The Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in the town of Wieliczka in southern Poland, has a unique position in the history of salt mining. Built in the 13th century, this mine was in operation for 700 years producing rock salt without interruption until 2007, becoming one of the world’s oldest running salt mines. The scale of excavation in this mine is huge – a complex labyrinth of corridors, galleries, and chambers, totaling more than 300km in length on several levels. But the miners who worked there did more than just mine salt. Over the centuries, these miners working underground had established a tradition of carving sculptures out of the native rock salt. This include dozens of statues, three chapels, altars, bas-reliefs, and an entire cathedral, even the chandeliers that hang from the ceiling. It is an astonishing sight, one that draws over a million tourists from around the world each year.
The mine can be entered by a long descent by stairwell, and it feels very much like a Jules Verne Journey to the Centre of the Earth type adventure. The chapel of the Blessed King, the largest of the chapels, located 101 meter below the surface is 50 meter long, 15 meter wide and 12 meter high. It is a show-stopper, yet it is only one of several attractions. There are a handful more smaller chapels, including the seventeenth century chapel of St. Anthony, and a huge underground salt lake. It also houses an underground museum and has a number of special-purpose chambers such as a sanatorium for people suffering from respiratory ailments.
The progressive development of mining processes over the centuries is perfectly illustrated there, in all its stages, owing to the consolidation and conservation of the old galleries, each with the installations of their time. A comprehensive collection of mining tools displayed inside the mine constitutes valuable material evidence of the evolution of mining technology over a long period of European history.
Since 1978, Wieliczka Salt Mine has been one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.