Engineering Marvels: Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

While I was visiting Jon Maiden’s blog, I had a question about destinations in Europe. Specifically, engineering marvels. I’m a civil engineer, so many of the things I like to see while I’m on vacation are triumphs of human achievement. While I was inspired by some of the helpful suggestions he provided, I figured I should do some more research, since I love seeing impressive engineering works.


In the summer of 2000, my family drove around the country for three weeks. My dad did ALL of the driving. My Gram came with us and spent most of the time in the front seat – she’s managed to be taller than just about everyone else in our family so she had really long legs. My mom spent a lot of the time in the very back right corner, next to a seat piled high with suitcases, camping gear, snacks, and pillows. My brother and I camped out in the middle two seats of the minivan, with an inverter that plugged into the cigarette lighter, a 9″ tv/vcr combo, and a Playstation… the first one.

We drove all over the country for three weeks- and one of the places we visited was the Hoover Dam. That was the first real engineering-related place I remember going. We were able to go on a tour of the dam – down inside it through the visitor’s center, past the humongous turbines, down and outside near the base of the dam (near the “comb” just above the water in the photo above).

I was seriously impressed that they had to cool the interior of the dam to get the concrete to dry (or it would still be wet today).

That 21,000 men worked on the dam and built the entire thing in 5 years. I didn’t know it at the time, but now I know that is a gigantic workforce for a construction project compared to the amount of labor we currently need to build things, while the duration of construction is approximately the same as the bridge that now spans it, despite today’s high-tech equipment.

That 112 deaths occurred between the initial survey phase and the end of construction. I can’t even imagine those working conditions. Construction is still one of the most dangerous careers you can have – but currently, most projects (at least in the US) end without any fatalities.

What That Means Now

It means that since then, I’ve gone on to get a B.S. and M.S.E. for civil engineering, and I’m currently working full time as a water/wastewater engineer. I still find site visits for work interesting (in case you don’t know what that means, I essentially go to treatment plants, where your faucet water comes from, or where your *ahem* wastes go – the kind of job you never think about until suddenly you can’t turn on the faucet or flush your toilet).

It also means that I like to see engineering marvels elsewhere in the world. I’m fascinated by how both humans and nature itself shape the world around us. We guide water through pipes, but also stop it up in rivers. We build sky-gazing buildings, but also dig deep into the earth.

One of those places deep in the earth,  is the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland (click here for the English Wikipedia article – the official site is in Polish and google translate can only do so much). It’s located near Krakow, where we were already planning to spend a day or two. It looks like it costs 73 PLN for a foreign language tour (English is a foreign language!), which is around $23 USD, or $18 if we can get a discounted rate with US student IDs. It’ll be worth it to see this crazy human ingenuity.

Also, I might not want to go to this room – the little gnomes are more than a little creepy! What if they suddenly come to life and start singing “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho…”?

My mom’s family was from Poland, so that is one of the definite destinations for our trip next year. She is terrified of heights, but has no problem going into caverns or caves – so this will be something we can both enjoy. I’m really excited – this mine has been in operation since the 13th century! It has been visited by incredibly famous people (Nicolaus CopernicusFryderyk ChopinPresident Bill Clinton), used as inspiration for films and movies, and is an original UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hard to beat those endorsements!

Tackling the Language Barrier

Speaking of Poland, I checked out a CD set today from the library in an attempt to teach myself basic Polish! To be fair, I also checked out a CD set to learn basic French, and so far all I can say in French is “Excuse me, do you speak English?” or “I am American”… I’ve got a long way to go. But we’ll see how it turns out. I like listening to CDs in my car on the way to work – it’s much better than listening to the same Top 40 songs every morning and evening. But Polish is supposedly one of the hardest languages to learn, so I chickened out and started with French. Oh well – maybe I’ll encourage my mom to listen to the Polish CDs instead – she used to know some Polish growing up so she’d probably have an easier time re-learning it.

So thanks to Jon Maiden for the suggestion! I had only heard of the mine in passing previously. It was good to get a second opinion so that I’d look further into that mine.

Categories: Daydreaming, Engineering, Engineering Marvel, Planning, Poland, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 replies

  1. Wonderful post! I’m of Polish heritage as well and I appreciate you following me. Looking forward to more from you. Sandi

    • Thanks for stopping by my blog! My Polish heritage has always been one of my heritages that I know the least about, so I’m looking forward to learning more about it as I research and eventually take this trip to Europe with my mom. It’s really interesting to think that there is a whole history to my family that I barely know anything about, other than when my mom has told me so far about my grandparents.

  2. This is somewhere I’ve never heard of before! I’d love to visit someday. I’ve done a lot of travel in Asia and South America but never in Europe. I’m also planning a trip there soon 🙂

    • Honestly, I had never heard of it either until I started researching places to visit in Poland. Apparently the Tatra Mountains are also amazing – I haven’t done much research into them yet but they appear to be beyond beautiful (

      Thanks for stopping by my blog! I visited yours and I have to say – it is intensely full of information! Unfortunately not much that will help in terms of location guides for Europe since you haven’t traveled there yet, but there’s plenty of other helpful things on your site (photography tips being one major place where I need all the help I can get). If you get to Europe before I do, I’ll be sure to jealously admire all of your awesome photos!

