Wieliczka Salt Mine
What I read about the mine led me to believe it was one of the wonders of the world, that the underground cathedral and carved figures were beyond belief. I guess I built it up in my mind until I thought the underground church was simply going to send me. Well, it wasn’t all that. But it was interesting and I am glad it caused me to visit Krakow.
This is a very old (started in the 1200’s), very deep (like 1000 feet), very big mine (200 miles of shafts). The tour covers less than a tenth of the spaces down there. There are large rooms and long corridors decorated with reliefs and salt statues of notable visitors to the mine. There is one large room they call the cathedral. It was one of the places where miners habitually crossed themselves before starting their shifts.
They hurd tour groups down a stairwell 200 feet deep so you can get a feel for the place. It is a little too graphic for some – a lady just ahead of me was seized by a panic attack about halfway down and I believe she and her boyfriend did not end up taking the tour that day. They ship you back out, packed like sardines, in a miner’s double-decker elevator. If you had a problem with claustrophobia coming down, you are sure to have problems on the way back out.
But the biggest story is only glossed over on the tour – flooding in 1996 put an end to further commercial use of the mine and it took FOUR YEARS to bring the water under control. I found that pretty interesting so I peppered my guide with questions about it. He explained that, in any other mine, such massive flooding would have led to abandoning the mine. But this one is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and such an import tourist attraction, they simply could now allow it to be destroyed. He admitted that yes, basically an underground river opened up and tore through the mine. And yes, they were not able to stop the flow of the river. They simply installed enough pumps to keep up with the flow. Even so, the lowest four levels of the mine have been lost to the water. That left me wondering about the long term viability of the attraction.