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Wieliczka Salt Mines are in the south of Poland, a mere 30 or so kilometres from Krakow, the majority of visitors to the city tend to make two day trips - Auschwitz and Wieliczka. Wieliczka is obviously the more cheerful of the two but it's also quite expensive with tickets costing around 45zl these days (around 9 pounds).
I've been twice to this place, once in the 90s as a whippersnapper and then again a couple of years ago as I had good memories of the place and was pretty stunned by it as a child. It has been used as a salt mine since the middle ages and as an afterwork hobby some of the miners would design sculptures made of salt and rock. There are many carvings and murals that give you a deep look into the history of the workers and the conditions down there. You can't enter the mines alone but tour guides take people in groups of around 20-30. After heading down through the more recently etched long staircase you will get to see these wonderful works of art before arriving at perhaps the most impressive piece of work of all - an amazing chapel that was created by just two guys. Everything in there - altar, chandeliers and Jesus and Mary related carvings are made out of salt and the minute you enter the room it's truly amazing.
Remember that you are going down quite deep, so remember to dress up appropriately, likewise you are taken back up to the top in one of the traditional lifts, so if you are scared of heights, it's not ideal! THe closest thing I've seen to this was a salt cave in Romania but the work done here is on a much bigger scale and although it's dear, it's definitely worth forking out for a visit because in my opinion there is nothing like it in the world.
Apart from this majestic sight, there's nothing else of interest in Wieliczka, so don't waste your time hanging around this suburb, there are regular minibuses to Krakow, trains too but the minibuses tend to be quite straight-forward and only cost about 10zl.
A short train ride from Krakow Wieliczka itself is a small and regular Polish town. On the train from Krakow it takes around 20 minutes to travel the 14 kilometres costing 4zl (zloty). Wieliczka itself reminds me of my hometown with the small green hills surrounding the town much like the Grampians in the north east of Scotland.
I arrived on the first train from Krakow as travelling alone on this part of my journey I love getting up early and getting going. The draw card of Wieliczka and the reason I was there was to visit the World famous salt mines regarded as a modern wonder of the world. The mines themselves open at 7.30am however the first tour in English was not until 9am. Seriously don't even consider taking a Polish tour unless you are fluent as the guides provide excellent commentary around the mines.
It is no possible to enter the mines without a guide.
Having an hour to kill I bought my ticket (45zl) and then took a stroll around the town. The train station itself is around a 10 minute walk (signposted) to the mines itself and the walk un-spectacular. The town centre itself is similarly un-spectacular and the hour to kill was more than plenty.
Back to the mine then.... The first thing I wish I'd taken note of was to bring warm clothes. I went in only a t-shirt and whilst I didn't die I would have been comfortable with extra layers.
The mines themselves have been in continuous operation since the 14th century and made the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978. The tour of the mines takes you on around a 2km walk through 3 levels of the mine to a depth of 135 meters underground. The mine itself goes to a depth of 327 meters but these sections are not open to the public.
On the tour you pass through a number of chambers will un-believable sculptures carved out of the rock. The carvings were completed by the miners as a hobby. The detail and the time these sculptures have are inspiring. In one chamber a town scene with a new knight being knighted, in another 3 dwarves stare back out of the chamber as you descend down.
The major work though and the breath taking sight is the Chapel of St. Kinga. This is actually a used church and when you think that it has been created out of the rock to be around 50 meters in length and 30 meter wide it is an amazing achievement. It was created over a lifetime by just two men around the end of the 19th Century. Everything you see is carved out of rock and salt. The altar, the chandeliers, the statue if the Pope (a modern inclusion). The walls are covered in carvings and the view from the top of the stairs immense. Being on one of the visit tours of the day this chamber was fairly quiet but I would imagine leaving this until later in the day it would become crowded.
After the tour which lasts about 2 hours there is a lift to whisk you back to the surface and daylight. All in all I enjoyed my trip to Wieliczka but would only suggest you go if you have exhausted Krakow's attractions and also been to Oswicim (Auschwitz) to the west of Krakow. The price for the tour too by Polish standards is expensive. Some of the truly great museums in Warsaw and Krakow cost a fraction of the cost to get in albeit without having a guide.
Getting away from Wieliczka I took a min-bus which has a really handy stop right outside the mines and only cost slightly more than the train. Whilst I always love train journeys on my travels the service for the trains is sparse so plan ahead if you are planning to get returns on the train.
