Have you ever seen an entire church carved out of salt? What about larger than life statues of saints and famous Europeans? Or how about a chandelier made out of salt? No? Well, neither had we, until we visited Krakow and the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine. On Sunday, the weather in Krakow was beautiful - sunny, a slight breeze, and cold in the morning. We were headed to Wieliczka Salt Mine, a half hour train ride outside of the city. There are lots of tour companies than organize tours for visitors, but we went solo and did it ourselves (we did use a tour company for Auschwitz since it was much further outside of town). It wasn't all that hard either, and it ended up being a lot cheaper than using a tour company (although, compared to London, everything in Krakow was super cheap).
We took the train from the main train station in Krakow to the small town of Wieliczka (please, for the love of all that is holy, do not ask me how to pronounce that). Once off the train (it's the last stop), there are signs clearly showing you where to go. Depending on the tour you choose, there are different starting points (the mine runs below the entire town and is HUGE). We chose the basic tourist route. There are longer, more challenging routes, but we figured, me being pregnant and all, to just go with the basic, and shortest, route. The tours are offered in a ton of languages too - English, Polish, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. English and Polish are the most commonly offered though. Oh, and the mine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We got there a little before the tour was to start, bought tickets, and enjoyed the beautiful fall weather. Soon, we were handed a headset, walkman type thing, and we were headed off. First, we had to descend 800 steps, 54 sets of stairs, to get to the mine - and the stairs went even further! While it may not sound like a lot of steps, it took us a solid 6 or 7 minutes to walk down them all.
Once there, we were introduced to the salt mine. One thing that struck me was how many logs there were! The people in Wieliczka have a saying, to find the forest, you must look underground. And I really do think that they cut down the entire forest to build supports for the mine. Even today, many of the mine reinforcements in areas that are being reconstructed, are made from wood. And for good reason. The minerals in the salt actually infiltrate the wood, making it stronger. If steel was to be used, it would corrode away in a matter of years. Some of the logs that have been down there have been there for hundreds of years and feel, and look, like solid stone.
Legend has it that Kinga, a Hungarian princess, was married to Boleslaw the Chaste, duke of Krakow and nearby Sandomierz, and her dowry was paid not in gold or silver, but in salt (salt was just as valuable at the time since it was the only means of preserving food). Before she left her home country, she threw her engagement ring down into a salt mine. As she was traveling to Poland to live with her new husband, she told her caravan to stop and start digging. Soon, they found rock salt, and her engagement ring, encased in the crystals. Since then, Wieliczka has been the home to a very profitable salt mine.
Throughout the tour, we were led from chamber to chamber, connected by tunnels. Our guide pointed out areas where there was some rock salt left in the walls, and the different formations that occur when water seeps through the rock. Many of the chambers had statues or even complete scenes carved from salt. We came to one chamber that was massive - like, you can't see the top massive. Called the Michalowice Chamber, the unique site sometimes houses concerts. The massive chandeliers there are also made completely out of salt - every single ''jewel.'' It's pretty stunning, actually.
There were also pieces of old mining equipment set up showing how the rock salt was mined over the years. For a while, they used horse powered equipment to move and transport the salt. However, once a horse was lowered into the mine, it often remained there for the rest of it's life since it's much too difficult to get it out. There was an entire team of people dedicated solely to caring for the horses. In one instance, a fire broke out in the horse stables and burned for 8 months. The last (living) horse was removed from the mine in 2002 and now lives out her retirement in a peaceful pasture.
The Polish people are very religious, mostly Catholic, and this evident in the amazing, and giant, St. Kinga's chapel. This chapel is 101 meters (a little over 300 feet) below ground and was built by three miners. After they had completed their days work, theycame here to carve an entire chapel out of salt. The walls are just as elaborately decorated with carvings and reliefs as any cathedral on the surface, the impressive alter is made completely of salt, even the chandeliers have crystals strung on them that are carved from salt. In the back of the chapel, there is a life-sized carving of St. John Paul II, who was born in a small town not far from Krakow. He's a local celebrity there, with his likeness and statues of him commonplace.
During the tour, we also came across two underground salt lakes. The salt content in these lakes is so high that it is literally impossible to drown in them. Tragically, a boat of tourists on one of the lakes accidentally capsized after the passengers started swaying to music that was playing. All the passengers ended up trapped under the boat and since they couldn't swim down to get out from under the boat, they all died of suffocation. Today, boat rides are not given and there is a memorial to commemorate them. Side note, I wonder how much lead one would need to wear in order to scuba dive it.....
Our tour concluded in one of the largest chambers in the mine. I swear it must have been 3 stories tall inside! From there, we headed to the underground restaurant to grab some lunch - pierogi and golabki (stuffed cabbage leaves). It was pretty tasty, and pretty cheap too. And after our 3 hour tour underground, definitely hit the spot! And now, did anyone else just sing the Gilligan's island theme song? No? Just me...ok then.
We then headed back up to the surface. Thankfully, we didn't have to climb back UP the 800 steps we had climbed down to get into the mine, but we did have what felt like a 1 kilometer walk from the end of the tour to where the elevator was located. I feel like this little fact was conveniently left out of all of the descriptions. When we got to the surface, we were shocked to find that it was not the same place where we entered. In fact, we had absolutely no idea where we were. After glancing around, getting slightly nervous, we found a map which directed us back to the train stop. A short wait later (the trains run every 30 minutes), we were back on the train, returning to Krakow, with enough day light left to explore the city a bit more.
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Want to visit Wieliczka Salt Mine for yourself? It's easy to do without the need for a guide service, but if you want easy, that would be the way to go. Most hotels in Krakow will help arrange a tour for you. If your adventurous and want to go solo, head to the main station to take the train to Wieliczka Rynek Kopalnia stop. We purchased a 6 hour ticket, meaning it was valid for all travel within the network for 6 hours, for something like 10 euro total. The stop you want is the last one one, so just stay on the train until it ends. From there, it's a quick walk to the mine, and there are maps showing you exactly where to go for the different tours (there are two starting points). You can either purchase tickets online ahead of time, but we just bought them when we got there with no problems. If you want to take pictures, make sure you also purchase a photo permit. Personally, the tour was interesting, espeically since we could compare it to the Hallein salt mine tour we did in Austria a few months ago, but we felt really rushed the entire time. There was a group immediately in front of us, and one following close on our heels. The mine really ''done up'' and does not seem like a mine at all - we even had cell service down there!! The carvings, and especially St. Kinga's chapel were seriously impressive, but if you are looking for an authentic mine experience, I don't think you'll get it here, at least not on the Tourist's Route. All that said though, it was a good value, and a neat way to spend a fall afternoon in Krakow.