The Desolate Salt Mines Of Sal Island, Cape Verde

I didn’t know about Sal until a couple weeks before I departed for a trip to the island, at the invitation of a friend who wanted to go there for the purpose of diving and also wanted to have a travel partner in tow. I knew little about the country of Cape Verde. Between agreeing to go on the trip and now, I’ve learned about the 83.4 square mile stretch of land that sits in the Atlantic Ocean off of the coast of Mauritania and in doing so, I’ve learned about Sal’s salt, which has been both the backbone and bane of the island’s economy over the years. The salt mines of Sal are one of the island’s biggest tourist attractions and yet eerily desolate and nearly inactive.

The island itself is one of 10 islands that makes up the country of Cape Verde. Sal is an island belonging to a northern group of islands within the country, called Barlavento. It’s sandy and mostly flat, with the exception of inactive volcanic formations that protrude above the near-desert surface. It’s almost always sunny in Sal and even during the “rainy” season, it hardly rains. Geologically, Sal is the oldest island of Cape Verde. Its earth was formed nearly 50 million years ago from the eruption of a currently inactive volcano. Originally called Llana when the island was discovered by the Portuguese in 1460, the name was changed to Sal after the discovery of the island’s salt mines in what is now called Pedra de Lume. The landscape of Pedra de Lume and the rest of the island doesn’t look much different than the latest images of Mars the Curiosity Rover has sent back.

%Gallery-193936%Located on the northeastern part of the island, Pedra de Lume’s salt was predominantly mined during the 18th century. According to the guide I hired to show me around the island, nearly 300 locals worked the mines during that time. He estimated the current number of mine employees to be around five or so. The village is small these days and seems to mostly persist for the sake of travelers, like myself, who want to see the ancient salt mines for themselves. Very little salt is still produced from these mines – what is made these days is made primarily for locals and tourists. The changing currency of Sal’s salt has been an economic blow in the company of many others for the local community.

The salt evaporation ponds that were built over the natural volcanic salt lake all sit within the Pedra de Lume crater, which is beneath sea level. As I walked through the tunnel that leads to the mines, the light shot shiny beams through the darkness, signaling the clearing ahead. Once through the tunnel, I made my way down the path that leads to the salt ponds and promptly disrobed, eager to experience that famous unsinkable feeling that waters this salty, 26 times saltier than seawater, provide. No matter how much I’d read about this rare buoyancy before or seen in photos, nothing had ever conveyed the feeling of invincibility that washed over me. I struggled to swim to the center of the salt pond and tried my hand at performing yoga postures and dance positions in the water. I’d occasionally roll, collecting the repulsive tonic in my mouth, but I never sank. Instead of showering upon exiting the pond, I let the salt coat my skin, which gave my legs the texture of sandpaper. The spooky scenery of Sal’s salt mines isn’t only memorable; the desolate expanse of otherworldly land lends merit to the main attraction.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine: An Underground Wonder

There’s something alluring about underground spaces. Whether it’s the ancient subterranean cities of Cappadocia in Turkey or the alternative art galleries of the Paris catacombs, humanity’s works underground take on a strange and mysterious feeling.

Perhaps there is no underground space more strange and mysterious than the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a salt mine from the 13th century until as recently as 1996. In that time the miners excavated 190 miles of tunnels reaching a depth of more than 1,000 feet. During the mine’s high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, some 2,000 miners worked there digging out 30,000 tons a year.

Salt was hugely important in the premodern world. Not only was it vital for nutrition, but it also helped to preserve meat and other edibles in the days before refrigeration. Several countries, including Poland and Ethiopia, even used salt as currency in addition to coins.

Not content with simply mining salt and making a living, the salt miners carved elaborate statues and scenes out of the salt, including a large chapel complete with “crystal” chandeliers made with purified rock salt. The salt in its natural state is gray, and so it resembles granite. Many of the sculptures are religious in nature, showing Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. Others show miners and folk figures such as gnomes.

%Gallery-158467%The guided tour takes intrepid travelers on a 1.9-mile route through various tunnels, rooms and even an underground lake. Constantly descending, the group makes their way through dozens of decorated rooms. As this video shows, it’s an unforgettable experience. Also check out the photo gallery for some excellent images of this odd attraction.

The simpler carvings done in the Renaissance and early modern periods are the most interesting to my eye, since they were crafted by regular people out of faith and a sense of fun. Now contemporary artists are getting in on the act and there are many new sculptures, including one of Pope John Paul II, who was from Poland and visited the mine before he became pontiff. The centuries-old mine is continuing to grow and develop.

Interested in seeing more strange underground dwellings? Check out our articles on salt mine tours and underground cities.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island helps guests up their sodium intake in a unique way

And you thought too much salt was bad for you? Well, it actually is, but The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island definitely makes eating salt interesting. Their onsite restaurant, Salt, features 45 unique salt blends to give guests an enhanced dining experience.

The venue is so obsessed with perfecting the art of salt, they actually have a Salt Sommelier on staff. Salt expert Sasa Jaramaz works with Chef Rick Laughlin to pair different salts with particular courses. Textures, flavors, and aromas are all taken into consideration during the pairing process. For example, you can enjoy fresh fish and Adriatic Citrus Salt, which contains peels of Meyer lemons, oranges and grapefruits. These peels are roasted overnight, cooled and finely chopped into the salt.

Furthermore, to help get guests involved, Jaramaz presents select varieties to set on the table each night, and visits patrons to explain how the salts enhance the meal. Moreover, daily salt tastings are held in the brand new Salt Shop.

Says Laughlin, “The secret to creating contemporary American cuisine is taking a recipe of an item people are familiar with and reinventing it for a totally new experience. That’s my passion.”

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality wine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

Snowy roads in the Netherlands may be smelling sweet this winter

There seems to be a major salt shortage in the Netherlands this winter. According to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the country normally uses about 70,000 tons of salt to de-ice the roads each winter. So far this year, over 100,000 tons have already been spread on icy roads around the country. If the temps don’t warm up fast, the Netherlands could run out of road salt.

To combat the shortage, some cities are using sand, which doesn’t work as well and is not good for the roads. But at least one town has gotten a little more creative. The town of Etten-Leur has spread 18 tons of scented bath salts on its roads in an effort to keep them ice-free.

So, if you find yourself driving in the Netherlands, you may notice the roads smelling a little sweeter than normal. According to the news report, the “coloured bath salts smell of lavender, green tea and mango.”%Gallery-79319%