The Wieliczka Salt Mines
Are you game to role-play as Bilbo Baggins and wander down to the center of the earth? This is no fantasy; you can actually walk down 378 stairs to a depth of 442 feet (134 meters) into the Wieliczka (Vee-eh-lee-chaka) Salt Mines. In the city of Kraków, Poland, the Wieliczka mines were, until very recently, a real working salt mine. The mine was decommissioned in 1996. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular attraction for Kraków visitors.
Honestly, I was not particularly brave in the days before we left for our visit to Wieliczka. It was not so much about being confined far below the streets in tunnels and caves within a sepulchral mine. The trepidation was about getting to the depth. Anticipation of the management of 378 stairs with two bad knees and some degenerative back issues was giving me some stress. The mantra: “don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try” was circling my head like the birds circling a semi-conscious Looney Tune character. I had given myself a pass to back out up until the time our group came together and was heading to the darkened entrance. But I was in, all the way, biting my lip, first one behind the guide as we went through that door.
As it turned out, the stairs were wide, wooden (hence soft), and set in tracts of 8, then a landing, a turn and 8 again. There were solid wooden banisters at arm’s length on either side. It was possible to brace yourself on both and swing down a couple of stairs without use of knees. I felt like a youngster swinging between those banisters. When you go, try to be the first or the last in your group going down the stairs. Getting lodged in the middle of the group could make you uncomfortable about taking your time descending. If you are the first, you set the pace. Clear your mind of the thoughts of those that are following behind you. You are not holding them up; you are helping them enjoy the experience.
If you truly cannot manage stairs, you can make a reservation to visit the caverns by wheelchair with a special guide and an abbreviated version of the tour. A reservation for this kind of access is absolutely required so call ahead and make one. If you need more clarification about special accommodations, the website for the Wieliczka salt mine is very informative and helpful. In fact it’s one of the better tourist websites: well organized and easy to navigate. I have included the website link down at the bottom of this piece.
There are many tours that leave the city center in Kraków for the Wieliczka salt mines. You can take a 1/2 day tour on a special bus which will cost about $50.00. Some companies will pick you up from your hotel. If you want to make your own way, the mines are reachable through public transportation. Take the number 304 bus from the Galleria Krakowska shopping mall near the main train station. If you go this way, round trip travel is 7,60 PLN (złoty) which is less than $2.00. There is also a special train to Wieliczka from the main train station (Kraków Glówny). Once you get to the gate, entrance fee to the caverns is 89,00 PLN ($23.00) for an English tour. Tickets can be purchased online or at the site.
The crowds that gather for this attraction are huge. Fortunately, the entire venue is very well organized. Everyone goes down in a tour group of about 20 – 25 with a guide. When you first arrive, you queue up for the tickets. At the ticket window, you are assigned to a group based on your language of choice and are given an entry time and gate for your particular group. No one goes down without a guide. Gather at your appointed time behind the flag that represents your language of choice. Your caped tour guide will magically appear with a torch to escort you down.
If you want to take photos, you must pay for a photo permit. It is a nominal fee; just 10 PLN (about $2.50 USD). This is collected before you enter the very grand cavern that is the chapel. You then wear a special badge that lets everyone know that you have been upgraded to the status of photo-allowed visitor.
Bring an extra layer of clothing and maybe a knit hat. Some mine trekkers find the 20 degree drop in temperature uncomfortable. We were cautioned repeatedly that the temperature would drop quite drastically. This was probably overstated; I was not cold. But it’s better to be prepared. And to state the obvious: don’t go down in flip-flops. Your feet will definitely get cold on the rocky floor and you may damage your tender tootsies.
The pavement floors of the caverns were not as forgiving as the stairs on the descent. They were rock hard through the myriads of tunnels and passages. During the walk, the guide takes you even deeper into the earth. The website claims that, in total, one descends 800 steps by the end of the tour. I can honestly say, it did not feel like we had descended 800 steps. There is no claustrophobic feeling as the ceilings are high even in the very deep. The pace with the tour guide is steady and care is given that no one is left far behind the group. There is another guide who follows at the end of the group to make sure no one gets lost or lingers or stops walking. As I slowed down towards the end of our tour, he kept a good eye on me to make sure I was managing. The lighting is dim and sometimes leaves shadows on the floors and shallow steps. Another challenge. Go with a buddy.
The presence and the memory of the men and women who worked to bring the precious salt to the surface was eerily ambient. Here in Poland, one cannot erase a consciousness of the forced labor compelled on so many innocent people during WWII. The mine was used during that war and the workers were not volunteers nor career minded miners. In the late 20th century, a more mechanized operation was introduced. The mine produced table salt right up to 2006.
We spent the afternoon walking through the caverns, viewing splendid salt-carvings, listening to legends and histories dating back to the 13 century. The highlight is the magnificent chapel entirely carved by the miners. Here the whole group stops for a break to take in the splendor and roam around the chapel. Later, we entered one cavern where there was an eerily lit saline lake. A Chopin musical piece was performed which included a light show and sounds of something (like a dragon) approaching through the water. This was a magical mystery tour.
For fans of the Hobbit, you can definitely role-play within that mystical Tolkien story. It may be that Thorin Oakenshield or Fili and Kili were lurking in the shadows and contemplating a friendly ambush at the bend of a curve. Greg stopped to say: “You shall not Pass!!” at some point in a dimly lit crevice. We thought of Gandalf again as we toured the mysterious green lake. And we found a salt-carved dragon hiding on one of the walls.
The mine has its own magical legend of Queen Kinga and King Bolesław. Queen Kinga dropped her engagement ring into a cavern in Hungary on her way to Poland to marry King Bolesław. The ring reappeared in a stone when Queen Kinga arrived in Poland. “Kinga” is short for Cunegunda. Her name might be a target for abuse in the merciless 21st century. With my own stories of being burdened with a difficult Polish name and growing up in the American culture, I was hoping that there weren’t too many Polish girls out there on whom this name was gifted.
There is a very good restaurant down in the depths. It will surprise you. Once you are released from your tour group, you can wander the gift shop, the 3-D movie and the restaurant. And feel free to get a little lost. It’s not hard when you are following signs in Polish.
A health spa in a different area offers hotel-like accommodations. You can book a room or a bed and spend a night or several under the crust of the earth. The treatment is for respiratory ailments and allergies. It is supposed to be quite good. I am looking to giving it a whirl next winter when I’m struggling with Kraków’s foul air in the middle of the winter heating season.
We did not have to walk up to the surface. We were crammed into a metal miner’s elevator with an overseer in a miner’s helmet. There were only 8 persons to a lift quadrant and it was tight standing up in the little cage. This ascent was actually more daunting than the descent via stairs.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a wonderful journey that you can take in one afternoon. The descent and the trek through the caverns was certainly worthy of the effort. It is a unique experience and you will have stories to tell of your dare devil courage going down to the center of the earth …. well not exactly, but it was pretty close and a very good fish story.
The link for the Wieliczka website has all the information you need for a visit: http://www.wieliczka-saltmine.com/