One of the highlights of a trip to Krakow is actually not in the city itself. The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO world heritage site. Like Wawel Castle, it is one of the original twelve. UNESCO has gone the way of Beatles tribute bands but Poland boasts two of the original band members – and they are spectacular.
You can get to the salt mine via public transport but you will have to join a guided tour to see the mine so there didn’t seem to be a huge advantage to not just signing up for a tour from Krakow.
If you are on a tight budget, you can save a little organizing your own transportation. The full tour is not expensive and you can relax and fully enjoy your day. It also looked like the tour group we joined at the mine was smaller than the ones assigned to the public tours.
The salt mine is fascinating. The deposit of rock salt in Wieliczka has been mined since the 13th century. It is one of the oldest of its type in Europe. The mine illustrates some key historic stages in the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to the 20th centuries. It’s hard to believe in the 21st century world of cheap, often iodized, salt that in medieval times it was currency in some economies and many important milestones in human history came about because of the production or transportation of salt.
What is really astonishing is how long the mine has been a tourist attraction. Each year it is visited by more than a million visitors! Tourism began in the 18th century and there is large roster of famous guests. Some – like Pope John Paul II and Goethe – have special salt statues to immortalize their visits. It is also interesting as the temperature is more or less constant and the salt in the air is supposed to be good for your health. There is a cathedral with excellent acoustics and fascinating subterranean ponds. You can even spend New Year’s Eve in the mine!
Who knew mining could be so glamourous 🙂
It is definitely not an attraction for anyone with the slightest sense of claustrophobia. The mine is a giant maze. You start your journey on a train that takes you into the mine to start your explorations. It starts like Disneyland but you also need to be comfortable walking as it’s a journey. You walk about three kilometres and do some serious stairs. At the end, you are herded like mineworkers into an extremely crowded elevator that is the real deal used to take workers into and out of the mine. It is freaky but very fast!
The mine itself is interesting but what has enticed the millions of visitors are the sculptures created by the workers. The sculptures are all composed of rock salt from the mine. They are incredible. Famous people are immortalized in salt. The most whimsical are the sculptures of the Seven Dwarfs – mining of course 😉 and lit by coloured lamps.
One of the rewards of the long journey is that you eventually emerge into a cathedral built entirely of salt. Mining is not without danger so, in this deeply Catholic country, the workers built the cathedral to pray for their safety. It is impossible to describe. You are several levels under the ground but you are in this majestic space full of glittering salt (even a claustrophobic would be fine it is so large). It is one of the most unique sights you can witness anywhere in the world.
This is a tourist attraction, not a mine, and one has to be impressed at how creatively they are trying to push you to buy salt in the gift shop. Who knew you could do that many things with rock salt…
In addition to the wonders of the mine, you learn about the place of salt in human history and how the value and role of commodities in society is always open to disruption from new technology or changing tastes.
If you do a group tour, you may also be exposed to the new tourists of the 21st century. We had a professor from Oman and a family from Mexico as part of our group. The roads are being increasingly diversified. It can only be an advantage to the planet for more people to go and see it and get to know each other.
One of the wonders of travel is discovery. Most of the discoveries are small and personal. But sometimes you stumble by accident upon something unexpected that is truly worthy of international fame. Go check it out!