Located in the southern Polish town of Wieliczka, the Wieliczka Salt mine was opened in the 13th century and run continuously until 2007. Not only is it one of the world’s oldest salt mines, it is also one of the world’s largest. Today the mine is one of Poland’s Pomniki historii (Historic Monuments) and is noted for its 4 chapels, carved out by the miners over the centuries.
The mine itself reaches a depth of 326m (1075ft) and is over 287km (180mi) in length.
Rock salt was discovered in the town of Wieliczka in the 13th century, and it was during this time that the first shafts were dug. The miners decided to build their headquarters in the mine creating what today were refer to as the Saltworks Castle. From the late 13th century until 1945, the castle formed the Head Office of the mine’s board.
During WWII, many of the shafts were used by the occupying Germans for various war related industries. During this time, several thousand Jews were transported from labour camps in Plaszow and Mielec to work in an underground armament factory that had been set up. Manufacturing never commenced however, as the Soviet offensive was nearing and the Jews were then transported to factories further west in the Czech Republic & Austria
Princess Kinga, a Hungarian princess, was to wed Boleslaw V the Chaste, the Prince of Krakow. As part of her dowry she would give to the prince, she asked her father Bela IV of Hungary, for a lump of salt, as is was considered prize worthy in Poland. Bela, took her to the Maramaros salt mine in Hungary. When she arrived, she threw the engagement ring, given to her by Boleslaw, into the shaft, then left for Poland. On arrival in Krakow, she then asked the miner to dig a deep pit until they came upon a rock. When the miners opened the rock of salt, they discovered the princess’s ring. From that moment forward, St. Kinga is the Patron Saint of the salt miners in Poland and today has a chapel dedicated to her in Wieliczka.
Today it houses the Kraków Saltworks Museum and contains an underground lake as well as 3.5km (2.2mi) of touring route that includes historic statues and mythological figures carved out of rock salt in the past. The mine is often referred to as the “The Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland”, and in 1978 was placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The highlight of a visit is the Kapelica Sw Kingi (Chapel of St Kinga) which measures 54m by 18m and is 12m high. Every element, from chandeliers to alterpieces, is of salt. The construction took more than 30 years to complete. Eventually finished in 1895, the entire project was undertaken by one man, and later his brother, and required the removal of 20,000 tonnes of salt. The walls were carved by miners to resemble wood, like the many wooden churches being built at the time.
Other highlights include the salt lake in the Erazm Baracz Chamber, whose water contains 320g of salt per litre, as well as the 36m high Stanislaw Staszic Chamber.