No trip to Krakow would be complete without a visit to the unforgettable salt mines in Wieliczka. Although they are the oldest mines in the world still open, absolutely no knowledge of Polish history is needed to appreciate them.
The tour of the mines involves a lot of walking underground and a steep descent which included 300 steps if I remember correctly. Very young children and the elderly might wish to avoid it. A small portion of the tour is wheelchair accessible but you will need to pay extra for the lift. Remember that it remains a constant 15 degess Centigrade all year round in the mines so dress accordingly. I went in August and although it was scorching outside I did wear jeans and a fleecy hooded jaket and boy, I was perishing once inside the mines and my teeth wouldn't stop chattering.
As the primordial seas that covered the area dried up, they left thick deposits of rock salt. Humans, who arrived milennia later, quickly discovered the flavouring and preservative qualities of this valuable substance. They collected salt from the rocks and pools on the surface from at least 3000 Bc.
In the Middle Ages, the locals learnt to dig down to the uppermost portions of the salt deposits in open pits. The first known mines are from AD 1280, shortly after the arrival of Princess Kinga in Krakow.
Legend claims that when Princess Kinga (Kunegunda) of Hungary (1234-92) was betrothed to Boleslaw V the Bashful, she took a ring off her hand and threw it down a Hungarian salt mine, declaring that her dowry would be salt. Shortly after her wedding in Krakow, the new queen travelled to Wieliczka and ordered the locals to start digging for her dowry. When they struck rock, they chipped off a piece and handed it to her. It was pure rock salt and her ring was found miraculously suspended within it.
The historical reality seems to have been that Princess Kinga brought experienced salt miners and engineers in her retinue from Hungary. Her husband Boleslaw put royal patronage behind the mining operations at Wieliczka and nearby Bochnia. Within a few generations, salt production accounted for nearly a third of the royal income. Trade in salt was a major driver of the local economy and encouraged the development of infrastructure along the trade route from Wieliczka to Kazimierz to Krakow.
Wieliczka has more than 350 kilometres of tunnels, of which only 2 kilometres are part of the tourist track. You can buy tickets to see just the mines, or both mines and museum. Although the underground museum is fascinating I have noticed on many a visit that most tourists seem to be too tired to visit the museum and usually only visit the mines.
I recommend you see the tour with a guide. If a tour in English is not available when you visit, just buy a small guide book in English and do what I did, follow a Polish- language tour. The gudes repeat the text word for word.
I was surprised to discover that Wieliczka salt is a dirty grey when it is in large blocks. It only becomes white when it forms smaller crystals, such as the salty stalactites that appear on any object left in the mines near a source of moisture. You will be told by the guide not to lick the walls but there is always someone in the group who won't be able to resist and no, it wasn't me!
Another surprise is that miners occasionally succumbed to artistic urges, carving odd figures in the salt. At first they tended to be simple religious shrines for men working at a dangerous job. The Chapel of St. Kinga, however, is a full-blown underground church in which everything from the altar to the chandeliers is carved entirely from salt. It is absolutely fantastic to see and I just stood in awe as I couldn't believe that such a beautiful creation could be sculpted out of salt. You could close your eyes and imagine you were in a Tolkeinesque dream.
There are smaller chapels dotted around including the 17th century chapel of St. Anthony, also a huge saline lake and many statues of saints all made out of salt. In communist times, the workers were encouraged to carve more secular subjects, leading to a collection of salt-mining dwarves frozen in the middle of their work. This is quite a spectacular scene and one I will always remember.
The miners apparantely like to joke that the salt keeps them well preserved. There is a certain truth to their jest: the mines contain unusually clean and bacteria-free air. At a level below the one that tourists visit, there is a small hospital for respiratory disorders.
The easiest way to get to Wieliczka from Krakow is to take one of the minibuses that leaves every ten minutes from the front of the railway station (ul. Worcella). There are also PKS buses that run from the top of Starawislna Street opposite the main Post Office. Check departure details as details do chop and change. The trip takes around 40 minutes.
In Krakow you will see tours to the mines advertised but be aware that some of these are only offering transport to the mines not offering the services of a guide. The guide service can be arranged at the museum and costs roughly around £16 - 19 euros.
Would I recommend a visit to the Wieliczka Mines - Yes, most definitely. It is a wonderful experience but be aware that because you will be with a tour you can't always spend as much time lingering in the ice chambers. The guides generally move along through the mines at a quick pace.
