Picture: figures carved out of salt inside the mines
» Wieliczka salt mines
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General. Wieliczka is a small town, situated at the outskirts of Krakow. The town was founded at the end of the 13th century, but the area was populated earlier. The history of the town is closely linked with the presence of salt deposits in the ground. The Wieliczka salt mines are one of the top tourist attractions in Poland.
Salt mines. The salt mines are one of the longest operational mining companies. Salt extraction from the soil started already in prehistoric times, but the excavation from the mine itself dates back to the 13th century. In the course of 7 centuries, thousands of tons of salt were excavated from the mines, creating a network of tunnels and chambers almost 300 km long. Only about 1 percent of the mine is open to the public. What makes the mines special are the many figures carved from salt and the decorated chambers; there are even underground chapels. The complex is one-of-a-kind, resulting in the inscription of the site on the Unesco list in 1978.
The operation of the mines was very profitable for many centuries and salt valued it's weight in gold. Salt was very precious for its ability to preserve food, mainly meat. To illustrate the importance of the mines: at their peak, they employed some 2000 people and accounted for about 1/3 of the total state revenue! Gradually the mines lost their importance due to the introduction of cheaper salt varieties but the Wieliczka mines are still in operation, be it on a much more modest scale than in the Middle Ages.
A network of corridors leads you from one chamber to another. Each chamber has a name and is dedicated to a person, saint or event. The undoubtedly must stunning chamber is the Chapel of St.-Kinga, also referred to as the underground cathedral. Each item is sculpted from salt, from the floor tiles to the cristals in the chandeliers. On the walls, several replica's of paintings have been carved in the walls, such as the famous "Last Supper" from Leonardo Da Vinci.
Tours. Different tours are possible: the tourist route, the miner's route and the pilgrim's route. You start by descending to a depth of about 65 meter by stairs (elevator is also available), where the first chambers are situated. Gradually you will descend to a depth of 130 meters, from where the miner's elevator transports you back to the surface. Note that it is not allowed to enter the mine on your own; each visit is guided. The temperature is constant at about 15 °C all year long. You wil have to do quite a bit of walking.
How to reach Wieliczka. The site is easily reachable by taxi from the center of Krakow (about 20 minutes). You can also get there by train, bus or minibus. Several tour operators offer trips to the mines from Krakow.
Sanatorium. The salty underground environment is claimed to be very beneficial for certain health problems, mainly respiratory diseases. This lead the installation of an underground health resort.
Picture 1: distant view on Wieliczka
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