If you were to make a bucket list of European landmarks to visit, you’d likely include the classics: Wander the sprawling Gardens of Versailles in France. In London, climb the thousands of steps to the top of Big Ben. Tilt your head and take a silly picture at the Tower of Pisa.
But in Poland, a lesser-known experience awaits, centuries old, but vividly immersive — and similarly impressive. When we unearth some fascinating details about this miraculous attraction, you’ll be tempted to revise the agenda of your next international trip.
Kraków, Poland, is the quintessential European city. Culture, history, architecture, it has them all. But just outside the bustling city streets, a secret gem, hidden to the eye, makes Kraków a place unlike any other.
Cross the bridge out of the city, and you’ll find the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Centuries old, the mine is now a tourist attraction, and people from all over the world travel to see its hidden grandeur. Rest assured, the mine is more than just an underground cavern of tunnels.
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In fact, stepping into the Wieliczka Salt Mine is closer to stepping into a royal palace or a cathedral. It’s ornate, a fact made far more impressive when you consider what everything in the mine is carved from.
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Rock salt! And up until 2007, Wieliczka was a working mine! They produced regular old table salt, the kind you may have once sprinkled on your fries or used to give your last meal a little extra something.
In medieval times, when the mine was founded, salt was a highly valued commodity. Its preservative properties were unmatched, and a mine like Wieliczka meant riches for the taking. For hundreds of years, it was one of Europe’s most profitable businesses.
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Naturally, the wealthy frequented the mine for business dealings, but the miners were the backbone of it all. They spent their working lives picking at the walls of the cave and carving out the beautiful structure — and more — in the process.
When the mine opened in the 13th century, miners began constructing figures from salt for fun. The job trapped them underground for the sunlight hours, so the miners took it upon themselves to make their space feel vibrant.
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The tradition of carving designs in the mines began as a way to honor St. Kinga, the patron saint of salt miners. In fact, Legends say Princess Kinga came to Poland from Hungary to marry Polish prince Bolesław the Pious.
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Before leaving Hungary, the princess tossed her engagement ring down a mine shaft. Then she set off to Poland. She traveled to Krakow with a team of miners, and when they arrived, she instructed them to dig.
They hit something solid! A huge lump of salt. The miners broke open the lump, and nestled inside was the Princess’ engagement ring! From then on, she was their patron saint and kept miners safe and secure during their forays into the earth.
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The chapel built in her honor was adorned with the most lavish embellishments of the entire mine. Skilled artists were brought in to furnish the space. One such artist, Antoni Wyrodek, carved a tribute to da Vinci’s “Last Supper” out of salt.
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At 443 feet deep and over nine levels down, miners constructed breathtaking chambers. Many of these chambers are stunning chapels that draw the eyes upwards.
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But it was at 330 feet below the surface that the miners built their masterpiece. The most famous chapel, dubbed the “crown jewel” of Wieliczka mine, is the Chapel of St. Kinga. Actually, it’s one of the largest underground church structures in the world.
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In more recent years (since the mine opened to the public), and leaders added a sculpture of Pope John Paul II to the chapel. But continuing to commission artwork for the worship space doesn’t make much sense unless it’s being enjoyed, right?
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The present-day owners of the mine agreed the space should be utilized. Every Sunday, holy mass is held in the chapel. Lucky sweethearts can also use the space to tie the knot! Still, the Chapel of St. Kinga isn’t the only area people can wander through…
Wedding In Salt Mine
If you walked the 2,000 chambers of the mine, it would take about two full months! That’s a lot of real estate! Lots of businesses pounced on the potential of the salt mine to draw curious customers.
A few of the saline chambers host a health resort that’s been around since 1839. The resorts offer a slew of different services: massages, salt baths, and overnight “health sleep.” Relax as your body adjusts to the conditions of a “salt microclimate.”
Millions walk through the Krakow Saltworks Museum annually, learning the ins and outs of its history. But for those looking to take their experiences a little further, there are other underground services, too…
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You can, for instance, take a step into a salt miner’s shoes! The Miner’s Route expedition is an intense trek through the less-developed chambers. Don’t worry, a professional guides the tours. Bonus: you get a cool spotlight helmet.
