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A City That’s Worth Its Salt – Cracow, Poland

Cracow used to be the capital of Poland. It’s a fascinating city to visit with plenty of sights, including the bustling main market square, the largest in Europe, with its cloth hall at the centre and the asymmetric gothic towers of St Mary’s Basilica providing a beautiful backdrop.

Wawel castle has a fire-breathing dragon.

Jagiellonian University is where astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus studied. He developed a model that postulated that the sun was the centre of the universe rather than the earth. It’s a working university but you are able to visit Collegium Maius which is a museum and contains a number of fascinating artefacts, including the Globus Jagellonicus, from around 1510, which is considered to be the oldest globe in the world to depict the Americas.

There are a number of day trips available. We chose to visit the Wieliczka salt mine which is one of the world’s oldest mines. Throughout human history, salt has proved to be enormously important, both as a flavour enhancer and a means to preserve food.

The Wieliczka mine originated as brine pools which seeped up from the ground below and had been collected by local people from the 13th century. Excavation revealed the presence of rock salt and the mine started to be excavated. Over the centuries it expanded dramatically, eventually reaching nine levels, with a deepest point of 327m below ground level, and over 245km of tunnels and galleries.

Salt is no longer produced and the mine is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It is vast. When you visit, you will only manage to view a tiny fraction of it. As you descend hundreds of steps to the first level you can feel the temperature drop.

The air is cool and dry. You can walk a route of around three and a half km through labyrinthine tunnels. There are also a number of caverns carved out by the miners, some of which are enormous – the size of a church – notably St Kinga’s Chapel with its intricate engravings carved into the rock salt walls and lit by crystal salt chandeliers. Even the floor is carved.

(The photos are grainy as they were taken on high-speed celluloid, but who doesn’t love a bit of arty grain?)

As you wind your way through the tunnels and caverns there are also displays showing the practicalities of the mining process. The final level accessible to visitors is 135 m below ground level. Fortunately there’s a lift to take you back to the surface.

Of course there is a shop and it’s possible to buy salty souvenirs, salty cosmetics and, of course, salt.