The Wieliczka Salt Mines are about a half hour drive from Krakow, in a little village of the same name. They are not the punitive form of mine that may first come to mind when you hear the words ’salt mine’. Instead, the mine was a large commercial operation and in the 1700’s, it along with three other mines in the country, was Poland’s biggest source of income. This mine has operated here for 700 years. In the medieval days, salt was as important to the economy as is oil today.
The mine reaches a depth of 327 metres and is over 287 kilometres long. It closed commercial operations in 2007 although some salt is still distilled from saturated water. The mine is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visiting is a truly amazing experience. A wooden staircase with 378 steps takes you down an old shaft to the mine’s first level at 64-metres. Then, you take a 3 kilometre walking tour along corridors, through chapels, past statues and around underground lakes. This tour covers just 1% of the total length of the mine. The deepest section of the tour is 135 metres underground. A very squeezy double decker miner’s lift talks you back to the surface. The Poles have learned from every other tourist destination, so you exit through the gift shop. I did manage to buy some packs of bath salts for someone special.
Unlike my expectations, the salt was not white and crystaline. This is rock salt and it looks, and feels something like a dark coloured granite. Along the way there are all sorts of fascinating sculptures made out of salt. For centuries, salt was picked by hand and carried up to the surface.On the bottom level is a chapel all made from salt. Even the chandeliers are made from salt crystals. Poland is probably the most Catholic country in the world so it naturally includes striking sculptures of religious scenes including the Last Supper and Christ and the Apostles.
Occasionally concerts and other events take place in the mine’s biggest chambers. There is even a sanatorium for those suffering from asthma and allergy situated 135 meters deep underground.
Back in Kracow, we headed towards the impressive Castle, stopping at a little cafe for lunch. We didn’t get any further than this as a large and heavy thunder storm started and the place was swamped with heavy rain. All we could do was wait it out with another glass of wine and more coffee. There must have been an inch, or so, of rain over the hour that the thunderstorm lasted. We knew it was serious when the cafe ran out of milk! We never got to see the castle. Instead, we returned to our hotel cold and wet to recoup, but after a while we did set out to see some more of the city.
We had noticed some electric carts (a longer form of a golf buggy) that were offering city tours so we hailed one and took a ride. Our driver was a delightful young lady whose name translated into English as ‘Susie’. She was only new to the job and working on her vacation before beginning university. She was accompanied by a more experienced guide who gave us a lot more explanation of the things that we were seeing than the usual recorded commentary. We felt like we had a good deal. This tour took us around the old town, through the Jewish Quarter, past the WW2 Ghetto and then around to the factory owned by Oskar Schindler who saved many Jewish employees from transfer to the concentration camps.
Finally, we spent a little time packing as we are off to Berlin in the morning. I didn’t even have time to go to a dancing class. I though that since I was in Poland, I might try to learn Pole Dancing, but not enough time (or energy, or real inclination). Perhaps its just as well that we haven’t included Lapland on our itinerary. Then I would have had to learn Lap Dancing!