  3. Hi Jen, great to see you’ve been looking into the suggestions – and that the Salt Mine has made the travel itinerary. You’ll have such a great time in Poland – it’s an incredible country. One Polish phrase you’ll no doubt need: “dziekuje za goscine” which means “thank you for your hospitality”. The Poles really know how make people welcome – it’s the lasting memory of my time in Poland. Jon

    • Great to know about the Polish phrase – I like the sentiment behind it. I’ve also been looking at possibly renting an apartment for the few nights we’ll be there, rather than a hotel (I’ll be posting about it in a few days). I feel like my mom would appreciate the more personal touch of staying in a local’s home in Poland than she might somewhere like Venice or even Paris or London. Plus, it’ll be interesting to see if my mom gets some of her mannerisms from her Polish heritage – or if the little quirks are just family traditions!

  4. That sounds a great idea. There’s always Couch Surfing as well which is very popular in Europe (not sure if it’s made it across the pond). It’s a brilliant way of meeting local people and taking advantage of their local knowledge…

    • I’ve had a few people recommend Couch Surfing before. I do plan on looking into that before we make a final decision on where to stay, just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I suppose it is similar to the renting of a room/apartment, except that the point is to actually have your hosts present!

      • And that is doesn’t cost anything! It’s great as long as you’re not precious about your personal space – and brilliant if you’re actively seeking rich travel experiences where you engage with local people and see places beyond the tourist trail etc.

        • Ahh I forgot that it doesn’t cost anything! I’ll definitely have to look into it – our budget for this trip is not very large and I only have enough points for a few days of hotel stays. It would be wonderful to have a local to explain things to us, since Polish is such an incredibly difficult language to learn!

          • Polish gets much less baffling once you understand how to read and pronounce the various ‘z’ combinations e.g. ‘cz’ is just ‘ch’ like ‘charity’ and ‘sz’ is ‘sh’ like ‘shoot’. ‘Dz’ is ‘j’ like ‘jeans’ or ‘jungle’ depending on whether it has a dot or dash above it respectively. Easy! Or maybe not. Good luck!

          • It may be easier to pronounce if you know what the letter combinations sound like, but that doesn’t make it much easier to remember what the words mean. All I’ve managed to pick up over the years is “Chrusciki, proszę!”

  5. Interesting to note that the Hoover is now some 5 x smaller in height than the Yangtse Dam in China (it’s 185m), an estimated 250,000 workers, 21 million cubic yards of concrete, 1.4 miles long and displacing over 1.5 million folks from their homes.
    It would be interesting to hear your views on the ongoing waste water management of that particular project as it is immense! An engineers dream perhaps?

    • I would love to see the Three Gorges Dam someday! It is impressive in its scale, that’s for sure. The amount of electricity produced is amazing (considering it would have all had to come from coal I guess that’s one win for the environment). And it forced wastewater treatment upstream to improve, or risk letting it all collect at the dam.

      But the amount of silt and sediment built up behind the dam is enormous, which will affect the downstream health of the river that used to receive the silt along its length. Without minimizing the cost to communities and the environment, though, I think the biggest challenge will be how it stands up for the long-term. They already observed hairline fractures and cavitation, which will only increase with time. I really hope they have a plan in place for dam failure – I can’t even wrap my head around that much water rushing downstream.

  6. I can endorse both the Salt Mines and the Tatry Mountains. I’d never been to Poland until 5 years ago, despite having a Polish Dad, but I’ve been back quite a few times since and have loved what I’ve seen. I was in Wroclaw this Summer visiting cousins and my uncle who lives at the German border.
    Language wise I find it a struggle. If I’d learnt when I was much younger it might have been ok, but I had no cause to do so. Are you just going to Poland, or elsewhere in Europe too?

    • Glad to know the Salt Mines and the Mountains are worth seeing! I agree the language is a struggle – I just started the short Pimsleur course and my brain and tongue are tripping over the unfamiliar syllables! So far all I can say is “Cookie please” – I learned that one as a kid so I could get in the good graces of my Polish great-aunts and great-uncles! And “Do you speak English / I do not understand Polish”. I’m trying to convince my mom to re-learn Polish – she knew it as a kid but hasn’t used it in 50 years – but at least her tongue won’t trip over the words as much as mine does!

      We’ll be going other places in Europe too – definitely Paris, probably Venice, and possibly wherever else we can fit in our schedule! I’m still in the early planning stages, so it’ll be a while before we know for sure!

      Where else in Poland do you recommend? We’re definitely going to Krakow, but might try to include some other towns/cities too.

  7. Cool blog! Great post on the salt mines! Thanks for checking out my blog. Keep up the interesting work — we get to travel vicariously through your site!


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