Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans are in the Jura and Doubs departments of France, respectively. Both administrative departments are on France’s eastern border with Switzerland. As of 2015 Jura and Doubs were part of the larger administrative region of Franche-Comté, the only region of the continental portion of France that we hadn’t visited. But by the time we first arrived in Franche-Comté in 2016 it turned out that we already had visited all of the administrative regions of continental France. How did that happen? At the start of 2016 Franche-Comté was consolidated into a larger region, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. A legislative act eliminated Franche-Comté before we could visit.
Another travel goal, visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, prompted us to visit Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans. At this point we’ve seen over 100 UNESCO sites. That leaves us a mere 950 sites or so short of UNESCO’s full list. We are nowhere the leader who has visited 961 sites. There’s no chance that we will ever get to all of the UNESCO sites particularly as some of the sites are in seriously dangerous and difficult to reach locations. And besides, UNESCO is adding more Heritage Sites each year. It’s a worthy goal but making it to every entry on UNESCO’s list is near impossible.
Why visit UNESCO sites? Though there are some duds, UNESCO World Heritage sites are often interesting, informative, and, sometimes, unusual. UNESCO sites can be a good way to learn about important parts of the cultural heritage that are otherwise easy to miss. And so it is with the historic saltworks in the Jura and Doubs.
Today salt is a cheap commodity item. It hasn’t always been that way. Before its wide scale production the scarcity and universal need for salt for food preservation has led nations to go to war over the mineral. Past the utility, taxing salt generated substantial revenues. Indeed it is said that the word “salary” is derived from Roman word “salarium.” The means and places of the production of salt were of strategic and economic importance around the world. The saltworks in Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans were vital to the French economy.
The source of the salt in this area of France is an underground saline aquifer. In order to produce dry salt, the water must be removed. To do this, the open-pan method was employed. This technique, the method used at Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans, involves boiling off the water from an open tray of brine. It is easy enough to replicate on small scale in a domestic kitchen. But to produce salt on a larger scale required the construction of the industrial facilities that can be seen in Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans.
Visits are possible to both the Great Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains to the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans. Most impressive is a tour of the inside of the salt production facilities at Salins-les-Bains. Salt was produced in Salins-les-Bains until 1962. The factory’s large open drying pans and underground tunnels remain in place. These drying pans were filled with brine and heated from beneath. Workers collected the salt crystals or “white gold” that was formed under conditions that must have been hot, steamy, and oppressive.
Today salt is a cheap commodity item. Visiting the saltworks at Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans is a reminder that this was not always the case. It is also a reminder of the important salt played through the centuries.