Every year over a million visitors flock to the small Polish town of Wieliczka. One by one they file through an ordinary-looking building before descending a series of steps that head far beneath ground level.
But just what is the secret lurking beneath this sleepy Polish settlement? The truth will very likely blow you away.
The first mention of Wieliczka dates back to the 12th century, when a settlement of that name was listed in a nearby monastery’s records. Located close to the city of Krakow in the south of Poland, the town was officially established by Duke Premislas II in 1290.
As far back as prehistoric times the area around Wieliczka has been synonymous with salt. Evidence suggests that attempts to mine the mineral here were made as far back as 3,500 BC.
But it wasn’t until the 13th century that Wieliczka’s first professional miners dug down to reach the rock salt that had been discovered. This preceded the opening of the Saltworks Castle – the administrative center of the local mining trade.
Over the next seven centuries the Wieliczka Salt Mine was slowly carved out to depths of more than 1,000 feet. But as generations of miners chipped away at the ground beneath the town, something otherworldly began to emerge.
It wasn’t just salt extraction that was taking place deep beneath the streets. Over time the miners created incredible underground structures that have to be seen to be believed.
Chief among them is the awe-inspiring Chapel of St. Kinga. It lies 330 feet below the surface and covers an area of more than 5,000 square feet.
The chapel features an effigy of St. Kinga – the patron saint of coal miners – carved entirely from green salt. Legend states that Kinga tossed her engagement ring into a Hungarian mine, only for it to miraculously turn up in a deposit in Wieliczka.
A staggering 40 feet high, the chapel was the work of one man and his brother. Begun in 1895, the impressive feat of engineering involved shifting more than 22,000 tons of rock salt.
The place of worship is decorated with altarpieces and elaborate chandeliers. They’re all, amazingly, made from nothing other than salt.
Each was crafted via a painstaking process that dissolved and reconstituted the mineral. This removed all the impurities, leaving behind a substance much like glass.
The chapel is just one of many wonders to be found within the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Scattered throughout the underground chambers are some of the planet’s finest examples of Christian folk art.
Although the artists behind these works are largely unknown, they make up an incredible collection that encompasses everything from reliefs of The Last Supper to stunning salt statues of biblical figures. Visitors have been coming to admire them since the 19th century.
Some of the statues, which experts believe took years to make, are life-sized. The process was slow and delicate; even the smallest wrong move could have opened up hidden cracks in the salt and destroyed entire pieces.
The oldest of the artworks are thought to date as far back as the 17th century. They are housed in the Chapel of St. Anthony, a shrine created in 1698 to allow miners to worship while working underground. It is not known exactly how many of these chapels and shrines have been carved into the salt over time.
Among them is the Chapel of St. John, which boasts an unusual wooden interior, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which was created after the mine was saved from a flood. All of them are decorated with salt sculptures and artworks, each representing scenes and stories integral to the miners’ faith.
It isn’t just religious iconography that amazes all those who venture into the Wieliczka Salt Mine, though. There’s also an underground salt lake and the Stanislaw Staszic Chamber; a huge cavern that stands more than 100 feet high. Scars from the machinery used to excavate salt from the chamber can still be seen on the walls.
In 1978 the salt mine was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. This helped the underground complex to survive as a popular tourist attraction once excavations ceased in 1996.
Today the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which hosts everything from weddings to grand balls, is one of Poland’s most popular visitor attractions. Its most impressive feature aside from the salt carvings? A health resort with its own micro climate.