In the Krakow area of Poland, lies the small town of Wieliczka. Founded in the 12th century by a rich duke, the town was used to mine the rich deposits of salt until 1996. In the middle ages, the mine adopted the name of Magnum Sal or Great Salt, and thus, went on to be one of the most famous mines in the world today. With a long history that dates back to 1044 AD, It is the only site in the world functioning continuously since the middle ages. Casimir I of 1044 has referred to Wieliczka as “magnum sal alias Wieliczka” as specified in an old document. If you come to notice of the mine from the outside, you won’t think of it as being marvelous at all, you would maybe take into account its impressive maintenance for a mine that stopped mining almost 17 years ago. The mine is as deep as 1079 feet, and lies on 9 levels. To reach the first level itself, it would take you 380 steps. In the mine you will discover things belonging from the 13th century onwards, which are astonishing and remarkable.
The value of salt in the Middle Ages was as good as the value of oil today. Taking a 2000m walk underground which takes roughly 3 hours, visitors can see its subterranean museum, the oldest part in the mine. Being an art gallery, cathedral and an underground lake, it is not surprising that the mine was a UNESCO World Heritage Sites back in 1978. For tourists, the route begins at a depth of 64 m, consists of twenty chambers, and below the earth surface at 135 meters, where tourists can see the world’s biggest museum of mining housing unique equipment that are centuries-old. It is evident that the miners did not just mine salt rather they left behind a breathtaking record of the time they spent underground in the form of statues of mythic, historical and religious figures, which have been carved out of immense passion and dedication.
Among the many chapels that they created, they have left behind their bequest in Saint Kinga’s Chapel that took roughly 30 years to complete. On special occasions, mass also takes place here, especially on 24th July i.e. the feast of St. Kinga, 4th December (feast of St. Barbara) , on 24th December a midnight mass on Christmas eve , as well as on each Sunday morning. Being devout Catholics for many centuries, the Polish people, carvings of religious symbols have been more than just a hobby to substitute for their boredom. A lot of the work was done during the miners’ work time and sometimes even after hours, proving that this was indeed, an active worship. Remarkable carvings of Christian aesthetics include carvings of the Last Supper, and the Appearance of Jesus before his disciples. Thus, turning the mine into an important center of Christian art. The most striking highlight of the cathedral are its chandeliers that strikingly, are also made of salt. After first being dissolved, the salt was then reconstructed with its impurities being removed, yielding a glass like finish.
After seeing the chandeliers, many visitors would expect other similar glass looking structures, however, rock salt come naturally, in shades of grey. Due to the low price of salt in the global market and flooding, the mine was closed down in 1996 after 9 centuries of mining operations. Only 1% of the mine is open to tourists due to safety reasons. In the old visitor’s book you will see the names of well-known personalities that have visited the mine, including European thinkers. The mine also features large scale life sized salt statues that could have taken months or even years to create. Statues of Pope John Paul II, that was constructed as an expression of gratitude for the canonization of Saint Kinga and Copernicus can be seen carved in salt.In the mine, one can obtain information about the machineries and tools that were used in those years, and that are currently put on public display. The mine also serves as a symbol that shows the progress of mining today. In 1992, a catastrophic flood took place in the area, bringing an end to the commercial salt mining. Today, it stands only as a tourist attraction, and is open on all days.
The mine has an underground hotel, conference center and even a spa. At 135m deep under the ground, patients have an opportunity to bathe in brine, salt mud or Sulphur water in 12 well furnished rooms. Steam baths are also offered at the center, where patients can relax and de stress in the salt mine while listening to music played by an orchestra. This underground therapy is available to both children as well as adults. After a tiring tour, the visitor can take pleasure in eating delicious Polish cuisine, served 125 meters underground. A bar in the Drozdowice Chamber and the Miners’ Tavern in the Budryk Chamber welcome guests to take a moment and savor the rich Wieliczka salt, that the dishes have been seasoned with. Meals are prepared by distinguished chefs in underground kitchens using fresh products. Being one of Poland’s Nation Historic Monuments, the mine has been visited by personalities like Nicolaus Copernicus, Dmitri Mendeleyev, Pope John Paul II, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.