The Wieliczka Salt Mines at Cracow

I wasn’t aware of any salt mines at Cracow until we arrived at our hotel, and browsed the brochures advertising trips. There was a salt mines conducted tour, but being of a frugal nature I told Val we could catch a mini bus to Wieliczka which is about 10km from the city centre, and this was much cheaper than the tour, so she agreed to the visit.

The bus trip was an event in itself with the driver practising eco-friendly driving by putting the gears into neutral to coast down the hills and up the other side and re-selecting a forward gear as the bus was about to stop.  The surface buildings and headgear of the mine are unchanged since the mine ceased production. Unlike British salt mining technique where water is pumped into the mine to dissolve the salt and then pumped out and evaporated to leave the crystalline salt, the Poles mined the salt like coal. It was this working method that intrigued me.

Safety helmets are provided, and the trip starts by descending a close timbered shaft via a timber staircase.

Power cables fixed to the wall of the shaft add another feeling of authenticity. The shaft is 243m deep and leads to the first of the excavated chambers – the Nicholas Copernicus Chamber. This is truly massive, but for me the most impressive thing was the timber cribwork that supports the roof. It owes its longevity to the salt impregnation of the timber. Only a small minority would be interested in the esoteric delights of mine timbering and there are many salt sculptures. These have to be re-cut at regular intervals as the moisture in the air gradually dissolves the features.

The next point of interest is the Burnt Out (Spalone) Chamber. A fire had burnt out the timber protection and it contained splintered and crushed pit props and a rock salt sculpture of the “Penitents”. The Penitents were experienced miners who dressed in wet clothes and crawled along the floor with torches on long poles. The torches ignited and burnt out the methane gas that hopefully left the Penitents alive on the floor.

Next came the Casimir the Great Chamber As well as the cribwork it contained a huge authentic 18th Century horse operated winch that was used to haul the salt from the lower to upper floors. It consisted of a vertical rope drum, four traction arms with bridles and a shoe brake.

Impressive chamber followed impressive chamber and included a 9m deep lake, but the piece de resistance is the Michalowice Chamber. It was worked for almost a hundred years in a vertical block of green salt. The cribwork is centred on two vast pillars of multiple round tree trunks bound together trough, which the stairs climb.

The last part of the trip that was only visited by me Val and a German couple was the Saline Museum. This was very serious and very good, containing maps, miners’ uniforms (yes, they had a strict hierarchy and uniforms to match) tools and geological samples.

The whole complex is simply an excellent attraction and is well worth a visit if you ever visit Cracow, don’t miss it.

Graham Bessant