Going Under: Poland's 11 Most Breath-taking Underground Trails
Where can find Neolithic flint? What’s the connection between Polish gold and the discovery of America? Culture.pl explores historic labyrinthine mines, several hundred-year-old salty depths and underground cities carved in stone.
Silver mine in Tarnowskie Góry
For the past few weeks, the entire world has been talking about this tourist attraction in Tarnowskie Góry. In July 2017, the UNESCO committee met in Kraków and made the decision to add the Silesian silver mine to its prestigious World Heritage List. The underground treasure is an extraordinary 35-kilometre labyrinth of historic waterways, tunnels, shafts and other mining structures. The Silesian masterpiece of underground hydro engineering is the 16th Polish monument on the list of cultural heritage and was praised by the committee as an example of human genius and creativity. The use of this post-mining water is unique on a global scale.
Part of the complex is available to tourists, who may reach it by going 40 metres down the Anioł (editor’s translation: Angel) shaft. The unique route leads to a reconstructed miners’ chamber. There, tourists find a small lake with galena residues, original tools and full of wooden trolleys dating to the end of the 18th century. The mine offers boat tours down the waterways and a spring of crystal clear water.
Chełm Chalk Tunnels
The only chalk mine in Europe stretched beneath the Chełm’s Old Town. Nobody knows exactly how long the underground tunnels are – some of them can only be reached by a specially trained mine rescue crew.
According to some sources, the multi-level chalk labyrinths reach Stołpie, a town fifteen kilometres away from Chełm. The oldest ones date back to the 13th century. On the Chełm Chalk Tunnels we read:
It is said that the chalk walls hide the riches of princes and the treasures of Chełm’s townsfolk, while the dungeons under the old town hall not only served as a treasury but also a prison wherein convicts died of hunger. Some of them were prisoners of war. The elderly inhabitants of Chełm know a lot of stories and legends about the white mine passed down from generation to generation.
According to legends, the hidden wealth is protected by Bieluch the Ghost (editor’s translation: The White Ghost). Archaeological work revealed antique weapons, tiles, coins and iron tools in the mine. The touristic route also involves a perfectly preserved section with unique chalk karsts and a bas-relief depicting an eagle.
Guido Mine and Coal Mining Museum in Zabrze
What did mining look like at the beginning of the 20th century? What role did horses play in the history of mining? The Guido Mine and Coal Mining Museum in Zabrze looks exactly as it did more than two hundred years ago when it was abandoned by miners. Each of its three levels tells a different story: about the cult of St. Barbara, the realities of everyday work in the mines or about the huge machinery. To reach them, tourists have to traverse narrow and steep paths. Those who managed assure that it is well worth it!
Apart from the subterranean darkness and the underground museum, on of Guido’s biggest attractions in is the suspended electric railway, the only one of its kind in the world which has been made available for tourists.
Salt mines: Wieliczka, Bochnia, Kłodawa
It’s a world-class monument and at 700 hundred years old, the oldest Polish enterprise. Carved in salt rocks, this underground city attracts over a million tourists each year with its glistening sculptures, chapels and winding corridors. It was visited by Goethe, Chopin, Matejko, Prus and Sienkiewicz but the first tourists explored the salty depths already in the 15th century. Did you know that salt from the Wieliczka salt mine is almost 14 million years old?
Today, the mine is also a modern cultural venue offering underground concerts, exhibitions and film screenings. The site is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List along with the salt mine in Bochnia. It’s also worth exploring the biggest and deepest operating salt mine in Kłodawa.
People say that the lift ride to 600 metres below ground, going of six metres per second, leaves an unforgettable impression. The tour includes a walk through the excavated tunnels the underground chapel of Saint Kinga – the patron of salt miners and a number of salt chambers.
The underground city on Wolin Island
And now something for the fans of the military. Kept top-secret for decades, Vineta, the complex of bunkers, barracks, ammunition storages and kilometres-long underground paths was built in Świnoujście just before World War II.
Cannons hidden under tonnes of reinforced concrete were supposed to secure the Nazi Kriegsmarine navy base. After the war, the base was taken over by Soviet troops, and later the Polish army. Under the communist regime, Polish generals were supposed to oversee Polish troops landing in Scandinavia. From Świnoujście it is not too far to Szczecin – it is worth seeing the underground paths in air-raid shelters left by retreating German troops.
The underground of the Main Market Square in Kraków
The 13th-century market square in Kraków is well known to all, but how many people know what it looked like in the times of Nicolaus Copernicus? Kraków of the late Middle Ages remains to be discovered by time-travellers who dare descend to into the underground surrounding the Cloth Hall. Their website elaborates:
The underground of Kraków’s Main Square is an odyssey into past, brought to life centuries later by a group of archaeologists. It is a sanctuary full of antique constructions and architectural relics, stone walkways with grooves worn by the wheels royal carriages; the oldest brick trade buildings; ornaments, coins, any many other objects – either lost or left here on purpose by people visiting this place ages ago.The tours of underground Kraków take place on glass ramps and overpasses which hang above preserved mediaeval roads, the oldest of which date back to all the way to the 11th century. A similar structure lies beneath Rzeszów – the Main Square’s underground hides 40 cellars, the oldest of which were constructed in the 14th century.
