In 2006, while waiting for my German working papers to be renewed, I made a snap decision to spend a week in Poland in the dead of winter.
While walking around Krakow’s Cloth Hall, I snapped up a brochure from the salt mines in Wieliczka. As an overzealous UNESCO fan, I immediately made plans to visit.
Walking out of Krakow’s train station newly arrived from Gdansk, I tried to find the minibuses that would take me to the Wieliczka mine. When I couldn’t find them, a local was kind enough to lock her arm in mine and walk me to the correct location. I paid the driver, showed him the brochure so he would know where to let me out, and had a seat. What I didn’t know was that instead of salt mines, the only thing I would be seeing was the highway around the outskirts of Krakow.
I decided to just watch road signs so I would know when to get out of the bus. It was only supposed to be a 10 kilometer trip. As the Wieliczka sign appeared and my driver didn’t stop right away, I thought the mine may be a little off the beaten path. When he continued without stopping, I got worried. I’ve always had a deep-seated phobia of buses for whatever reason and avoid them whenever I can. Getting lost or confused is one of the key reasons for avoidance.
When I showed the driver the brochure again, he began yelling at me in Polish until he realized I understood nothing. I know a few words of Polish, but outside of necessities like, “please,” “thank you,” “coffee” and “beer,” I’d be hard-pressed to express myself. Instead of getting out at a seemingly random stop, I decided just to ride it out. I thought to myself: “How far can it really be to the end of the line?”
Well, it turns out that the van traveled over an hour outside of Krakow before turning around. Instead of the mine, I enjoyed a spontaneous trip through the outskirts of Krakow and the return trip back to the city. It wasn’t at all what I had planned on , but traveling certainly gives one the opportunity to brush up on improvisational skills.
When I came back to Poland in the spring, I returned meticulously prepared to avoid another trip through the suburbs. Armed with a list of shuttle and tour times, and since I was visiting in the tourist season, I took the official shuttle provided by the mine. The shuttle picks up right in front of Wawel Castle and goes directly to the mines. In addition, you can pay for your tour once you’ve boarded the shuttle.
The Wielicsmine is a product of centuries of work and belongs to UNESCO since 1978. A tour, possible only with the accompaniment of a tour guide, lasts two hours and covers a distance of 2 kilometers. Tours are given in English, German, French, Italian and Russian depending on the time of year.
Salt has brought wealth to Wieliczka for 700 years. Although mining stopped in 1996, Wieliczka is a popular tourist destination in Poland and attracts almost a million visitors annually. They attracted by the figures, chambers, chapels and rooms carved out of salt by miners and artists alike. There is simply nothing else like it.
The mine itself is an incredible work of engineering, architecture and artistry as well as a crash course into Polish history. All of the usual Polish suspects are here: poet Adam Mickiweicz, General Jozef Pilsudski, astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik, King Casimir the Great, and last but not least, Pope John Paul II. The mines also house an underground rehabilitation and medical center due to the healing powers of salt. In addition, St. Kinga’s Chapel is open to host events. The chapel, which is the highlight of the tour, measures 54 meters long and 12 meters tall. It is decorated with panels that depict memorable scenes from the Bible. At the conclusion of the tour, visitors can enjoy an underground meal from the restaurant or mail a letter from the underground post office.
After walking down a few hundred steps to start the tour and continuing downwards gradually, the tour ends with a genuine ride in a mine elevator to ground level. If you can imagine a double-decker sardine can powered by a rocket engine, you can guess what the brief trip in the dark to the top of the shaft is like. A trip to the mine makes for a great afternoon outside of the city and should be included in plans for any trip to Krakow. Just make sure to take the appropriate bus to the appropriate stop if you like avoiding headaches.
Visitors should check the website for additional scheduling information and the latest shuttle schedules and entry fees. The mine hosts concerts and other events which are open to the public. Telling someone you saw a concert one hundred meters underground is an interesting way to start a discussion.
Krakow Accommodation near Wawel Castle
- Hotel Pod Wawelem – 3-star hotel – double starting from €125 / $179
- Old Town Apartments – Self-catering apartments from €88 / $126
- Royal Hotel Krakow - 2-star hotel – double starting from €48 / $69
Photo of Wieliczka Salt Mine by Adam Kumiszcza