800 steps and 800 years

It’s huge. It’s detailed. It’s made of salt and it’s under the ground in Poland. There’s something quite special about a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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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.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

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.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland
Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

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.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland
Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

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.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland
Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

Visiting Wieliczka

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.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

“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!

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

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.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow, Poland

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.

If you’re interested in visiting, there are some great tours. I would recommend one of these ones:

 

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.

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37 thoughts on “800 steps and 800 years”

  1. When I was in Poland a few years ago, I heard about this place but never had a chance to go. Reminds me of the Karst caves in Slovenia (even though this one is about salt). Very interesting though. I can’t believe how big it is!

    Reply
    • Oh, that’s a pity you didn’t get there. It’s quite amazing. I hadn’t heard of the Karst Caves but if it’s anything like this mine then I’m definitely going to try to get along there myself now!

      Reply
    • I hadn’t thought about the parallels with the treehouse but they’re definitely there. Imagine the treehouse was on top of the mine and there was an elevator between them. Blow. Your Mind!

      (And, no, I couldn’t resist)

      Reply
  2. Very fascinating. Working in a mine is incredibly hard, my parents visited years ago the coal mines in France where my grandfather used to work, some 1000mt underground, breathing dangeours dust all the time and with the constant danger of an accident or a collapse. I was less than 18 so I wasn’t allowed, but they came up completely dirty, I can only imagine my grandfather going down there every day.

    Reply
    • Oh, wow. I can only imagine how much more it would mean to visit a mine when you have a family history like that. It’s hard to know what it was like for the workers but at least in this case they seem to have made the best of it that they could.

      Reply
  3. This is really just breathtaking… I mean, salt!!!! Wow. I can’t imagine that it’s just such a normal part of life for the locals (hiring a conference room?!).

    Reply
  4. I’d love to visit Poland someday. I’m allcatuy adding this on my bucket list. Number 24 Visit Poland. How I envy you. I have always been fascinated by Polish traditions and culture, not to mention the friendly people and breath-taking places. And the food!!! I’ve always wondered how they taste like what’s the pink food? How does it taste? sigh**Marvin

    Reply
  5. It’s amazing at the complex structures that civilizations could form, even before the modern machine age. The more discoveries that are made the more amazing stuff seems to pop up around the world.

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  6. What a cool place to visit! I wonder how they manage to keep the fresh air flowing, considering that many more people go there on the daily basis.

    Reply

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