No trip to Krakow would be complete without a visit to the unforgettable salt mines in Wieliczka. Although they are the oldest mines in the world still open, absolutely no knowledge of Polish history is needed to appreciate them.
The tour of the mines involves a lot of walking underground and a steep descent which includes 300 steps. Very young children and the elderly might wish to avoid it. A small portion of the tour is wheelchair accessible but you will need to pay extra for the lift. Remember that it remains a constant 15 degress centigrade all year round in the mines so dress accordingly. Even when it is scorching outside it can be perishing inside the mines.
As the primordial seas that covered the area dried up, they left thick deposits of rock salt. Humans, who arrived milennia later, quickly discovered the flavouring and preservative qualities of this valuable substance. They collected salt from the rocks and pools on the surface from at least 3000 Bc.
In the Middle Ages, the locals learnt to dig down to the uppermost portions of the salt deposits in open pits. The first known mines are from AD 1280, shortly after the arrival of Princess Kinga in Krakow.
Legend claims that when Princess Kinga (Kunegunda) of Hungary (1234-92) was betrothed to Boleslaw V the Bashful, she took a ring off her hand and threw it down a Hungarian salt mine, declaring that her dowry would be salt. Shortly after her wedding in Krakow, the new queen travelled to Wieliczka and ordered the locals to start digging for her dowry. When they struck rock, they chipped off a piece and handed it to her. It was pure rock salt and her ring was found miraculously suspended within it.
The historical reality seems to have been that Princess Kinga brought experienced salt miners and engineers in her retinue from Hungary. Her husband Boleslaw put royal patronage behind the mining operations at Wieliczka and nearby Bochnia. Within a few generations, salt production accounted for nearly a third of the royal income. Trade in salt was a major driver of the local economy and encouraged the development of infrastructure along the trade route from Wieliczka to Kazimierz to Krakow.
Wieliczka has more than 350 kilometres of tunnels, of which only 2 kilometres are part of the tourist track. You can buy tickets to see just the mines, or both mines and museum. Although the underground museum is fascinating it doesn’t receive many visitors as most tourists are too tired after the long trek through the mines.
It is probably best to see the tour with a guide. If a tour in English is not available when you visit, just buy a small guide book in English and follow a Polish- language tour. The guides repeat the text word for word.
The Wieliczka salt is a dirty grey in colour when it is in large blocks which was a bit of a surprise. It only becomes white when it forms smaller crystals, such as the salty stalactites that appear on any object left in the mines near a source of moisture. You will be told by the guide not to lick the walls but there is always someone in the group who won’t be able to resist.
Another surprise is that miners occasionally succumbed to artistic urges, carving odd figures in the salt. At first they tended to be simple religious shrines for men working at a dangerous job. The Chapel of St. Kinga, however, is a full-blown underground church in which everything from the altar to the chandeliers is carved entirely from salt. It is absolutely fantastic to see and imagine how such a wonderful creation could be sculpted out of salt. You could close your eyes and imagine you were in a Tolkeinesque dream.
There are smaller chapels dotted around including the 17th century chapel of St. Anthony, also a huge saline lake and many statues of saints all made out of salt. In communist times, the workers were encouraged to carve more secular subjects, leading to a collection of salt-mining dwarfs frozen in the middle of their work. This is quite a spectacular scene.
The miners apparently like to joke that the salt keeps them well preserved. There is a certain truth to their jest: the mines contain unusually clean and bacteria-free air. At a level below the one that tourists visit, there is a small hospital for respiratory disorders.
The easiest way to get to Wieliczka from Krakow is to take one of the minibuses that leaves every ten minutes from the front of the railway station (ul. Worcella). There are also PKS buses that run from the top of Starawislna Street opposite the main Post Office. Check departure details as details do chop and change. The trip takes around 40 minutes.
In Krakow you will see tours to the mines advertised but be aware that some of these are only offering transport to the mines not offering the services of a guide. The guide service can be arranged at the museum and costs roughly around 16 – 19 euros.
A visit to the Wieliczka Mines is a wonderful experience but be aware that because you will be with a tour you can’t always spend as much time lingering in the ice chambers. The guides generally move along through the mines at a quick pace.
Although Krakow is one of Poland’s most beautiful cities it is worth leaving the city for a few hours to visit this underground cavern of exquisite beauty. Put your woolies and boots on and climb those 300 steps – you will be in for a fascinating underground experience.