If you visit Krakow, visiting the salt mine here is a must. Many tour companies around town offer tours. We had pre-booked through Viator. The tour company that provided the tour was Discover Cracow. They have an office on Szcspanski Square which is where you meet to start the tour. They also offer hotel pickup, but if you are staying in Old Town, you will meet in front of their office. The tour was scheduled to be 4 hours long, but ended up closer to 6.5 hours long.
The company itself does not provide the guide; they provide transportation to and from the mine. The actual guide is provided through the salt mine itself (all tour companies here operate this way). We arrived at the office about a half-hour early and were given a sticker and told to board bus #22 when it arrived. We sat on one of the benches in the square and enjoyed people watching while we waited. There were two other people waiting as well. We kept looking for a bus to show up, but it never did. We did see a van with a Discover Cracow logo on it, so walked over, assuming it was our bus. It was not, but we were directed to another van that had no markings on it. There were already quite a few people in the van (it probably held close to 20). I am glad we investigated because I don’t think the driver would have come looking for us. He said nothing to us on the drive. We were a little worried that we might be on the wrong van; there was no way of knowing! The van stopped at a couple of hotels to pick up more customers, and we headed off to parts unknown.
We were relieved to see a sign for the salt mine after about a half-hour on the road. The driver pulled into a parking lot and we were met by an English-speaking representative of the tour company. She told us she would walk us over to the mine entrance where we would meet our guide. We walked several blocks to reach entry (up a slight hill) and were given ten minutes to use the WC (line was too long) and pay the photography fee (10 zloty, or about $3). I would recommend spending the money in order take pictures; you will want to take pictures of the mine. You are given a sticker to indicate that you have paid the fee.
Our group joined another group so there were now 38 of us. Our guide, Dorota, met us and gave us our headsets. My best advice for this tour? BYOB (bring your own buds). The earbud for the headset was awful – cheap plastic and very uncomfortable in the ear. There was only one bud rather than two. The sound system was also really bad. There was a tremendous amount of interference until we reached the lower level of the mine. It eased up eventually, but it was difficult to hear through the entire tour. I eventually gave up trying to take notes and so don’t have tons of details to regale you with. My second piece of advice is to wear good walking shoes. There is quite a bit of walking on this tour and most of it is either on stairs (over 800 of them) or uneven walking surfaces.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the original UNESCO sites, designated as such in 1978, but the mine has been in operation since the 13th century. It is still operational today, producing 10 tons of salt per year.
There are 9 levels in the mine. The tour takes you to 3 of them. In order to reach the first level, you will go down 378 steps.
There are two types of salt mined here: grey and white. Everything along the way is made of salt. The walls are wood for most of the tour, but even some of the walls are salt. I was amazed at how salt could be molded into bricks that we walked on or statues and displays that we saw. The guide encouraged us to lick the walls if we didn’t believe that they were made of salt! No thank you!
The tour is organized so that you are observing how the mine operated during different periods of time. At the entrance to the mine is a chapel. The miners would stop here for mass on their way in to work (it was a dangerous job). People greeted each other saying, “God Bless You”; many were injured or killed. Shifts were about 6 hours long. The first hour was spent climbing ladders down into the mine; at the end of the day, they would climb back out. It was very dark inside; the way was lit by candles (electric ones in modern day). Eventually, the wooden walls were painted white to provide more light.
Salt was molded into 140 kg loads called Hungarian Dogs. Horses were used for 280 kg loads. Those horses were lowered into the mines and then lived the rest of their lives there. Various devices were used to move the salt up and down levels.
There are over 2,000 chambers in the mines. We saw 20 of them. Each was unique. The oldest chapel in the mine was built in 1698. There is a chamber dedicated to Copernicus (naturally).
Everything we saw was made of salt! The figures on the left (below) were licked by tourists and so lost their definition.
Methane was an issue in the mine. Certain miners would saturate their clothes with water and carry torches. They would pop up into a chamber and if there was methane present, their torch would ignite it. That would be quite a challenging job! The last explosion here was 47 years ago.
There is a large, spectacular chapel here where weddings often take place. The chandeliers are made of, you guessed it, salt!
I was surprised to find that there are lakes in the mine. Back when people were (apparently) stupid, rich people would take tours of the mines. Fireworks were set off (remember the methane issue?) and orchestras would play music to entertain them. Crazy. They would also take boat rides on the lakes. This ended when one of the boats capsized (it was overloaded). Most escaped but seven were trapped under the boat. They couldn’t swim through the salty water and by the time someone realized they were missing (two hours later), they had all suffocated.
At the end of the tour, you take an elevator back to the surface. Prior to taking the tour, I had read many reviews about how awful that elevator ride is. They really pack people in; it is not for the claustrophobic. We were fortunate, however. Three times per day, a train that used to be used for mining is now used to transport tourists. Our group was randomly selected to ride on that train! An elevator ride to the surface was still necessary (by then we were 135 meters underground) but this elevator has a weight limit, so they cannot pack it full of people. Usually, only 9 or 10 can fit at a time. It was a fun way to end the tour.
We still had a walk back to catch the van, and it was a longer walk than before (you end at a different place than where you start). No big deal, but by the time all was said and done, we had done a tremendous amount of walking. The tour had taken longer than expected so we knew we would be getting back late.
There was a tremendous amount of traffic on the return trip. I think this was due to the fact that it was a national holiday (Poland’s Armed Forces Day) so there were many more people driving than normal. If the tour had lasted 4 hours, we would’ve been back at 1 pm. As it was, we were dropped off around 3:30. Fortunately, we had purchased some bagels from a street vendor beforehand; otherwise, we would’ve been awfully hungry. We have learned from our travels to always pack a snack when taking a tour.