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Wieliczka – Journey to the Bowels of the Earth

Have you ever wondered where such a common condiment as salt comes from? A visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine could be the perfect opportunity to learn how this coveted commodity is mined. You would also discover a stunning underground precinct. Located in the Kraków metropolitan area, some 15 kilometres from the city, the mine has been in continuous operation since the 13th century and up until our times. This is the second oldest salt mine in the world, after the Bochnia Mine, also in Poland. In 1978 it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – yet one more pretext to visit it.

But, what makes the Wieliczka Mine so special? To start with, you have to banish any preconceived ideas of darkness and claustrophobia usually associated with the word “mine”. After descending the long, initial access staircase leading down into the depths, comprising around 350 steps, you come face to face with a statue sculpted by Nicolaus Copernicus which greets visitors on the first level. But, this is not the only salt statue you will see on your visit – there is a wealth of these artefacts, carved by the miners themselves. Themes range from historical figures to work scenes in the mine and even religious subjects. To be sure, there’s even a salt relief reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. I bet you’re surprised!

But, that’s not all. The realm’s jewel in the crown is the Chapel of Saint Kinga, a huge cavity measuring 54 metres deep, by 17m wide and 11m high, all carved in the rock, ornamented with lanterns which – naturally – are also made of rock salt. It is the largest underground church in the world and is well worth visiting, even if just for its sheer size. The work attests to the miners’ devotion to Saint Kinga, who legend has it brought salt to Poland.

The tour ends at a depth of 135 metres, after taking you past some brine lakes, where a sound-and-light performance is laid on to a theme by Chopin. This may sound a bit kitsch, but it is quite something to hear it in a cavern of this kind! Ah! And, don’t worry – the ascent to the surface is made in a lift.

Experiences in the Underground

The Wieliczka mine has been perfectly adapted for sightseers and several options are open to visitors: the “tourist route” is the conventional option, but you can go beyond that if you’re eager to have a more intense experience, in which case you choose the “miner’s route”.This involves experiencing the tour like a miner and learning all the ins-and-outs of salt-mining processes. There is also a “pilgrim’s route” for the more religious-minded, which focuses on the spiritual parts of the mine, notably the Chapels of St Kinga and St John Paul II.

The mine has a healthy microclimate, featuring pollution-free areas where calm prevails. Moreover, the dry atmosphere generated by the salt, and the constant temperature, help to create the perfect environment for those suffering from respiratory ailments. The amenities also include a spa station offering a number of different treatments. And, for those of you who have time on your hand and avidly seek out strong emotions, the complex includes accommodation for the night, set at two levels – 125 metres down, and another at 135 metres. Do you dare?

Preparing Your Visit

Here are a few pointers to consider before visiting the mine:

- There is a bus service from Kraków every 20 minutes.
- You don’t need to book beforehand. All visits are guided, and guides are available in a large number of languages. Here are the timetables.
- The average duration of a guided tour is about three hours.
- The temperature inside the mine is from 14 to 16 degrees, so remember to bring a jacket or some warm clothing if you don’t want to get cold.
- There are a lot of steps to go down – around 800 in all – so make sure you put on comfortable footwear.
- Be careful! If you want to make your friends jealous of the great photos you take, bear in mind you need to pay an extra fee for photographing or filming in the mine.

Don’t pass up the chance to visit this spectacular complex – check out our flights here.

Text by ISABELYLUIS Comunicación

Photos by Taver, Jennifer Boyer, Alexander Baxevanis and Wieliczka Salt Mine(photos by R. Stachurski)