You would imagine that there would be limited interest in opening a salt mine to tourists. Tradition has it that salt mines were places that prisoners were once sent to eke out a miserable living in harsh conditions that were made even more intolerable by the fact that salt is corrosive and unpleasant to have caked onto the skin.
In Poland there is a salt mine which does attract plenty of tourists and rather than being the type of God-forsaken place of our imaginations the salt mine at Wieliczka is quite a surprise and even a rare treat.
The first surprise is that the salt mine at Wieliczka is extraordinarily old, and has been mined continuously since at least the Middle Ages, with the first written reference to the mine being made in 1290, although it was undoubtedly in use before then.
Secondly, the mine is massive. It has been excavated on nine levels for a total distance of about 300 kilometres, and it is still being worked today.
Since times immemorial salt was the economic foundation of the state. In the times the of old in the Kingdom of Poland it was used as a legal tender, replacing metal coins. Those historical Polish monarchs quickly realised what value the white ore had and introduced a monopoly on the mining and even the distribution of salt. They knew that salt was a most important commodity, as it was indispensable for survival. Large amounts of salt were needed for conserving meat, butter, and fish, tanning hides, and later also for the production of gunpowder.
There are an astonishing number of interesting places and objects to see within the mine including the chandelier-lit St Anthony’s Chapel which was excavated in the 17th century and includes an altar and statues of Christ on the Cross, the Madonna with Child and St Anthony.
Many of the dangerous mine jobs have been recreated in statuary. For example, in the Spalone Chamber is a recreation in salt of workers called Penitents. In the times of old, methane explosions were a great danger for the mine. This colourless gas accumulating under the chamber ceiling was burnt out by experienced miners, known as the Penitents who, dressed in wet clothes, with torches on long poles, crawled on the floor of the excavations.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is located in suburban Krakow and attracts well over one million visitors per year, precisely because of its age, size and uniqueness.