Beneath Southern Poland lies an underground river of salt. It extends for over thirty kilometers, reaching a depth of six hundred meters. Thousands of years ago, the inhabitants of the region realized that the water bubbling from the ground tasted salty, and that if you let it evaporate you were left with a white residue you could sell for a veritable fortune, particularly before refrigeration, when salt was not only used to add taste to cold cucumber soup, but also to preserve food. In the thirteenth century, in the quest for more salt, the residents started to dig down towards the sources of this salty water, and they discovered the rock salt beneath. They kept on digging, all the way through to 1964. In the process, they ended up with over 300 kilometers of tunnels, chambers and underground lakes that are collectively known as the Wieliczka salt mine.

I’m not quite sure where I got it from, but in my mind, salt mines were always associated with scenes of punishment, toil, sweat, slavery and death. As such, one might wonder why the Wieliczka salt mine was one of the first places in the world to be designated a Unesco world heritage site. First, it should be noted that while being a medieval salt miner was not exactly a pleasant occupation, neither was it hell on (or under) earth. Compared to the life of a medieval peasant, it had certain advantages. For example:

• Locusts would never come and eat your crops.
• It never rained or snowed on you.
• You could belong to a labor union (one of the first in the world).
• You could slip some salt in your pocket… and salt had much the same value as gold at the time.

Of course, there were some disadvantages as well, such as mine explosions and the like, but salt mining was certainly less dangerous than coal mining, for example. The air in a salt mine is actually good for you, for one thing.

None of this, though, explains the Unesco thing. For that, you’ll have to consider the sculptures.

Rock salt is not an easy medium to carve, it is hard and brittle, but the miners in Wieliczka were so used to chipping away at the stuff that they eventually developed a skill for doing so with finesse. Originally, they began by decorating the underground chapels they had built for themselves. Since it took them roughly an hour to be lowered into the mine at the start of their day, and an hour to get hauled out at the end, they hewed a number of chapels out of the salt so that they could pray for their souls while their souls were still underground. There are dozens of chapels in the mine and many of them feature elaborate carving.

The most impressive of these is St. Kinga’s chapel. In fact, “impressive” is totally inappropriate. St. Kinga’s chapel is far more than “impressive,” it is a veritable underground cathedral, with room for hundreds of people. It is by far the world’s largest underground church, and it is entirely made of salt: the “tiles” you see under your feet are actually polished carving in the salt floor; the stairway down to it is salt; the numerous bas reliefs, including a reproduction of Da Vinci’s Last Supper are all carved from salt… even the crystals of the chandeliers are salt. The chamber itself was hollowed out over centuries of toil, but all of the sculpture was the work of three miners, spanning seventy years, from 1896 to 1963. They were not paid for this, the entire thing was carved by them for the benefit of their colleagues. The chapel is visited today by almost a million people a year, as well as being used for catholic mass every Sunday (in case you’re very religious and want to descend over a hundred meters into a mine at 8:00 Sunday morning). For amorous troglodytes, it is also available for weddings.

Before you go too far imagining a white, pristine cathedral with columns resembling your salt shaker, be informed that the salt down here is grey, or even black. There’s a high mineral content in Wieliczka’s salt, and the purest, whitest salt was extracted long ago. The walls, the corridors, the floors are dark, but it’s salt all the same (try licking a wall). If you hold a light up to the wall, you’ll see the glittering of the crystals.

People have been visiting the Wieliczka mine for hundreds of years. Copernicus, Goethe, and, of course, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) all visited the mine, and if you extend your tour into the museum, you can see a little horse-drawn train that used to be used to pull around the more important, and lazy visitors while the area was under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The train once even hoisted the butt of Archduke Ferdinand.

The mine has contained more than trains—it has a ferryboat (that once capsized, killing a number of drunken soldiers) and the Staszica chamber, thirty-six meters high, has seen both bungee jumping and a hot-air balloon ascent. This was apparently the first underground hot-air balloon flight (it might also be the last, I wasn’t able to ascertain this: try googling “underground hot air balloon” yourself and you’ll see what I mean).

For that matter, a visit to the mine tends to alternate between long, sloping, low-ceilinged tunnels and vast, airy chambers. The former are numbing… there are over three hundred kilometers of tunnels in the mine (only about four kilometers of which are open to the public) and the sheer scope of human endeavor represented by their excavation is humbling. You are walking through the result of seven hundred years of labor, every step hewn from the rock salt by countless generations of Polish miners, shored with white lumber lowered by the muscles of men and beasts long dead.

The chambers too were all excavated—there were few natural cavities in these mines—even the chamber that became Kinga’s chapel, and those towering caverns with their salt cliffs and sinuous wooden staircases draped over them were all dug out, one swing of the pick at a time. No explosives were used at Wieliczka. The blocks of salt thus excavated were hauled out by enormous wooden winches powered by the miners themselves, or by horses who lived entirely in the mine.

There are, of course, the inevitable kitsch additions: little gnomes carved into the sides of walkways, illuminated by colored lights that flicker on and off in time to insipid canned music; amateurish dioramas of medieval scenes illustrating the difficult concept of “evaporation”; machines that will stamp a souvenir coin for you… things like this. After all, the mine continues to generate the vast majority of the region’s revenues, and the locals have realized that this industrialization of tourism leads to heightened return on investment. Somehow, though, it is easier to deal with all this in Wieliczka than it would be in the United States. Even the guides take on a sheepish, apologetic expression when they press the buttons that set this tripe in motion.

Note that the mine can only be visited with a guide, you can’t just wander around. The guides, though, tend to be kind and genuinely interested, as well as being apologetic about the kitsch. Most of them are from the region, and many are the descendants of miners. Plus, they wear these nice blue uniforms with lots and lots of buttons (the uniforms are fashioned after miners’ dress uniforms from the time of the Austrian empire). The guides also have hardhats. The visitors do not. When asked about this, my last guide explained, “We know the way out.”

Not that you’ll be in a hurry to leave.