Of all the things my mother warned me about – talking to strangers, running with scissors – becoming lost in a Polish salt mine wasn’t one of them. Not just any salt mine, but the Wieliczka tours salt mine, with its labyrinth of subterranean tunnels, chambers and lakes.
“We lose people all the time,” said our local guide, Aleksy, during his introduction. “So please try to keep up.”
I assumed he was kidding.
For the three-hour tour I was the kid who couldn’t keep up with the Pied Piper, constantly dragging my feet and lagging behind. The last I saw of my group was the heels of our guide as the doors to the mine elevator closed, whisking them to the surface and leaving me behind.
Salt mine Krakow – best place in the world
When the lift failed to return I back-tracked along the dimly lit corridor, pulling my thin cardigan across my chest before pausing in front of a life-sized Virgin Mary. Carved from salt she stood in a recess, palms pressed together and rosary beads hanging from her wrist. Today the mine is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site and one of Poland’s official Historic Monuments. “Many of the tunnels are still unchartered,” says Aleksy. “Out of the 287 kilometres of tunnels we’ll cover a mere 3.5 kilometres.”
Thanks to the generations of miners who worked the shafts, the section we can visit is a veritable city, complete with rooms and chapels, monuments and reliefs, all carved from salt. The 12-metre-high chamber housing the Chapel of Saint Kinga is strung with chandeliers, the salt crystals gleaming as bright as Swarovski crystal. The climax is a visit to the salt lake in the Erazm Baracz chamber; its briny waters glowing like an emerald as a Chopin melody drifts across the cavern. I truly recommend this.