The Wieliczka Mine: An Underground Cathedral in Salt

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, near Krakow in Poland, is one of the most fascinating places to visit in the world. Not only has it been a working mine for centuries, but the miners have created chambers, chapels, and halls within the mine filled with art literally carved with salt.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, near the Polish town of Krakow, has been in continuous operation since the 13th century and still is producing table salt today. The mine stretches to a depth of 327 meters and is more than 300 km long. In addition to its ancient purpose as a mine, Wieliczka features a 3.5 km tourist route lined with statues of historical and mythical figures, all of them sculptured out of salt by miners. The tourist route also features beautifully carved chambers, chapels, underground lakes, and exhibits showing the history of salt-mining. About 800,000 visitors view the mine every year.

The History of the Mine

During the Middle Ages, before the advent of refrigeration, salt was valuable as a food preservative. At the beginning of the mine’s history, people extract the salt through evaporation of brine water from wells dug in the ground. Later salt deposits were discovered and then mined a dangerous but profitable activity. The salt mines belonged to the Polish kings and by the 14th century contributed 30 per cent of the state’s income. The salt financed the founding of the Krakow Academy, later the Jagiellonian University, by Casimir the Great in 1364.

When they first open the mine, manual labour mine the salt. Around 1400 this method was replaced by deptaki, treadmills set on the drum with the rope coiled over it. The machine was set in motion by the weight of the deptacze treading on the steps of the drum. The next stage in the development of transport facilities was the horse gear introduced in the mine in the mid-15th century. Technological progress and development of the machinery increased the production from the Wieliczka Mine. In the latter half of the 15th century, the profits drawn from the Mine allowed for restoration and development of the Wawel Castle. It was also the time, when the Mine expanded downwards in search for more abundant salt deposits and when they introduce the new methods of exploitation.

The Legend of the Wieliczka Mine

According to legend, Poland can thank Queen Kinga for discovery of the salt mine. Kinga was the daughter of the Hungarian king Bela IV who married the Polish king Boleslaw the Modest in the 13th century. The story has Kinga throwing her engagement ring into the Maramures salt mine in Hungary. The ring miraculously travelled along with salt deposits to Wieliczka where people rediscover it. Kinga is now the patron saint of miners.

The Tourist Route

When visiting the salt mine, one is taken down the Danilowicz Shaft, dug in the 17th Century. It was initially used to transport salt to the surface but now is used to carry mining officials and tourists. A small passageway will take one to the Nicolaus Copernicus Chamber, which contains a statue of the famous astronomer carved in green salt in 1973.

Next is the Chapel of St. Anthony, at just over three hundred years old the oldest surviving chapel in the complex. It is in the shape of a baroque church, all carved in green salt. The figures of Crucified Christ, Virgin and Child, and St. Anthony are in the niche of the main altar. The figures of St. Stanislaus of Szczepanow, and St. Clement are in-side slots. Sculptures of August II of Saxony, Christ Crucified, Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. John stands at the entrance to the choir. St. Peter of Alcantara and St. Casimirus hold in-side altars. One can also see statues of St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Peter, and St. Paul.

The Janowice Chamber depicts the legend of St. Kinga. One sees a statue of a miner handing a block of salt containing her engagement ring to the saint. A Polish knight, a Hungarian knight, and two other miners look on. Beyond is the Burned Chamber which depicts the dangers involved in falls and methane gas in the mine. Statues of mine workers burning our concentrations of methane with firebrands are present.

The Sielec Chamber depicts the earliest origins of salt production in the Neolithic Era, with miners gathering salt from salt pools The Casimir the Great Chamber contains a bust of the Polish King who organised mining law in the late 14th Century. The Pieskowa Skala Chamber is a beautiful place, carved in bronze salt, and connect the 1st level mine with the upper part of the 2nd level.

The Kuneguna Longitudinal contains statues of two dwarves. Beyond, at the Kineguna Shaft Bottom are more dwarves and friendly mine spirits that resemble ancient miners: crushers, carriers, cart pushers, and carpenters. The 17th-century wooden sculptures used to furnish the Holy Cross Chapel: the Holy Cross, and Our Lady the Victorious. There are two figures of kneeling monks by the altar; their contours have become hardly recognisable.

Next is the Chapel of St. Kinga. Figures of the Saint Kinga, St. Joseph, and St. Clement, the patron of the Wieliczka parish adorn the altar. The side altars are the Heart of Our Lady, and of the Heart of Lord Jesus. There are side chapels of Our Lady and the Resurrection. The Herod’s Verdict, the Slaughter of Innocents, Flight into Egypt, Twelve-Year-Old Jesus Teaching in the Temple, A Miracle in Cana of Galilee, The Last Supper, and Doubting Thomas are bas-reliefs decorating the chapel.

The Drozdowice Chamber contains sculptures of two miner-carpenters. The Jozef Pilsudski Chamber includes a green salt statue of the famous Polish statesman and soldier as well as a figure of St. John Nepomuk, the patron of the drowning at the bank of a salt lake. Beyond one reaches the Stanislaw Staszic Chamber, with a bust depicting the great Polish naturalist and geologist.

Beyond is a statue of the Treasurer Spirit, a friendly spirit of the mine who traditionally warned against danger. The name of Witold Budryk Chamber is after a professor at the University of Mining and Metallurgy at Krakow. It contains a restaurant where visitors can rest and refresh themselves. The Warsaw Chamber has a large bandstand decorated with the logo of the mine sculptured in salt, a stage, and a mezzanine. It is the place where they organise mine festivities, sports and tourist events, concerts and balls. The Vistula Chamber contains booths where snacks and souvenirs are available.

Descending to the third level, one reaches the St. John Chapel. The chapel semicircular wooden arch is partially inserted into the salty wall. On the ceiling, there is polychromy showing the God Father and Son between the clouds. The main altar is equipped with a high-class crucifix with the ideological polychromy of Jerusalem behind. The Jan Haluszka Chamber has a unique boat-like shape. Not accessible to tourists, they use the chamber for formal meetings and receptions. The Izabela Chamber is the venue of various exhibitions. Finally one arrives at the bottom of the Danilowicz Shaft, decorated with an oil painting of St. Kinga, where there is an elevator to the surface.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine Underground Rehabilitation and Treatment Center

A visit to the Lake Wessel Chamber, located 135 meters underground, will take six and a half hours. The centre has physical therapy equipment. Bacteriological purity characterises the specific microclimate of the underground Lake Wessel Chamber. What is more, the air of the chamber contains large quantities of sodium chloride and magnesium and calcium ions. Treatment is in the form of active rehabilitation including in new breathing exercises, which consist of the ability to control and improve respiratory system. The centre claims that a stay in the mine is especially beneficial for treating: lower and upper tract respiratory system diseases (infections of nose, sinuses, throat, larynx, asthma, COPD, bronchi diseases), allergies, skin diseases, metabolic disorders (i.e. obesity).

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