Going underground in search of white gold

For over a twelve hundred years, the briny underground springs of Salins-les-Bains were exploited to make that most precious of commodities, salt. In the Middle Ages, the white gold that was produced made the town one of the most important and wealthy in this whole region. The wealth generated gave Salins-les-Bains a strategic value that explains the two imposing fortresses – designed by no lesser a person than Vauban – that today silently guard the town from their lofty hilltop positions.

Salins-les-Bains, France
Casino, Salins-les-Bains, France
Salins-les-Bains, France
Eglise Saint-Maurice, Salins-les-Bains, France
Chapelle Notre-Dame-Libératrice, Salins-les-Bains, France
Fortress overlooking Salins-les-Bains, France

The relationship between salt and Salins-les-Bains stretches back to the 8th century, and production only finally ceased in 1962. The history that those long centuries encompass, and the epic industrial heritage this small town represents, saw it granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2009, five decades after the last salt was produced. It has been an interactive visitor attraction ever since, and the reason why we broke our journey north to Besançon.

Squeezed into a long thin valley, there were wonderful views as we approached from the south and drove down into the town. We eventually found a parking spot and set off to find out when the next tour of the salt mines was. Bizarrely, the building we assumed was the immersive visitor centre turned out to be a casino. The real thing is a short walk away in a building that rubs shoulders with the factory where the salt was produced.

In centuries past “being sent to the salt mines” had an ominous meaning. The work was so dangerous that it was considered a death sentence. On a fiercely hot day when the mercury was hitting the high 30ºCs, descending into the 165 meters of the 13th century vaulted underground galleries open to the public was a massive relief. But the slimey humidity of the mines meant it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience.

In the mine there is a 19th century hydraulic pump and we saw how water was pumped from underground to the factory. Here salt was extracted from the brine by boiling the water over wood fires. Conditions for workers in the heat were pretty miserable. Wood for the fires was cut from nearby forests which, by the 18th century, had been decimated by the industry.

This meant that from 1780 to 1895, the salt water travelled through 21 km of wooden pipes to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, which was close to a much larger forest. The trees have thankfully regrown and today the town is surrounded by woodland and beautiful rolling countryside, and the salt waters are still put to good use. Salins-les-Bains is a spa town, albeit one that seems to have seen better days.

It’s hard to tell on a fleeting visit, but it did feel a little down at heel. This was not helped by the relentless traffic that passes through the town. Perhaps things would have been different had the town not been almost destroyed by fire in the early 19th century. There are still reminders of its former glory though, the most striking of which is the Chapelle Notre-Dame-Libératrice with its brightly tiled domed roof.

Salt works, Salins-les-Bains, France
Salt works, Salins-les-Bains, France
Salt works, Salins-les-Bains, France
Salt works, Salins-les-Bains, France
Salt works, Salins-les-Bains, France
Salt works, Salins-les-Bains, France

We strolled across the park in front of the casino and went to investigate what else the town had to offer. Salins-les-Bains is not a big place, there are fewer than three thousand residents, and under a hot sun our walk did not last long. There are a couple of nice churches, a small number of 18th century buildings, and the town has a pleasant backdrop of wooded hills, but it didn’t feel like the sort of place to spend much time in.

We were soon back on the road and heading to Besançon, the final stop on this road trip though the Jura.

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