I am unashamedly a huge fan of salt. Salty meals, salty snacks, salty bath products, salt on its own. I was extremely excited to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the Malopolska region of Poland.
The Unesco World Heritage site lies about half an hour outside the city of Kraków and for tourists looking for something stunning, different and full of history, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a must-see.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation. Built in the 13th century, the mine has produced table salt for over 700 years.
Visitors today can opt to choose either the Tourist Route or the Miner’s Route. The Tourist Route (which we were on), takes you along the corridors, lakes and chambers and tells the story of this fascinating mine. The Miner’s Route is more physically strenuous as participants actually gain experience of what it’s like to be a miner working underground. Whatever tour you choose, there are so many secrets to discover, and you’ll quickly realize this great attraction is so much more than just a mine.
We began the tour above ground, descending down 380 stairs to reach the first level of the mine. You can actually see the bottom of the staircase from where you start at the top; a view that is both exciting and exhilarating. As you reach the bottom you can begin to taste the salt in the air, you can see the salt on the walls, and the story begins.
Rock salt was discovered in the town of Wieliczka in the 13th century and the first shafts were dug. Between the 13th and 14th century construction of the Saltworks Castle began and it was the head office of the mine’s board until 1945. Today the building houses Krakow’s Saltworks Museum. Over the years the mine expanded and by the end of the middle ages around 350 people worked at the salt works and about 8,000 tonnes of salt was produced every year.
The museum does an excellent job of telling the story of the mine right from it’s beginnings. Scenes and statues are set up to really give the visitor an idea of what is was like for both people and animals working in these mines throughout history.
The mine continued to grow as time went on. By the mid 17th century there was over 2,000 people working in the mine and 30,000 tonnes of salt being produced annually. There were a variety of tools and techniques used to mine salt over the years. One of the tools on display was a Saxon treadmill, which was introduced to the mines in the 18th century as a more efficient way of hauling salt to the surface. Guests can even have a go at hauling salt!
In June 1772, Austrian armies occupied the town of Wieliczka and also the mine. The Old-Polish Krakow saltworks were replaced by the Wieliczka and Bochnia saltworks.
The most amazing thing about the mine is that is it not just a mine, it is an artwork in itself. As you move through the various areas of the mine, there are statues carved out of salt. The statues represent both mythical and historical figures that have been carved by various workers in the mine throughout history.
The most amazing display of artistry is the cathedral. Statues and artwork are completely carved out of the rock. The artwork pays tribute to religious figures, the most recognizable being Pope John Paul II. It is one of many chapels and areas of worship carved out of the mines. It was something I was truly not expecting as I walked onto the balcony overlooking the cathedral and it is absolutely stunning.
The saltworks also played an important role during the Second World War. Rather than shutting the mine down, the Nazis recognized it as strategically significant. The Germans approved of the development of the mine and even introduced some new innovations. The mines reopened after the war. The excavation of rock salt continued until 1964 when it was terminated and only evaporated salt continued to be produced. The Museum was then opened in 1966.
Today the Wieliczka Salt Mine not only operates as a tourist attraction but also as a health resort. The Health Resort is designed to effectively treat respiratory disease as it has a unique micro-climate. The air is free of both pollution and allergens which is effective in treating respiratory problems. The Health Resort also offers a number of other services including skin care, massage and physiotherapy. As someone who periodically suffers from asthma, I do have to admit there was something very calming about the air in the salt mines, proven by the fact that I broke into a coughing fit as soon as we returned to surface.
The saltworks can also be hired out as a venue. We saw a few very lovely rooms used for conferences and weddings. There is also a great (and very affordable) gift shop that sells a wide range of salt products. I purchased some table salt to bring home with me, and it was delicious!
So, if you are in the Kraków region and looking to visit a very different and fascinating attraction, you must go to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It is a true testament to the history of the Polish miners.
To learn more information about visiting Poland go to: poland.travel