When I heard of the Krakow Salt Mines Museum of Art on tv, I assumed it was another amazing memorial to art stolen by the Nazis during WW2. Wrong! Nonetheless it is fascinating.
The Krakow Salt Works Museum is a large exhibition space in the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Southern Poland, established after WW2. The mine, which continuously produced table salt from the Middle Ages on, now consists of Two Worlds, A] an underground with a large exhibit in the salt mine 135m below and B] an aboveground in the Salt Works Castle.
A] The Underground World is located in 17 historic mine workings, designed out in the 19th and early C20th. The museum has a rich collection of mining technology, including a collection of treadmills for horses, an early form of lifting gear which is displayed in its original environment.
The tourist route takes up only 2% of the mine’s total length. The large Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland, with walls carved to replicate chapels from the earlier centuries, has chandeliers made from rock salt which have a glassy appearance, and religious sculpture. Plus there are historic and modern statues eg Copernicus, Goethe, Chopin.
Wide salt stairs, from which one can admire St Kinga's Chapel (started in 1896) in its full splendour, lead inside. Opposite the entrance to the chapel is the main altar with a statue of St Kinga, carved by Józef Markowski. The chapel walls are adorned with salt reliefs featuring various scenes from the New Testament and decorated by the Wieliczka miner sculptors. It is here that the only existing underground salt-carved monument of Polish Pope John Paul II.
Many shafts were dug throughout the time the mine was operating. See the preserved mining equipment, small under-ground brine lakes, and salt-hewn spaces. The underground exhibition features a unique collection of horse powered extracting treadmills of three different types: Polish, Saxon and Hungarian, and machines to haul the salt to the top of the surface.
There is wide range of exhibits: specimens of beautiful salt crystals, ancient utensils for salt production, documents and maps, paintings and sculptures from the non-existent underground chapels, ceremonial mining weapons, a Miner’s Union Horn, a collection of mining lamps and tools illustrating the various historical stages of salt production locally.
B] The Aboveground World is located in Żupny Castle, built on the hillside above Wieliczka, started under the C14th reign of Casimir III the Great and completed in the C16th reign of Sigismund I the Old. It was built in a square formation, including living quarters outside the castle walls. Until 1945, this defensive castle was the administrative and business headquarters of the salt mine.
The Saltworks Castle has a great collection of salt cellars – the oldest, silver Baroque salt cellar was made in the C17th in Augsburg. The most interesting include the porcelain salt-cellars with figurines of African girls carrying baskets, made by the Meissen manufacturers. My favourite collection exhibits the small works of salt art: silver saltshakers and dishes, armoured strong boxes, bronze ornaments and the C16th silver-mounted horn of the Diggers Brotherhood, the treasure showing the mine's wealth. The Gothic Hall displays portraits of mine managers.
silver salt cellars and shakersThe Krakow Salt Works Museum Wieliczka duration of sightseeing tour about 3 hours in total with the route length of about 4km. Tourists can only visit the mine with a guide.
C] World War Two
The complex of Kraków-Płaszów concentration camps was located nearby and slave labour was readily available. So the mine shafts were used by the Germans to create war industries here, doubly suitable because the underground spaces were safe from Allied bombing raids. How ironic that thousands of Jews were trucked from the slave labour camps in Plaszow and Mielec to the Wieliczka mine; ever since the laws of Polish king Sigimund August (mid C16th), Jewish settlement in Wieliczka was banned until 1867.
As soon as the Soviets were about to liberate the area, the German war industry was disassembled and transported to Liebenau slave labour camp in the Sudetes mountains. The Jewish labourers were trucked to camps in the Czech Republic and Austria.
In 1978, the Wieliczka salt mine was placed on UNESCO World Heritage Site because it reflected all the historic stages of development in mining techniques from C13th-C20th, while the preserved devices and tools documented the old systems of working the deposits, drainage, lighting and ventilation of the mine in a unique manner by world standards. In 2010 a sister mine 28ks apart, historic Bochnia Salt Mine, was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. In 2013 Żupny Castle was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.