Opened in the 13th century, the “Wieliczka” Salt Mine produced table salt constantly until 2007, as one of the world’s oldest salt mines in operation. It is also the only salt mine in the world preserved in such pristine condition and a world class monument, featuring among fourteen Polish objects on the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage List. About 1.2 million people visit the “Wieliczka” Salt Mine each year. It is often referred to as “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland”.
The only mine in the world that was active since Middle Ages until contemporary days
“Wieliczka Salt Mine” is the only mine operating uninterruptedly since the Middle Ages. This is a magical underground city full of mysterious grottos, lakes, as well as mining equipment, chapels forged out of salt, including the largest one the Chapel of St. Kinga (Kaplica Św Kingi), the patron of salt miners.
On the UNESCO List of the World Heritage Sites since 1978
“Wieliczka” Salt Mine is one of the most precious and fascinating Polish monuments. The first tourist trail was established there as early as at the turn of the 19th century. In 1976, the “Wieliczka” Salt Mine was entered on the national register of historic monuments and already in 1978 it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The mine is one of Poland’s official national Historic Monuments (Pomniki historii).
In 2010 it was successfully proposed that the nearby historic Bochnia Salt Mine (Poland’s oldest salt mine) to be added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The two sister salt mines now appear together in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites as the “Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines”. In 2013 the List was expanded by the addition of the Żupny Castle.
The “Wieliczka” Salt Mine is considered one of the 7 wonders of Poland.
Its attractions include dozens of statues and four chapels carved out of the rock salt by the miners. The older sculptures have been supplemented with new carvings made by contemporary artists. Even the crystals of the chandeliers are made from rock salt that has been dissolved and reconstituted to achieve a clear, glass-like appearance.
The “Wieliczka” mine features an underground lake, and the new exhibits on the history of salt mining, as well as a 3.5 kilometres (2.2 mi) touring route (less than 2% of the length of the mine’s passages) that includes historic statues and mythical figures carved out of rock salt in distant past. More recent sculptures have been fashioned by contemporary artists. ”
The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a depth of 327 meters and is over 287 kilometres (178 mi) long. The rock salt is naturally grey in various shades, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white or crystalline look that many visitors may expect.
“Wieliczka” also houses a private rehabilitation and wellness complex. The mine is renowned for the preservative qualities of its microclimate, as well as for its health-giving properties. An underground sanatorium has been established at a depth of 135m, where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays.
The princess’s ring
There is a legend about Princess Kinga (St. Kinga), associated with the “Wieliczka” mine. The Hungarian princess was about to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste (Bolesław V Wstydliwy), the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father, Béla IV of Hungary, for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father King Béla took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they would come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when they split it into two, discovered the princess’s ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish former capital.
The oldest of its type in Europe
In the 13th century, rock salt was discovered in Wieliczka and the first shafts were dug. From then on the deposit of rock salt in Wieliczka and Bochnia has been mined. This major industrial undertaking has royal status and is the oldest of its type in Europe. The site is a serial property consisting of Wieliczka and Bochnia salt mines and Wieliczka Saltworks Castle which was built in the late 13th to early 14th century. The Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines illustrate the historic stages of the development of mining techniques in Europe from the 13th to the 20th centuries: both mines have hundreds of kilometers of galleries with works of art, underground chapels and statues sculpted in the salt, making a fascinating pilgrimage into the past. The mines were administratively and technically run by Wieliczka Saltworks Castle, which dates from the medieval period and has been rebuilt several times in the course of its history.
The development of mining techniques in Europe throughout centuries
Many shafts were dug throughout the time the mine was in operation. Different technology was added such as the Hungarian-type horse treadmill and Saxon treadmills to haul the salt to the top of the surface. During WWII, the shafts were used by the occupying Germans as an ad hoc facility for various war-related industries. During the Nazi occupation, several thousand Jews were transported from the forced labour camps in Plaszów and Mielec to the Wieliczka mine to work in the underground armament factory set up by the Germans. However, manufacturing never began as the Soviet offensive was closer. Some of the machines and equipment was disassembled, including an electrical hoisting machine from the Regis Shaft, and transported to Liebenau in the Sudetes mountains. Part of the equipment was returned after the war, in autumn 1945. The Jews were transported to factories in the Czech Republic and Austria.
Two most prominent of the miners` patrons were women
Having descended underground, miners would not commence their hard toil without a moment of concentration and prayer. In one of the numerous underground shrines, they worshipped patrons of miners, entrusting their well-being into their care. Two most prominent of the patrons were women. St. Barbara was a deeply religious person. Escaping persecution, she sought shelter in a cave. That`s why she became the patroness of people working underground. Her images adorn the mine’s chambers and guildhalls as well as houses of religious miners.
The other patron was St. Kinga whom I mentioned above. The legend I told you about is beautiful, but it is worth adding a pinch of salt to enhance its flavour – it was during her reign that salt mines in Poland began to thrive.
