We have discovered an interesting and relatively unknown point of interest for people visiting or passing Rimnicu Valcea. This is the old salt mines of Ocnele Mari, located just outside the city. This former salt mine was opened to the public as a health centre, museum and recreation area. The total surface is between 10.000 and 20.000 square metres depending upon which piece of information you read, but there does appear to be consensus that the mine is located 226 m above sea level.
The mine is accessible by minibus through a 1.300 m long underground tunnel, descending 29 m underneath the outdoor ground level. The temperature inside is of 13°C ¸ 15°C, which is pleasant enough for some but appeared to be a bit chilly for most of our fellow visitors. The height of the salt rooms is of 8 m. It is intriguing to see a fitness centre with cardio vascular equipment there until you discover that the salt enriched air has beneficial properties and breathing diseases can be relieved here. Raising your breathing rate can therefore speed up the healing process – we elected not to experiment with this concept.
The underground area has the largest underground church in Romania (the competition for this may not be that tough…), a museum, restaurant, souvenir shops, bars, a soccer field, two volleyball courts, a tennis, pool table, playground and self powered go-karts for children (or very small and willing adults). With all of these potential distractions, the main interest for our party was the wonderful patterns of salt in the walls, floors and ceilings.
The salt mines date back to some pretty ancient times as a significant number of axes and mining hammers have been discovered that date back to Neolithic,
Bronze and First Iron Age cultures. Due to this there is evidence that the working of the mines of Ocnele Mari led to the development of strong community, starting from ancient times to today, when much of the local economy depended on the production of salt.
An archaeological site nearby was surprised to discover the remains of an ancient Dacian fortress dating back more than 2000 years, called Buridava. Salt exploitation in the area continued through the Roman conquest, and the Roman camp Stolniceni is believed to have been built to control this area.
Salt from ancient times through to the Middle Ages salt was an extremely valuable commodity (the word salary is derived from salt). In the Middle Ages the output of the salt mines become a royal monopoly and an important source of income.
Systematic (large scale) exploitation of deposits began in mid 19th century that led to the creation of the large chambers that the visitors now stroll through. There is a story that there was another mine nearby that was flooded to enable the Oltcim chemical works to extract salt easily from the solution. To prevent erosion within the mines, oil was poured to create a protective layer between the water and the rock surfaces, which having a high salt content would effectively dissolve. Faced with the challenge of pouring many tons of oil into the mine that would be difficult to measure, local workers succumbed to temptation and sold the oil. Nature took its course and the mine collapsed, possibly a useful example for any politicians tempted to dip their fingers into the pot in the world of today.
The legacy of mining over the last few thousand years is that Salina Ocnele Mari is an interesting place to visit at a number of levels. It’s not expensive at RON 14 per adult and has enough to keep both adults and children entertained. If you have breathing problems then you get the added benefit of a passive cure, which you can take a step further if you use the fitness area. At least the ambient temperature will prevent you from getting too hot and bothered as you attempt cure yourself.