Tired of sightseeing on the ground under the obtrusive sunlight? Well, then try exploring world under the Earth surface.
Located 135 meters underground, the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland entered into the UNESCO First World Heritage List in 1978 and was also proclaimed a Historical Monument by the President of the Republic of Poland in 1994. The mine is located under the town of Wieliczka within the Kraków metropolitan area.
The mine, built in the 13th century, produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation. Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996 due to low salt prices and mine flooding. Now a museum, the mine’s attractions include dozens of statues, three chapels and an entire cathedral that has been carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The oldest sculptures are augmented by the new carvings by contemporary artists. About 1,2 million people visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine annually.
The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a depth of 327 metres and is over 287 kilometres long. The rock salt is naturally gray in various shades, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white or crystalline look that many visitors may expect. During World War II, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans as an ad-hoc facility for various war-related industries. The mine features an underground lake; and the new exhibits on the history of salt mining, as well as a 3,5 kilometres touring route (less than 2% of the length of the mine’s passages) that includes historic statues and mythical figures carved out of rock salt in distant past.
A wooden staircase with 378 steps provides access to the 64 metres level of the mine. There is a 3 kilometres tour of the mine’s corridors, chapels, statues and lake, 135 metres underground. An elevator provides access to the surface. The elevator holds 36 people (nine per car) and takes some 30 seconds to reach the surface.
Devout miners working in dangerous conditions dedicated themselves to building four chapels in the mine. The oldest is nearly 400 years old. Miners started carving out the most spectacular, the Chapel of Saint Kinga, in 1896. Over the next 70 years, they created the largest of the mine’s churches. Its walls are filled with religious bas-reliefs, including a replica of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” carved into the rock salt. Life-size sculptures of Poland’s most important figures are carved in detail, and a statue of the country’s holiest son, Pope John Paul II, hovers over the room on a pedestal. Even the altar is an intricately carved block of salt. But the salt-rock statues are not all religious depictions: one whimsical cave depicts Snow White’s seven dwarves, carved entirely from salt, hauling salt from the site.
The mine even boasts its own brass band. With 183 years of history, the Wieliczka Salt Mine Representative Brass Band claims to be Europe’s oldest and plays at all the religious holidays in the underground chapel, as well as at funerals of miners.
For visitors exhausted by those first 800 steps underground, a health resort capitalizes on the allure of allergen- and pollution-free air available hundreds of feet underground. It has even pioneered a treatment called ,,subterranotherapy,” which offers rehabilitation programs for people suffering from respiratory problems. Those truly enamored with cave life can stay overnight as part of a group, though they need to bring their own sleeping bag. Tours for school groups offer activities such as tennis, a reading room, and dancing at a disco.
Who needs sunlight when the underworld is this enticing?