800 steps and 800 years
The Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
In twelve steps, they say you can cure alcoholism. To get to the bottom of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, it takes 810. And in this case, it’s an intoxicating experience that will leave your head spinning.
This is no ordinary mine, no warren of small dark tunnels and dangerous industrial pitfalls. This is a small city, an art gallery, a place of work and a house of worship… and it’s all carved out of salt.
Since work stopped at the Wieliczka Salt Mine in 1996, it has become one of Poland’s most popular tourist attractions and one of the country’s greatest sources of pride. But for the hundreds of years before it was completely opened to the public it was a driving force in the local economy and one of the main employers of the region.
Life in the mine
For the miners who worked underground, the tunnels and caverns were a second home and they took great pride in treating it as such. From the very start of operations in the 13th century, they began to decorate the mine with statues. Carved out of salt, the statues they created gave life and spiritual meaning to the catacombs. Pockets that the workers mined became rooms and many of those rooms became chapels. Religious iconography and altars gave them places to ask for guidance and help. When you spend so many hours a day so far underneath the ground, it’s important to have a direct line to the heavens.
The largest of the chapels took three men the course of 67 years to decorate, chiselling and sculpting artwork from the salt. Today it has large chandeliers hanging from the roof and can be used for weddings and other ceremonies.
In fact, many of the rooms in the Wieliczka Salt Mine can be used today. There are function rooms, conference facilities, restaurants and bars that are available for hire. The city underground may not be a working mine anymore but it still has life.
It’s also full of tourists on the day I visit. You can only access the mine as part of a guided tour and although it takes about two and a half hours it’s just a tiny part of the complex that you’ll see.
“There are two thousand chambers in the mine”, our guide tells us. That’s hard to imagine.
“You are only seeing one per cent on our tour.” That’s hard to believe.
“To see it all would take more than seven weeks.” That’s hard to walk!
In the end I walked 2.5 kilometres – down staircases, through small chambers, into cavernous halls, past chapels, around lakes and finally into a tiny elevator that carried us back up to the top in seconds. It was nice to see daylight again although I’d almost forgotten how far I was underground. I suppose that was the whole point of the wonderland the miners built over all those generations.Click here for more information on an excellent Wieliczka Salt Mine tour
Time Travel Turtle travelled to Poland as a guest of the Polish National Tourist Office but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.