The UNESCO World Heritage site of Wieliczka Salt Mine is home to an entire underground world, where the salt mine workers of decades past were able to create sculptures, grand chapels, and an entire tunnel system hundreds of feet below the surface.
Over a million tourists every year make the trek down dozens of flights of stairs to reach the deep underground tunnels that connect the cavernous rooms that make up the main areas of the salt mines.
Back in the Miocene era (shoutout to my Human Evolution Anthropology professor for enabling me to actually understand what that time period is), salt deposits formed and over the centuries, the salt was able to be mined as techniques were developed to evaporate the salt and extract it for various uses. Work at the salt mine intensified during the 14th century as they dug deeper shafts and expanded capabilities of the miners to harvest this “white gold.” In medieval times, a wheel of salt about the size of a car tire was valuable enough that it could be used to buy an entire village and all of its inhabitants. However, economic inequality was ripe as ever, as one small nugget of salt could suffice as two weeks’ pay for a worker, who often woke at 2am and worked in the salt mine all day and then worked on a farm as well just to be able to support his family.
Our guide informed us that the salt mines used to serve as a sanatorium, due to the healing powers of fresh salty air. Thus, the mines were not just a factory for salt but a factory for health, as people with asthma problems were able to visit the mines to alleviate their health issues by breathing in the salt in the air.
Throughout the salt mines, there are many incredible statues that, believe it or not, are carved out of salt.
Little sculptures of dwarves represented the mythology that the miners believed that dwarves were the ones helping them when good things would unexpectedly happen in inexplicable ways.
155 meters below the surface is the lowest point of the third level of the mines, and this is where the main attraction is: an entire chapel, complete with chandeliers, statues, and even 3D paintings carved out of salt. Everything is mind-blowingly detailed and I was really in awe of this entire room.
As we walked through the salt mine, the coolest part was being able to scrape your nails along the wall and lick your fingers to taste the freshest salt you’ll ever have, directly from a salt mine, as you breathe in the healthy, salty air. A visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine is an experience that you’ll never forget!