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“Enough fun,” I said to Alex, my 12-year-old son, after several days of vacationing in Krakow. We’d visited Wawel Castle on the hill, strolled Old Town and its impressive buildings, and explored the history of the Jewish sites and Schindler’s factory. Now it was time for something deep. “It’s time to go to the salt mines.”
In this case, “salt mines” was not a metaphor for going back to work. Alex and I were off to tour a real 700-year-old salt mine.
With breakfast, we decided to try hot chocolate instead of the usual coffee and tea. The flavor and texture shocked us, and even Alex had a hard time finishing his small cup. Polish hot chocolate is extremely thick—as though we were drinking melted milk chocolate bars without any added milk. The day was off to a dark and bittersweet start.
Exploring the Wieliczka Salt Mine
We took the train from Krakow to nearby Wieliczka, home of the one-of-a-kind salt mine that is still in operation today. We took a wooden staircase down 442 feet until we reached the bottom of the mine.
From there, we spent three hours walking through the damp, salty passages and hallways. The black walls and floors appeared to be stone, but when we shined a flashlight directly on the smooth floor, polished by centuries of foot traffic, you could see that it was actually clear salt as far as the light would go. The walls and floors all around us in these caverns were salt.
In one room, a stream of water flowed through a carved canal, and our guide encouraged us to dip our fingers in the flowing water and taste. The water was saltier than a mouthful of ocean water at the beach.
People on the tour could be seen time and time again touching the walls and licking their fingers, just to continue convincing themselves that this was, indeed, all salt.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is More Than Ordinary
But this was more than an ordinary working salt mine. Carved out of the salt were life-sized statues of Polish figures—kings and queens, Krakow’s own native, Pope John Paul II, and characters from folklore. Some chambers were large enough for horses to work within—which they did, usually for a lifetime, never seeing daylight after being brought into the mines. Many of the workers lived in the mines, too, rarely emerging.
The most impressive part of the tour, besides its sheer enormity of so much salt, was the polished Chapel of St. Kinga, complete with salt altarpieces, chandeliers, and statues. Everything in the grand hall was carved out of salt rock.
Read More: Travel in Poland
Salt Mining an Out-of-Style Practice
These days, of course, it is easier and cheaper to manufacture salt through desalinization than by old-fashioned mining. When they say that the mine is still operational, they aren’t lying.
However, the only salt mining done in Wieliczka these days is for tourists. As you exit through the gift shop, you can purchase everything from salt statues and figurines to salt ash trays, candle holders and lamps. They even offer salt rock and table salt.
“Let’s stock up,” Colin, an American from the tour said as he began collecting shakers of table salt.
His wife, Gwen, smiled at me and Alex. “He loves his salt.”
“Might as well get it right from the source,” I said. “Mine to table.”
Returning to Krakow
Rickety old elevators clickity clacked as they took us back to the surface. Our lips and skin actually tasted salty when we emerged from the mines and returned to daylight above. We walked back to the train station, coming across another statue to Pope John Paul II, and returned to the city.
When we got back to Krakow, we walked along the streets of Old Town and ran into a couple of familiar faces.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Colin said.
“What a coincidence,” I said, Alex and I exchanging handshakes with Gwen and Colin.
“We were just going to try some Polish pizza,” Gwen said. “Care to join us?”
“That sounds good,” Alex said, referring to both the choice of food we hadn’t yet tried as well as the friendly company.
Read More: A Day in Krakow’s Old Town Square
Dining in Krakow with a Newfound Appreciation for Salt
In a small café, we each ordered our own zapiekanki, or Polish-style pizza. They reminded me of the French bread pizzas we used to make when I was a kid, all the usual pizza ingredients on a foot-long half baguette.
“Need any salt?” Colin asked. We laughed.
For dessert, Alex tried a chocolate-covered banana and I had a chocolate-covered pear. The bitter, dark chocolate was a perfect contrast to the sweet fruit. The day—dominated by the dark salt mines—ended as it began: with bittersweet, dark chocolate (hold the salt).
Where to Stay near the Wieliczka Salt Mine
Whichever route or combination you choose, be sure to consider the reviews along with location and price. Paying a little more to be in the center of the places you want to visit ends up saving time and money.
In Krakow, we stayed in Agnieszka’s Kazimierz apartment, central and cozy. Two beds, a living room, an eat-in kitchen, and a memory wall where Alex and I left our impressions of the city in marker.
In the heart of the Kazimierz neighborhood, it was a 10-minute walk from many of Krakow’s most impressive destinations. It’s no luxurious hotel, but it feels authentic and comfortable and is in the heart of Krakow’s bustling social life with cafes, restaurants, pubs, and squares. And, hey, it’s not a salt mine!
Author Bio: Eric D. Goodman enjoys travel as much as he does writing. His poetry collection, Faraway Tables, is being published Spring 2024. He’s the author of Wrecks and Ruins, a novel set partially in Lithuania, The Color of Jadeite, a thriller set in China, Womb: a novel in utero, Tracks: A Novel in Stories, and Flightless Goose (2008). His travel stories and short fiction have been published far and wide. Eric lives with his wife and children in Maryland, where he curates the popular Lit & Art Reading Series and is prose and poetry editor for BrickHouse Books. Learn more at www.EricDGoodman.com or connect at www.Facebook.com/EricDGoodman.
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