One of the reasons we wanted to visit Krakow, Poland was to visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We had never heard of a salt mine before learning about this one, so we were fascinated to find out more.
Eric had discovered that the salt mine was only a short distance from Krakow, and it was easy to take a city bus there. We also saw that the bus would pick up quite close to Old Town. We took the 304 bus toward Wieliczka and it was about a 30 min ride. Unfortunately, we had a little confusion when we first tried to get on. As we approached the stop, we saw that a bus was there so we rushed to get on. However, the bus driver indicated that we needed to buy our ticket outside. We went to the ticket machine but there was quite a line and people seemed to be very slow and confused on how to buy the ticket. We were quite frustrated when it took so long that the bus pulled away without us. We waited for only about 15 min for the next one. This time we had our ticket in hand and were the first ones on! At this point, we saw that there was a ticket machine ON the bus… If we had known that, we could have caught the first one! However, it turned out to be good that we got on the bus early because it became very crowded!
We arrived in Wieliczka and made our way into the large salt mine complex. The day was rainy and it turned out that we were not the only people interested in going underground. We waited in line for close to 45 min to buy our tickets! We had read somewhere that the salt mines are quite like the DisneyWorld of Poland, and we are inclined to agree. Luckily, once we bought our tickets, we only had about 10 min before our assigned (and mandatory) tour group headed into the mine. We quickly gobbled a small snack and found the bathrooms before we joined our English speaking tour group.
The tour starts by descending 54 flights of stairs to the 1st level of the mine. It got pretty dizzying!! Here we learned some of the history of the mine. Salt has been made in the area as far back as the neolithic period where people made it from the rivers. As time went on and it became harder to make enough salt from the waters, people began to dig. The mine was established as far back as the 13th century! The mine actually produced salt continually until 2007. It grew to 327 meters below the surface. We walked for approximately 5 km through the mine, however, we saw only about 2% of the mine!
Over the course of the tour, we descended down to the second and third levels of the mine and learned a bit more about what salt mining was like. It was quite dangerous, as all mining is. The miners used quite ingenious tools to move salt up and down. They even had horses which lived their lives in the mine. Because of the danger, many of the miners began to carve religious chapels into the salt to pray in. Also, from early on the mine has been a tourist attraction, with many famous dignitaries being noted as having visited and then memorialized in rock salt sculpture. So over time, the mine has become quite a beautiful place, full of sculptures, religious and otherwise!
The most amazing thing about the tour was that everything we were walking through was rock salt – floors, walls, and ceilings (with some wood used as stairs and for support). They had even made chandeliers out of rock salt, so clear that they looked like crystals.
The most impressive part of the entire mine is the huge underground chapel dedicated to St. Kinga, the patron saint of all salt miners. This was a huge room, amazingly beautiful, with many statues and scenes carved into the walls.
As the tour finished, we were deposited into the part of the mine that was the most touristy. It included multiple gift shops, a restaurant, and a small interactive movie room about the history of salt mining.
We had been told that when we were done exploring those areas, we could go to one of two lines. One to wait for a lift directly up and out, or another to enter the underground museum. We were definitely interested in the museum. However, after waiting in line for several minutes, we were beginning to question our decision. At some point, another guide came over and asked who would like to continue the tour in English. We were the only 2 people who were interested. The guide seemed quite disappointed that we were interested and turned abruptly. We followed her down many corridors without her saying a word. Then we entered the first of many museum rooms. Our terse guide gave a canned speech about one display case and moved on, ignoring most of our attempts at conversation. She even ignored some of our questions… We continued this way through the rest of the museum, so the tour was not very enjoyable for us.
In the end, we found the mine fascinating and were glad that we got to experience it. However, the cost was quite high and we were a bit disappointed in the museum portion at the end.