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Once upon a time, when kings sat on the throne at Wawel Castle, when the walled city of Krakow was a medieval centre of trade and when salt was as valuable as gold, a major source of wealth was discovered under the ground, not far from the royal capital. Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is the only mine in the world to run continuously since the Middle Ages, operating since the 13th century. While salt is no longer quite as valuable as it once was, the mine has become both a historical monument and an art gallery, displaying the development and success of mining technology over nearly nine centuries through fascinating historical landmarks and rock salt sculptures.
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Wieliczka Salt Mine is breathtaking in its size and complexity. Its many corridors and chambers are spread out over nine levels, reaching a depth of 327m (nearly 1,000 feet) and stretching along 300 kilometers of underground tunnels. This subterranean labyrinth includes galleries of art, with statues sculpted directly into the rock salt, some telling the history of this massive and constantly evolving industrial undertaking. The tradition of miners carving statues into the rock salt of the tunnel walls dates back to the earliest days of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. There are long corridors, vast chambers, wells, labyrinths, chapels and even a large underground lake, which has actually been open to tourists since the 15th century. A highlight is the magnificent Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, over a hundred meters underground, and over 50m long, 15m wide and 12m high, the largest underground chapel in the world. Its altar, artwork, bas-reliefs and even chandeliers are carved entirely out of the walls of rock salt.
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The tour begins at the shallowest level, 64 meters below the surface, and takes visitors through about twenty different chambers, covering the founding of the mine, its history, galleries of rock sculptures, the stunning chapel, the eerie underground lake and a music display to illustrate the incredible acoustics of the mine's chambers. It ends 135 meters underground, at the world's largest mining museum, illustrating the history and development of mining practices and displaying a collection of tools and equipment from the whole course of Wieliczka Salt Mine's existence.
Wieliczka, gradually becoming a suburb of Krakow, is easy to reach by car, taxi, minibus or by train from the Krakow Glowny train station, about a 20-minute journey. The salt mine can only be visited by a guided tour, which lasts three hours. Tours for individual visitors are given in Polish, English and German. Tours can also be arranged at night, lasting an hour and a half. And if you want the full health benefit of the pure saline-imbued underground air - Wieliczka Salt Mine also operates an underground sanatorium for those suffering from respiratory ailments - you can book yourself an overnight stay in a chamber 135m underground, although these are snapped up pretty quickly.