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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #627: Salins-les-Bains

From the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans, the production of open-pan salt is one of the more imaginative WHS of France. With an admission date of 1982 it also is one of the earlier sites on the WH List. So I was really looking forward to visiting, and it did not disappoint. I even had wanted to stay overnight at Arc-et-Senans, but when I checked 2 months beforehand the on-site hotel La Saline Royale was already fully booked for the date that I wanted.

Grande Saline of Salins-les-Bains

My planned visit on a Sunday in March left me with a dilemma: because of the limited opening hours during the winter season, I only had time to visit 1 out of the 2 inscribed locations (Arc-et-Senans or Salins-les-Bains) properly. I eventually chose Salins-les-Bains, as its features are mostly underground and less weather dependent. The site lies in the French Jura, quite a trip through the countryside away from the nearest tollway exit.

During the weekends off-season there are 3 daily tours of the underground saltworks. They are all conducted in French, although foreign speakers are provided with a leaflet in English. The stories of the guide are much more detailed though than what’s available on paper: you can download an audioguide in your language beforehand for your phone, but I forgot to do that. So I did my best to understand the French explanations.

Underground leftovers

The 1 hour tour teaches you everything that you never knew about salt. The product was so valuable in its heydays that the big Salins-les-Bains complex only had one small exit, where the labourers were checked everyday so they did not smuggle salt to the outside world with them. The factory at Salins-les-Bains was purposely built near a forested area to provide for its high energy approach to sustain the artificial evaporation process. The main distinguishing feature of Salins has been described by ICOMOS as “extraction techniques, notably the existing underground facilities, which testify to the pumping system and the production of open-pan salt”.

There’s always some excitement about an underground tour, though I must say that there aren't many original features left. The saltworks here were based on preserved layers of salt beneath the ground. Via an extraction process (partly done by horses and later using water wheels), brine would be pumped into pans and concentrated by the heat of the fire burning underneath. As crystals of salt formed these would be raked out and more brine added. The huge drying racks and fans can still be seen.

Main entrance to Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans

I left Salins-les-Bains just after noon, and decided to make a short detour to Arc-et-Senans. Both of the Saltworks were linked together by a double-pipe system. This main location is situated some 20 minutes northwards and is only open from 10-12 and 14-17. But I hoped to still get a glimpse of this highlight of classicist architecture. Well, it wasn’t really worth it: the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans are fully surrounded by a 3m high wall! The gate was locked and I could only admire the main entrance.

Published 11 March 2017

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