Wieliczka is the oldest salt mine in Krakow, and is still operational today. Although not through choice. The salt mine was officially closed in 1996, but due to the location of the salt mine it is constantly being flooded with water which needs to be removed so that the mines can still be used as a tourist attraction. As this water is evaporated the mine is left with salt, 35T of it per day! We were suitably impressed with this output, until our guide pointed out that other salt mines in Europe produce as much as 50 times that per day!
Wieliczka has 9 levels, stretching all the way down to 327m below ground level. Our tour only explored the first 3 levels, following the ‘tourist track’. At just over 3km long this was only 1% of the tunnels that make up the mine. There was the alternative to take the miners route which goes deeper and means you’re crawling through mud and need to carry your own light. Sounds lovely, but missing sites like the famous salt cathedral wasn’t going to be an option for us.
We booked a day tour from through Cracow City Tours, including transport to and from Wieliczka as well as an English speaking guide. The alternative was a DIY trip with public transport and one of the guides employed by the mines. At only €10 more each we opted for the easier option of a door to door tour!
Despite the fact that its still operational the salt mine now only needs to employ 250 miners as the majority of work is done from behind a computer panel. These miners work to ensure that the mine remains stable and safe for the 1.3 million visitors that come every year. In addition to the 250 miners though there are over 500 guides who are employed to take tourists underground! Every person who enters the mines must be accompanied by a guide. First and foremost to ensure that tourists aren’t stranded hundreds of meters underground. And secondly to ensure that they don’t touch the delicate salt sculptures which the mine is famous for.
The guide who you visit with will stop along the way to explain individual statues and some of the history behind each of the caverns and chapels. Miners, not artists, carved the sculptures, which makes them all the more impressive! One of the miners was even self indulgent enough to carve a statue of himself in one of the chapels. I guess it’s a 400 year old version of a selfie!?
Mining was a very dangerous (but very lucrative) occupation where one in ten miners died every year. Because of this the miners built underground chapels where they could pray for their own safety. St Kinga’s Chapel is definitely the most impressive in the whole mine, built to hold over 400 people and has been said to have perfect acoustics. We somehow lucked out and had nobody else in the chapel with us. Based on what our guide said, this very rarely happens. So he took the opportunity to hit a button which played the music and lights show they created a few years ago that is used for VIP’s (I like to think its because I’m a VIP and not because we got lucky). Hearing about the perfect acoustics and the lack of echo is one thing, but hearing it for yourself was another!
Everything in the Chapel is made of salt, from the floors and walls to the salt crystals that make the chandeliers.
Historically Salt has been so valuable that the Wieliczka Salt Mine contributed almost one third of the entire kingdoms income. It also made the salt miners some of the richest people in the area, every Saturday they were paid with a fistful of salt. Its almost impossible to comprehend, if I slogged my guts out underground for 12 hour days, 6 days a week and had a 1 in 10 chance of dying I’d definitely not be happy with a fistful of salt as my salary. I can get 300g from the supermarket for €2.00! Although take a step back and think about the word salary, and you’ll notice that its awfully similar to the word salt. This is the same in many languages like Spanish (Salario) and French (Salaire). Suddenly it all makes a little more sense!
Our guide Sebastian was incredible and worth every cent. He’s armed with the answer to every question you can think of, thanks to having visited the Wieliczka mine over 5000 times. His sense of humor was also extremely dry and sarcastic which made for some great one liners. At one point he was explaining a statue of a man who helped in the Warsaw uprising and said “We didn’t have many weapons, but we did what we could. And we lasted longer than France when they were attacked. Who is the best? We are the best. Yes Poland.” It was a welcome change from the mind numbing onslaught of dates and facts that so many tours can come with.
At only €35 each we were stoked with the value we got on our tour. It meant we were picked up and taken straight out to the mines (none of that panic as you have as you watch train stops fly past, and avoids arguments about whose version of google maps is correct!). We also had a much smaller group than the free ones which Wieliczka offer, meaning we had more opportunity to ask questions and better photo ops! Unfortunately a group of obnoxious guys that were a part of our tour marred ruined things a little for us. They had little respect for Sebastian and continued to talk over him and block out the rest of the group from seeing things. Sebastian did his best though to put them in their place and make sure everyone was enjoying themselves.
The Wieliczka is such an awesome opportunity to head underground and see something truly unique. Exploring the mines really gives you a newfound appreciation for what is today such an everyday condiment!