Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Charlie's Holiday in Poland (10) - The Wieliczka Salt Mine
All right. I am ashamed to say that my mother knew more about this place than I did. The story is like this. She was shopping in the supermarket when she got chatting to one of the assistants in the store. Word passed between him and her and I was going to Poland. Although not Polish, he had travelled there before and told my mother to tel me to go there.
I have learned a long time ago to never argue with the women who are in your life. If they recommend something...
It is a long way down into the mine:
And it is a lot of walking, so make sure you have had a substantial breakfast! Those who are well fed and watered will enjoy this trip a lot more.
Right, a little history. This is the Wiki entry. And this is the UNESCO entry. Basically this is one of the oldest mines in the world, and has been worked for around 700 years. As the cost of salt dropped, the mining company have opened a few tunnels (less than 1% of the labyrinth) to tourists as well as having a spa underneath the ground. The air is clean, if a little salty. And yes, if you lick the rocks, it does taste of salt.
But the mine itself and its operations are only part of the attraction. The real wonders are the pieces of art beneath the ground. You see, the miners were a tough bunch of people. Long hours, dangerous work and shortened lives in order to put some salt on the table. But in their spare time, while they weren't mining for salt, they spent their time underground creating sculptures. Yep, this is were Wieliczka's true beauty kicks in.
And this mine is huge. They did not just carve rat warren tunnels but vast Cathedrals underneath the ground. Quite literally. There are chapels dotted everywhere in the mine, but the most impressive place is the full sized church, carved into the rock and salt underground and available for hire as a wedding venue!
Those chandeliers by the way, are made of salt. Everything in this mine is rock or salt.
Wieliczka is a marvel of engineering and human ingenuity but it is also a stunning place to visit. What makes Wieliczka different from other such salt mines around the world is the beauty of the mines, decorated by magnificent statues, pieces of Polish history that tell the story of the country. A lot of Polish art has been destroyed due to the turbulent nature of this country and so here you have a lot of it that has survived, in part due to the fact that this place was not general knowledge until a few years ago when the salt mine was closed. Remember, this was done by the miners themselves for their own pleasure. It is art, expressive in itself, pure art done for pleasure, not for commission or money. And yes, it is unique. If you are in Krakow, then head to the salt mines...
Wieliczka is in the suburbs of Krakow and so is easy to reach, but expensive to get into. Bus 304 opposite the main train station stops right outside the mine's entrance. There is also a suburban train from Krakow main station to Wieliczka town which is a few minutes walk from the mine, and a lot more comfy than the bus, albeit more irregular.
If you want to catch it then be sure to time yourself for the English Language tour, which really opens up the visitor experience.