Stuart Forster reports on experiencing a Wieliczka Salt Mine tour near Krakow, Poland.
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Regardless of the season or its weather, you’ll always be able to visit the most famous attraction of Wieliczka, a small town near Krakow in Poland. Temperatures remain fairly constant, between 14°C and 16°C, down in the town’s salt mine.
If you’re not Polish then the name of Wieliczka Salt Mine may not exactly roll off your tongue but, providing your pronunciation is even half-decent there’s a good chance it might be recognised anywhere in the world. After all, it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the initial list was drawn up in 1978.
Visiting Wieliczka Salt Mine
Salt mines are, of course, often associated with toil and punishment. Wieliczka, though, is better known as being a venue for the arts and culture, as I discovered during my visit.
On arrival at the head of the mine a former miner, Dariusz, greeted me and introduced himself as my guide. I was travelling out of season but in summer I’d probably have to reckon with a sizable queue. More than a million visitors head below ground to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine every year.
In fact, tourists have been visiting the salt mine for over 200 years. Not many, though, have yet seen the recently opened Miner’s Route, which Dariusz guided me along before taking me over into a different part of the mine, to view underground caverns holding sculptures carved from rock salt.
Wieliczka Salt Mine history
During medieval times the salt mined here at Wieliczka was known as ‘grey gold’. Salt was valuable because it was used widely in order to preserve food. The revenues raised from its sale helped fill the coffers of the kings of Poland.
In those happy days, long before doctors were advising people to watch their salt intake, the Polish kings made Wawel Castle, at the centre of Krakow (10 kilometres away from the mine), their main seat of power.
Industrial mining came to an end at Wieliczka in 1996 but salt is still produced, mainly for the local market. Doing so maintains a tradition that predates the granting of the mine’s charter, in 1289, by the Duke of Silesia and Krakow.
Wieliczka’s Miners’ Route Tour
As I pulled on overalls and a bright orange safety helmet Dariusz informed me that just one per cent of the mine is open to visitors. It drops to a maximum depth of 327 metres below ground and Wieliczka’s network of tunnels runs for 245 kilometres.
“Stick with me to survive. There is a huge labyrinth of tunnels and only I know the way out,” warned Dariusz before breaking into a laugh.
He may well joke but visitors still need to take their safety seriously. Everyone has to learn how to use emergency breathing apparatus and mining lamps at the start of the tour.
It helps if you have a reasonable level of fitness. Even though the subterranean trail runs just two kilometres you’ll need to climb around 800 steps and get up and down a couple of ladders.
A clay-covered wooden door stands at the end of the tunnel where you’ll enter the mine. Doors like this one helped contain fires fuelled by methane gas. In 1644 one fire burned eight months long.
Wearing protective gear underground
Watch out as you work your way into the mine. It didn’t take me long to crack my head against a wooden beam so I was grateful to be wearing a helmet.
You’ll see that salt furs the centuries-old joists and beams. Over time it has seeped deep into the wood and has preserved it. Elsewhere salt crystals appear in the rock, like uncut diamonds.
In case you’re wondering how the salt got here, then you’ll need to look back 13 million years, to the Miocene epoch, and the evaporation of seawater.
Wieliczka Salt Mine Chapel
Don’t be surprised by the size of some of the caverns you’ll see within Wieliczka Salt Mine. The world’s first underground bungee jump was held here. The fact the jumper dropped 36 metres gives you an idea of the scale.
The Miners’ Route is good for learning about the working of the mine but if you want to see the most spectacular chambers then I recommend you take the standard tourist route.
St Kinga’s Chapel, a church 101 metres underground, struck me as the most spectacular of all the caverns. Ornate bas relief scenes were sculpted on the chapel walls in the 1920s by men who also worked as miners. Chandeliers crafted from salt crystals hang from the ceiling.
An underground spa resort
The acoustics are good within the mine, something you’ll get to appreciate when a chorus from Nabucco is piped over the speaker system.
“Come back again sometime to listen to our orchestra playing,” suggested Dariusz, gesturing towards the Drozdowice III chamber, where performances are held. A range of cultural events, conferences and exhibitions are held in the mine.
Wieliczka also has a spa resort 135 metres below the surface. The mineral-rich microclimate is said to be beneficial when treating respiratory problems and allergies, and a good place to relax.
Before heading back to ground level I ate dinner in the spacious Warszawa chamber, 125 metres below the surface. In case you’re wondering, the chef’s seasoning was spot on and I didn’t need to reach for the salt.
Getting to Wieliczka from Krakow
Looking for information on how to get to Wieliczka Salt Mine from Krakow?
One option is to take the train from Krakow’s main railway station (Krakow Główny) to Wieliczka Rynek-Kopalnia. From there it’s about 10 minutes’ walk to the salt mine. The salt mine is widely regarded as one of the top things to do in Krakow and the surrounding region.
Bus line 304 runs from a bus stop outside of Krakow’s central railway station to Wieliczka.
Looking for the address of mine? Here’s a map showing the location of the Wieliczka Salt Mine:
Hotels in Krakow
Looking for accommodation near Wieliczka Salt Mine? The 4-star Turowka Hotel and Spa has 53 rooms and is located within walking distance of Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Search for accommodation in Krakow and the surrounding region on Booking.com:
Books about the Krakow region
Planning a trip to Krakow? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Enjoy reading novels set in the destination you’re travelling to? Alex Rosenberg is the author of The Girl From Krakow:
See the Wieliczka Salt Mine website for opening times, admission fee details plus information on how to buy tickets for tours. Both the Miners’ Route and Tourist Route tours of the mine last around three hours.
To find out more about nearby Krakow and the surrounding region see the Welcome to Krakow and Malopolska website.
And for more about tourism in the country see the Poland Travel website.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. He first visited Poland during an Interrail tour and has returned several times.
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A version of this post was originally published on Go Eat Do on 5 August 2013.