I’d heard about the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a short bus ride from Krakow, and thought that the idea of an underground cathedral carved out of salt sounded pretty interesting. Plus, a whole lot of people had told me I should go there. That’s usually a good sign.
It was stinking hot the day I headed to Wieliczka, so a good day to venture underground. Despite the heat I took a cardigan as the temperature in the mine is a consistent 14 degrees Celsius year-round. The mine is about a ten minute walk from the bus stop and was absolutely packed with people. Everyone is required to join a tour and each group is thirty-five people. English tours leave every half hour, Polish more frequently and German, Spanish, French and Japanese less often. I bought my ticket for the 12.30 English tour and sneaked around the corner to take out the photography permit sticker that Annie, a girl at the hostel, had given me – it cost 10zl to take photos. I found this a little unreasonable given that you had to pay an exorbitant 68zl [about $23] to get in, so I was quite happy to reuse Annie’s sticker.
So, a bit about the Wieliczka – pronounced VeeyahLEECHka – Salt Mine:
- It was continuously mined from the 13th through to the 20th century
- It has more than 300km of tunnels
- It contains more than 1 cubic kilometre of timber
- It is up to 327m deep
- Apparently the air in certain places is ‘healing’ [it didn’t do anything for my cold, so I’m a little skeptical about the claimed magical healing powers]
- It’s UNESCO heritage listed
- People have been carving things out of the salt down there for a while now.
Three English language tour groups started at 12.30pm. The first part of the tour involves descending more than 300 stairs into the mine, the air growing cooler and cooler quite rapidly. The progress was very slow for two reasons. Firstly, there were groups in front of us and when you get to the bottom, the guide does a bunch of talking about 10m from the stairs. Secondly, there was a couple WITH A PRAM that held everyone up even more. Seriously. You’re taking a pram down 300+ steps…and that’s just the beginning? The whole mine is full of steps, up and down all the time. [To make it even more enjoyable, they were in my group and spent most of the time complaining about the stairs. Needless to say they endured lots of very frustrated glares from the other 33 adults in the group over the next two and a half hours. It probably didn’t help that the two kids screamed almost the whole time. It’s fair to say that they were not very popular.]
Once we made it to the bottom it was a matter of walking through about 2km of the tunnels in very short bursts, stopping every two minutes to either learn about something there or to wait for the group in front to move on. The whole tour was a matter of being stuck in a group of 35, sandwiched by groups of the same size in front and behind. The guide was a very old man who talked as slowly as Meaghan walks [I’ll find out soon enough whether she is reading my blog – but for those unfamiliar, a snail could make it halfway across a football field in the time it took this guy to finish a sentence] and with a voice so soft that you could barely make him out. I think he was getting a little old for the job as he kept on repeating himself – and he has the entire thing memorised, so we got the same paragraphs a second and once even a third time.
Different parts of the mine have been set up with little tableaus showing mining equipment and techniques from different periods – having been in operation for more than 700 years, the mine saw a fair bit of change in mining technology. We walked through a number of caverns with salt sculptures gently lit up, from statues of famous people like Nicholas Copernicus to kings and princes to workers.
The highlight, and the main reason that people pay the ridiculous entrance fee, is undoubtedly the massive salt church, Saint Kinga’s Chapel. It’s incredible. The whole thing, believe it or not, is salt – the floor is carved into tiles and polished, the walls covered in engravings and reliefs of biblical scenes, the altar and crucifix also carved from salt.
For me, the most amazing things in the chapel were the chandeliers – also carved from salt crystals. They were brilliant, so detailed. I had expected it to be a little whiter though – the salt that the chapel was carved from was brown.
Of course, no Polish chapel would be complete without a statue of Poland’s greatest celebrity Pope John Paul II. JP’s pretty popular in Poland – in Krakow alone there are seventeen statues of him.
Most of the tunnels were lined with wooden beams, and I can believe the guide’s claim that there is over one cubic kilometre of timber in the mine. Much of it is painted and treated to protect it, but this is what a lot of the wood down there looks like. I can verify that it tastes salty too. Stalactites grow from the ceilings in many caverns, and grow quite rapidly – apparently up to two meters per year.
The tour ended quite abruptly, with a brief mention of something about an optional museum that I couldn’t make out as I was at the back of the group. I headed to the exit and then saw a sign for the museum, and the queue for that was much shorter than for the lift so I took that line. I ended up in a Polish speaking group, so I didn’t get any useful information from the guide. The museum was at a lower level than the rest of the tour and was even colder, so I was glad for my cardigan. It had small collections in different rooms and I kept on losing the group, as they would rush through things quite quickly. There was a room that I found quite interesting, with collections of different coloured salt crystals in beautiful formations, collections of pink stalactites and multifaceted greenish clumps that glittered beneath the light.
There was one room dedicated to all the famous visitors that Wieliczka has attracted over the years and I laughed when the first one I saw was Lord Baden Powell – a small copy of the portrait that every Scout would likely recognise.
I was very pleased that there was a lift back to the surface – the prospect of more than three hundred steps to get back up wasn’t too appealing. Turns out that you can’t walk back up – you have to wait in the lift line, which took about half an hour. The lifts are fast and two-storey, but it still takes a while, considering just how many people are in the mine at any one time.
Was Wieliczka Salt Mine worth its salt as a tourist attraction? It’s hard to say. The salt chapel was spectacular, as were some of the little underground lakes and the salt sculptures. But the serious overcrowding down there makes it feel more like a tourist trap than anything truly exciting, and if you’re backpacking or on a tight budget the cost of the ticket is really highway robbery. I don’t think that it was worth the price. Perhaps if there was a limited number of tickets sold per day or per time band, and there was a little bit of space between groups inside the mine – giving people the time to actually appreciate the place rather than being constantly forced onwards without pause for reflection – it might be easier to justify the cost. Or if there was a shorter option available, for just the chapel and a couple of caverns at a cheaper price, or if they withdrew the extra charge for taking pictures – given the cost of entry it’s a little rude to charge more to take pictures, even if I cheated and didn’t actually pay this.
When it comes down to it, I’m glad I went. It’s worth seeing if you have the time in Krakow, and it is after all very unique both historically and geologically. I did like the sculptures and found it funny that they specifically ask you not to lick them… I guess they’ve had a problem with that in the past… And how can you argue with a church made of salt?