All of the sudden, a world of salt deep underground surrounds the visitor. Miles of galleries, winding stairs, towering halls, groups of sculptures and reliefs carved out of salt in the chandelier light of underground chapels, the world's largest wooden mining machine, a luxurious 19th-century mining railway for royal visitors, miraculously shaped salt columns and crystals as well as greenish shimmering salt lakes dot the trail through the underworld. Actually, there are three trails: the comfortable, 2.5-kilometer "Tourist Route", which includes the 36-meter-high Staszic Hall equipped with a panoramic elevator, the 1.5-kilometer "Museum Route" at a depth of 135 meters illustrating the development of salt mining from simple wedges and pickaxes to monstrous electric drills, and the "Miners' Route", an adventurous expedition to hitherto inaccessible places of the mine. Unsurprisingly, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is listed as a World Heritage Site, as is the neighbouring historic castle with its unique collection of salt shakers and a vaulted basement that traces local salt production back to the Mesolithic Age.
The enormous expansion of the Wieliczka Salt Mine already amazed Goethe and Chopin. At that time only rulers, aristocrats, artists and scientists had access to the mine, which welcomed them with music and fireworks. Almost 100 years later, towards the end of the 19th century, the mine attracted as many as 4,000 visitors. Today, their numbers reach two million a year - and continue to rise.
Much of this success is due to the long history of local salt extraction. The first salt workers produced salt from brine as early as 3,500 BC, and the place earned its nickname "Magnum Sal" (Great Salt) in the Middle Ages. Following the discovery of rich rock salt deposits in the middle of the 13th century, salt-boiling turned into mining. From that moment, things started to evolve rapidly: in 1290 Wieliczka was granted municipal rights, and at about the same time the company "Cracow Saltworks" was established to exploit the salt deposits in Wieliczka and neighbouring Bochnia, which it did for the next 500 years. The profits went into the Polish king's coffers and in the 14th century accounted for one third of the state's revenue. In the 17th century, around 2,000 miners produced more than 30,000 tons of salt a year. At this time, the enormous horse-capstan was constructed, today being the largest preserved wooden mining facility.
Engineers of the Habsburg Empire modernised and extended the salt mine on a grand scale in the 18th century and in 1861 installed the first steam engine and an underground mining railway, which was first pulled by horses and from 1889 by steam locomotives. The electrification of the mine took shape at the beginning of the 20th century. After the Second World War and until its closure in 1996, the mine reached its greatest extent with 245 kilometres of galleries on nine levels, a maximum depth of 327 metres, 2,391 salt chambers and 26 shafts. The museum, holding a collection that goes back to the Polish painter Alfons Długosz, resides in Wieliczka Castle, which was the mine's headquarters from the 13th century to 1945.
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|For details see website
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