year!). The thing that attracts so many visitors (including us) to the Wieliczka Salt Mine are the amazing statues, chapels and cathedral carved out of the salty rock. These fascinating sculptures were carved from the rock by the miners themselves, some taking decades of work to complete. It was amazing seeing the wonderful creations these talented, artistic men created, so many metres below ground.
The Underground Salt Cathedral was especially stunning, with its amazing alter and salt chandeliers. There are still masses held in the cathedral every Sunday and the church can be booked for weddings too. Our guide told us that the cathedral and all its carvings took 67 years to complete, with 3 miners each working on it for 20+ years in succession.
It was fascinating being down there and seeing how something designed to be so utilitarian could also be so beautiful. It’s no wonder the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Tomorrow we will explore Krakow itself, where the Lords who owned the mine lived. Tune in on the morrow to see what they did with all that salt-garnered wealth…