Although Krakow is one of Poland's most beautiful cities it is worth leaving the city for a few hours to visit this underground cavern of exquisite beauty. Put your woolies and boots on and climb those 300 steps - you will be in for a treat!
Hello there friends from the very bowels of the earth!
For those of you who, like my dear Polish father-in-law, enjoy a few chips with your salt, here is the place of your dreams.
For those of you interested in culture, history, religion, mining technology (yes, really!), serious exercise and underground caves, caverns, grottoes, waterfalls and passages here also is the place of your dreams.
For those of you who are in any way physically disabled I'm sorry to say that this really is not a place to add to your European tour itinerary, part of it is claimed to be wheelchair accessible but I certainly would not attempt to view any of it from a chair. We descended quite literally thousands of wooden stairs and walked 2.5 kilometres, at times on very uneven ground.
For those of you with small children, under the age of say, 10 years, please leave them behind, they will be bored and you will have a nightmare carrying or attempting to push them in buggies, half of the people in "our" group of 35 were either carrying or wheeling small, screaming, kids - both kids and parents had a two and a half hour experience of hell, and very nearly spoiled it for the rest of us.
For those of you few friends still reading, here comes Richada's tip Number 1: do not do as we did and go on a Sunday - visit this place during school time on a weekday.
Tip No. 2: make sure that you wear VERY comfortable foot wear.
Tip 3; take a jacket with sleeves with you in the summer. Once below ground (the day we visited it was 28degC outside) the temperature in the mine is a constant 14degC. The exercise will however keep you warm - Mrs R. carried her coat all the way around, I however was grateful to be wearing my leather jacket!
Rewind almost five years and to my very first visit to Poland - homeland of my now wife. I landed at Krakow, was met by Miss K (now Mrs R.), hired a car at the airport and then, very bravely, proceeded to drive through the Krakow rush hour and into a huge traffic jam where there were road works on E40 just outside a little town called Wieliczka (pronounced Vialitchka).
Well, young (ha ha .) and in love, I did not take too much notice of the little town until later reading in my guidebook that it contained what had been described as the eighth wonder of the world - a World Heritage Site - along with such places as Stonehenge. Everywhere in this area are brown tourist sign posts to "Kopalnia Soli" (Polish for salt mine). Each time, 8 visits in total, we have since visited Poland we talked about going there, at last, in June 2005, Mrs R., her parents, 10 year old sister Klaudia and I made a definite date to make the two hour journey from their home near Mielec to Wieliczka to visit this world renowned wonder.
Four years later and yes, the road works and traffic jam are still there, but following those same brown signs we easily enough found the place, in a very industrial suburb of this not terribly attractive town.
A couple of car park attendants flag us into a large car park - about 500 metres from the entrance. We pay the equivalent of just over £1 for a days parking and set off at a quick march to the salt mine entrance, the car park attendant helpfully having told us that there were much nicer toilets there than the ones on the edge of his car park!
On the car park there were an enterprising couple selling some very attractive and traditional Polish gifts, salt ornaments of course, but also some very good amber jewellery. With just a car and collapsible table to maintain, their prices were a fraction of those for such items elsewhere, if you fancy buying such items we would certainly recommend doing so here!
Between the car park and the entrance is situated a small, but by Polish standards, expensive hotel and restaurant.
We cursed when we arrived at the salt mine entrance as there was another car park right by the main steps up to the reception building.
Your first impressions of the place are of a very modern and rather commercial attraction, there are maybe five gift shops adjacent to the entrance, all selling the same range of souvenirs, from the tacky and cheap to the tasteful and reasonably priced. A good range of gifts and post cards then, all sensibly (by UK at any rate) priced.
And yes, the toilets were some of the most pleasant that I have used anywhere - no charge either!
OK, I've rambled on as usual, but at last we're in the queue for the main event. I arrived here with no idea of what to expect. We had looked at the excellent web site - in Polish, nice pictures though (www.kopalnia.pl) before going, but all I knew was that we would be part of a guided tour.
In the entrance building visitors are split into 2 streams - casual tourists such as ourselves and pre-booked parties. Obviously we had to queue to purchase the tickets; here it does not matter too much because until a party of 35 people is made up a tour does not start. If, maybe during the winter, there are not 35 visitors then they promise that you will not wait more than an hour for a guide to escort you.
