Chris Peacock explores the depths of a unique and remarkably artistic salt mine in Southern Poland
Gleaming chandeliers cast shadows on a life-sized sculpture of Pope John Paul II while a remarkable depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is intricately hewn into a wall featuring dozens of religious reliefs and towering altarpieces. Buried 325ft below ground, everything in this ornate chapel is, incredibly, made of salt, carved by miners over centuries in a labyrinthine world of pits, chambers and snaking tunnels. Welcome to the strange and curious world of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Reaching a depth of 1,073ft and spread over a sprawling 186-mile network of tunnels, the mine sits just outside Poland’s medieval city of Krakow, with excavations here dating back to the 13th century, when locals realised they were sitting on a hugely valuable commodity — vast underground salt deposits, or ‘white gold’. Although commercial mining here stopped in 2007, Wieliczka is one of the oldest salt mines in the world and tours within its depths began as far back as the 15th century — its guest book includes the signatures of Copernicus, Goethe, Chopin and even Bill Clinton.
Despite not being that well-known outside Poland, the UNESCO-listed mine is visited by over a million people a year, making it one of Poland’s most popular tourist attractions, with daily tours descending deep underground to marvel at its shimmering saline lakes, cavernous rooms and statues carved by generations of self-taught sculptors.
My journey into the mines begins with a walk down a seemingly never-ending staircase in the Danilowicz Shaft in the company of tour guide Mark, who’s been exploring Wieliczka nearly every day for the past 20 years. After 800 steps, we enter a dimly lit tunnel leading to the first of 22 chambers spread over a two-mile tourist trail that forms a curious salt-themed amusement park of imposing halls, chapels and gallery-worthy art.
The mine’s showpiece is the impressive Chapel of St Kinga, with grand staircases leading down to a cavernous arena of breathtaking bas-reliefs, artistic altars and grandiose chandeliers. Started in 1895, it took over 30 years for the devout Markowski brothers to complete this subterranean temple where around 20,000 tons of rock salt had to be hauled away. Its walls are filled with religious figures and scenes, while a recently added statue of Poland’s holiest son, Pope John Paul II, stands draped in papal robes.
Wieliczka’s miners might have been staunch Catholics but not all the depictions here are religious. Hidden in smaller caves and grottos I find carvings of dwarves busy at work as well as sculptures of some of the country’s most treasured historical figures, including a bust of King Casimir the Great. And as I descend further into the mine, it’s easy to see why workers often spoke of ghosts, sprites and elves in this dark Tolkienesque world of shadowy tunnels and eerie caves.
It’s also incredible to think that despite the fact I can walk for hours in these tunnels, this tourist network amounts to less than 1% of the entire mine. I may have felt Wieliczka’s walls and crumbled its salt in my hands but I’ve barely scratched the surface.