The Wieliczka Salt Mine of Poland was included in the first UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978. It is also on the Polish List of Historic Heritage and, when visiting, provides an interesting way to get to know how salt has been mined underground for almost nine centuries. In the summer, almost 8,000 tourists a day visit Wieliczka, which has 500 tour guides and 400 miners maintaining the mine. After buying your ticket, you are allotted a guide who will take you around the mine. Patrycya, our guide, has been on the job for 20 years and we enthusiastically followed her to explore the beauty, material culture and historic heritage of the mine and its excavated complex.
We opted for the tourist route, which lets you explore chambers, galleries, chapels and lakes. The mine has been opened to the public with this route since the end of the eighteenth century and has more than 300km of galleries and almost 3,000 chambers. It is divided into nine floors at depths varying from 64m to 327m. We went down to the third floor, which is at a depth of 135m. To get to the first level, one has to walk down 380 wooden steps, but the walk is comparatively easy. There are a total of 800 steps that tourists walk in the mine and, after the tour ends, a lift takes you to the exit in a mere 40 seconds.
The grey rock ceiling of the first floor is a national treasure, made of impure salt which is 95% sodium chloride and 5% different impurities. It is these impurities that give the salt its grey colour. In the past, this salt without being purified was used to preserve food. It is edible and contains good quantities of minerals. In subsequent chambers of the mine where this grey salt is present on the walls, tourists can lick it (if they want to risk it) to deduce for themselves that it is indeed salt. The first chamber that we entered is known as the Urszula Chamber and it shows how miners used simple hand tools to extract salt between 1649 and 1685.
There is a hoisting device, which was operated by four miners who walked round and round it, pushing it forward to wind the rope around the vertical axel to lift a heavy block of salt. This process was used to transport salt from the second to the first level, as the shaft was 30m deep. The floor is also made of salt and, in many tunnels and chambers of the mine, there is a solid salt floor or salt tiles, which get polished by visitors walking over them.
At a depth of 64.4m, we entered the Nicholas Copernicus Chamber. Nicholas Copernicus was the well-known Polish astronomer, who has been credited with formulating the heliocentric model of the solar system. It is believed that he visited the mine in 1493, when he was studying in Krakow. At that time, he was 20 years old. The floor, ceiling and walls of this chamber are all made of salt.
In the centre of the chamber, there is a monument dedicated to Copernicus. Carved in salt in 1973 by Wladyslaw Hapek, the monument marks the 500th anniversary of his birthday. In the past, this chamber was a single huge block of salt. Usually, there are layers of salt under the ground, but, in the upper part of the deposit, there are no layers. The miners dug in the soft rocks of clay and shale to find a block of salt. The chambers in the mine are of varying shapes and sizes, as this depended on the sizes and shapes of the blocks of salt that the miners found underground.
In the next chamber are six life-size salt sculptures that depict how rock salt was discovered in Poland. The legend goes that Kinga was a Hungarian princess and was engaged to marry a polish duke. As a dowry, she was given a salt mine in Marmaros. At this time, salt was very precious and Poland suffered from a lack of it. Kinga, learning of this, decided to give salt to Poland as her wedding present. She threw her engagement ring in the mine and in Wieliczka, Kinga ordered the miners to dig in a specific spot. Her ring was found in the first salt block unearthed and salt has been found in abundance in Poland ever since. Kinga is the patroness of the miners.
Long and thin salt stalactites can be seen at one corner of the chamber and these are a cause of worry to the miners, as it means water is leaking through the mine. The miners collect the water and bring it to the surface to produce salt. About 15,000 tonnes of salt is manufactured in a year. In other chambers of the mine, we found white salt, which is pure sodium chloride and it crumbled when we touched it.
This is the first part of a two-part series about this fascinating mine. In the second part, I will deal with the geological origin of the mine, the use of horses there almost 400 years ago, the St Anthony’s Chapel, the Holy Cross Chapel and the biggest and grandest chapel of all the Wieliczka Salt Mine – the St Kinga’s Chapel.
All photographs by Khursheed Dinshaw.