The salt, from the dawn of times, has always had a fundamental economical role because indispensable to the preservation of food. The ancient Romans knew that very well and, probably not randomly, built up their cities nearby the Tiber salt mines, made up the Via Salaria right for fostering the the trading of salt in the peninsula and kept the monopoly of the precious product to the empire. This had already happened in Syria, Egypt, Byzantium and maybe Athens and the same was done with the Italian government up until 1975.
For this reason many historical salt mines (in Italy there are the one in Cervia and the Conti Vecchi from Assemini for example) are now become touristic attractions, interesting both for their environmental value and as an archaeological industrial proof.
The salt mine in Wieliczka
Above: picture by Chepry shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5
The salt mine of Wieliczka, in Southern Poland, looks like an underground kingdom built by grottos, wells, chambers and long tunnels. It started to work in Middle Ages and it remained active until 1996. Also known as the Underground Salt Cathedral, the mine, one of the oldest in the world, is UNESCO heritage since 1978.
Above: picture by Cezary p shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
The greyish salt of Wieliczka was discovered in the 13th century, when the first wells were dug. The mine, consisting of 9 levels, goes all the way to 327 m deep (1072 ft), with tunnels expanding for about 300 km (186 miles).
Above: picture by Barbara Maliszewska shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0in
In this underground world there are grottos, exhibition rooms, churches and chapels, a lake and even a thermal station where allergic and respiratory diseases are treated.
Above: picture by Chepry shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Through the journey, today open to the public, 3.5 km long (2.1 miles), it is possible to see many works realised by the miners with rocks and crystals throughout the centuries.
Above: picture by Alexander Johmann shared via Flickr – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
St. Kinga’s Chapel, the biggest and most extraordinary one, is located 101 m underground (331 ft) and it is 50 m long (165 ft), 15 m (50 ft) wide and 12 m (40 ft) tall.
Above: picture by Daniel.zolopa shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
From the 13th century until 1945, the mine was managed, along with the one of Bochnia, by an salt extraction company built by the Polish crown, the “Żupy krakowskie”, which represented the main source of income of the kingdom, besides being one of the leading company in the world for that sector.
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Today the castle that once was hosting the society is become a Museum, the “Muzeum Żup Krakowskich Wieliczka”, where it’s possible to admire a collection of salt boxes from different epochs made out of several materials such as wood, silver, glass.
Above: picture by Willem Hondius shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 4.0
Inside the mine it is possible to discover the different machines that, throughout the centuries have lightened up the workload of the miners.
During WW2, the Germans occupied Wieliszka, and many thousands of Jews interned at the Polish camps were exploited in the mine, which was by then turned into a weapon factory. The Soviet advance prevented the Germans to start the production and, after the war, the mine went back to its normal activity of salt extraction.
The mine is one of the official national historical monument of Poland, visited by over a million of visitors every year.
Below: the Last Supper by Leonardo sculpted in the salt. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Below: picture by Lancia di Cunegonda shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Below: ancient extraction system rebuilt inside the museum, where you see two workers lifting a block of salt
Below: picture by Emanuele Lo Rito shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 4.0