Mrs R. thought the charges a bit steep - 40 Polish Zloty (£6.75) for adults, plus 10 PLN each for our camera and video. For the five of us - four adults plus the child, photographic passes and a very good (English!) guide book my credit card bill records the total cost as £35.
The lady behind the cash window spoke very passable English - lots of American tourists come here as part of an organised Krakow tour - she offered us an English speaking guide, which if accepted would have been rather selfish on my part as the only non-Polish speaking member of our party. As luck would have it, following our Polish speaking guide on the tour was a young English speaking lady guide, most of the required information I picked up by trailing our group and "listening into" hers!
We waited maybe ten minutes for a further 30 people to arrive and from the modern entrance (Circa 1978) we were escorted through two big wooden doors, immediately behind which were genuine mine shafts and workings. We were to descend in total 135 meters and well over five centuries of history - indeed there are records of "tourists" visiting this very place in the early sixteenth century!
The statistics of this complex of mine workings are almost mind blowing, in two and a half hours and 2.5 kilometres underground you think that you must have seen it all. In actual fact you have hardly scratched the surface of a huge salt berg.
In total the complex consists of 9 levels (or floors) in full depth descending to 327 metres, there are over 300 kilometres of passageways and galleries (massive chambers where the salt has been excavated). On the "Tourist Route" as it is called, you view the central, most historic and spectacular part of the mine.
Until 1996 this was still a working mine and the whole experience has been presented in such a way that you glean a very good impression of how the mine developed over the centuries and also just what the conditions were like for the men whose sheer hard labour formed this colossal underground labyrinth.
The extraction of salt from the ground in this area is recorded as far back as 3500 B.C. The very prosperous company carrying out the mining venture was from ancient times until 1772 the property of the Duke of Krakow, then until 1918 was owned by the King of Poland. Since that time, although administered by Austrian authorities, they have belonged to the state. On average now, each year approximately 900,000 visitors come here each year.
OK, what then, what are you expecting to see in a Polish salt mine? Well, if you are sitting comfortably, read on, I will attempt to tell you as briefly as possible.
We start by descending a seemingly never ending spiral staircase, we are going down 378 steps here (naturally, I counted each one for this review!) inside the historic Danilowicz shaft dug between 1635 and 1640 at the very heart of the mine. It is well light, but if you suffer claustrophobia or do not like lots of wooden stairs - this in not the place for you!
OK, (the Poles seem to say OK quite a lot!) if you are still standing, after all those steps. you are now on floor one, 64 metres below street level. You walk through a short passage and emerge into the Nicholas Copernicus Chamber. Be prepared to be taken aback by a huge green salt statue of the man himself, old Nick was a famous Polish astronomer who visited this place in 1493, in 1973 the statue was calved from a block of green salt, it looks amazing, as though the whole chamber was mined leaving the statue in the middle, as though it is part of the surrounding rock itself.
As a technical note here, wooden pit props have been used for centuries here propping up the mine workings. Wood is the perfect material for this as it quickly becomes impregnated with salt - as you all know a natural preservative.
I am not going to bore you with a description of every chamber and every statue, there are literally hundreds of them, far too many to remember, or indeed to describe to you here. There are however a few well worth dropping in here as they truly were breathtaking.
The Poles have always been highly religious, none more so than the miners who worked down here on a daily basis risking life and limb, far, far below ground. You do not need me to point out the dangers of mining, from gasses, collapse of workings, explosions and flooding, seeing this place it becomes all to obvious - in a sense it feels dangerous just being a tourist down here.
Due to these factors, you will discover en-route a surprising number of chapels (and one "cathedral") spread about the mine at all levels. All are extraordinarily beautiful and calved entirely out of the salt, as are all of the superbly carved religious characters, statues and icons.
In other chambers are to be found authentic mine working equipment, including the massive 18th century treadmill. The horse, staple mine transport, is also represented here in model form.
The showpiece of the entire mine complex just has to be St Kinga's Chapel, the underground cathedral as I have already referred to it. Compared to the rest of the mine it is recent, being hewn out of the rock in 1896. As you walk down a long and dark passageway which opens out into a gallery at roof level of this chapel the whole group lets out a collective gasp, you cannot help it, so spectacular is the site in front of you.
