Of all the things my mother warned me about – talking to strangers, running with scissors – becoming lost in a Polish salt mine wasn't one of them. Not just any salt mine, but the Wieliczka salt mine, with its labyrinth of subterranean tunnels, chambers and lakes.
"We lose people all the time," said our local guide, Aleksy, during his introduction. "So please try to keep up."
I assumed he was kidding.
For the three-hour tour I was the kid who couldn't keep up with the Pied Piper, constantly dragging my feet and lagging behind. The last I saw of my group was the heels of our guide as the doors to the mine elevator closed, whisking them to the surface and leaving me behind.
When the lift failed to return I back-tracked along the dimly lit corridor, pulling my thin cardigan across my chest before pausing in front of a life-sized Virgin Mary. Carved from salt she stood in a recess, palms pressed together and rosary beads hanging from her wrist.
Forgive me, for I have sinned. I've strayed from the flock. Rambled when I should have rushed. Strolled when I should have strode. Distracted as much by the individual salt crystals, which flicker in the dark like entire galaxies, as the soaring Chapel of Saint Kinga, which was carved from salt over the course of 70 years.
It had started so well, 800 steps bringing us 135 metres below by a series of staircases, shafts and walkways. The cool air hits like a flurry on an autumn day. Breathing deep I can taste the astringent saline. The allergen-free micro-elements in the subterranean chambers are said to be good for asthmatics and those with skin conditions.
The first chamber we visit is the Upper Urszula, which was excavated between 1649 and 1685. We learn that the region of Wieliczka, 14 kilometres from Krakow, has been producing rock salt since Neolithic times. "But it wasn't until the 13th-century that wells were sunk for commercial production of table salt," says Aleksy. "Then it all stopped in 1996 due to falling salt prices."
Today the mine is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site and one of Poland's official Historic Monuments. "Many of the tunnels are still unchartered," says Aleksy. "Out of the 287 kilometres of tunnels we'll cover a mere 3.5 kilometres."
Thanks to the generations of miners who worked the shafts, the section we can visit is a veritable city, complete with rooms and chapels, monuments and reliefs, all carved from salt. The 12-metre-high chamber housing the Chapel of Saint Kinga is strung with chandeliers, the salt crystals gleaming as bright as Swarovski crystal. The climax is a visit to the salt lake in the Erazm Baracz chamber; its briny waters glowing like an emerald as a Chopin melody drifts across the cavern.
It's on the walk through the final corridor I lose my group, my head bouncing with stories from the legend of Princess Kinga to the Jews brought to the mine during Nazi occupation to work in an underground armament factory. Tales of wonder and woe trapped in salt formed 13.6 million years ago.
Eventually a security guard notices my lone-wolf status, opens the elevator and catapults me back to the 21st-century. "I told you we lose people all the time," says Aleksy, with a knowing grin. "We lose them to the beauty and the grace, and the sheer improbability of it all."
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Krakow in Poland via Dubai. See emirates.com.
Intrepid Travel offers a selection of European tours that visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine. See intrepidtravel.com
Kerry van der Jagt travelled to Europe courtesy of Intrepid Travel.