When you imagine places of worship, traditional structures like Gothic churches, colorful mosques, and dazzling Buddhist temples likely come to mind. If you've ever visited Wieliczka, Poland, however, you know that not all holy buildings follow this formula. In fact, some—like the the “underground cathedral” in the Wieliczka Salt Mine—aren't buildings at all!
Nestled over 1,000 feet below the Polish town, this subterranean shrine dates back to the Middle Ages. As a result of centuries-long construction, the church houses four exquisitely constructed chapels. Each one is adorned with relief sculptures, free-standing statues, and detailed furnishings—including “crystal” chandeliers and granite-like altars—crafted entirely from rock salt.
Given the beauty and complexity of the site's design, one may expect a talented team of architects and artists to be responsible. However, the awe-inspiring “underground cathedral” was actually built by Catholic miners seeking a convenient way to worship.
“Miners were always very religious, due the fact that they were working underground in constant danger, in darkness, and away from their families,” the mine's website states. “They created underground chapels as places where they could pray, gain strength and energy before facing the challenges that awaited them and seek the protection of the patron saints of the underworld.”
While it started as a pious place for reflection, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination. Every year, it welcomes over 1.2 million visitors, who enjoy seeing, touching, and yes, even licking, the splendid salt cathedral.