Monday, October 7, 2019

How to Visit Poland's Mysterious Salt Mine Wieliczka (+ Krakow Old Town Guide)

After a few days in the Official Capital, we made our way to the Royal Capital Krakow.

krakow wieliczka salt mine

Continuing our journey south through Central Europe we thought it only natural to visit the cultural centre of Poland. But it wasn't just Krakow that motivated us to linger in Poland a few days longer. One of our family friends (and hosts in Krakow) told us of one of Poland's greatest cultural treasures that not so many outsiders are familiar of, the Wieliczka Salt Mine and the extravagant St Kinga's Chapel roughly 330 feet underground.

After settling into our hotel on the outskirts of the Old Town we decided to spend the rest of the day wandering the streets of the central district. Scattered around the lively market square (which we were told is the largest medieval market square in Europe!) were vendors selling a braided circular bread sprinkled with a selection of seeds or salt. Officially called obwarzanek krakowski and the culinary symbol of the city, our host told us she called these confections "school bread" in her youth because it was a cheap and easy snack she and her contemporaries ate on their way to school.

krakow bagel obwarzanek krakowski

The next morning we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Only 30 minutes from the Market Square, we found ourselves standing outside an unassuming building behind a couple of hundred other tourists slowly edging towards the entrance in groups of twenty at a time.

Finally at the entrance, we began our descent by foot to what we were told would reach 135 metres below ground.

wieliczka salt mine tunnels

Our subterranean journey took us not only through narrow passages and lofty chambers with drops of 50 metres into the darkness below, we also meandered past dazzling salt statues sculpted by the miners.

Narrating stories of Polish folklore, one particular chamber that caught my eye narrated the legend of the Hungarian Princess Kinga that threw her engagement ring into a mine that subsequently brought salt plentifully into Poland. The Janowice Chamber depicted the scene depicted of the miners giving back the ring to the princess and was carved in the 17th century.

wieliczka salt mine statues

An exceptonally religious country, we lingered in a few cavities and chapels amidst religious effigies. A select few of these figures were created by wood and our tour guide told us if brought to surface they would disintegrate because of the air differences underground.

wieliczka salt mine church

Finally we arrived at the heart of our journey - the St Kingas Chapel that has played host to some of Poland's most significant cultural events, weekly masses and the occasional wedding. A breathtaking fissure illuminated by the warm glow of chandeliers overhead, the intricately carved floors and walls dazzled as I descended toward the heart of the chamber.

wieliczka chapel st kinga

Comfortably holding up to 400 people the chapel took almost 70 years to construct, completed in 1964. As I meandered closer to the centre of the room our guide expressed to us that everything inside the chapel, from the chandeliers to the intricately carved floor that lay beneath us, was made from rock salt crystals.

wieliczka chapel st kinga

I left our tour group to get a closer look at the frescos that adorned the walls. As a testament to the miners artistic ingenuity I couldn't peel my eyes away from the whittled walls that incorporated scenes from the Scriptures and even a replica of Da Vinci's Last Supper!

wieliczka chapel st kinga wall carvings

The altar of St. Kinga that sits at the far end of the chapel was surrounded by worshippers silently praying. I slowly made my way to the edge of the altar to take a photo trying to attract as little attention towards myself as possible.

After half an hour our tour guide motioned for our group to meet him at the exit of the chapel. We made our way through the final branch of the mine which included a shimmering lake and dining hall. Not looking forward to climbing our way out of the mine the same way we had at the beginning of our journey (a 350 stair descent) I was pleasantly surprised when we were told it was a 30 second elevator ride to the surface.

wieliczka chapel st kinga

We spent our final few days exploring the heart of Krakow. Our host implored us to visit the 900 year old Wawel Cathedral that towered over the city. Almost half a day we spent on Wawel Hill which houses various Royal complexes and medieval stone fortifications. My favourite part was the tour we took of the Crypt below the Cathedral which housed the tombs of Poland's most celebrated kings and national heroes. Not as glamorous as the cathedral above, I appreciated the history that surrounded me as I roamed the narrow passages of the crypt.

Not a large industrial megalopolis like Warsaw, Krakow is a city that can be appreciated by foot embodying the last cultural vestiges of a country that was flattened by destruction less than a century beforehand. What I liked the most about Krakow was that I could savour my time in a city that has not yet been touched by mass proliferation of chain stores and consumerization that most large cities in Western Europe have been devoured by.

wawel cathedral golden dome krakow


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