Stunning Salt Mine of Wieliczka, Poland

The Salt Mine of Wieliczka – Krakow’s World-class Attraction. One travelled Frenchman observed in the 18th century that Krakow’s Wieliczka salt mine was no less magnificent than the Egyptian pyramids. Millions of visitors, the crowned heads and such celebrities as Goethe and Sarah Bemhardt among them, have appeared to share his enthusiasm when exploring the subterranean world of labyrinthine passages, giant caverns, underground lakes and chapels with sculptures in the crystalline salt and rich ornamentation carved in the salt rock. They have also marveled at the ingenuity of the ancient mining equipment in the Wieliczka salt mine. And the unique acoustics of the place have made hearing music here an exceptional experience.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, nowadays practically on the Southeast outskirts of Krakow, has been worked for 900 years. It used to be one of the world’s biggest and most profitable industrial establishments when common salt was commercially a medieval equivalent of today’s oil. Always a magnet, since the mid-18th century Krakow’s Wieliczka salt mine has become increasingly a tourist attraction in the first place. Today visitors walk underground for about 2,000 m in the oldest part of the salt mine and see its subterranean museum, which takes three hours or so.
Nine centuries of mining in Wieliczka produced a total of some 200 kilometres of passages as well as 2,040 caverns of varied size. The tourist route starts 64 m deep, includes twenty chambers, and ends 135 m below the earth surface, where the world’s biggest museum of mining is located with the unique centuries-old equipment among its exhibits.
Occasionally concerts and other events take place in the Wieliczka mine’s biggest chambers.
There is a sanatorium for those suffering from asthma and allergy situated 135 meters deep underground in the Wieliczka Salt Mine.


Deep underground  in Poland lies something remarkable but little known outside Eastern
Europe. For centuries, miners have extracted salt there, but left  behind things quite startling
and unique. Take a look at the most  unusual salt mine in the world.

From the outside, Wieliczka Salt Mine doesn’t look extraordinary. It looks extremely  well kept
for a place that has not mined any salt for over ten years  but apart from that it looks ordinary.
However, over two hundred  meters below ground it holds an astonishing secret. This is the
salt  mine that became an art gallery, cathedral and underground lake.


It may feel like  you are in the middle of a Jules Verne adventure as you descend in  to the depths of the world. After a one hundred and fifty meter  climb down wooden stairs the visitor to the salt mine will see some  amazing sites. About the most astounding in terms of its sheer size  and audacity is the Chapel of Saint Kinga. The Polish people have  for many centuries been devout Catholics and this was more than just  a long term hobby to relieve the boredom of being underground. This  was an act of worship.

Situated in the  Krakow area, Wieliczka is a small town of close to twenty thousand  inhabitants. It was founded in the twelfth century by a local Duke  to mine the rich deposits of salt that lie beneath. Until 1996 it did just that but the generations of miners did more than just  extract. They left behind them a breathtaking record of their time  underground in the shape of statues of mythic, historical and  religious figures. They even created their own chapels in which to  pray. Perhaps their most astonishing legacy is the huge underground  cathedral they left behind for posterity


Still, that  doesnt stop well over one million visitors (mainly from Poland and  its eastern
European neighbors) from visiting the mine to see,  amongst other things, how salt was mined
in the   past.


These reliefs are  perhaps among some of the most iconographic works of Christian folk  art in the world and really do deserve to be shown. It comes as  little surprise to learn that the mine was placed on the original  list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in 1978.

Amazingly, even  the chandeliers in the cathedral are made of salt. It was not simply  hewn from the ground and then thrown together; however, the process  is rather more painstaking for the lighting. After extraction the  rock salt was first of all dissolved. It was then reconstituted with  the impurities taken out so that it achieved a glass-like finish.  The chandeliers are what many visitors think the rest of the  cavernous mine will be like as they have a picture in their minds of  salt as they would sprinkle on their meals! However, the rock salt  occurs naturally in different shades of grey (something like you  would expect granite to look like).

Another remarkable  carving, this time a take on The Last Supper. The work and patience  that must have gone in to the creation of these sculptures is  extraordinary. One wonders what the miners would have thought of  their work going on general display? They came to be quite used to it, in fact, even during the mines busiest period in the nineteenth  century. The cream of Europe’s thinkers visited the site, you can  still see many of their names in the old visitors books on  display.

To cap it all  there is even an underground lake, lit by subdued electricity and  candles. This is perhaps where the old legends of lakes to the  underworld and Catholic imagery of the saints work together to best  leave a lasting impression of the mine. How different a few minutes  reflection here must have been to the noise and sweat of everyday  working life in the mine.

Not all of the  statues have a religious or symbolic imagery attached to them. The  miners had a sense of humor, after all! Here can be seen their own  take on the legend of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The  intricately carved dwarves must have seemed to some of the miners a  kind of ironic depiction of their own work.


The religious  carvings are, in reality, what draw many to this mine ג€“ as much for  their amazing verisimilitude as for their Christian aesthetics. The  above shows Jesus appearing to the apostles after the crucifixion.  He shows the doubter, Saint Thomas, the wounds on his wrists.


Not all of the  work is relief-based. There are many life sized statues that must  have taken a considerable amount of time ג€“ months, perhaps even  years ג€“ to create. Within the confines of the mine there is also much  to be learned about the miners from the machinery and tools that  they used ג€“ many of which are on display and are centuries old. A  catastrophic flood in 1992 dealt the last blow to commercial salt  mining in the area and now the mine functions purely as a tourist  attraction. Brine is, however, still extracted from the mine ג€“ and  then evaporated to produce some salt, but hardly on the ancient  scale. If this was not done, then the mines would soon become  flooded once again.

The miners even  threw in a dragon for good measure! Certainly,they may have  whistled while they did it but the conditions in the salt mine were  far from comfortable and the hours were long ג€“ the fact that it was  subterranean could hardly have added to the excitement of going to  work each morning.

Harinder

Former Sailing Sea Captain at V.Ships, Miami, FL, USA (retired in 2009). Studied BA (Sophomore) at The Principia, now lives in Jaipur, India

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