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Grande Saline, Salins-les-Bains, Franche-Comté
The salt mine at Salins-les-Bains lies in the Jura valley, surrounded by steep cliffs upon the top of which two forts can be seen. Salt, an essential of life for thousands of years, particularly for food preservation, was highly valued, and had to be protected. The mine was in operation for 1200 years until 1962, and today you can visit the site and the museum. The working conditions in the intense heat were truly terrible in order to extract this precious commodity known as 'white gold'.
There are three techniques for the production of salt: mining, salt marsh evaporation and 'fire-source' production in which a heat source is used to boil the brine. In Franche-Comté this latter technique was used.
210 million years ago, a shallow but very salty sea covered a huge swathe of France from Burgundy where the Fontaines Salées can be visited to the coast of Provence. Little by little, the sea evaporated leaving a thick layer of salt that today lies 250 metres below the surface at Salins-les-Bains. When in contact with this mineral vein called 'rock salt', underground waters absorb the salt. During the Neolithic period, the salt water springs encouraged previously nomadic people to settle nearby.
The brine was pumped up from the ground by various methods throughout the centuries using first manpower, then horse power, then hand operated piston pumps in the 16th C and finally, in the 19thC, a water wheel powered from the river, La Furieuse. This runs a brine pump drawing from a depth of 246m, water containing 330 gms of salt per litre and is still in operation today (above right).
The brine was heated in a 'pans', which until the end of the 18thC were round cauldrons then later huge rectangular steel trays (above left). A fire burnt underneath in the brick 'boiler' originally using vast amounts of wood, and later coal. The workers had to endure extremely high temperature and humidity as they shovelled the crystalline salt first to drain it and then to be bagged up for sale. At its zenith, 180 people worked inside the factory and 640 others were employed outside, particularly in the surrounding forests.
In 1962 the factory closed by which time only 12 workers remained as it was no longer a commercial proposition. In 2009 the Grande Saline was given UNESCO Heritage status.
Visiting the Mine and museum
A guided tour takes you through the saltworks and lasts about an hour. You will be taken via a 50 step stairway down to the underground gallery where the temperature is 12 degrees C so take a jacket. Tours are in French, with an explanatory leaflet in English. From July 1 - September 13 there is a tour in English at 14.00 each day and in German at 14.15. After the tour, you are free to browse in the museum.
Open daily with the exception of December 25, January 1 and the 2nd week of January.
La Grande Saline
La Saline Royale Arc-et-Senan, also a UNESCO Heritage Site
Arbois, wine centre of Franche-Comté
A-Z Franche-Comté - some highlights at a glance