Contemporary artists also showcase their works in certain chambers. Other chambers are occupied by bars and restaurants and even rented out for conferences.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The miners of Wieliczka could never have imagined their craftsmanship would be marveled at by millions. They knew what became of other mines built with better technology decades later.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Russian economy found itself in shambles. As the nation teetered on the brink of collapse, Soviet officials were forced to commission a deadly expedition in order to keep the country alive.
In 1955, three Russian geologists—Yuri Khabardin, Ekaterina Elagina, and Viktor Avdeenko—began a dangerous trek deep into the Siberian wilderness. What they found changed the fate of their country forever…
After a grueling 5,000 mile journey, the team stumbled upon a massive vein of the volcanic rock kimberlite. The bulky, alien-like stone was a find unlike any other, and its rich mineral deposits were exactly what the geologists were looking for.
Believing that Russia’s saving grace was lying just below the surface, a three-year excavation began to unearth the potential treasures. But what began as an undertaking of hope and optimism quickly turned deadly…
Throughout the seven-month Siberian winters, both the miners and the earth were ravaged by brutal weather and -40 degree temperatures. Even dynamite and jet engines proved useless against the icy permafrost.
In fact, the frigid temperatures of Siberia were so intense that oil froze solid, steel beams cracked like glass, and truck tires became so brittle that they shattered into pieces.
When the warm months rolled around, the thick layers of permafrost melted, creating a deadly slush that dragged man and machine alike into the depths of the pit below. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
As the hole grew deeper in size, it began to exhibit strange qualities. On several occasions, small aircrafts and helicopters were snatched right out of the sky and sucked into the darkness below. It was almost as if the hole had a mind of its own…
Miners later discovered that the warm air rising up out of the pit mixed with the cold Siberian climate to create an enormous air vortex. To the Soviets’ horror, this expedition had quickly become much more than they’d bargained for.
Thankfully, in 1960, Russia officially opened its largest mineral mine in history: the Mir Mine. The massive hole measured 3,900 feet in diameter and 1,722 feet in depth; even in trucks, it took two hours for miners to travel from its rim to the pit below.
The Mir Mine was considered a marvel of modern engineering, and at the time it ranked as the second-largest man-made hole in the world. In fact, the hole was so deep that you could fit five Statues of Liberty stacked on top of each other inside!
Though mining from the Mir proved treacherous, the Russian economy began to reap the benefits of its endeavor. By the end of the 1960’s, the mine was producing 10,000,00 carats of diamonds per year, giving stone polishers plenty of work. But these weren’t ordinary diamonds…
The stones pulled from the mine were otherworldly, with most being the size of golf balls. One of the largest, the 130.85 carat “Ohlonkho Diamond”, sold for an unprecedented $430,000 at auction.
Another diamond, an enormous 342.57 carat gem dubbed “The 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”, was the largest ever mined the country. Russia’s fortunes appeared to be changing fast… or so they believed.
As Russian diamonds flooded the market, the De Beers diamond company—the world’s primary diamond distributor at the time—were forced to purchase massive amounts of these gems in order to deflate prices. De Beers became suspicious of the Russians, and their requests to access the Mir were met with a string after string of difficulties.
For nearly 6 years, Russian officials skillfully delayed the arrival of the De Beers representatives to their mine by coordinating elaborate meetings with top Soviets. They even went as far as throwing elaborate banquets for the reps in order to stall their visit.
By the time the De Beers reps finally visited the Mir, their visas were nearly expired and they were only able to view the mine for 20 minutes. But the Soviets would inevitably get their just desserts…
Following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, control of the Mir Mine fell into the hands of the Japanese mining company, Sakha. Over the course of Sakha’s ownership, they reported earnings of $600 million per year. Sorry, Russia!
Eventually, Russia regained control of the mine through the company Alrosa and began expanding the preexisting underground mining operation. By 2001, all mining activity was conducted completely underground.
The end of the Mir Mine came in 2004 when severe flooding damaged the tunnel system and forced Alrosa to end the mine’s 44-year operation. Yet this wasn’t the end for Russia’s legendary mine…
Shortly after the Mir shut down, a construction company by the name of AB Elise proposed a plan to convert the massive hole into an awesome underground city of the future—and the 3D-models are out of this world!
