Some 14km southeast of Kraków, Wieliczka (vyeh-leech-kah) is famous for its deep salt mine. It’s an eerie world of pits and chambers, and everything within its depths has been carved by hand from salt blocks. The mine has a labyrinth of tunnels, about 300km distributed over nine levels, the deepest being 327m underground. A section of the mine, some 22 chambers connected by galleries, from 64m to 135m below ground, is open to the public by guided tour, and it’s a fascinating trip.
The mine is renowned for the preservative qualities of its microclimate, as well as for its health-giving properties. An underground sanatorium has been established at a depth of 135m, where chronic allergic diseases are treated by overnight stays.
The salt-hewn formations include chapels with altarpieces and figures, while others are adorned with statues and monuments – and there are even underground lakes. The showpiece is the ornamented Chapel of St Kinga (Kaplica Św Kingi), which is actually a fair-sized church measuring 54m by 18m, and 12m high. Every single element here, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is of salt. It took over 30 years (1895) for one man and then his brother to complete this underground temple, and about 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed. Other highlights are the salt lake in the Erazm Barącz Chamber, whose water contains 320g of salt per litre, and the 36m-high Stanisław Staszic Chamber.
Included in the entry price is a visit to the Kraków Saltworks Museum, accommodated in 14 worked-out chambers on the third level of the mine, where the tour ends, but most visitors appear to be ‘over-salted’ by then. From here a fast mining lift takes you back up to the real world.
Visitors are guided in groups and the tour takes about two hours. You walk about 2km through the mine, so wear comfortable shoes. The temperature in the mine is 14°C. In July and August English-language tours depart every half-hour from 8.30am to 6pm. During the rest of the year there are between six and eight daily tours in English.
Minibuses to Wieliczka (3zł) depart Kraków frequently between 6am and 8pm from makeshift bus stands along ul Pawia, across the street from the Galeria Krakowska shopping mall (adjacent to Kraków Główny train station). Several tour operators, including Cracow City Tours , run bus tours to the mine for around 130zł, including admission.