If you ask anyone in southern Poland what you should see while you’re here, they’ll say, “Wieliczka.” After several months of being told that, I decided it was about time I checked it out. With the rest of my family (who came all the way to Kraków for the New Year’s holiday), I piled onto a shuttle bus at nine in the morning and made the twenty-minute ride to one of the Poles’ favorite tourist locations.
Wieliczka (wee-el-eech-ka) is a small town just south of Kraków, and is home to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area: Kopalnia soli Wieliczka (koh-pal-nee-ah so-lee wee-el-eech-ka). All that is just Polish for “Wieliczka Salt Mine.” At first blush, a salt mine doesn’t seem like it would be very interesting, but the mine at Wieliczka is in a category of its own.
According to legend, the mine came into existence through the prayers and actions of the pious Princess Kinga of Hungary. She was, in fact, a real person, who married into the royal family in Poland in the thirteenth century, and has since been canonized and anointed the patron saint of salt miners. The story goes that, when she became engaged to the Polish prince, she asked for salt as a part of her dowry, knowing that there wasn’t much salt in Poland (remember, salt was extremely valuable in those days, being one of the only ways to preserve food). When she visited a salt mine in Hungary with her father to obtain said salt, she threw her engagement ring into one of the shafts as a sort of offering to God, who had granted her people salt. When she and her entourage were almost to Kraków, she noticed some springs that produced salty water; she instructed the Polish peasants in the area to start digging there, and voilà! There was salt. At the bottom of the shaft that they dug, they found the ring that Princess Kinga had thrown into the mine shaft in Hungary. This was taken as a sign that Princess Kinga’s offering had been accepted by God and that the mine was the fulfillment of her request of Him.
In reality, people have been producing salt from the salty springs on the surface in that area since prehistoric times, and simply decided to mass-produce by digging in the thirteenth century. But that’s not nearly as good of a story, so we’re going to stick with the Princess Kinga version.
Not all of the mine’s history is as lovely as the story of Princess Kinga, though. In the thirteenth century, as today, mining was a dangerous enterprise. While some advancements in technology and tactics made mining a bit safer for the miners, it was never without risk. Cave-ins, natural gas fires, and lack of ventilation were all in a day’s work. There was even a special division of miners whose sole job was to crawl around the mine on their stomachs holding a flaming torch in the air in order to burn off the natural gas – a safety engineer’s nightmare. During the Second World War, the Nazis used Wieliczka as a forced labor camp, both to produce salt and for other, probably more sinister, enterprises.
For all this, the salt mine continued operations for an exceedingly long time. It was first opened in the thirteenth century; it didn’t discontinue production until 1996. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1978 – but not because of salt production.
Somewhere along the line, the miners started carving statues from the mounds of salt in the mine. Pretty soon, there was a whole collection of carvings in the mine. There are several chapels, a restaurant, and several ballrooms, all more than a hundred meters underground. The most notable of the rooms, though, is the famous Wieliczka Cathedral.
The miners carved out an entire cathedral from salt, and it’s just as beautiful as any cathedral you’ll see above ground. Carvings in the cathedral include a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (the only one done in salt, I was informed), the Nativity of the Lord, the Flight into Egypt, and an entire high altar.
And because no church in Poland is complete without him, as you leave the cathedral, you’ll be blessed by a larger-than-life salt representation of Pope Saint John Paul II.
The church is far from the only carving worth noting, though. Along the tour route, there are many carvings, including dwarfs who decided that it was not off to work that they went. There is also a life-sized series of statues depicting the legend of Princess Kinga founding the Wieliczka Royal Salt Mine.
Wieliczka is definitely worth a trip when you’re in Kraków. A friendly piece of advice, though: bring a bottle of water and all the patience you can possibly muster in your entire being. The first you’ll need while down in the mine. It is, after all, a salt mine. The latter you’ll need before you even get through the door. Judging by how many people told me to visit the mines, it’s normally very well organized and offers plenty of time for contemplating the fact that someone had enough time on their hands to carve a dwarf playing soccer. When we visited, though, we saw first-hand the realization of the possibility of the whole operation floundering. Fair warning: Polish ideas of queuing are hazy at best.
My family and I decided to visit Wieliczka on New Year’s Eve, thinking that it would be less crowded on a holiday. As it turned out, most of southern Poland had the same idea. We stood in line for over an hour before we even made it through the door. This was even less pleasant than it sounds, as it was below freezing outside. On the plus side, that gave us some quality time to befriend a trio of Scottish travelers in the same tour group as us. There was a considerable amount of discussion about opening a beverage stand offering hot chocolate and peppermint Schnapps outside the entrance to the mine. The tour itself was quite good, although a little rushed because of the sheer number of people who had decided to visit the mine that day. I have a feeling that if you go on a different day than we did, you might have more time to ogle the carvings, take in the sheer size of the mines, and taste-test the salt (yes, licking the walls is permitted within the mines). Note: I say less crowded – being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the biggest tourist attractions in that part of Poland, I’m willing to bet there will always be quite a few people there.
Logistics failures and lack of peppermint Schnapps aside, Wieliczka was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.