I’d heard of the salt mine on a Facebook group but could not think how seeing a salt mine could be entertaining. Well how wrong I was.
After leaving Auschwitz I found Wieliczka easily enough and a car park where campers were allowed overnight. So bright and early the next morning I set off for the mine. It took a little to find the ticket office as the signs are unclear and once there none of the tape barriers were open, but they expected you to go through them. All very odd.
It opens at bang on 7:30 and not a second before and then you pay your Zloty which means about €20 which is in fact a very reasonable price for the 3 hour or so visit.
Wait in line for other English speakers to come along and then a guide introduced herself and took us into the mine. She absolutely failed to make a connection with the group at the start which showed very clearly later, and as she’s very experienced I was quite surprised. However we set off after establishing that there were people in the group from all over the world.
The big drop
Getting down into the mine was a heck of a walk down steep wood stairs that led down about 80 metres. This was a hell of a descent as the stairway is only wide enough for single file and there were 2 other groups ahead of us and they kept stopping and starting in order to allow time for slower people. Really the guide ought to have paced it differently so we went slower but without stopping but hey…it wasn’t my shout.
We got to the bottom anyway and were told a few facts about the mine. I was surprised to learn that it was first used in the 11th century. No wonder it has 350 kms of tunnels. Apparently there are only a few people living who know every corner of the mine.
It was apparent from the start that this was going to be a whirlwind trip. I guess there’s so much to see and we only see a small fraction of the mine. There are other groups you can join if you book such as the Miners group and the Pilgrims group. They both sound fascinating and are over 3 hours also. However I’d have loved an extra hour and would have paid more for that as it was very rushed.
What was apparent from early on and in contrast to the tiny staircase was the huge scale of the mine. Tunnels were quite large and very airy and lined and shored exclusively with wood as the salty environment is no good for steel. Some of the wood shoring has been there since the mine first opened in the 13th century although salt has been gathered from about the 11th century.
The salt deposits are almost 14 million years old and caused by a sea evaporating and leaving behind it’s salt and the mine is considered so important that Copernicus even visited. They carved a statue of him entirely from a salt block in honour of his visit.
The photos aren’t great but firstly, we were very rushed. There were literally seconds to stand and take in sights such as Copernicus before we were moved on. Also there was no tripod allowed so everything was handheld and it was very dark mostly.
I’d love to go back with some lights or a tripod but I’d have to pay for a private tour for that and that’s mega bucks.
Some of the scenes they had set up were really nicely thought out and well lit. However in the most interesting places we were hard on the heels of the group in front, in fact our guide was constantly berating them shouting “Ladies and gentlemen please rejoin your own group!”
Also because we had so little time -there were groups hard on our heels too- it was difficult to get photos in. One family insisted on each individual having their photo taken in front of the sculptures, first the 2 kids, then Mam and Dad, then everyone together. Several people spoke to them about monopolising the scenes and even the guide asked them to move along but they simply ignored everything said to them.
The carvings were nothing short of amazing. There were numerous niches with religious figurines in, lots of scenes depicting miners at work and even the entrance to a tunnel seen at left, all carved from salt. The detail was beautiful and the finish was polished and almost like marble. But it was all salt.
Our guide stopped us at one place while we waited for the group in front to continue and said we were all allowed 2 kilos of salt to take from the mine for free. However we must take it by licking it from the walls! No-one took the bait but she repeated her joke later, perhaps some groups found it amusing?
I did but as I said she failed to connect with the group at the start and it showed for the whole duration of the tour which was marked by her becoming impatient and shouting at people to catch up.
Some of the chapels were extraordinary. Everything carved from salt. Even the chandeliers such as you see in this photo to the right, carved from salt.
It’s a truly amazing place and to think there are 350 kms of tunnels grabs your imagination.
The guide wasn’t that bad really
I seem to be a little negative about the guide and I am slightly, but also I guess she has time restrictions placed on her so she had little to work with. It’s only about €20 euros for the tour, I would much rather pay even as much as €10 more for the visit but get longer. There was very little information offered either, only the odd snippet here and there. I guess they want you to buy the books in the shop.
However, a fabulous visit, I’m so glad I’ve been and I would definitely return again. It’s a lot to take in and needs much more than just one visit. I’d love to try the other routes too, one of which allows you to work as a miner would have using their technologies etc.
Where I stayed: Wieliczka, 32-020, Poland, 49.986890, 20.051598
Here’s some more photos of what proved to be a fantastic visit.