It is unbearably hot. The arid plateau is slowly becoming a nightmare for the bunch of people desperately seeking shade, already having lost their patience. Standing there, in my sandals and shorts, I had a feeling I would soon regret my choice of wardrobe for the day.
The minibus took as many passengers as it could fit in and began going round old warehouses and processing plants, many of which seem abandoned. There is something about the whole scenery that reminds me of an old World War 2 computer game, as if I’m expecting the enemy to jump through a broken window at any time. But that’s only my imagination.
Out of a sudden, the minibus disappeared into the ground, swallowed by a black hole. It got dark and turned chilly. We were in a narrow passageway heading to the center of the earth and faint lamps shed light over the large entranceways to the salt extraction galleries. It took a while to get down, 208 meters beneath the earth to be more precise. I had plenty of time to remember how much I hate winding roads.
Unirea Salt Mine
It is the largest salt mine in Europe. A total of 14 giant trapeze-shaped chambers are carved around a massive pillar. Together, they create a colossal gallery, 60 meters (200 feet) high, 32 meters (100 feet) wide at ground level, and 10 meters (33 feet) wide under the ceiling, summing up 53,000 square meters (174,000 square feet) and an excavated volume of 2,9 million cubic meters (9,5 million cubic feet) of salt.
If you think these numbers are astounding, wait till you hear the rest. The salt mine is home to a constant microclimate. Temperature stays at 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year, while air humidity ranges between 50-60%. That’s considerably less than at the surface and certainly not what you’d expect to find down here, in the depths of the earth. Rich in sodium ions and saline aerosols, the air has excellent therapeutic benefits for those with respiratory problems, which makes it a coveted destination for those seeking treatment.
Unirea Salt Mine was inaugurated in 1938. Exploitation began in 1943 and ended in 1970, when it opened for visitors. To get down, it was a one-and-a-half-minute ride in an old rusty elevator dating from 1936, “the cage of terror” some called it. The elevator did its duty until 2014, when a malfunction left hundreds trapped in the underground for hours. Now, access is made via minibuses.
Salt puts on quite a show to the delight of our dear eyes. Stripes in various shades of opaque colors, from snow-white to bluish-gray, combine to form elaborate expressionist paintings.
Down here, visitors can travel back in time and have a glimpse of Romania’s history and legacy. In the Genesis Chamber, Dacian ruler Burebista’s half-length portrait is carved in salt, together with Dacian ruler Decebal and Roman Emperor Traian’s salt sculptures, surrounded by specific Dacian and Roman elements and motifs. The bass-reliefs of Romanian ruler Mihai Viteazul and poet Mihai Eminescu stand motionless in the gloomy lights. Further along the corridor, the sickle and hammer, iconic communist symbols, can still be seen on one of the walls, painted by a patriot miner when the ground level was halfway up from where it is today. There are sports courts, playgrounds, coffee shops, and a designated area where people suffering from respiratory problems can lie down in a bed or chair for a few hours. A chapel was built inside the mine 1993, a lit cross signaling its presence in the dim light. Salt lakes are present in many of the chambers, from small ponds to bigger ones. The result of water leaks over time, they are now a tourist attraction reflecting the entangled game of lights and shadows on their unwavering surface.
One can hardy guess that, above the ceiling, separated by a 40-meter (130-feet) layer of salt, lie two smaller salt mines, closed to the public due to water leaks. The Carol Mine was dug by prisoners during King Carol’s reign. Its uneven walls make it an excellent environment for mine flowers. The Mihai Mine was mechanically dug during King Mihai’s reign and is very similar in shape to the Unirea Mine, only smaller in size. In 1912, it became the first electrically lit mine in Romania. Both mines were closed down in the interwar period. Here, thanks to its zero air circulation, national and international plane modeling competitions are organized every once in a while. It is the only time the public are allowed to visit.
An incursion beyond the tourist lines
A walkway hangs suspended just under the roof, 60 meters (200 feet) above the ground, enclosing the whole ceiling. A staircase covered in a thick layer of salt climbs up the imposing 23 August Pit, leading up to the walkway, ensuring access for the technical personnel to check the condition up there. There is an incredible pressure pushing on the roof of the mine, hence the trapeze shape and the narrow width at the ceiling. But salt is not as hard as rock, it keeps changing and large cracks are formed. Every now and then, slabs must be removed to avoid accidents.
The footbridge creaked under our footsteps. Here and there, missing planks offered a bird’s eye view into the abyss. Not a good place to lose your grip. We had to cross a sloping, half-broken bridge to get to the other side, one at a time, confident we’ll be lucky and it won’t snap under our feet. And it worked. Though I don’t know if it will for much longer. Just as we were halfway through, the guy showing us around told us the walkway dates from the 1930s. I suddenly felt a lump in my throat. What’s more, it’s made of wood, pinewood to be more exact. It appears the low humidity and saline concentration in the air preserves the wood in perfect condition. Doesn’t mean it’s not scary. From up here, all those people down there look like flees. We must look the same to them.
Slanic Prahova spa resort
The purity of the salt that lies beneath these winding forest-covered hills has been drawing attention for centuries. First exploitation began in 1688. Thanks to the quality of the salt, the mine soon became the largest in Europe. When the many heath benefits of the saline aerosols became known, a spa resort began developing around the mine.
The mine is not the only record-breaker here. There are other attractions worth seeing, such as the Salt Mountain, unique in the world. It was formed when an old salt mine gallery collapsed. Water invaded the old exploitation and melted the salt, forming a cave and a lake at its foothills that would become known as the Bride’s Lake after a bride committed suicide by throwing herself from the Salt Mountain after her wedding at the beginning of the 20th century. The exact reasons are still unknown, but it is believed she did it because she was forced to marry a man she did not love. Rainwater continues to chisel intriguing shapes into the mountain. But at the same time, the continuous erosion is slowly shrinking the mountain and will continue to do so until a large hole in the ground will be the only thing left.
There are a total of seven salt lakes in the resort, all former flooded salt mined, whose saline concentration has a priceless curative value. Lacul Verde (the “Green Lake”), Baia Baciului (the “Shepherd’s Lake”), Baia Rosie (the “Red Lake”), Baia Porcilor (the “Pigs’ Lake”) and Lacul Miresei (the “Bride’s Lake”), with their yellow-green and yellow-red waters, are all open for tourists to bathe in during summer.