Everything that you are looking at from this high vantage point has been hewn out of solid salt, even the magnificent chandeliers lighting the place from above. The bare dimensional statistics (54 metres long, 18 metres wide and 12 meters high) cannot give you any idea of the "feel" of this place. Before descending yet more stairs to the chapel floor, our guide explains that for 2500 PLN (qv. £430) you can hire St Kinga's Chapel for a wedding ceremony - what a thought!
Everything about this place is breathtaking from the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes (light from within - light glows through salt) to a much later one of the late great Pope John Paul II, he was due to come and unveil this magnificent statue, but unfortunately on his very last visit to Poland was already too ill to descend (by lift) to the chapel in order to do so. It now stands as an enduring memorial to the Pope whose home town was very close to here.
Of particular and outstanding beauty (to my eyes at least) was a rock carving in the wall of "The Last Supper" - a copy by Antoni Wyrodek created between 1936 and 1945 of a Leonardo da Vinci work.
Whilst this chapel is undoubtedly the highlight of the tour, there is still more of much beauty to be seen. We still have over a kilometre of chambers and passageways to view yet, including stunningly beautiful deep green brine lakes, a concert theatre (yes really!) and near the end of the tour the largest chamber of all - The Stanislaw Staszic Chamber. Originally over 50 metres in depth, the bottom part has been in-filled and it is now 'only' 36 metres deep.
In this last, largest, chamber the Nazis attempted to set up an aero engine production plant towards the end of the Second World War. Polish Jews were used here as forced labour, but the plant never really swung into full production and as the Russian army advanced across Poland the Germans had to disassemble the plant - the workers were sent straight to the nearby death camps.
Around this chamber you will find small kiosks selling all sorts of salt related gifts, ornaments and mementoes. The salt lamps, usually orange in colour, are of particular beauty - we were presented with one as a wedding gift, three years ago. They are supposed to give off positive ions for a healthier atmosphere - I just enjoy the warm, soft glow it gives off in our conservatory.
We chose to purchase our cards and souvenirs down here, it seemed more appropriate somehow to buy them so far below ground.
After well over two hours walking in the company of the (excellent) guide we were tired out and extremely thirsty. From the moment you enter the mine you can taste salt on your lips, the rocks around you seem to suck the moisture from your body.
Richada's tip number 4 then is to make sure that each member of your party takes a small water bottle with them!
The last few chambers, the big one where the kiosks are, the restaurant and café, you are free to roam. To go back to the surface you now face a lift ride of 135 metres. Once again there is a long walk to the lift which, when 35 people are present, the guide escorts you to. Eight at a time go in the lift, plus the guide. The lift rises at 4 metres per second so is quite an experience in itself! On the way up I asked the guide (through my wife!) how many of these tours he took a day. Two in the morning and then he had lunch - and a large beer! He agreed that doing this for a living certainly kept him fit and healthy, also that he needed "good shoes" for the job.
You emerge finally above ground in a very run down 1960's era part of the mine, again you have to wait until the group of 35 is together before the guide walks you nearly 1 kilometre back to the entrance building. Emerging into the daylight was a shock for the system.
Richada's tip 5 keep a pair of sun glasses with you - I'm in luck this time as my glasses are light reactive anyway!
We agreed that at the end of our tour we had certainly received our moneys worth. My wife however had inexplicably expected to see more "colour".
Final tip - number 6. However good your flash, the light conditions are very poor for photography down there. My camcorder footage was much more successful, I would advise against lugging a heavy camera around with you. Both excellent post cards and videos with English commentary are available at reasonable cost.
I would unreservedly recommend this attraction to anyone planning a holiday in Poland; in fact I would probably go as far as to say that it would be worth planning a holiday around this particular venue. The old, very beautiful historic centre of Krakow, less than 30 minutes away by car or bus is a must see, so too of course is Auschwitz which is around an hour and a half from here by car.
Would I return to Wieliczka? Absolutely YES! Knowing more about it now, I would follow my tips above, make sure we had an English speaking guide and go back "off season", maybe in winter - as the guide book advises you even if it is unpleasant weather outside, the climate in the mine is totally consistent, there are also less visitors in winter.
The Salt Mines are open April 1st to October 31st from 7.30 a.m. (!) to 7.30 p.m. and from November to March from 8.00 a.m to 4.00 p.m.
They do not open on: January 1st, November 1st or December 24th, 25th and 31st. They are also closed Easter Sunday.
I do hope that reading all of that was less tiring than a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine! Sometimes it is no bad thing being an "armchair" tourist.