Wieliczka - first on the UNESCO list
Dating the rocks of the Wieliczka deposit indicates that it began its existance about 13.6 million years ago - it stretches for about 10 kilometres in length and up to 1.5 kilometres in width. Salt was mined here in as early as 3500 - 2500 B.C. The first exploratory shafts were dug in Wieliczka in the 13th century. The Salt Mine Wieliczka was placed on the first UNESCO World List of Cultural and Natural Heritage and constitutes a Monument of History.
Today, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is a top-rated national and international tourist attraction. What so delights and attracts countless tourists? Over seven centuries, on nine levels up to 327 metres deep, 26 shafts were drilled, and salt was extracted from 2040 chambers. A labyrinth of almost 300 kilometres of corridors and about 3000 chambers were created under Wieliczka. The part open to visitors covers 3.5 kilometres at a depth of 64 - 135 metres. In the underground excavations you can admire beautiful and unique brine lakes, salt sculptures and old mining equipment, and chapels carved in salt, including the most famous one - the Chapel of Saint Kinga, with relics of the queen of Poland, considered a saint. It is the largest underground place of worship in Europe, and still performs sacral functions. The oldest fully preserved salt chapel is the Chapel of St. Anthony (17th century); all its sculptures and decorations, even the floor, were carved in salt by miners-sculptors. There are also contemporary chapels in the mine, such as the unique salt and multimedia chapel dedicated to St. John Paul II, the Polish Pope. In total, about 40 chapels and places of worship were created in the Wieliczka Salt Mine over the centuries, with 26 preserved to this day.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is also a health resort treating respiratory diseases. A specific microclimate prevails in three hollowed-out salt chambers at a depth of 135 metres underground, thanks to mineral particles floating in the air. Treatment and rehabilitation are enhanced by treatments using natural brine from a deposit located at a depth of 255 metres.
The Kraków Saltworks Museum - one of the world's largest mining museums
The Żupny Castle in Wieliczka is inextricably linked with the Wieliczka mine. From the end of the 13th century until 1945, the Castle and the Mine formed a single enterprise producing salt – Żupy Krakowskie (Kraków Saltworks), the oldest royal salt enterprise on Polish soil, proudly called Magnum Sal - Great Salt in the Middle Ages.
Currently, the Castle and the Mine offer exhibitions and displays of the Museum of Żupy Krakowskie, one of the most prominent mining museums globally. The underground museum route, located in the Wieliczka Salt Mine at a depth of 135 metres, is 1.5 kilometres long and includes 19 chambers and approximately 2,000 artefacts, including sculptures and paintings from the now non-existent underground salt chapels. The Żupny Castle, as an extension of entry to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, is an object on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List.
Salt, called white gold in the Middle Ages, had enormous value and brought fabulous income, so salt mines and saltworks, called żupy solne, usually belonged to rulers and were a source of income for the court and the state. For centuries, the Kraków Salt Mine was the source of the country's wealth, and the material foundation of its culture as its income was used to finance the reconstruction of the Wawel Royal Castle to maintain the first and oldest Polish university, the Kraków Academy (now Jagiellonian University), and to build and renovate monasteries and churches. It is enough to mention that during the reign of King Casimir the Great, in a period of growth and prosperity for the Polish state, income from salt constituted 25% of the royal budget. Żupy Krakowskie supplied salt not only to the whole country but also to Hungary, Silesia, Moravia and Bohemia.
The Żupny Castle consists of the Middle Castle (13th - 14th centuries), the North Castle (15th century), the South Castle (19th - 20th centuries), the tower and ramparts (14th century), the garden (18th century), the remains of the oldest workers' canteen in Poland, and the oldest exploratory mining shaft in Wieliczka. Every year, in the Castle Courtyard, the Salt Festival is organised. It is a colourful and attractive presentation of Wieliczka history, its mine and żupy, as well as the mining heritage, traditions and customs.
A brine graduation tower - the largest in southern Poland
Another place where you can take care of your health, relax and unwind is located next to the mine. It is a medieval castle-like graduation tower with an area of 7500 square metres, the biggest in southern Poland. The salt aerosol created in it is the best natural treatment for people with respiratory tract diseases, an excellent way to strengthen the immune system and protect against the effects of polluted air. The unique attraction of the graduation tower is the viewing terrace and an octagonal, over 22-metre-high observation tower, from which you can admire the panorama of Wieliczka and its surroundings.
