Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland
In the vicinity of Cracow, some 14 kilometres south-east of the city centre lies the "Wieliczka" Salt Mine. According to legend, this salt mines was part of the dowry of the Hungarian princess, Kinga, when she wed Boleslaw the Shy over 700 years ago. If this is true, then the Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the oldest in Europe.
This mine, a centuries-old tourist attraction, cannot be compared to anything else in the world. Over the centuries, devout-and superstitious-miners have carved fabulous figures, monuments and altarpieces out of its rock. These amazing works of art, in addition to the mine’s historical importance, have since 1978 earned the Wieliczka Salt Mine a place on UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage Sites.
The tourist route open to sightseers is only a small fraction of the entire mine. The mine includes 7.5 million square metres of post-excavation space on nine levels, each between 64 and 327 metres below the surface. The tourist route extends to level three only-to a depth of 135 metres. During the two-and-half-hour tour visitors walk about 3.5 km., along passages which have a total length of more then 320 km. During this time they will visit thirty of the more than 2,148 chambers.
The most popular attractions are the enormous excavation chambers, the tallest being 36 metres high, while two others reach 30 metres each. The tour includes a visit to three chapels. They are richly decorated with salt sculptures-true marvels of art. The oldest salt sculptures date from the end of the eighteenth century.
The largest of the chapels-Blessed Kinga-is located 101 metres below the surface. When entering by the tiny tunnel, all of a sudden the splendour opens up in front of you. The chapel is over 50 metres long, 15 metres wide, 12 metres high, and has the volume of 10,000 cubic metres. It is entirely made out of salt, richly furnished with sculptures, bas-reliefs, and large chandeliers made from salt crystals. A true marvel-nobody will remain indifferent to the beauty of the place.
In the mine there are also three underground salt lakes-the deepest reaching seven meters. Earlier, one could go on a boat trip but an unfortunate accident put a stop to this. Signs of ancient mine works, wooden structures, machines and equipment hundreds of years old may all be noticed throughout the tour. This all forms part of the underground scenery, remarkably rich in geological specimens which illustrate the complicated structure of this deposit. In many places, this beauty is most tangible.
An hour and a half into the tour, it is time to take a break in the "Warszawa" chamber, which often serves as a sports hall, ballroom, theatre and even an opera house! The second part of the tour covers ten chambers displaying an underground exhibition of Cracow’s Salt Mine Museum. The collection includes antique tools, machinery and equipment, lighting equipment, as well as an exhibition of surface archaeological excavations and interesting geological specimens. The exhibition also includes paintings portraying the work of miners in the old days, models of old buildings and mining structures, and a miniature model of Wieliczka 350 years ago, as well as a cross-section of the old mine.
No description, no matter how detailed, can convey the charm of this mine and its underground attractions. An additional advantage of the mine is its underground micro-climate, which is especially beneficial for asthma sufferers. Sanatorium stays have even been organized here periodically.