The salt of the earth

One of the biggest and most famous tourist attractions in the outskirts of Krakow is Wieliczka salt mine. It was started over 700 years ago and industrial salt extraction ended 1996. Shortly after that it was converted into a museum. There are still miners working in it; mainly to keep the water out and the mine safe and stable. Overall the mine consists of nine levels and reaches down to over 600m. Tunnels stretch over 200km and hundreds of caverns including 40 chapels.

Map of the top three mine levels

Visitors can chose from 4 different tours: the standard tourist route (89zł/adult), a pilgrimage tour, the miners experience and a new extreme cave exploring option. We went for the standard tour because this covers all the caverns and chapels with the carvings the mine is famous for. In the miners experience participants get to wear miner suits, hard hats with lights, breathing apparatus and methane detectors and venture into unlit and otherwise closed sections of the mine. They follow the path of a miner and get to try out all the techniques first hand. As the name suggest the pilgrims tour leads visitors around the 14 remaining chapels.

Altar and chandelier of St. Kinga’s chapel

As a sidenote: there are a few different carparks along the road of the mining museum. The official one costs 5.5zł per hour for a car while some others charge 35zł for 24 hours. If you just come to do a tour and then leave the official one is cheaper (if you get into it). If you want to stay longer like for seeing the town of Wieliczka or staying overnight in a camper then the 35 Złoty is the better option.

Posh carriages for royal mine visitors

We were lucky because when we arrived around 8:30am the queue was very short and we got onto the 9 o’clock English tour. English tours run every half an hour, German tours three times a day and other languages are available too. The group was quite small with only 26 people plus Thomas our guide. Before we disappeared underground we got a radio receiver and earphone so we could follow the commentary. To reach the first level we had to walk 282 stairs down to 65m. Thomas explained a lot about the history and setup of the mine and there were some big mining machines to see; some of them original while others were at least partially reconstructed. Miners have built impressive wooden structures to support the rock and secure caverns up to 36m high.

Miners were masters of statics

During our tour we got to see about 20 caverns and 4 chapels. All chapels are illuminated by chandeliers made of salt crystals (the main structure is probably metal though). The biggest one weighs up to 6 tonnes and is really impressive! Caverns have also been converted for other purposes: there is a function hall for hire, one restaurant, two shopping halls and a few halls containing a mining museum.

Some caverns have artificial lakes of brine (fully saturated salt solution) at 4-6 degrees C so even though they looked nice swimming was not recommended. One lake lead to a tunnel with a boot ride (closed off years ago) in which some German soldiers died when their overloaded boat capsized and they got stuck under it. The brine stopped them from diving out and they all suffocated.

The chapels are all still in use and decorated with carvings and statues made entirely of salt. Two of the chapels we saw had been rescued from lower levels and relocated to the second and third floor.

Methane burners at work

Over the course of the tour we climbed deeper into the earth and our deepest point at the end was 135m. It did help quite a lot that the mine was fitted with a very good ventilation system which kept the air fresh and the temperature at 15 degrees.

We had a great time and really enjoyed the 2.5h long tour. It’s not cheap but certainly worth the money; especially if you visit the museum as well (only possible with a guide).

Ted tried to be a miner too

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s