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Inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Photo Courtesy Wieliczka Salt Mine Archives
Inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Photo Courtesy Wieliczka Salt Mine Archives

Foot notes: The ground above your head

Poland's subterranean world has cities of salt, tunnels built by the Nazis, and more

The sheer audacity and stupidity of the “journey" I had just undertaken was never more apparent to me than when the ancient miner’s lift gave a terrifying little lurch and hurtled up to the surface of the mine. That was 327m above where I had spent the past 4 hours, burrowing my way through the serpentine passageways of a salt mine in Wieliczka, southern Poland. Just four days earlier, on 29 November, eight miners had lost their lives when a 3.4 magnitude earthquake triggered rockfall hundreds of metres beneath the surface at Europe’s largest copper mine, Rudna, near the town of Polkowice, in the south-western part of the country.

Finding myself addicted to the thrills of subterranean exploration, however, I had spent my time in Poland looking for underground sites to slip into. Here is what I found.

Międzyrzecz Fortified Region

Stretching 80km between Gorzów Wielkopolski and Zielona Góra Dodge in Poland’s western Lubuskie region, the Międzyrzecz Fortified Region is a warren of World War II fortifications. Visitors can go tens of metres underground to tour its tunnels, railway stations and halls, all built on the orders of Adolf Hitler. The bunkers are reinforced with solid steel walls and are interconnected by underground corridors, forming what is believed to be the longest defensive system in the world. 

Międzyrzecz is also one of Europe’s biggest hibernation sites for bats and sees over 30,000 of the winged critters homing in for the winter. 

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Sitting 327m underground, the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the town of Wieliczka has been a tourist attraction since the 15th century, when tours were the preserve of the elite: You needed the consent of the king, which was only granted to a fortunate few. They could walk through an impressive maze of 2,391 chambers and 245km of galleries, excavated on nine levels. Now, one can take the 3km Tourists’ Route to visit the vast chambers hewed in solid rock salt (including one dedicated to Nicolaus Copernicus), the underground lake, and salt figures. Or one can choose to undertake the arduous 3km Pilgrims’ Route that finishes at the Chapel of St Kinga, made entirely out of salt, as is the mural copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Krzemionki Opatowskie Flint Mine

Straight out of the Stone Age with a decidedly Flintstones vibe to it—with everything from the wax model of a well-endowed caveman to a recreated Jurassic-period dinosaur on display—the underground Neolithic Krzemionki Opatowskie Flint Mine is located 8km north-east of Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski in south-central Poland. The 465m-long Tourist Route dips to 11.5m at its deepest point and takes you through chamber mining pits, with connecting sections excavated in limestone rock that pass inside the natural striped-flint-bearing bank.

Chelm Chalk Tunnels

Running under Poland’s industrial city of Chelm in the east, 27m below the surface at its deepest, are 15km of chalk tunnels, 2km of them navigable even today. Hewn by hand in the Middle Ages, when chalk was a prized commodity, the network of passages was sealed off when chalk mining was discontinued in the 19th century—it was restored to its current form in 1985. The 50-minute-long tunnel tour runs through three underground complexes—in the area of the Church of Holy Apostles The Messengers, and under the Old City Market Square and Przechodnia Street.

Ojców National Park Caves

The fecund Ojców National Park 16km north of Kraków may seem like any other suburban green lung, the kind that sees picnicking families descending en masse for a weekend in the “wilderness", but there is more to Ojców. There are as many as 400 caves here, scattered around the rather small (21 sq. km) park, with the Łokietka, Ciemna and Zbójecka caves being among the biggest. But it is the Łokietka Grotto that draws the highest number of visitors thanks to its “guardian", a rather patriotic spider, who, according to legend, helped save the future king of the Piast dynasty.

Kraków’s Rynek Underground Museum 

With the pyramid-like, blue-lit plexi-glass roof jutting out of the ground the only indicator of what lies beneath, Kraków’s Rynek Underground Museum sits buried 4m under the city’s bustling Main Square. Replete with its own “be-skeletoned" shallow graves, burnt out old mud houses and even a horse stable, the museum is the actual location of the ancient Kraków city centre. Recreating 13th century Kraków by means of holograms, the museum’s main exhibit takes you on an audiovisual journey to the time when Kraków—then the capital of Poland—was plundered by Mongol invaders in March 1241 in the infamous Tatar raid (also called the “Sack of Kraków"). 

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