He leads us through a dizzying network of tunnels that are held in place by thick wooden beams, only just tall enough for us to avoid bashing our hard hats on the ceiling above. At various points on the walls and particularly in the joints of the wood we see cauliflower-like deposits of salt. It feels like the stuff is seeping out of every pore here and it is surprisingly beautiful, a brilliant white bloom growing out of the darkness.
But the most remarkable thing about Wieliczka is the size of its tunnel network. Just one per cent of the mine is open to visitors and yet we walk for hours, clambering up ladders and marching down endless flights of stairs. There is chamber after chamber to explore. We see the remnants of the so-called “Hungarian dog” transport system, a simple wooden cart pulled along runners in the ground, and are taught everything from how to measure the methane levels in the air – after the classic canary method they used chemical-infused paper which would turn brown in the presence of methane – to how to use a pickaxe to dislodge salt from the walls.
This turns out to be my favourite part of the tour. There is little that is delicate about swinging a metal axe and I make meaningful contact with the mine’s wall with my first swing, shattering the salt and sending it flying through the air. It is immensely satisfying and I really start to feel like the novice miner I have been cast as.
We continue along the tunnels, trudging along in our grey boiler suits and clambering up wooden ladders to reach new levels. I start to enjoy the feeling of being underground in this vast underworld and it seems I must be doing something right because I am picked out to navigate our way back to the lift.
Dariusz hands me a map of the mine and that feeling of disorientation from the start of the tour immediately returns. There are tunnels in every direction, looping off and circling back on several different levels. I turn the map this way and that and just before the panic sets in, eventually identify a couple of landmarks. I strike off in what I believe is the right direction and sure enough a few minutes later we arrive at our final destination – a modern lift installed specifically for visitors that will take us back up and out into the sunlight.
We had reached a depth of 101 metres but there were still hundreds of metres below us, not to mention another 240-odd-kilometres of tunnels we hadn’t even set foot in. This is a truly vast mine and it would take a lifetime to truly navigate it. I may have successfully hacked off a chunk of it with a pickaxe today, but I have barely scratched the surface.
Wieliczka Salt Mine is located just outside Krakow, in the south of Poland. The Miner’s Route tour costs 76 zloty (about £15). For more information on Poland visit www.poland.travel. Explore more of Poland with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
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