By Katie Pisa for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Sylvia Zebrowska greeted us at the gates of Poland's famous Kopalnia Soli salt mine in Wieliczka, images of salt baths, salt-induced aromatherapy and luxurious, age-defying salty facials crossed my mind.
Instead, she handed us hard hats and asked if we'd worn good walking shoes. We packed into the mine shaft elevator with a group of tourists heading down for a tour of the salt mines, let them off at level one while we descended down to level three.
Sylvia, who works in the Kopalnia Soli rehabilitation and treatment center, had agreed to show us around this alternative to ordinary respiratory treatments. While her job was to inform us about the center and the salt mines, I was secretly hoping that some of my allergy pain would be alleviated.
As we descended 135 meters below the sunny lobby of the former working mine in our little cage, bells rang, ears popped and the air became damp and cold. "This feels just like being back in England," I joked with Sylvia. "Ah, yes, but it's very good air. The best you can breathe," she assured us.
Flashlight in hand, we followed Sylvia, through a tunnel away from the tourist areas for some 800 meters. It felt like an eternity to me, as I'm slightly claustrophobic.
The dimly-lit tunnel led us through a series of doors. Stalagmites hung from the ceiling, old mining train tracks ran wiggled through the ground below us, and not a sound or a person was to be seen.
We followed Sylvia as she gave us historical background on the former working mine, a UNESCO protected space since 1978, and its vast network of shafts, about 200 miles in total spread out over nine levels. It was serene down there.
The mines have been in operation since the 16th century and it wasn't long after that the ancient healing properties of salt were put to use. By the early 1800s Wieliczka was a recognised health resort.
As we entered the "spa", the chants of a group resounded off the cavernous space. They were doing breathing exercises with a physiotherapist. In this dark, cool environment (the temperature is kept at a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit), it could have been mistaken for some bizarre underworld cult, but the tour led us around Wessel Lake chamber complete with an exercise area, a play area for kids, and even a ping-pong table and lounges for hanging out.
A group of about 20 were there the day we visited, many adults whose doctors had suggested they go and learn to breathe better in this idyllic atmosphere. The lungs thrive on cool, damp air, we were told, not to mention the calcium, sulphur and magnesium in the mine. Salt is an anti-inflammatory and also highly anti-allergenic, meaning allergens cannot thrive in this environment.
Most spa-goers have some type of respiratory problem, some have heart problems. While the largest percentage of visitors are Polish, the treatment center has 40% of its visitors from countries including Germany, Ukraine, Russia, U.S., Sweden and Holland.
One attendee, Bryan Bounds (a Texan who married a Brit), has suffered terrible asthma all his life and said he'd tried everything before the salt mine. "I felt better after day three. I started having more energy," he said, adding that his pleurisy had gone away after a few days down in the spa.
A typical day starts at about 8.30am, goes for 6.5 hours and involves some physiotherapy, breathing exercises with sticks and balls, aerobics and even some Polish and Jewish dancing. "You have to move around to stay warm," said Bryan.
And while the spa may not have fancy digs for sleeping, or treatments most of us associate with spas normally, many visitors stay in nearby Krakow (12 miles away) for a bit of sightseeing.
In my four hours spent down below, I definitely noticed my allergies subside and the pressure in my sinuses felt relieved, even if briefly. I checked in with Bryan a few weeks after meeting him in the mine. He still feels better and is contemplating going back again later this year for a second round.
"One subtle point is that I can now catch myself when I'm not breathing fully (from stress, etc) and make some adjustments, so that I'm getting a full tank."
Visits to the rehabilitation center range from one to 17 days. Prices range from $47 for one day to $1,850 for 17 days including accommodation, meals, massages and transportation to the airport and Krakow. Further information on www.kopalnia.pl
NOTE: For those interested in visiting the salt mine only, take a tour through the labyrinth of shafts which include chapels, salt sculptures, galleries and salt lakes with light shows. Further details on www.kopalnia.pl
Wessel Lake down in the treatment center of Kopalnia Soli salt mine.