In 1978, the Wieliczka Mine was added among the original list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is still touted as one of the world’s oldest salt mines, and was in operation, continuously producing table salt, up until 2007. Commercial mining was discontinued in 1996, because of salt prices going down and also the Mine flooding.
The Legend of Hungarian Princess
While are forbidden to touch the Mine’s dozens of historic statues, sculptures and mythical figures all carved out of Rock Salt. It’s OK to lick the walls though. There is a statue of King Kazimierz Wielki – the first king who regulated the industry and Mine, thereby making life for the miners better. “He was considered a hero,” our guide notes. We arrive at a scene with three sculptures of two miners and Hungarian Princess Kinga.
Our guide tells us of the legendary tale of how the Princess was set to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste – the Prince of Krakow and as part of her dowry, she asked her father for a lump of salt, since salt was that prize worthy in Poland. Her father then gave her a salt mine in Máramaros, Hungary. As a sign of her everlasting love to her man, she threw her engagement ring from Bolesław into one of its shafts before leaving for Poland. While in Kraków, the miners discovered her ring while digging a deep pit and it’s believed that the ring travelled all the way from Hungary to Poland. Kinga then became the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital.
Praise in Salty Chapel
There are four chapels carved out of the Rock Salt by the miners. Long spiral slippery steps lead us into the Mine’s most grand chapel—its structure hauntingly depicts shape shifting. Lit by astoundingly bright chandeliers, also made of salt, I am taken aback by this kind of beauty.
It took over 65 years to build this Chapel, a period that actually molded some of miners into artists. One, Antoni Wyrodek, ended up making supplemental carvings of famed imagery of The Last Supper and Doubting Tomas after undergoing studies to become a professional contemporary artist.
Salt – Still Modern Day Polish Gem
The Mine is today well rehabilitated and currently one of Poland’s official national historic monuments and major tourism attraction. Normal masses and even weddings do happen at the Mine today. In fact, they have a very beautiful ballroom and restaurant that serves really great traditional Polish dishes.
On our way out, we pass by their newly opened theatre space. It’s the first underground 5D Cinema. We watch a 15-minute film on the Mine, “a large dose of emotions, education and events inspired by the history of Wieliczka … ” Damn! These Polish people aren’t playing with their history and tourism.
On our way out, we pass by the Mine Shop where we purchase tonnes of paraphernalia, all made of salt. From different flavoured and textures of salts, fridge magnets to all sorts of beauty products – it’s simply amazing and so cheap! The ladies say that it’s because all these products are only made in Poland and at the Mine. We are taken down another long winding Salt corridor on the way to the tiniest elevators I’ve ever seen. We are going up squeezed among 4 other Chinese tourist ladies. “Hoooooo!!” They quickly jump out of the claustrophobia celebrating the end of the trip. Alas! We are back on earth. It’s been a good five hours down there – so worth it!
BONUS: You might also like my blog on Retracing South Africa’s History: Visiting Apartheid Museum