Salt used to be the most expensive commodity in the world, more so than gold. In the times where food was not preserved with chemicals or modern refrigeration, salt was essential. Luckily for Poland, just outside of Kraków, is the small town of Wieliczka. Underneath Wieliczka miners discovered tonnes and tonnes of natural salt, and because of this; the Wieliczka Salt Mine was born. Today it is not a fully functioning salt mine but instead a UNESCO world heritage site, with a lot to see.
The salt formations are 14 million years old and formed when the Carpathian Mountains sprouted out of the earth. As tectonic plates collided and the mountains rose, a landlocked sea was formed. Salt deposits formed in the sea and over a period of about 20000 years became a part of the sedimentary rock. The result: 300m underground, thick swathes of salt were created; perfect for mining.
As you take a tour throughout the mine, you learn about its history and also discover the intricate salt carvings and statues. The statues that sit closer to the entrance have been worn away by the gusts of air and moisture that enter. Every so often we had to go through door like flaps, to reduce the amount of moisture flowing through the mine.
We walked down through the mine until we were over 300m underground and discovered something beautiful. Inside the mine is The Chapel of St. Kinga. This is a chapel completely carved out of rock salt, including the chandeliers. Alongside the walls are 3D carvings of the life of Jesus Christ. Images such as the Last Supper, all perfectly carved adorning the chapel. Services are still performed here too.
According to legend, the chapel is named after Kinga, a Hungarian princess who was to marry the Prince of Kraków. As a part of her dowry, her father (the King) took her to a salt mine in his kingdom to get her a massive lump of this expensive product to give to the prince. Some tales say that she threw her engagement ring down a mineshaft, others say it fell off her hand down the mine. What both tales can agree on is that she lost it and when she came to Kraków she asked miners to dig deep until they found rock. These miners discovered a big salt rock and when they cracked it open, they found Kinga’s ring. This tale helped Kinga become a legend and centuries later Pope John Paul II canonised her as a saint; the saint for miners. Statues depicting this legend are carved out of salt in the mine.
The mine was an unexpected surprise. We both really enjoyed visiting and it is worth making the trek down to Wieliczka to see it for yourself. There is also a licenced bar underground, so once all the salt has made you thirsty, enjoy a beer 300m below the surface!