In our Poland Do’s and Don’ts post, we briefly mentioned visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mines (WSM). Some things deserve to be talked about a little more, so this post will describe the crazy cool time we had exploring 300 meters (imagine three football fields stacked straight down) underground in Poland.
One of the fun parts of travel is to leave the comfort of a tour and see what life is like for everyday people in that area. When we decided to go to the mine, I (obvs.) pulled out my trusty guide book and checked out how Mr. Steves recommends getting there. It seemed simple enough: go to a bus station, get on a bus, buy a ticket and head out of Krakow. We figured, no biggie, let’s do it. Well, the first problem was the description of the bus station ‘across the church from the mall.’ A. The mall is huge and B. there are little churches everywhere. After bumbling around trying to find the right church, we eventually did locate the stop that had our bus number on it. Check.
Buying a bus ticket in Poland
The next step was to board the bus and buy a ticket. I think the purchasing of a ticket is often the most challenging part of public transportation, so here are my best (rather obvious) tips: 1. Always have a variety of low denomination bills and coins. Even if you don’t know how much they are worth, you can just keep handing them over until eventually you’ll pay for whatever it is you are buying.
I hate being in the U.S. and not having the right payment method; this is only amplified in a strange place where you don’t speak the language. Variety is the spice of life. 2. Do what the locals do. When we boarded the bus we watched the kids in front of us walk up to a machine and stick in a few zloty. They then walked over to a time stamp thing and shoved in their little piece of paper. We followed suit.
Riding a bus in Poland
After we boarded the bus, we found some seats and settled in. The salt mine is about a 40 minute, ten mile route outside of the city. C and B found some seats next to each other and I took an open seat next to a tiny, ancient lady. She was straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale–I guarantee this lady looks exactly like her mother and her grandmother, all the way back to the middle ages. Our other bus riders were a mix of locals and (what we later learned were) tourists.
But not tourists like the three of us; everyone on the bus was from Poland. We knew what stop we were looking for, but the problem was we had no idea of knowing when we got to that stop. We had been going for about 40 minutes when the group of teenagers that B and C were entertaining themselves observing all clambered off the bus.
Listen to your elders (in Poland and elsewhere)
There wasn’t a sign anywhere so we were staying put, but then the adorable babushka sitting next to me poked me, said something and Polish and pointed to the door. Some things transcend verbal language, so we scrambled off the bus before it pulled off again. Bless her. This actually brings about tip 3: respect the older ladies. Everyone should always do this, no matter where you are, but it is especially useful in other countries when you need help. If I am ever being hassled by men in another country, I know to look for an older lady. They’ll give the jerks an earful for you.
On the bus the lady had no idea who we were or what we were saying, but she knew three American girls would only be on that bus to go to the mines and so she helped us out. After we left the bus, we reverted to tip number one and followed the group of teenagers down a poorly marked path, across a road and finally arrived at the mine entrance.
The Mine Itself
The Wieleczka Salt Mine is a pretty major tourist destination in Poland; over a million people visit here each year. It opened in the 1200s (yes, that’s not a typo) and finally shut down operation in 2007. That’s an insane amount of salt that has come out of this almost 200 miles of underground area. On our tour, we walked about two miles in the mine.
After purchasing our tickets we were assigned to an English speaking tour group of about 40 people. After we got our headphones so we could all hear the super cute Polish tour guide girl, we walked through a door that had about ten steps down in a wooden shaft, then turned at a right angle and had ten more steps, etc. etc. for almost four hundred steps. This was no problem for B, but was a problem for C since she had sprained her ankle earlier that week and was a big problem for me since I get claustrophobic in underground places. (Why would I go into a mine, you might wonder? Well, I weigh things like this: if regret for not going > fear of going, I’m gonna go for it.)
At the bottom of the stairs, the hallway opened up and we got our first glimpse of what a salt mine looks like from the inside. I was surprised; I was expecting it to look like the salt I’ve seen–white and grainy. Instead, we would spend the next four hours walking on and through floors, walls and ceilings that looked like gray rock.
Why the Wieliczka Salt Mine is famous
The reason why Wieliczka is such a famous salt mine and why we made it a point to visit was not because of its historical importance or size. Nope. Instead, it is renowned because salt miners, you know, when they weren’t busy working, have carved all sorts of interesting sculptures, figures, chapels, out of the salt. Most of these sculptures were inspired by the religious sentiments of the miners. Our tour started off sedately, with our guide explaining how we would only see wooden beams and wooden doors in the mines because metal would rust. Because of this, though, much of the wood is white with material that keeps it from catching on fire.
Fire would be disastrous to the mine (and miners!) so along with the white coating there were procedures in place that protected against it, such as we all had to be in an enclosed area and have door behind us shut before we could open the door in front of us to mitigate static electricity sparking a fire. We were then told that since salt is antibacterial, we could taste the walls without worrying about who has licked that same spot over the years. Challenge accepted.
Exploring the caverns
Our tour took us through about 20 of the 2,000 chambers in the mine and each one seemed more impressive than the next. Some scenes were of full-sized people, like John Paul II (not at all surprising as this guy is EVERYWHERE in Poland) and some were caricatures that looked like the dwarves from Snow White. We learned about the lives of the miners and how they would go into the mine in the dark of the morning and not leave until the dark of the night. We learned about how they used animals to do some of the work and some of the horses never saw the light of day, having been born and died below. A large underground lake glisten in an eery green color. However, the most impressive sight on the tour is a cavernous Chapel of St. Kinga.
Chapel of St. Kinga
This room is about 5,000 square meters and can hold several hundred people. As we descended the stairs onto the main floor, our guide pointed out the chandeliers carved out of salt. This seemed impressive until we got to the bottom of the stairs and took a look around us. There were sculptures all over and an altar where we were told many people have been married. My favorite thing about the room, though, was the carving of Leonardo’s Last Supper. There was an amazing amount of detail–so much so that you almost forget that someone etched away at the wall to leave this beautiful scene in relief. The tour ended with elevators–we were so grateful we didn’t have to climb up the stairs that we didn’t mind being crammed into strange cattle-like elevators.
After our tour we figured we would be able to head back to the same area we got off the bus, cross the road and wait for the next bus heading in the opposite direction of where we came. So there we were, standing around, when another Polish woman walked up to us and saying something we didn’t understand and gesticulating down the road. Since we subscribe to rule #3 religiously, we did as she said and found another bus stop down the road. A few minutes later, the bus arrived and we were on our way.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is a terrific way to spend a day in Poland. You will get a glimpse into the life of pious, hard-working miners and be instantly grateful that the job you have isn’t remotely as difficult. For a heightened adventure, try out getting there on your own. You might just run into some sweet Polish ladies who will help you on your way.