Foreign tourists in Kraków, who spend a few days in the city, must see nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines as well. This world-class attraction, which features amazing geological structures, treasures of Polish history and art, made it to the World Cultural and Natural Heritage List, maintained by UNESCO.
Let's have a look at the fascinating history of the salt production, which starts in the ancient times. Then, this article will lead the reader through various attractions and curiosities in the Wieliczka facility.
Start of Salt Production in Wieliczka
Wieliczka is the oldest site of the salt extraction in Europe. In neolithic period, about 4000 b.c., local settlers, who lived off agriculture and cattle breeding, were producing it for trade and use. Initially, people used to draw water from salty springs and evaporate water from the brine to get a pure salt.
Credit: Mark Healey, Brough, UK [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsBy the early middle-ages, an area sported three settlements, two stone churches and facilities designed for the processing of a brine. Local craft and trade was thriving. In 12th century, papal legate Gilles de Paris confirmed the privilege of a Benedictine Abbey to freely collect the salt, which was produced in Wieliczka, called Magnum Sal in the document.
In 13th century, people started to extract the rock salt from underground mines in Wieliczka. Therefore, first mine shafts, called "Na zamku" and "Goryszowski" became active. A Polish folk legend credits the young queen Kunegunda, who was also known as Kinga, with bringing the rock treasure from Hungary as her dowry, when she arrived to marry the Polish prince Boleslaw.
Legend of Queen Kinga's Rock Salt Mine Dowry
The king of Hungary wished to give all the best of his kingdom to his beloved daughter, Kunegunda, who was leaving her homeland to marry the Polish prince, Boleslaw.
However, the demure girl refused gifts of gold, silver and precious jewels. She knew, that merchants from Poland traded for Hungarian rock salt, because very little of it was excavated in their country. Therefore, a clever princess asked her father for a salt mine as her dowry.
The Hungarian king agreed, yet he was perplexed. How was she going to transport a mining facility? Kinga visited the mine in Prald and threw her engagement ring into the deepest shaft. Then, she travelled to Poland to marry Boleslaw.
Credit: public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsAfter the wedding, Kunegunda asked her husband to find her engagement ring. The royal pair went to Wieliczka, where the queen ordered workers to dig out a deep shaft in the center of the city. However, the rock layer soon blocked the excavation progress.
The young wife asked for a sample from a rock. Surprised miners noticed, that the pebble was from a pure salt. When first chunk was split open, the missing ring fell out from the inside! Yes, this was the same engagement ring, which Kinga had thrown into a Hungarian mine shaft .
Amazon Price: $27.99 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 12, 2013)
History of Underground Salt Mining in Wieliczka
The Saltworks Castle, constructed in Wieliczka at that period, remained serving as the headquarters of mine's management till 1945. After the 2nd world war it became the Museum of Saltworks.
The revenue, which came from the salt works, paid for teaching professorial staff at the Kraków University. At the last period of middle ages, the facility produced about 8,000 tons of salt every year, while employing 350 workers.
During the Renaissance, Wieliczka mines were thriving, increasing their production to 30,000 tons and employing 2,000 workers. Famous people, such as Conrad Celtes and Nikolaus Copernicus, visited mines at least once. At the time of the Swedish invasion of Poland, foreigners accessed mines and occupied them for a brief period.
In 1724, saltworks stopped the processing of brine. Since then, only rock salt has been mined in Wieliczka. In 1772, Austrian army occupied and managed mines, controlling production in Wieliczka and nearby Bochnia.
In 1838, modern saline baths were constructed in Wieliczka. Thriving balneology procedures and clever treatments attracted sick and rich to the health resort in the city.
In 1866, a major flood submerged a whole level six of mines. The damage control worked only after a few years of constant battling with these encroaching waters. To express its gratitude, after conquering the flood, the management founded the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which is located underground in the mine. In 1898, explorers discovered the amazing Lower Crystal Grotto.
Mines remained operational during the brief period of the Polish independence and under the German occupation. After the war, the production was streamlined with modern equipment, even as an employment declined.
In 1964, an Allergy Treatment Health Resort, located underground in the salt mines, opened its door for sufferers. This facility was the first of its kind in the world. In 1966, the Saltworks Museum was opened underground. In 1992, a major flood of water mixed with sand threatened not only mines, but the town as well. The fight for control lasted two years, but ended successfully.
In 1996, the facility ceased to excavate salt, producing it only by evaporation of the flood water. Wieliczka mines became a major tourist attraction in the Kraków area, with over a million visitors each year. To take an advantage of the multitudes, the management has reconstructed old saline baths and built a luxury hotel "Magnum Sal".
