Visit: 23rd June 2018
This WHS, at 101 characters, is France’s entry for “needlessly long and descriptive official name”. By my reckoning that puts it in fourth place, behind the 108-character Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura, the 109-character The Historic Centre (Chorá) with the Monastery of Saint-John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse on the Island of Pátmos and the mammoth 137-character Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis: San Ignacio Mini, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa Maria Mayor (Argentina), Ruins of Sao Miguel das Missoes (Brazil).
So, that’s exciting. But the reason for our visit wasn’t to tick that box. Natalie and I were our first weekend away to the Continent in quite a while. We flew, cheaply, to Geneva on a Friday night, hired a car and immediately left Switzerland for the small town of Divonne-les-Bains just across the border in France.
There we spent the night in order to wake up early and participate in an extension of a new hobby: parkrun. Every Saturday in many hundreds of parks primarily in the British Isles, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Poland there is a free, timed 5 km run. There are only a handful in France, but the Lac de Divonne parkrun happened to be right on our route for the weekend, so we ran it. An out-and-back around a beautiful lake, it is also a fast and flat course – leading to a new PB of 22:09 (six parkruns later I am still yet to beat that).
With the run complete we drove a hairpin-riddled road north across the sub-Alpine Jura Mountains into the province of Franche-Comté. The plan was to spend Saturday night in the Burgundian city of Dijon, but first came a visit to the two components of a salt-production World Heritage Site.
Salt was known as ‘white gold’ in the Middle Ages because – long before the invention of refrigeration – it was one of the only ways to preserve food (in particular meat). Since it was not easy to produce salt the commodity was very valuable. The word ‘salary’ comes from the the Latin for salt, because the Roman army used to pay its soldiers a monthly allowance of the mineral.
There are basically three ways to produce salt:
- mining rock salt
- solar evaporation of salt water (only feasible in very hot climates)
- using fire to heat and evaporate salt brine found underground
Salins-les-Bains and Arc-et-Senans employed the third technique, known as open-pan salt making.
Our first stop, Salins-les-Bains, is the older site – established in the Middle Ages. It is located in the hills near a natural brine (saltwater) deposit. The brine was pumped out of the rock and siphoned into metal trays, which were then heated until the water evaporated and only salt remained.
The salt was so sought after that Salins-les-Bains became wealthy and a strong wall had to be built around it to deter raiders. Over time, though, the site began to suffer from a lack of access to wood – essential to fuel the fires that heated the evaporation trays. So in the late 18th century a 21 km wooden piping system was installed to link the boreholes at Salins-les-Bains to a new, purpose-built evaporation facility at Arc-et-Senans.
This factory, sited near the Forest of Chaux, was designed by a prominent Parisian architect and built at great cost to the public purse. His intended his buildings to inspire the workers each day with its Enlightenment neo-Classical features – but also to create a Panopticon-like effect whereby the manager could see practically every other building on the grounds from his grand headquarters (above right). The large halls either side of it contained the evaporation pans, just like at Salins-les-Bains but on a grander scale.
After opening in 1790, the site only operated for about a century as the rapid innovation of the Industrial Revolution soon rendered it out-of-date. In the 20th century it was still owned by a salt company which, worried that modernisations would soon be prohibited by its imminent inclusion on a list of heritage properties, attempted to blow it up with TNT! They were unsuccessful, however and it was protected by the French government. In 1982, as a result of a campaign by a UNESCO official who happened to be from the local area, the Royal Saltworks of Arc-et-Senans were inscribed as the first ever industrial World Heritage Site. The Saltworks of Salins-les-Bains were added to the inscription in 2009.