Złoty Stok gold mine
Old maps and blueprints of the mines, mining tools and lamps, minerals, furnaces used for smelting gold and trolleys used from transporting it. The Złoty Stok gold mine is filled to the brim with various artefacts. The tourist attractions are accompanied by an incredible story.
Why? It is said that Polish gold played a role in the discovery of America. How? It turns out, that the Fugger family (major shareholders of the mine) financed the Spanish Queen Isabella I, who conducted the famous expedition led by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The museum boasts many other mysteries too. In an offshoot of the tunnels, one used as explosives’ depots, J. Schärfenberg set up a laboratory. He was the man who extracted a powerful poison out of arsenic ores. Legend has it, that Napoleon was often poisoned with the substances originating from Złoty Stok.
The oldest extractions were conducted in the vicinity of Złoty Stok around 2000 BCE. The mine has since been expanded, with an extra 300 km of adits, shafts and drifts on twenty-one levels. The first record of mining work dates back to 1273. In turn, the mine experienced the biggest expansion of gold mining in the 16th century. Throughout its 1000 years of operation, sixteen tonnes of pure gold have been extracted. Additionally, the mine boasts the only underground waterfall in Poland.
Flint mines in Krzemionki
155 million years ago, a bay of the warm ocean Tethys was here, today, it’s the biggest Neolithic and early bronze age flint mine complex in the world.
Apart from the 1.5 km long underground route with the original tunnels from the neolithic mines, slag heaps and shaft excavations, the mine has an old miners’ settlement, which was reconstructed based on archaeological findings. It all adds up to make a unique industrial landscape from 5000 years ago.
The Old Mine in Wałbrzych
The city’s calling card emphasises the role of ‘black gold’ in Walbrzych’s history. Visitors at the revitalised Julia coal mine are invited to explore four thousand square metres of old Silesian industrial architecture from the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries. the mine’s underground corridors – a tangible geology and archaeology lesson. The museum’s collection includes old mining machinery and tools, an underground adit, bathhouse, forge, as well as lampworking and engine rooms. Today, the building hosts the modern Centre of Science and Arts. But wait – Wałbrzych has a lot more to offer!
The spectacular undergrounds of the Książ Castle and the Góry Sowie (Owl Mountains) stimulate the imagination of treasure hunters. Their wartime mysteries remain are yet to be solved.
The Riese Project in Włodarz
Historians and researchers of World War II are sure that deep in Góry Sowie there is an enormous hidden underground city. Maybe it conceals war equipment? Or bank and museum deposits? Or perhaps nuclear laboratories, underground factories or the famous golden train packed with valuables and works of art which were hastily transported from Wrocław at the end of the war?
Occasional surprising news, leads and studies have been kindling the imaginations of treasure-seekers for years. They simultaneously fuel the interest in facilities like the Włodarz massif, which have already been unearthed. It’s one of Riese Projectsbiggest known underground facilities with a maze of halls, corridors and flooded tunnels. It’s easy to feel like Indiana Jones! An account on the website rodzinna-turystyka.pl describes the experience as follows:
We pass through underground corridors, which keep branching off, carved in stone. We reach an dam separating us from the flooded part of the underground building. We embark on a boat to explore the flooded adits. It’s a unique experience. Beneath the crystal-clear water, we can see the bottom of the tunnel with beams, pipes, equipment and other remnants of the construction still lying in the depths. We float into an immense flooded hall. This is where, in silence, sitting in the rocking boat, we let our imaginations run.
Riese, German for ‘giant’, was a top-secret Nazi undertaking intended to shelter some 20,000 people – Hitler and his entourage included. The construction of Riese used more concrete than the entire populace was granted for building shelters in 1944. Today, we know of seven underground complexes other than Włodarz – Osówka, Rzeczka, Jugowice, Soboń, the Książ Castle and Gontowa. But a whole lot more remains to be discovered.
The Łódź canals
Built in the 1920s and 1930s, nearly four thousand kilometres of pipes and canals make up the underground labyrinth of Łódź. It is the first canal in Poland to be opened to the public. Krzysztof Wardecki helped adapt the Tube Museum of the Sewerfor visitors, while the exhibition, now a part of the Museum of the City of Łódź, was prepared by a renowned artist Robert Kuśmirowski.
The Tube is located underneath Plac Wolności (editor’s translation: Freedom Square) inside an old oval rainwater tank built in 1926 in order to rinse the city’s sewage system. One of the first sections of the system was designed by a British engineer, William Heerlein Lindley, who also constructed the old Stacja Filtrów (editor’s translation: Water Filters) in Warsaw. The Łódź canals (of the river Łódka) might be most well known for their role in Agnieszka Holland’s Oscar-winning film In Darkness.
Sources: podziemia.pl, wlodarz.pl, rodzinna-turystyka.pl, wikipedia, Stara Kopalnia w Wałbrzychu, krzemionki.pl, kopalniazlota.pl, podziemiakredowe.pl, kopalniaguido.pl, kopalnia.pl, edited by AL, Jul 2017, translated by AP 25 Jul 2017