The Wieliczka Market Square - the largest three-dimensional image in the country and probably the second largest in the world
You can also move to the world of salt when visiting the Upper Market Square in Wieliczka. Salt World is a 3D painting located in the Square - the largest three-dimensional painting in the country and probably the second largest globally, with a 350 square m area, made using techniques resistant to weather conditions and pedestrian and vehicle traffic. It depicts an underground excavation, a chamber of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and four bronze figures standing in the Square of miners coming out from underground on wooden platforms. The colourful, very realistic salt world seems to draw the viewer in like a magnet.
The town square was laid out after the town foundation in 1290 based on a typical medieval chequerboard layout - eight streets, two from each corner, diverge from the square. The square performed economic and administrative functions. The trade route from Kraków to Hungary led through it, and important municipal buildings were built. Initially, the square had a larger area. In 1361 a square with sides of about 75 metres was separated from its central part, and the remaining parts from the north and south were allocated for buildings. Most buildings on the Upper Square date from the 19th century. There used to be a town hall, demolished in 1784, on whose foundations the Pałac Przychocki Palace was erected. The wooden buildings of the Upper Square burnt down in 1877, and Jews from Klasno bought plots of land after the houses burned and erected brick houses standing to this day.
The Franciscan monastery - the first brick one in Poland
Żupy Krakowskie financed in Wieliczka the first brick church of the Franciscan Friars of the Reformation order in Poland. It became a model for other churches of this Order in Małopolska - currently the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace, the Duchess of Wieliczka. The Baroque church was built for the Order in 1626, and fifteen years later a monastery with an internal cloister was added. Between 1927 and 1928, the novitiate building was erected, and three wings and a new western wing were constructed.
The sanctuary is a single-nave church with niches for altars, covered by a barrel vault with lunettes. The wooden altars and furnishings are the work of the monks - carpenters and woodcarvers. A valuable wooden crucifix from the 18th century and statues of saints have been preserved on the main altar. It was this wooden crucifix that the beatified Venerable Servant of God, Brother Alojzy Kosiba, took a particular liking to, praying before it fervently and asking countless divine graces for the afflicted, suffering and sick who visited the monastery and sanctuary in Wieliczka.
The Sanctuary of the Stigmata of St. Francis venerates the miraculous image of the Madonna and Child - Our Lady of Grace, known as the Duchess of Wieliczka or the Gracious Lady of Wieliczka. According to legend, the 16th or 17th-century image was brought by Italian or Balkan traders and exchanged with miners for salt. Originally the painting was in the Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of miners, standing on a hillside by the road from Wieliczka to Kraków.
Mary's intercession is credited with saving Wieliczka in 1992 when a sudden outflow of water from the mine threatened to destroy the town.
In 1995 the painting received golden crowns consecrated by John Paul II.
The St. Sebastian’s Church - polychromies by Tetmajer and stained-glass windows by Matejko
In Lednica, one of the most picturesque corners of Wieliczka, on a hillside among old trees, stands a beautiful larch church from the 16th century, rebuilt in the 18th century. Its riches are unusual polychromes, paintings, stained glass, statues and sculptures. St. Sebastian’s Church is located on the unique Małopolska Wooden Architecture Route.
In the Rococo main altar from the second half of the 18th century there is a painting of St. Sebastian. The 17th-century side altars are early Baroque with a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Baroque with a 17th-century crucifix. In the Church you can also admire paintings from the 17th - 19th centuries, two Rococo statues from 1744, statues of apostles from the 18th century, and Baroque folk sculptures of St. Wojciech and St. Stanislaus. The unusual polychrome from 1903-1910 is Włodzimierz Tetmajer’s work. In turn, Stanisław Matejko, nephew of Jan Matejko, designed the stained-glass windows. Precious paintings of the Virgin Mary from the 15th and 16th centuries, and 16th-century paintings of saints Nicholas, Andrew and Catherine were transferred from Saint Sebastian’s Church to the Archdiocesan Museum in Kraków.
Legend has it that in the place of today's Church stood a pagan temple of the goddess Leda - hence the name of the area - Lednica, according to the legend. In the mid-16th century, a cholera epidemic ravaged Wieliczka, and the dead were buried at the cemetery on Lednickie Hill. To stop the plague, the local inhabitants decided to build a church near the cholera cemetery as a token of gratitude.