I was fortunate to live in Poland for a year. It’s a beautiful country. The autumn can be comparable in beauty to the autumn’s in New England. While working in Kedzierzyn-Kozle, I had a great deal of opportunity to take day trips and explore the country. Without a doubt, my favorite trip was to the The Wieliczka Salt Mines. The mines are located in the south of Poland in the town of Wieliczka, not too far from Krakow.
The salt mine was placed in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1978. It was in use as a mine from the 13th century until 1996. It only ended then because of the drop in the price of salt and because of mine flooding. When I first heard about the mine, I wasn’t terribly eager to go. I’m very glad I did. The mine is over 300 km long and goes down over 300 meters.
The tour of the mine is only about 3.5 km long. There are guided tours available in several languages including Polish, German and English. We only had to wait about 40 minutes for an English tour. We were there in late spring with a lot of tourists. I suspect that in the winter, I might have had to wait longer.
The tour is accessed through a long, narrow staircase going down. Once inside the mines, the guide told us about the history – horses raised in the mines from birth, small alcoves with carved statuary of dwarfs that could be the models for the seven dwarfs in Snow White, chapels where miners prayed, and on and on. It takes awhile to fully understand that the salt is gray. The gray stone the sculptures are made out of are salt – not granite. The walls surrounding you are salt. So is the floor. By the time you get through the salt mine, your skin will taste of salt. It’s in the air and in everything you touch along the way. There are underground lakes that are spectacularly beautiful.
The most amazing moment is when the tour goes into the cathedral. This is no small chapel. This is a huge and beautiful church beneath the ground. . Karol Wojtyła (the late Pope John Paul II) held mass there when he worked in Krakow. There are chandeliers made of salt there. In this case, the salt has been purified and reconstituted so it’s clear. This room has been featured in movies, and can still be rented out for private functions. As it is an actual church, it is still in use for weddings and other religious activities. The Wieliczka mine is often referred to as “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.”
At the end of the tour, there is a gift area where it is possible to purchase anything from postcards and books to statues and jewelry out of salt. I purchased a number of crosses carved out of salt for Catholic neighbors back home. At the time, these beautiful little crosses cost only a couple of zloty – about fifty cents American. Even at four times that price, they would have been fine. Everyone flipped over them.
There is a lot for the tourist to see and do in Poland. Krakow and the surrounding area are full of places that should not be missed. The Salt Mines of Wieliczka are one of those places.