I’d seen it on National Geographic documentaries and was always blown away by it, so was excited to have the chance to visit the Wieliczka salt mine. I’d read up on Tripadvisor, the verdict seemed to be “worth the trip but be prepared to queue and to not hear the guide.” Clearly the stars were all aligned for my visit, as I waited 20 minutes and the guide was excellent.
The basics: A salt mine that no longer produces, with 800 steps, 3km’s of corridor, 20 chambers, countless sculptures, a chapel that takes your breath away and that sells salt trinkets made in Pakistan.
The ticket purchase was a little chaotic, could perhaps be better signposted but it was managed without trouble, and I was heading for the entrance.
On arriving at the first level, the difference in temperature was considerably different from the August sunshine outside. The tour takes you through various chambers, large holes where salt once existed.
There are exhibits showing prehistoric men using salt and others with men and horses taking the salt back to the surface. On turning a corner and being confronted with a huge religious sculpture made of salt, the gaping cavern behind shows the origins of where you are, the countless thousands of tons of salt excavated leaving behind spaces where once was rock. Walking down a corridor you see wood that has over time been petrified, and wherever you look, there are white blobs seeping from the walls. A little scratch with the fingernail and a taste, yup, salt.
After two hours you arrive at the real jewel, the Kings Chapel. I’d seen it in pictures and on television, but the reality is simply breathtaking. The group of 12 gave a collective gasp of astonishment as we saw it, followed by silence. Eyes take a while to digest the enormity of what they are seeing. An immense subterranean void, where even the tiled floor is a trompe l’oeil, being in fact a layer of salt, with the tiles chiseled into it.
The staggeringly wide staircase invited me down, passing the intricate reliefs on the wall, carved no more than three inches deep in places and yet appearing to be much more. The chandeliers, immense structures hanging high above, are museum pieces on their own and highlight the wonderful work of the artists who created this place of beauty.
It was a working chapel from its construction until the closing of the mine, Poland still being a very pious country. When you reach ground level, the enormity of the space is apparent, and yet with so many fantastic sculptures to see, it doesn’t seem large.
I did the tour with a French speaking guide, (who really was fantastic) and when we were in the obligatory gift shop stop he explained, with a little French pun, that salt was no longer “exploited” in the mine, only tourists were. Not entirely untrue, the prices were expensive, but when you think of import costs from Pakistan it’s understandable.
After a three hour tour you wait for the antiquated lift back to the surface and you exit with squinted eyes into blinding sunlight, with memories of that chapel etched in your mind.