Salty Cathedrals Deep Under the Ground

A salty cathedral deep underground...

A salty cathedral deep underground…

I consume an enormous amount of salt — at least, according to my wife, who scolds me each time I twist that grinder over my dinner plate for more than 3 minutes.

“It’s an insult to the cook,” she says. “You didn’t even taste it first.”

“But I really like salt,” I reply. “And it’s loaded with crucial minerals. Without it we would die. Do you want me to die? Well, do you…?”

The conversation tends to deteriorate at this point, and I won’t bore you with yet more dinnertime sarcasm.

My point is that my wife clearly doesn’t appreciate salt, apart from those gourmet boxes of sea salt flakes that come from some smelly tidal flat in Provence.

Salt crystals glow by the light of a torch...

Salt crystals glow by the light of a torch…

But the ancients clearly did appreciate this wonderful mineral.

In fact, salt was once such a valuable commodity that it used to be the privilege of kings. You could buy an entire town with the stuff. And throughout the Middle Ages, the salt mines around the Polish city of Krakow made up about a third of the entire country’s income.

Exploring the history of salt mining at Wieliczka...

Exploring the history of salt mining at Wieliczka…

You can explore the history of salt mining in the area on a short day trip from Krakow. Which is exactly what we did at the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

A long dizzying trudge down 380 wooden stairs took us to the first level 64m underground. We would be walking through some 3.5km of passageways during our couple hours deep beneath the Earth. And that is just 1% of this enormous underground world.

It's a long way down to level one... 380 steps, to be exact...

It’s a long way down to level one… 380 steps, to be exact…

The mine has 9 levels and reaches a maximum depth of 135m, but the tour only visits the first three. If you stretched out all of its galleries and tunnels end to end, the result would be 287km long.

Wieliczka was one of the earliest and most important industrial operations in Europe. Mining began here on a commercial scale in the 13th century, and this vast network of tunnels produced a continuous flow of salt right up until 2007.

Commercial mining began at Wieliczka in the 13th century...

Commercial mining began at Wieliczka in the 13th century…

But no one comes here to see a bunch of salt, or even a rather impressive hole in the ground.

Today the mine is filled with historic statues and mythical figures carved from rock salt in the distant past, as well as more recent sculptures by contemporary artists.

How the fork did the seven dwarves get down here...?

How the fork did the seven dwarves get down here…?

They seem to move beneath the flickering lamp lights, giving the sense that they do indeed come to life when the lights are switched off and the last outsider has returned to the surface.

[Please note: do not attempt to lick these statues, or you will be severely scolded. It’s okay to lick the walls though, and this is somewhat encouraged.]

You’ll also find a mysterious underground lake which holds more than 300g of salt per litre. Divers have attempted to explore it’s depths, but the salty water made them so buoyant that they had to be loaded down with an enormous amount of weight in order to sink and swim.

Wieliczka and the nearby Bochnia salt mine were given UNESCO World Heritage status because they illustrate the stages of development of mining techniques in Europe. But it is the incredible chapel which draws so many curious visitors today.

Two brothers carved St. Klinga's Chapel entirely from rock salt...

Two brothers carved St. Klinga’s Chapel entirely from rock salt…

The chandeliers are made of dissolved and reconstituted rock salt...

The chandeliers are made of dissolved and reconstituted rock salt…

...and that lovely tile floor is rock salt too...

…and that lovely tile floor is rock salt too…

St. Kinga’s Chapel was begun in 1895. It took over 30 years for one man and his brother to carve out and decorate this space, and some 20,000 tons of rock salt had to be removed. Every single element of this remarkable chamber is made from rock salt, including the altar, tiled floors, bas relief wall carvings, chandeliers and statues.

It’s worth checking out if you’re in Krakow and have time to kill. And you don’t even need to sign up for one of those touristy bus excursions. The mine is just beyond the southeastern limits of the city, and you can easily get there by train.

All that salt will work up a mighty thirst... thankfully they have a subterranean cafeteria...

All that salt will work up a mighty thirst… thankfully they have a subterranean cafeteria…

You’ll be in illustrious company if you do choose to visit. Wieliczka has been a tourist attraction since ancient times. Its list of past guests includes Copernicus, Goethe, Chopin, Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, Bill Clinton, and Karol Wojtyla (the man who would become Pope John Paul II).

And you can now add Ryan Murdock, author of Vagabond Dreams and other assorted babbling, to that roster. But I doubt anyone will inscribe my name on the wall.

Drinking a cold subterranean beer after a hard day in the mines...

Drinking a cold subterranean beer after a hard day in the mines…

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2016
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