Underground chapels and the miners who made them: The history of salt in Poland

2019-04-24 16:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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When you think of Poland, salt isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind.

But this magic mineral that's formed a vital part of food around the world is an important part of Poland's history - home to the oldest salt mine in the world.

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Not only have the Poles been mining their vast salt rock deposit in Kraków from the 13th century until the late 2000s, but the salt industry also had royal status, controlled and managed by Poland's royal family who used the royal mines as one of their main sources of income.

But it was more than just about making money - miners built up an underground city against the ever-creeping darkness of the mine, from impressive chapels to statues carved out of salt rock in forms like Jesus Christ and the first Polish Pope. There are even galleries housing other works of art, and the ancient salt-mining technology from the medieval period are still intact today in this underground world.

As part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, when making a visit to Poland a must-do addition to your itinerary should be the Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines, as well as the Saltworks Castle.

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Here's what to see in this marvel of human ingenuity.

Kinga Chapel

One of the main attractions along the Wieliczka Mine's tourist route is the Underground Salt Cathedral, 101 metres under the earth. It is named after Princess Kinga, the patron of salt miners who legend says asked her father for a pound of salt as a wedding present.

It's intricately designed with large Biblical reliefs and a carved floor, and the chandeliers that adorn its ceiling are all made out of salt rock. Locals still come here for Holy Mass which visitors can join in.

St John Chapel

Smaller than the Kinga one, this is a beautiful tribute to the miners' faith with wooden furnishings, a Trinity scene painted on the ceiling and a statue of Christ dating from the 18th century. 

Gwarkow Chamber

This is where you come to quench your thirst after exploring the labyrinths of the mine. Styled like the mining taverns of old, you can swish back a cold Polish beer before heading back to the real world outside. 

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Michalowice Chamber

This chamber hosts a beautiful wooden structure that towers over a large cavern, complete with a giant salt rock chandelier.

Saline Lake

The mine has its own underwater lakes - all salty - and on the Tourist Route visitors can expect a light and sound show accompanied by the music of Poland's most famous composers - Chopin.

Krakow Salt Works Museum

Here you'll find out more about the history of the mine and see the ingenuity behind the ancient mechanisms used to get the salt rock out of the ground.

Check out the intricately designed silver aurochs - the Saltdiggers' Horn - and a Hungarian-type horse-powered treadmill called the Casimir.

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Miners' Route

Setting off from the oldest existing mine shaft - the Regis - you can get hands-on experience with mining and discover the inner workings and culture of this industry - complete with hardhats and overalls.

Graduation Tower

It is claimed that the natural brine mist of the mine is great for your health, and the graduation tower not only offers panoramic views of the mining shafts above ground, it also provides brine inhalation therapy for treating respiratory system ailments.

Bochnia Salt Mine

Part of the World Heritage Site with Wieliczka, Bochnia also has a few things to offer visitors.

It has the world's only ferry crossing of an underground chamber, flooded with brine, and you can find out how medieval miners went about their dangerous work. You can take on the 3km Historical Route through the old mountains, but it is advised that you have to be reasonably fit and not afraid of tight spaces.

You can even stay overnight in the mine for a truly immersive experience. 

Saltworks Castle

Another facet of the heritage site to check out is the Saltworks Castle in the town of Wieliczka. This was the historical seat of the mine's management since the 13th century and has been continuously rebuilt until 1945, when it was bombed and finally renovated in 1985.

The castle has its own court, prison, saltworks kitchen and chapel for the miners. It was the central hub for anything mining related and houses exhibits on saltcellars, archaeological finds and a Gothic room complete with suits of armour. 

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