Yet the Wieliczka Salt Mine in southern Poland was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and proclaimed by Poland as a national monument in 1994.
A salt mine?
Table salt is a commodity we take for granted these days. You can get it anywhere for a reasonable price, but that wasn't always true. In ancient times, it was quite precious, and until the industrial revolution, it was hard to come by. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, and as early as Roman times, being sent to work in the salt mine was tantamount to being sent into slavery with a very limited life expectancy.
So why would a salt mine end up on the list of World Heritage sites?
The Wieliczka Salt MineFour hundred and forty-three feet beneath the City of Wieliczka (population 20,000, in the metropolitan area of Karków, Poland), the Wieliczka Salt Mine has continuously extracted table salt from the time it was constructed in the 12th century by a local duke. The salt mine was first mentioned in 1044 and didn't cease operations until 1992 (some sources say 1996 and 2007), due to heavy flooding. Regardless, it's one of the oldest and longest operating salt mines in existence and still produces brine. That's impressive! From the outside, the mine appears exceptionally well kept but ordinary, and on the interior, you will find the expected look and equipment of a salt mine.
This mine reaches depths of 1,075 feet and is over 178 miles long. The salt deposits formed here in the Miocene Epoch, some 13.6 million years ago. The rock is varying shades of gray in color resembling granite instead of the tiny white crystals we know and love.
Interesting, yes. But World Heritage Site quality? I don't know.
This Ain't Your Ordinary Salt MineThe salt mine itself, while interesting and how housing a museum of the history of the salt mining industry, isn't what attracts over a million visitors a year. Over the centuries, tens of generations of miners not only extracted salt, but they also left behind them a record of their time there in awesome sculptures and architecture, all made of salt.
The tourists who visit have to descend 378 wooden steps to enter an unexpected and amazing world where they can take a 2 kilometer tour (some sources say 2 miles and 3.5 kilometers) of the mine corridors, sixteen lakes, twenty chapels (including the Cathedral), and incredible art works. There is an elevator to go up to the surface which rises at twelve feet per second, but to get in you have to walk down the stairs shown below.
The works of art and architecture in the mine weren't created by great artists under commission to some King, but by the workers themselves, from the middle ages to the present, by hacking rock from the walls and sculpting statues and reliefs in the salt rock which resembles unpolished granite. These chapels were places where the miners could capture a few moments of retreat to worship during their labors. There are twenty chapels, the largest and most magnificent, the Cathedral.
The Cathedral is astounding in terms of sheer size and the way in which the miners breathed their Catholic spirit into the cathedral and art works. It took 68 years to complete, and everything, even the lighting fixtures, are made of salt.
Interior of the Cathedral
Structure of the Cathedral
Photo by dgies on Flickr
Many of the scenes represent well-known stories from the Bible. Others represent other historical events and also the imagination of the miners.
One wall is dedicated to the 14th century warrior Casimir the Great, shown below.
The origins of the mine are depicted in the Janowice Chamber. In medieval times, the Hungarian Princess Kinga, married Polish Prince Boleslaus the Chaste. When Mongols invaded Poland, Kinga went to her father asking that he help the Poles. In response, he gave her the sale mine of Maramaros, in Transylvania, where she threw her ring into the shaft.
No references explained why she did that. The story goes the ring was found in the first block of white sand dug in Wieliczka, which ultimately provided a third of the income to the Polish crown. Below a knight is returning the ring to Kinga.
Photo of Chandelier by Matthew.kowal on Wikimedia Commons
In the Spalone Chamber there are figures of the men who worked as the mine's "Pentinents". Before there was proper ventilation, these men worked were responsible for burning off the methane that accumulated in the ceilings of the mine's chambers.
Visitors who commented on the many articles and blogs, tag the Wieliczka Salt Mine as a "don't miss" travel destination. Now I see why it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I can't wait to visit.