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Wieliczka - Salt Mine

2 hours+

In 1790 Johann Wolfgang Goethe set off on an eight-day tour of Tarnowskie Góry, Cracow, Wieliczka and Częstochowa, as companion to Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Goethe was interested in mineralogy, hence he found the salt mines at Wieliczka particularly enthralling. At this time the Swedish diplomat Lars von Engelström wrote: “The most splendid engravings and images can never adequately reflect the size and nature of these mines. The walls, hewn in rock salt, sparkle when illuminated by a beam of light as if they were made of crystal”. The cavernous spaces of the Wieliczka Mine were known from engravings published since the days of Ladislaus IV, but it only became more widely known when a picture showing the mine in cross-section was published in the Encyclopédie.

The history of salt extraction at Wieliczka is among the longest in Europe, its origins dating back to the middle Neolithic (c. 3500 bc). The discovery of rock salt occurred in the latter half of the 13th century, when work began on the construction of a mine that was to remain in continuous use from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The Cracow Royal Salt Mines, an enterprise encompassing both Wieliczka and the nearby mine at Bochnia, was established in the 14th century. It generated as much as 36% of the royal treasury’s income. The mine lies beneath the town of Wieliczka and is distributed over nine levels (located at depths of between 57 m and 327 m). The excavation pits extend over an area of c. 5.5 km long and c. 1.5 km wide. Over seven centuries the mine has yielded c. 7,500,000 m³ of material. Excavations have produced 2040 chambers, over 200 km of galleries, 26 shafts and around 180 staple pits. The mine houses a unique collection of wooden, treadwheel-operated hoisting devices. Its unique and immense subterranean architecture consists of chambers protected against collapse by timber cribs, roof supports and braces, in some instances of very elaborate design (as seen in the Drozdowice, Michałowice, and Dworzec Gołuchowskiego Chambers), as well as excavation chambers in which salt pillars have been left to support the overlying strata (e.g. in the Barącza and Jakubowice Chambers). The monumental relief of the mine’s roofs and walls, its unparalleled forms reflected in brine pools, and its decorative salt sculptures and bas-reliefs create a series of entrancingly beautiful interiors that can be encountered nowhere else. The chapel dedicated to St Kinga (patron saint of miners), lit by salt crystal chandeliers, is surprisingly large and richly furnished. The chapel was founded in 1896; it is 10-12 m high, 54.5 m long and 15-18 m wide. The interior of St Anthony’s Chapel (17th-century) retains its Baroque architectural and sculptural details. The historic Daniłowicz Shaft was excavated in 1635-1640.

Interest in this fascinating underground world grew rapidly. Renaissance humanists flocked to see Wieliczka, recording their visits in numerous descriptions of the mine, rhymes, songs and poems. Scholars, artists and diplomats also came to visit in the 17th century, though the mine could only be entered by obtaining a special licence from the relevant authorities, which was no easy task. It was not until the final quarter of the 18th century that the Austrians provided visitor access to some of the old excavation pits. Further attractions were added to the visitor trail throughout the 19th century. A ferry carried passengers across the charming lake in the Archduke Rudolf and Archduchess Stéphanie Chamber (known as the Marshal Józef Piłsudski Chamber since 1918), and it was noted that “the view seen by those on board of the astoundingly fantastic chamber walls, and the lights reflected in the water, brought to mind the mythological boat of Charon, evoking strange effects and moods”. Poles regarded a visit to Cracow’s Royal Salt Mines as a patriotic duty - a means of paying tribute to Poland’s former glory. Famous visitors to Wieliczka include Frederic Chopin, Jan Matejko, Henryk Sienkiewicz and Ignacy Jan Paderewski to name but a few. Today, millions follow in their footsteps, and a visit to Wieliczka leaves no-one unmoved.

transport time to the next site

30 min

Bochnia - Salt Mine

2 hours+

The Bochnia Salt Mine, which together with Wieliczka once formed the Cracow Royal Salt Mines, delights with its authenticity and the endurance of its archaic engineering solutions. It is the oldest salt mine in Poland (rock salt having been discovered at Bochnia several years earlier than at Wieliczka), and remained in continuous use from the mid-13th to the 20th century. Bochnia itself is one of the oldest cities in Lesser Poland (Małopolska), and provides an example of a medieval mining town. To this day, the head frames of the Campi, Sutoris and Trinitatis Shafts, along with the mine’s other above-ground structures, define Bochnia’s landscape. The Sutoris Shaft, dating from the mid-13th century, is the oldest operational salt mine shaft in Poland, and now serves to take tourists and health resort visitors down into the mine. From the latter half of the 16th century up to the early 1990s, the Campi Shaft (excavated in 1556-1568) was the main extraction shaft of the Bochnia Salt Mine.

The mine’s pits lie at various depths, from 70 m to 289 m, incorporating a total of c. 60 km of passages and galleries. In particular, the wholly authentic interiors of Bochnia’s mine offer an opportunity to learn about the extraction techniques formerly used in Polish and European mining. Pits dating from the 13th-18th century survive in excellent condition thanks to measures undertaken since the mid-18th century to protect the mine with a system of roof supports, timber cribs and salt pillars. Some of the most interesting and unique features of the mine are its horizontal headings, known as drifts, and its vertical pits. Reconstructions of transportation devices help visitors gain an understanding of former mining techniques, and a copy of a map (based on a 19th-century original) detailing all of Bochnia’s pits illustrates how the mine evolved and expanded. On Sienkiewicz level there is a large treadwheel which was used for raising brine, whilst a four-horse treadwheel used for removing water from the mine is on display in the Rabsztyn Chamber (mined since the 18th century). The treadwheel chamber next to the Ważyn Shaft features a huge horizontal treadwheel which retains some of its original structural parts. The Mysiur Chamber is notable for the authenticity of its historic interior, unaltered in over two centuries. From the 1760s up until 1963 it housed stables for the horses working at the mine. Extant timber cribbing and platforms on which the miners stood when working the salt face can be seen here. The 16th-century complex known as the Christian Chamber is striking both in terms of its historic and visual merits. The unusual shape of its narrow, tapering interiors was dictated by the almost vertical seam of salt located there, and led to it being referred to as an underground cathedral.

The Ważyn Chamber is particularly noteworthy (its exceptionally rich salt deposits having been mined from 1697 until the 1950s). It lies at a depth of c. 250 m, measuring 255 m in length, with a maximum width of almost 15 m, and a height of over 7 m. Its vast, splendid interior has no supports. The ceiling and side walls are a fantastic sight, being interspersed with layers of salt and anhydrites forming natural embellishments. The chamber has a distinctive microclimate attributable to a stable temperature (14-16oC), high humidity and clean, ionised air saturated with sodium chloride and microelements. Since 1993 the chamber has been used as a health resort (for inhalation therapy and recreation purposes).

A peerless historic feature of the Bochnia mine is the largest and best preserved of its once numerous chapels - St Kinga’s Chapel. Its origins date back to 1747, and it bears witness both to the profound piety of the miners and to their artistic skills, as demonstrated by component parts of the chapel fittings. The chapel’s irregular ground-plan is delimited within a rectangular space of 21 × 31 m, and its average height amounts to 5-6 m. One of the chapel’s highlights is the main altar dedicated to St Kinga, adorned with a 19th-century painting by T. Krasiński depicting the legend of Kinga’s miraculous ring, to which the discovery of salt in Bochnia is attributed.

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