Having traveled around Europe as extensively as I have, I sometimes find myself falling into a pattern -- ho hum, another old town, sigh, another castle, yawn, a pile of churches... but every once in a while, you come across something that is so unique it stands out in your mind. I had such an experience in southern Poland recently. I mean, how many cities do you know of that has a fully excavated salt mine, loaded with salt statues, sculptures, chapels, perilous corridors, etc.?
The only one I know of is in the small town of Wieliczka (vee-LEECH-ka). This, I assure you, is not your ordinary tourist trap.
The salt mine building itself is rather unassuming, just a plain soft yellow building with a scaffold, a small flower garden in front, and a warehouse in back. But, underneath it, and underneath the entire town of Wieliczka, lay 300km of excavated corridors reaching down as low as 400 meters. The tourist route covers only the first three of the twenty levels of the mine, two kilometers in length. And you start out walking, down, down, down, 800 steps to get to the first room -- so you best be in decent shape when you do this! (It took us about 20 minutes to cover it -- the museum has a full listing of the physical requirements to make this trip).
Once you get to the first level, however, the whole place flows with salty eye candy. The mine is currently inactive, but when it was active, some of the miners passed the time by sculpting into the blocks of gray rock salt, in some cases leaving behind sculptures such as of the famous Polish scientist Mikolaj Copernicus (right). Many of the individual sculptures were based on famous Polish individuals, mostly kings and statesmen, while some others furthered the legend of the mining gnomes -- small white-bearded men that worked secretly in the mine while no human was looking.
But the miners didn't stop with individual statues, oh no! They created over 40 full chapels, ranging from about 20 sq m to the massive church pictured at left, loaded with engraved wall murals of the Last Supper and other biblical events, lighted madonnas, and a simulated tiled floor that is nothing more than symmetric lines etched into the salty floor, kept polished by people walking on it! Note the chandeliers -- they are made entirely by salt crystals carved out the mine! Look also for a full-sized statue of Pope John Paul II here.
There are also sculptures of a political nature -- such as at right, depicting Polish solidarity, various wooden elevator mechanisms, and systems of scaffolding (using massive logs and wooden beams) that help keep the mine from collapsing. There are small evaporating lakes, models of horses used to truck rocks of salt around the mine, and a seemingly never-ending maze of corridors. Then, when the tour ends, you get to ride the elevator to the top -- a four level sardine can that zips up to the surface gift shop faster than you can say, "Take that with a grain of salt."
Definitely one of the better excursions I've ever taken!
Taking pictures is particularly difficult in the salt mine because flash is almost a necessity, but flash causes a strange snowflake effect due to reflections from individual salt crystals in the wall. The best pictures I took were helped via an incadescent light that another tourist used with his video camera, or were taken in heavily lighted rooms like the main church. Also, you have to 'buy' permission to use a camera inside the salt mine -- at the time I visited, it was 8 złoty (about US$2).
Trip taken 2 September 2001 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin