The Salt Mines of Krakow, Poland

Though the Wieliczka Salt Mine is visited by millions every year, I likely wouldn’t have known about it if my Polish friends hadn’t taken me to it. Naturally gray in color, the mine is composed of salt rock, some of which has been polished to a clear, glass-like transparency. This glass-like effect encompasses the entire cave, including one area that touts some impressive salt rock chandeliers hanging hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface. Such stunning stonework is what makes the mines more than just dark tunnels underground: it is eerie, highly unique, sacred, and beautiful at the same time.

Wieliczka salt mine entrance

Wieliczka salt mine entrance

 

Located within the Krakow metropolitan area in Poland, the mine, strangely enough, is accessible by taxi, train, or bus. We arrived by taxi and were soon descending into the mine on a staircase of 378 steps. The first miners began digging the mine over 900 years ago, but this long industrial history came to an abrupt halt in 1996 when flooding and low salt prices rendered it no longer profitable. After a short walk through the large tunnels, we came across the first series of sculptures. The cave is literally full of sculptures because the miners, who worked in these tunnels for nine centuries, were talented well beyond swinging pick axes. They were also precise chisel tapping artists. Most of the sculptures were made by common laborers and depict scenes from their lives and imaginations, such as working hard or praying.

Wieliczka salt mine chandelier, made of salt

Wieliczka salt mine chandelier, made of salt

Professional sculptures also fill the cave, the most impressive of which are located in the main salt cathedral, which so impressed me that I instantly understood why the mine is referred to as the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland. The main cathedral is located in a large room and features the salt rock crystal chandeliers. This section also contains a series of three-dimensional scenes carved into the walls. The depiction of the Last Supper fascinated me the most: The image seemed to leap from the wall. Our guide told us that the scenes are carved as deep as 30 centimeters into the cavern’s wall.

Saint Barbara statue in salt mine

Saint Barbara statue in salt mine

wieliczka salt mine chapel

wieliczka salt mine chapel

There are other cathedrals in the mine as well, and it is a striking image to imagine the miners joining together for Sunday mass. The salt cathedrals are still used today for religious purposes, and I had to remind myself that—even though I’m 400 feet underground—I’m still in a real, functioning church.

After leaving the main salt cathedral, we were taken to a room that honors Poland’s liberation. From there we were taken to an expansive underground salt lake straight out of a fairy tale. It is an inspiring a scene for a fantasy novel.

English-speaking tours are given every 30 minutes in the summer and every hour during the winter months.
On a personal note, I had one of the most surprising meetings of my life in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I began speaking with an older, American couple and together it slowly dawned on us that we knew each other. They lived in the backwoods area of Maine where I grew-up. After a little more discussion it turned out that, yes, they did know my parents very well, having lived together in a dome in the 70s!

I guess you never know who you’ll bump into hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth in Poland!

Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com

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Comments

  1. Kathy morrel says

    Curious what time and day there is mass said I. The salt cathedral. Thank you

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