Walking gingerly past the turnstiles and the brusque security guards into Wieliczka salt mine, I suddenly remembered the open-pit lignite mines of Neyveli, a small town close to where I grew up in Tamil Nadu. Neyveli’s bore holes dug deep into the earth to extract coal, though at the time, they seemed more like the results of a cataclysmic meteorite explosion. I had constant nightmares about the place as a child.
Thankfully, Wieliczka, south-east of Krakow in Poland, gave me no sense of foreboding. Commercial operations in the Polish mine ended in 1996 and it is now a thriving tourist attraction that receives over a million visitors annually. Fryderyk Chopin, Pope John Paul II, and even Benedict Cumberbatch have walked through its subterranean depths. For Wieliczka is no ordinary mine: its chambers hold many-tiered chandeliers, breathtaking works of art, even full-sized chapels—carved entirely out of salt.
A mechanical lift rattles to a stop 64 metres below the surface. Sallow light from yellow bulbs casts long shadows. My guide, the plain-speaking Polish gentleman Marek Klimowicz, leads me to the Nicolaus Copernicus Chamber, with a rock-salt sculpture of the astronomer. A Polish hero, he is believed to have visited the mines in the 16th century and I’m suddenly aware that we are walking in his footsteps.
Wieliczka is even older. Opened in the 13th century, the mine produced table salt until 2007, and was one of the world’s oldest salt mines in operation. It has over 200km of passageways. In the late 1970s, it found its place on the first UNESCO list of Cultural and Natural Heritage for its unusual works of art. Every piece is carved from rock salt, which I realise is naturally grey, resembling unpolished granite. rather than white and crystalline like I expected. Marek tells me that the older works were carved by salt miners, but later on, as the mine’s popularity grew, contemporary artists added their own pieces.
As I walk from one cave to another, I try to grade the chambers I see. St. Kinga’s Chapel wins me over with its impressive, tiered chandeliers (made entirely of salt, of course) illuminating the intricately carved floor (also salt). The halite crystal altar to Saint Kinga (a patron saint to salt miners) is breathtaking: surreal murals of The Last Supper, Doubting Thomas, and Christ Falling Under the Cross cover its walls. The chapel was carved for almost 70 years (1896 to 1963) by salt miners, our guide Marek tells me, as I stand gaping. This cavernous chapel can even be hired for weddings.
The legends behind the sculptures are often as riveting as the work. We enter the Janowice Chamber, which has six rock-cut sculptures depicting the story of the Wieliczka mine. So it goes that a Hungarian princess Kinga, who married the Duke of Krakow received the salt mines as her dowry. She cast her engagement ring into the mines and it travelled all the way to Wieliczka where salt deposits were eventually found.
Led by Marek and his flashlight, I walk along the dimly lit narrow passages until we reach Casimir, the Great Chamber. He tells me that in the absence of modern equipment, miners used to keep horses in many of these chambers to transport heavy blocks of salt and the men, like their animals, lived in these dark, musty chambers. In homage to these miners, this part of the mine has models of horse-drawn carriages and treadmills, which were used to transport salt.
Today, only minimal mining happens in Wieliczka. The salt that is mined is sold in beautifully packaged bottles as bath salts and medicated cosmetics. As I walk around the pretty souvenir store, my mind drifts back to Neyveli once again, and I wonder if I’d feel that same sense of trepidation if visited now. Just in case I do, I pick up a bottle of Wieliczka salt—a talisman against the boogie monsters of my youth—and step out of the mine and into the nippy Polish evening.
Getting there: Wieliczka is located about 17km from Krakow and is accessible by local trains, buses, and shuttle vans.
Hours: Wieliczka is open 7.30a.m. to 7.30p.m. from 1Apr-31Oct, and 8a.m. to 5p.m. from 2 Nov-31 Mar. It is open throughout the year, except on public holidays.
Entry: Tourists need to be accompanied by a tour guide. Entry ticket, including an English-speaking guide, is priced at ₹1,400 for a three-hour tour. Carry a good camera and a tripod if possible.
Stay: If staying close to the mine is a priority, the Grand Sal Hotel is a only a few minutes from Wieliczka. The hotel offers packages that include a visit to the salt mine (doubles from zł319/₹5,300; www.grandsal.com). Krakow has plenty of accommodation options such as the centrally located Hotel Columbus in old town (doubles from €105/₹7,700; www.hotelcolumbus.pl) and the Hotel Krakow residence (doubles from zł389/₹6,500; kracowresidence.pl/en/).
Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.