Dubbed “Eco-City 2020”, the project involved creating a domed city within the man-made crater large enough to house 100,000 residents. With the use of thousands of solar panels, the city was designed to represent harmony between urbanism and nature and promote eco-friendly tourism.
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The plan was put on hold, however, when the Mir resumed mining operations in 2009 with extraction expected to last for another 50 years. As dramatic as the mir mine is, this giant hole wasn’t even the first time Russia had to dig deep for a big payoff.
From childhood, we’re taught that beneath the surface of the Earth, there’s a mantle and a core— but what if there was something else down there? Well, in the 1960s and 1970s, America and Russia faced off to find out…
Both countries assembled crews to drill boreholes deep into the ground until they couldn’t go any farther. Enormous metal contraptions were used that were specially designed to break through even the toughest material.
The world watched in awe as the Americans kicked off the race. The enormous drills were fired up, and everyone hoped the project would go according to plan. What kind of mysteries would the drillers find, if any?
The United States called their endeavor Project Mohole, and they began their drilling off of the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1961. This would be a massive effort with global interest, and there was a lot riding on this team’s work.
In order to ensure Project Mohole’s success, the team submerged six massive buoys 200 feet under the water in a circular pattern. The Navy barge tasked with the actual drilling used sonar to maneuver itself over the center of the circle and align the enormous rig.
The team was given very thorough instructions on how to handle the heavy rig. It was a dangerous operation, and extreme caution needed to be taken the entire time. Unfortunately, soon after the project began, it was abandoned due to lack of funding.
Almost a decade later, the Russians had organized their own drilling team and began their quest to reach the center of Earth. On May 24, 1970, they set their sights on the Kola Peninsula. The Russians called their endeavor the Kola Superdeep Borehole.
From 1970 to 1994, the skilled group of Russian drillers managed to burrow a third of the way through the Baltic continental crust. The hole they drilled still stands as the deepest man-made hole in the world.
Here’s an illustration showing just how deep the Russian borehole was—and this wasn’t even the deepest it eventually went! At that point, it was deeper than Mount Everest was tall. That’s an amazing geological feat!
The Kola Superdeep Borehole was an incredible undertaking that was appreciated by most of the Russian people. In 1987, the country printed a number of stamps commemorating the drilling team’s effort.
This is a picture of a massive rig similar to the one the Russian team used to bore deep into the Earth’s crust. It was so heavy—and so dangerous—that all it took was one wrong move from a driller for the team to have been crushed under the weight of the steel.
Controlling the massive rig required several men at a time, and even then it was still often a struggle. The rig would sometimes jerk to one side, and the team had to be ready to reposition its massive arm at a moment’s notice.
This was the superstructure where the Kola Superdeep Borehole was located during the active digging period. The massive tower that loomed over the water was actually home to the enormous drilling rig.
The end goal of the drilling project was to reach a depth of 49,000 feet into the Earth’s crust. There were several holes dug that branched off of the main hole, and the deepest branch, called SG-3, reached a depth of an impressive 40,230 feet in 1989.
In 1992, although the Russian team was still about 9,000 feet away from their goal, the drilling came to an abrupt end due to dangerous conditions. The temperature at such a depth was much higher than the team planned for—almost 600 degrees Fahrenheit—and it made drilling impossible.
Although the drilling came to a complete stop, the entire project wasn’t officially shut down until 2005. Unfortunately, in 2008, all of the facilities and the superstructure were scrapped and dismantled.
Even though the buildings were abandoned, visitors can still walk among the ruins and imagine what life was like during the epic race to the center of the planet. It’s a fascinating place to visit, but it’s also unfortunate this grand structure was simply left to rot…
If you do happen to visit the ruins of the building on the Kola Peninsula, you might not even notice the actual borehole itself. All that remains is a small, nine-inch steel cap that covers the surface opening of the hole, which has since been dubbed the “Hole to Hell.”
Even though the Russian team never reached their goal of 49,000 feet, the drilling did give the scientific world some major discoveries. Scientists now know a bit more about the planet’s structure, and microscopic plankton fossils were even discovered at the bottom of the hole.
The race to reach the center of the Earth was an exciting and intriguing time for the world. In the end, the goal was never reached—but at least the scientific community benefited from the efforts!