Tours of Wieliczka Salt Mines in Poland
Visitors, who wish to see these mines, can take a thematic guided tour around the facility. Experienced guides, who can speak foreign languages, point out interesting details to guests and explain the mining process, natural and constructed elements, and historical titbits. It's best to book a tour before visiting the city, to make sure, that a spot in a guided group is still available. Depending on their interests, tourists can choose one of the following treks :
The Tourist Route has attracted visitors for years. This trek owes its popularity to the spectacular sights, which await curious guests on the way. A labyrinth of corridors, winding about the place, connects twenty spectacular underground chambers, each of them unique.
Tourists can see the Chapel of St Kinga, decorated with religious artworks, crafted in rock salt, watch a light and sound spectacle on the shore of an underground saline lake, explore hidden nooks and crannies around the shafts and corridors, or have a snack in a subterranean tavern.
All along the way, people learn about the hard work of generations of miners, discover the rich history of Wieliczka and nearby Kraków, or admire spectacular wooden constructions and clever mining and processing tools. The tourist route takes about three hours to complete.
The Miners' Route offers visitors a chance to try a hand at the art of salt mining. Tourists put on miners' helmets, protective clothes, POG absorbers, lamps and carry tools of the trade, descending into an oldest shaft in Wieliczka.
Credit: public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsAs the manager appoints various tasks and oversees their execution, newbie miners become apprentices and learn about excavation and processing of salt. Guests discover, how to check the level of methane in the air, dig and move salt, investigate new areas, or mark a route.
All along, people get familiar with miners' routines and traditions. The miners' route takes about three hours to complete.
The Mysteries of the Wieliczka Mine Route invites those, who like to investigate hidden areas and track mysteries. It demands a lot of physical effort from visitors, and requires booking in advance. Rules forbid taking photos and carrying cell phones, which disturb a sensitive, advanced technical equipment.
Explorers discover amazing natural and crafted features deep down in the mine, while learning about geological processes, and histories of old. Numerous corridors hail from middle ages, when royalty and monks managed the country. Forgotten areas, occasionally challenging to traverse, inspire a contemplative mood in visitors, who listen to the mysterious sound of footsteps in the darkness. This tour takes about four hours to complete.
The Pilgrims' Route leads visitors, who wish to admire the religious artworks, crafted by generations of God-fearing miners.
Credit: By Lawestberg (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsFrom salt rock sculptures blurred by the flow of time, through detailed reliefs, the wooden Golgotha art, a detailed preaching pulpit, a copy of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper", to the saline statue of pope John Paul II and amazing chambers of St Kunegunda and St Anthony, the pilgrims' route will inspire any pious tourist.
This tour takes about 2.5 hours to complete. After finishing the route, visitors may take part in the Catholic Mass, if they wish.
How to Safely Tour Wieliczka Mine
Visitors should keep a few tips in mind, to safely tour all the underground facilities.
- Put on warm clothes, because the temperature remains at steady 14°-16° C (57°-61° F).
- Wear comfortable, waterproof shoes during the trek.
- Refrain from smoking or using an open fire in the mine.
- Use the toilet before going on a route, because WCs are sparse during the tour.
- Reconsider the trip, if you are claustrophobic or uncomfortable in the dark.
- Stay away from locked areas, as they can be dangerous.
- Turn off your phone and camera when asked, because they disturb sensitive equipment.
- Keep your helmet on to protect yourself from falling pebbles.
Subterranean Health Treatments in Salt Chambers
Continuing an old tradition, Wieliczka mine offers a set of medical and biological renewal procedures, performed in specialized underground facilities.
The practice of subterranotherapy combines modern medicine with centuries of natural practices. A unique microclimate, found in underground salt chambers, benefits patients with allergies, asthma and recurring infections of the respiratory tract .
Healthy people, who suffer from stress, can profit from a relaxing sessions of deep breaths in a brine soaked environment. A choice of bio-renewal treatments lets them unwind from work overload and regenerate their body.
Both types of customers may select an overnight stay in a subterranean hotel as well, so that they can enjoy a healthy atmosphere and enhance their rehabilitation.
Tourists, who visit Cracow, can buy tickets to salt mines there, or order a guided tour or bus transport to Wieliczka from the capital of Galicia. Those visitors, who prefer to visit just mines, can book tickets on the net. Numerous travellers like to arrange a single sightseeing trip, which lasts a few days and covers Cracow, Auschwitz and Salt Mines in Wieliczka.