Wieliczka’s Hidden Treasure
Hidden beneath a small town on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland lies one of the world’s oldest salt mines. Wieliczka was one of the largest and most profitable medieval industrial establishments at a time when table salt was as commercially valuable as today’s oil. The mine has been in continuous operation since the 13th century and was finally discontinued in 2007 due to low salt prices.
Nine centuries of continuous mining has created a subterranean labyrinth of over 2,000 chambers connected by 300 kilometres of passages nine levels deep. This is a Tolkien world featuring beautifully carved caverns, chapels and sculptures as well as a vast underground salt lake.
The mine is frequently referred to as the “Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.” The Chapel of Saint Kinga is the largest of the underground chapels embellished with sculptures, bas-reliefs and magnificent chandeliers carved entirely from the rock salt by skilled miners.
Legend has it that the mine was part of the wedding dowry between the beautiful Hungarian princess Kinga and young Polish prince Boleslaw the Shy. Kinga did not ask for gold or jewels since they only brought unhappiness and tears, but salt instead as a gift that could serve the people of Poland. Her father, King Bela IV, offered Kinga the largest and most prosperous salt deposits in Hungary, the Marmaros salt mine. On her journey to Poland she stopped to pray next to the mine entrance and to everyone’s surprise, threw her engagement ring inside. As the princess approached Krakow, she gathered a group of the best Hungarian salt miners to look for salt. They started digging and soon discovered a large lump of salt; hidden inside was Kinga’s ring. The princess’ virtuosity had miraculously moved the mine to Poland.
Many distinguished guests have visited this site over the centuries including Copernicus, Goethe, Emperor Franz Josef and more recently Pope John Paul II and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. A well-travelled Frenchman in the 18th century once declared the salt mine as no less magnificent than the Pyramids of Egypt.
The salt mine was occupied by the Germans during World War II and used as facilities for war-production.
Today it is possible to walk three and a half kilometres (less than one percent) of the mine’s oldest passages and visit the largest museum of mining located 135 metres underground. From time to time, orchestra performances fill the mine with a wonderful sound due to the unique acoustics created by the salt chambers.
The Wieliczka salt mine was placed on the original list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1978.