Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
133Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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The town of Wieliczka and its famous salt mines is another place that my Dad would often recount stories of the times he visited this area. The town's ancient salt mine was first discovered in the 13th century. Salt considered a valuable commodity, centuries ago due to its ability to preserve food was used as a form of currency before the introduction of money. The salt mine brought vast wealth to the Polish crown for over 500 years before the first partition of Poland in the 18th century. This salt mine is the only one in the world where it has been preserved in such pristine condition. The mine is comprised of nine levels, its original excavations stretch for a total of 300 kilometers, reaching a depth of 327 meters. The mine shows all stages of development of mining technology over the years. It is for this reason that UNESCO declared Wieliczka’s Salt Mines on its 1st World List of Cultural and Natural Heritage back in 1978
The Chapel of St. Kinga was the place that I was most interested in seeing. I remember my Dad telling me his impressions of when he visited this church underground that was completely built out of salt. To be able to tour the salt mine, you’re required to go with a tour guide. Jeff and I signed up with an English tour guide and waited with the group of people for our tour guide to take us down the mine. Despite of our best efforts to sign up with a smaller group, we noticed that our tour group was growing to be about 40 people (not something either one of us wanted to be a part of). We quickly found a French tour group of 7 people and went with them and their tour guide to visit the mines (our time in France was very well spent!).
We initially had to climb down into the mine by staircase (380 steps) to the 1st level of the mine at a depth of 64 meters. It didn’t feel too creepy as long as we didn’t think too much about what we were actually doing (climbing down deep within a mine with limited access of getting out). It helped that our tour guide had a great sense of humour who kept us moving along with anecdotes of past visitors lost within the mine when they ventured off on their own discoveries (we all stuck close together – very effective technique for not losing anyone). Once we were in the mine, I understood the need for a tour guide – there are just too many passageways to get lost in.
It was incredible to see the wooden structures that framed the passageways crystalized and preserved in salt. At times I couldn’t believe that the tiles and sculptures we were passing by were actually made out of salt – everything looked like marble
I was happy when we finally arrived at Chapel St. Kinga. The Chapel is still used each week for Catholic masses (people descend into the mine by elevator – avoiding the 380 steps and long kilometer walks that we took to come here). Walking around the Chapel, the room looks like any church I have visited where the interior is made out of wood, stone or marble. However everything in this church is made out of salt – the altarpieces, chandeliers, sculptures and wall paneling – salt, salt, and more salt. The church was carved once the area was mined and cleared out. The miners always carved small chapels within the mines for a place to pray and take comfort in. The Chapel St. Kinga is by far the largest chapel within this salt mine.
We made our way back up to the top (by this point I was feeling a bit claustrophobic) taking the elevator in the Danilowicz shaft from the 3rd level at a depth of 135 meters. It was good to be outside in the open and out of the mine.