Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2009-02-23
There is a lift, but you have to go down by foot: 378 steps on a narrow staircase lead the visitor to a depth of 64 metres for an astonishing visit to the inhabited bowels of the earth...
Wieliczka salt mine, in the suburbs of Krakow, has been worked since the 13th century. Rock salt is still mined here, but tourism has taken precedence over production which is now merely a sideline. In order to avoid flooding of the mine, the 300 kilometres of galleries have to be carefully maintained. So surplus water continues to be pumped and a water treating plant, installed at the site in 1912 and modernised in 2003, carries out the extraction of the salt it contains. Wieliczka salt is black, like rock, yet after grinding it becomes white. It is transformed into perfumed bath salts or table salt. The pink and orange salt lamps sold at the exit are, however, made from salt brought in from other places: but business is business!
God keep you!
The most amazing thing in Wieliczka mine is the decoration of the chambers and galleries. The clay schist consisting of 85% salt has been sculpted into statues, chapels, bas-reliefs, the religious and the lowly. These salt icons all tell the mine's story, celebrate its legends and pay patriotic homage to Poland. Even 'Solidarity' and Jean-Paul II are honoured in this way. An exhibition room, conference room, bar, restaurant and even a cathedral (at a depth of 101 metres) have all been created underground.
The guides are multilingual and are miners. When they pass each other, they greet each other with a “God keep you.” It is a tradition even the communists could not stop. In spite of extremely difficult work conditions, the Civil Servant miners were considered to be privileged and the profession was handed down from father to son. Even today they are extremely proud to be working at Wieliczka.
A wooden staircase penetrates the very depths of the mine: at the deepest point of the visit, in the Russegger Chamber which contains the Krakow Salt Mines Museum (included in the visit), there are 135.6 metres of salt between the visitor and the surface! After 2 kilometres and 2½ hours walking underground at 14°C, a bar and restaurant situated 125 metres below the surface, provide visitors with a chance to recover. Strangely enough, it is possible to buy a postcard with a stamp and send it from inside the mine.
The Daniłowicz Shaft, formerly used for hauling salt to the surface, was sunk in the years 1635-1640. Nowadays it houses the ticket office and souvenir shop.
Tourists have flocked to visit the mines for nearly two centuries. Even Nicolas Copernicus, a student at Krakow, descended the mine in 1493 and the first underground chamber is now named after him.
In the Janowice Chamber, excavated in the beginning of the 17th century, six statues tell the legend of Queen Kinga (also known as Cunegunda), the patron saint of miners, canonised in 1999 by Jean-Paul II. Daughter of the King of Hungary and wife of Boleslaus the Chaste - Prince of Poland, Kinga lost her engagement ring in the shaft of the Marmarosz salt mine given to her by her father. Upon arriving in Poland, near Krakow, she ordered the digging of a well to find water. The miners got to work and discovered a vein of rock salt there. In the very first block they hauled to the surface was the engagement ring which had miraculously found its way there!
Casimir the Great Chamber
This chamber, excavated in 1743, was given the name of Casimir the Great in 1968 and it is decorated with a bust sculpted by Wladyslaw Hapek.
In 1368 Casimir the Great published a law known as the “Kazimierz statute” which set out the mine's working conditions and which entitled the miners to rights on the salt extracted from it. Salt was of great economic value and in the 14th century the working of the mines represented 30% of the national wealth. Using this revenue, the King paid the salaries of state dignitaries and the soldiers' military pay (the word salary comes from the latin word for salt – sal, and salt was used as a currency for a long time.) Salt was also essential for preserving, transporting and selling food.
Kunegunda Shaft Bottom
At the Kunegunda Shaft Bottom, a gallery linking two shafts, colourful, impish dwarfs watch over Wieliczka's treasure. It is said that the miners, having filled their rail carts with salt the day before, arrive in the morning to find them completely empty. This is said to be the work of the dwarfs.
Holy Cross Chapel
In the Holy Cross Chapel is the 17th century polychrome wooden figure of Our Lady the Victorious and a wooden statue of Christ from the 19th century. This is on Level II: Wieliczka mine consists of nine levels covering the depth of 327 metres. Less than 10% of the mine is open to visitors.
St Kinga's Chapel
The splendour of this immense room stuns the visitors, who automatically lower their voices upon entering. Founded in 1896 it is 12 metres high, 15 to 18 metres wide and more than 54 metres long. The floor's paving slabs are entirely hewn out of rock-salt.
In the centre of the high-altar stands a statue of the saint in rock-salt, completed in 1914. She watches over the relics brought there in 1994 from the Order of Saint Clare of Stary Sacz convent, where Queen Cunegunda, grieving from the death of her husband in 1279, spent the remainder of her life having given all her possessions to the poor.
Erazm Barącz Chamber
The lake in the Erazm Barącz Chamber (9 metres deep) has partly flooded this chamber situated at a depth of 100 metres. It was worked for 20 years from 1846. They say its water is even saltier than the Dead Sea, and it's true!
Out of bounds to visitors is a timber gallery situated below the roof, from which the miners survey the watertightness of the walls.
Erazm Barącz, a famous art collector, was the director of the mine from 1917-1918.
St John's Chapel
St John's Chapel, decorated with painted and varnished wood, was built in 1859 in a remote corner of the mine. It was moved in 2005 to be put on display for visitors and saved from the attack of the brine's erosion. The Antonia gallery, leaving from the left, leads back to the museum and the cramped lift, seen at the beginning, that takes visitors back up to the surface.
Polish National Tourist Office
Westgate House, Westgate,
London W5 1YY,
Tel. 0870 067 5010
Krakow Tourist Office
Kopalnia Soli Wieliczka
Wieliczka Salt Mines