Once you arrive, you encounter an unassuming building, a mine shaft that has for centuries connected the surface world with the maze that lies underground. You are not quite sure what to expect as you walk in and reach the start of a seemingly ordinary set of downward-spiraling stairs. However, all sense of normalcy is shattered when you peer over the handrail to see what you are venturing into. Your body is rocked momentarily by a wave of vertigo as you try to comprehend the swirling steps, and time stands still as you plunge into the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
After a dizzying descent climbing down 380 steps, the stairs finally come to an end. Despite now being 64 meters below the surface in a narrow corridor, the air is cold and surprisingly refreshing. Apart from the wooden fortifications that line the tunnels, everything that looks and feels like ordinary stone is actually salt, and a taste test confirms this! The amount of salt around us is hard to believe and, humans have been tied to this plentiful natural deposit of the mineral since prehistoric times.
Salt was first harvested from Wieliczka in the form of brine, saltwater spring upwellings, by our Neolithic ancestors. They boiled and evaporated the saltwater to obtain the pure mineral, and this continued to the 11th to 12th centuries when people then drew saltwater from wells. It was not until the 13th century, however, that humans accidentally ventured a little deeper and discovered rock salt. This turned out to be a breakthrough as it meant salt could be mined.
With this discovery, salt production became immensely significant to the Polish economy and the profits it brought even made up a third of the royal treasury's income during the 1300s. Salt mining allowed for many advancements in medieval Poland, and Wieliczka soon gained renown with its first tourists dating back to the 15th century! Since then, the number of visitors only grew, and the mine itself expanded to a total of 9 levels, a depth of 327 meters, and 245 kilometers of tunnels. What we can see today is only 2% of the entire labyrinth!
Apart from its incredible historical contexts, what has become of the hollows where salt was extracted makes Wieliczka even more special. One of the most famous examples is St. Kinga's Chapel, created by working miners over 67 years in honor of the salt mining patron saint. Especially after walking through endless channels that seem all too easy to get lost in, you are blown away by the gaping hall that opens up before you. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, illuminating intricate carvings and sculptures that may rival those in some of Europe's greatest religious sites. As you take it all in, it is startling when you suddenly remember that you are 100 meters underground, and everything is made of salt!
St. Kinga's Chapel is hardly the most notable attraction in Wieliczka Salt Mine, too. As you venture deeper and deeper, you will only find more history, chambers, sculptures, and even underground saline lakes. It is no wonder that the mine became one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978. With the mine's 700 years of history, it is the result of generations of miners' hard work that has been appreciated by generations of visitors alike.
Although the industrial production of salt ended in 1996, hundreds of modern miners still frequent the Wieliczka Salt Mine's deepest tunnels to maintain the historical monument. At the same time, millions of tourists flock to the mine each year, but this year might be different. With the ongoing pandemic, you have to wonder how these kinds of places, especially the ever-changing environment of a salt mine, can be maintained from afar.
We visited Wieliczka in 2017 during our year-long trip around the world. Click on the link to read more!