One of the coolest places we visited in Poland was the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Located 20 minutes outside of Krakow, the mine attracts over one million visitors each year. Now I know why.
Here's a brief on the mine's history, borrowed from Wikipedia (with some comments of mine):
The mine reaches a depth of over 1,000 feet, and extends via horizontal passages and chambers for over 178 miles. The rock salt is naturally varying shades of grey, resembling unpolished granite rather than the white crystalline substance that might be expected. (To descend into the mine, nine people at a time cram into a teeny, tiny cage-type elevator. Good thing I'm not claustrophobic! In some areas, the salt looks like cauliflower stuck to the wall and was given that nickname. Once you reach level one, you eventually walk down a couple hundred more stairs to see the full exhibit.)
Since the 13th century, brine welling up to the surface had been collected and processed for its sodium chloride (table-salt) content. In this period, wells began to be sunk, and the first shafts to be dug to extract the rock salt.
King Casimir III the Great (reigned 1333–70) contributed greatly to the development of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, granting it many privileges and taking the miners under his care.
Over the period of the mine's operation, many chambers were dug and various technologies were added, such as the Hungarian horse treadmill and the Saxon treadmill for hauling salt to the surface. (Once the horses descended into the mine, they never returned to the surface 🙁 )
The mine features an underground lake, exhibits on the history of salt mining and a 2 mile visitors' route (less than 2% of the mine passages' total length!), including statues carved from the rock salt at various times. (Yes! The sculpture pictures you see are all carved from the salt rock. There is a life-size statue of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland, and many of the chandeliers are made of salt!)
In 1978 the Wieliczka was placed on the original UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
A legend about Princess Kinga, associated with the Wieliczka mine, tells of a Hungarian princess about to be married to Bolesław V the Chaste, the Prince of Kraków. As part of her dowry, she asked her father, Béla IV of Hungary, for a lump of salt, since salt was prizeworthy in Poland. Her father King Béla took her to a salt mine in Máramaros. She threw her engagement ring from Bolesław in one of the shafts before leaving for Poland. On arriving in Kraków, she asked the miners to dig a deep pit until they come upon a rock. The people found a lump of salt in there and when they split it in two, discovered the princess's ring. Kinga had thus become the patron saint of salt miners in and around the Polish capital. (Our guide told this story on the tour.)
The most beautiful and impressive experience in the mine is visiting The Chapel of St. Kinga, considered its crown jewel. Breathtaking bas-reliefs and altars are a proof of extraordinary artistry. (The mine includes four chapels which we were built by the miners who had to work in extreme and dangerous conditions. They carved the chapels to have places to go to pray to God to keep them safe and healthy and able to return to their families.)
Commercial salt mining was discontinued in 1996 owing to falling salt prices and mine flooding.
A few fun facts: The level of salinity in the water makes it impossible to drown, although you can suffocate. The oldest wooden support beams in the mine date back to the 15th century and remain viable because salt doesn't degrade wood the way it does metal. During ancient times, some miners had the unenviable task of going below the surface with torches to ignite and burn off the dangerous gases that collect underground. They had to wet their clothes and cross their fingers that they, too, wouldn't burn!
I am grateful to be able to share parts of our adventure with you. Viva polska! Get there if you can. You won't be disappointed.