Salt, the white gold, provided Poland with one third of its income in the time of Kazimierz the Great. Wieliczka, 10 miles southeast of Kraków, has an outstanding medieval mine open to visitors.
We arrived as the last tour groups resurfaced. It was around 6.30pm when a full range of nationalities jostled and pushed each other along the pavements to find their tour coaches back to Kraków. Within half an hour the chaotic dash had ended, the last coaches left the car parks and the town was peaceful, at least for 12 hours.
Camping outside the health-giving graduation tower, we benefitted from the natural brine mist that wafted across the car park overnight. Actually, Bertha was covered in a salty mess, but our skin looked great.
The mine attracts 1.2 million visitors every year so we weren’t surprised to hear the first coaches return at 7am the next morning. We didn’t mind as we had booked ourselves onto the first of the day’s English speaking tours.
Salt was mined from the 13th century onwards but it’s the engineering that was developed from the 1500s onwards that is impressive and fascinating. In total, the site comprises 200 miles of chambers at nine separate levels below ground, entirely supported by wooden beams as metal would rust.
Joining an already packed line of tour groups at 9.30am we spun down nearly 400 steps of winding wooden staircase to the first chambers. The air became cooler and not surprisingly, salt-smelling.
Along some of the wooden passageways salt crystals had formed in a living skin across all of the surfaces and the effect was of walking through a frosty, fairy-tale scene.
For the hundreds of years of its operation the mine workers lived largely underground, going down into the mine before daybreak and returning to the surface after dark. It was dangerous work digging down, building supporting chambers and tunnels and crucially, firing out explosive gasses.
The miners employed to do this last task were well paid, but diced with danger everyday having to set alight free-flowing gases to clear passageways and chambers.
They wore soaking wet clothes and carried flaming torches on very long wooden poles. They worked in the dark inching their way underground. Not a job to envy.
With the miners, pit ponies spent their entire adult lives in specially constructed stables, hauling heavily laden carts of salt and working millstones to lift the full salt bags up to the surface.
Perhaps not surprisingly religion and superstition were a vital part of underground living. From the 1800s onwards miners carved images, icons and even a chapel out of the salt to focus their religious devotion, as well as demonstrate their pride in national folk-lore and culture.
The artistry is truly amazing. Statues of important Polish figures include Kazimierz and Nicolas Copernicus, a guest visitor to the mines in the 1500s.
The religious reliefs are carved in extraordinary detail in 3-D. Scenes from the Old and New Testaments decorate walls, as well as in the most impressive chamber, the St Kinga Chapel. Entirely carved out of salt and lit by rock salt chandeliers, the chapel is named after the patron saint of mining in Poland, Kinga, a Hungarian princess.
The chapel is consecrated and today is used as a wedding venue, 110 meters below ground. John Paul II visited when a Cardinal and held a mass there. It is said to have the best acoustics in Europe.
The tour took us down into the first three levels of the mine to 135 meters. The deepest (and youngest) level is number nine, at 327 meters below the surface.
Winding up and down along impressive wooden staircases we could make out the precarious and worn salt steps descended by the miners. Thankfully a modern lift whizzed us back up to the surface but not until we had walked almost a mile through a labyrinth of passageways, after the tour had ended.
Away from the splendour of the carvings in the chambers this was the time we felt most aware of all of the tonnes of rock and earth above our heads.