August 5, 2019
I know, visiting a salt mine doesn’t sound like a very exciting way to spend an afternoon. But, what if I said that it has existed since the 13th century and people have carved sculptures from the salt a thousand feet underground, does that make it a bit more of an adventure?
We traveled to the Wieliczka Salt Mine on our way back to Krakow after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was surprised to find out just how close it was to Krakow city center. Excavated by hand beginning in the 13th century, the salt mine stopped producing table salt in approximately 2007, although commercial mining stopped in the late 1990s. It is one of the world’s oldest salt mines. Walking around the labyrinth of tunnels, it boggles the mind that everything as dug out by hand with rudimentary tools. Men lived and worked in the tunnels all their lives – even the horses they used to haul materials lived in the tunnels, hundreds of feet below the surface.
When we arrived at the site, we were assigned a tour guide – he was funny, in a reserved Polish kind of way, but I can’t remember his name. As we entered the main building, we learned for the first time that we would be walking down into the mine, but would be taking the elevator back to the surface at the end of the tour. We started down the 64 levels of stairs that took us further and further underground. Looking down the middle of the staircase, we couldn’t see the bottom.
One of our group members didn’t even make it halfway; seems he was claustrophobic and didn’t tell anyone.
The deepest point of the salt mine is about 1075 straight down. The tunnels, if placed end to end, measure about 178 miles. Our guide said that if you were to visit every chamber and walk every tunnel, it would take you two entire months. No thanks; I’m content with a two-hour tour.
Prior to entering the salt mines, I was aware there were different colors of salt, but I didn’t realize how many there actually are – besides white and pink, there is green, gray, blue, amber, and the list goes on. As we walked the tunnels, what we thought were rock walls, ceilings, and floors turned out to be pure salt (I guess you could call it rock salt). It was fascinating.
The wondrous part of the tour was the statues carved by the miners. That they were made purely of salt and carved on-site hundreds of feet underground is remarkable.
The piece de resistance, however, is the cavernous cathedral, again, dug out entirely by hand.
Carvings of Jesus’ life cover the walls, a huge altar is still used for weekly services, and a larger than life statue of Pope John Paul II looms over guests as they leave the area.
The three-dimensional carving of the last supper was unreal, as was the sculptures of God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary, the last two with glowing pink salt hearts. My photographs don’t do the spectacular space justice – the lighting wasn’t that great for photos. Speaking of lighting, each pendalogue (aka the crystal drops – not made of crystal) of every chandelier is made of salt. Phenomenal craftsmanship.
Our tour was fascinating, right up to the end. As promised, we were taken to the elevators and told that each car would hold 9 people. I ultimately got in an elevator with three women from Scotland with whom I’d been hanging around. We were at the end of our group. Then the first five people from the next group started to squish in – all of them the size of really big rugby players.
Even though we were full to the max after the fourth wedged his way in, the operator wouldn’t close the door until that last guy got in. I’m sure we looked like one of those old photographs of people trying to fit as many people in a phone booth as possible, or maybe a clown car. Up, up we went hoping all the way that the elevator wouldn’t stop.
It was the longest 90 seconds of my life, and the most uncomfortable. I actually have a bruise where one of the guys’ elbows lodged in my ribcage. When the outer doors opened, we tried to open the interior doors to fall out, but they wouldn’t budge. The reason was that the doors didn’t open out, they opened in. Were they serious? We didn’t have one available inch to move and somehow we were supposed to swing the doors inward? I was closest to the door, so I wiggled half of my body out, then did a little shimmy while sucking my stomach and any other body parts I could in and was able to finally pivot out of the elevator from hell. I swung one door in and the others basically tumbled out.
An exciting way to end our time in the depths of the earth.