05 May, 2015

Kraków part VI - Wieliczka salt mine

As if Kraków hasn't enough things to explore, one should by no means miss the nearby salt mine in Wieliczka. It's perfectly connected by train that goes from Kraków main station almost directly to the salt mine, so there's no need to listen to tourist agencies who recomend the bus ;) And if you go by bus anyway, your exit point is at the Wieliczka church - the final bus station is way out of town.
Once you reach the Danilowizc shaft you can expect large crowds of tourists waiting to enter the mine on the stairs. However, as we were only two for the German group, our guide decided to use the elevator and saved us two hours of waiting :) Yay!
Inside the mine, the corridors are first covered with wood, while deeper inside they are left blank - and as they are carved into 97% rock salt, the walls taste very salty. With the time, even the wooden walls become soaked with salt and therefore hard as stone.
Due to the presence of salt, the area around Wieliczka was populated some thousand years ago, which is proved by Roman and other archeological findings.
Unlike the first settlers who cooked salty water to gain salt, following generations began to dig for rock salt and removed pieces as heavy as 2 tons with the help of ropes and winches, which were driven by either human or horse power.
And unlike today, when the mine features electricity, AC, toilets and anything you can imagine (even WiFi), miners in the past worked in almost complete darkness with tiny oil lamps. The stairs are much better nowadays, too. With greater and minor accidents, the mortality rate was enormous - 1/3 of the miners didn't make it through the year.
But how could a horse possible get inside the mine? With the same system of ropes. And how did they make it out? Well, never :(
The waste saltwater (very salty) in the mine was pumped to gain salt, too, or stored in underground saltwater lakes that are found on each level of the mine.
Apart from the miners' work conditions, the mine also tells the story of the Hungarian princess Kinga who - according to a legend - brought the mine to Poland in first place: When Kinga married the Polish king, she asked her father to give her a salt mine for dowry instead of gold and silver. Before leaving for Poland she threw her engagement ring into the shaft of the mine, and after arriving in her new country she told miners to dig in Wieliczka. Soon they found not only salt, which brought wealth to the city of Kraków, but also her precious ring.
Next to Kinga, Wieliczka presents statues of celebrities who visited the mine, and gnomes who live somewhere below the surface, if you believe it. Needless to say they are all carved into rock salt, not by some artists but by the miners themselves.
And while some of the abandoned corridors and chambers were turned into fairytale-like scenes by miners, the mine even hosts restaurants, a conference/concert room, an underground hotel, souvenir shops, a 3D cinema presentation, exhibition rooms and numerous chapels, the oldest being from the 17th century.
The most impressive room is without doubt the chapel of St. Kinga. It's huge. It's 100 meters below the surface. And it's entirely carved in rock salt, including the floor and the decorations on the walls - even the chandeliers are made of rock salt crystals!
While the photos do no justice, Mr. Google might provide better impressions ;) and if you're lucky, you may even see a music and light show.

Since we practically had our own guide for the tour, we not only had a one-on-one Q&A, but could arrange the tour as we pleased: spending more time in interesting places and skipping the parts that focused on the technical stuff.
I never knew what salt grapes are, or that depending on the presence of metals, salt can be red, green or even blue!
Our little "private package" also included full-length video presentations, overtaking the big groups on our way, and even a little salty suvenir directly from the mine :)

~ to be continued ~

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