Both patronesses have their own holidays falling on their name days. On July 24th, all the miners in “Wieliczka” put on their gala uniforms and gather for a ceremonial service. It is the Feast of St. Kinga which begins in the chapel bearing her name to be later continued with a variety of artistic events. Exactly five months later, this beautiful salt chamber hosts the Christmas service for miners. It constitutes a kind of departure from the general tradition as it is held on Christmas morning rather than at midnight. Barbórka, i.e. the Feast of St. Barbara commences with a ceremonial mass said in the Chapel of St. Kinga. After the service, miners take part in a gala during which the most distinguished of them receive honours and ranks.
The most beautiful, the most impressive, the most wonderful
The glow of crystal chandeliers illuminates there on the intricately carved floor. Breathtaking bas-reliefs and altars are a proof of extraordinary artistry. The Chapel of St. Kinga is the crown jewel of the “Wieliczka” Salt Mine and the miners’ pride. Every single element there, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is made of salt. It took over 30 years (1895) for one man and then for his brother to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tones of rock salt had to be removed. The Chapel of St. Kinga is located 101 meters underground, its dimensions are of 31 x 15 m, and its floor area is of 465 m2. Its splendours make it the dreamland location for a Holy Mass, a wedding, a classical or religious music concert for groups of up to 400 people. A ceremony organised at such a unique location will gain a special importance, and will stay in the visitors’ memory long after it’s over.
Other highlights are the salt lake in the Erazm Barącz Chamber, whose water contains 320g of salt per litre, and the 36m-high Stanisław Staszic Chamber.
Friendship is the salt of life as Romans proclaimed in the past
As the Polish saying has it – to know somebody, you must eat a barrel of salt together and, after all, it is work that is the salt of life. Salt has been an inseparable companion of humankind, however, this sentence can be reversed. After all, it is so much older than the humankind itself. The salt in Wieliczka is nearly fourteen million years old. It falls in the category of Miocene salt-bearing series consisting of rock salt deposits and (to a significantly smaller degree) potassium-magnesium salts. They stretch along the arch of the Carpathians, starting in the area of Silesia to carry on as far as the Iron Gate region of Romania.
Notable visitors to this site have included:
– Nicolaus Copernicus who placed the Sun rather than the Earth at the center of the universe
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German writer best known for “The Sorrows of Young Werther”
– Alexander von Humboldt, whose quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography and his advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring
– Fryderyk Chopin, leading musician of the Romantic era
– Dmitri Mendeleyev who formulated the Periodic Law, created a farsighted version of the periodic table of elements, and used it to correct the properties of some already discovered elements and also to predict the properties of eight elements yet to be discovered
– Bolesław Prus, a leading figure in the history of Polish literature and philosophy and a distinctive voice in world literature
– Ignacy Paderewski, a Polish pianist and composer, politician and spokesman for Polish independence. He was a favorite of concert audiences around the world. His musical fame opened access to diplomacy and the media.
– Robert Baden-Powell, a British Army officer, writer, author of Scouting for Boys which was an inspiration for the Scout Movement, founder and first Chief Scout of The Boy Scouts Association and founder of the Girl Guides
– Jacob Bronowski, a Polish-born British mathematician, historian of science, theatre author, poet and inventor, of Polish-Jewish origin, he is best remembered as the presenter and writer of the 1973 BBC television documentary series “The Ascent of Man” and the accompanying book. He filmed segments of “The Ascent of Man” in the mine.
– the von Unrug family, a prominent Polish-German royal family
– Karol Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II
– former U.S. President Bill Clinton
and many others.
A monument unique on a global scale
The “Wieliczka” Salt Mine has always provided inspiration to artists. They would come here in throngs to draw inspiration for their work. A stay in the mine was fascinating enough to yield fruit in the form of sculptures, paintings, and literary works. Master Jan Matejko, one of the most famous Polish painters himself was awed as much by the “Wieliczka” mine as well as by its history which was reflected in the themes of his two oil paintings. One of them is dedicated to St. Kinga, the second one depicts attempts at saving the mine from fire.
Miners themselves have never been devoid of a variety of artistic talents thanks to which the saline chambers have been turned into a peculiar gallery of religious sculptures. Thanks to generations on generations of self-taught sculptor miners who worked on furnishing and decorating of subterranean chapels that “Wieliczka” enjoys the rank of a monument unique on a global scale. Each generation of miners working here has left the mark on the saline sidewalls.
The mine’s interior was also a perfect scenery for works of professional artists. Among others, such artists as Ryszard Horowitz, Jerzy Skolimowski, and countless others exhibited their works here.
The best acoustics in Europe
In 1995, Preisner’s Music, a compilation of film music by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, was recorded by Sinfonia Varsovia in the “Wieliczka” mine’s chapel. The chapel is often said to have the best acoustics in Europe.
A brand, present in Polish consciousness for centuries
The “Wieliczka” Salt Mine is one of the most valuable monuments of material and spiritual culture in Poland. Today it combines many centuries of tradition and modernity, the history of several hundred years and an underground metropolis with extensive infrastructure.
The mine is a product of work of tens of generations of miners, a monument to the history of Poland and to the Polish nation – a brand, present in Polish consciousness for centuries.
See you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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The “Wieliczka” Salt Mine, the Regis Shaft
The underground pub for miners
St Kinga Chapel