Les Routes du Sel

Submitted by HedonisticHiking on 2 Jun 2016

Our brand new 2016 tour in France and Italy has got me thinking about salt!  This is because our route takes us along some of France's ancient salt roads from the Mediterranean over the Maritime Alps and into northern Italy.

Since its discovery thousands of years ago, salt has been a vital commodity, not just for its assocation with food flavouring and preservation, but also in the areas of religion, mythology and economics. Salt was so important that specific “salt routes” came into being, through which merchants transported and sold the precious crystals to countries where it was not produced.

Some sources have confirmed the presence of salt trading back in prehistoric times, but it was the Romans who truly mastered the processing of salt and then formed a network to enable its trade. They built their Via Salaria which connected Rome to a port on Adriatic Coast today known as Porto d'Ascoli and, over the centuries, this led to the rise of whole new cities such as Salzburg — literally the “city of salt”. The word "salary" comes from the Latin word for salt because the Roman legions were sometimes paid in salt, which was quite literally worth its weight in gold.

Salt from the "salines" in the Camargue region of the South of France was transported by boat along the Mediterranean coast, and then taken inland through the mountains carried by mule trains to reach Piedmont. The routes often avoided the main roads in an attempt to steer clear of "brigands". The route from Nice was up the Vésubie Valley, via Saint Martin-Vésubie which is where we stay on our tour, and the Ventimiglia route went inland through the Roya Valley, over the Col de Tende, and into Piedmont. We see both these valleys on our tour. The availability of pack animals was often an issue and gradually, instead of returning home with no freight, trade developed in other goods such as cloth, fabrics and ceramics being brought back in the opposite direction. The villages along the route were heavily fortified, including Sospel, Breil, Saorge, La Brigue, Tende, and Limone over the border in Italy, which is our base for the middle part of the holiday.

Salt tax across France, known as la gabelle, proved to be one of the country's most hated and unfair sources of revenue due to the existence of different tarrifs in different provinces. It made the commodity hugely expensive and led to countless smuggling attempts, often by women concealing it under their skirts, as they tried to buy it in cheaper areas to sell where it was more expensive. Many argue that the salt taxes were one of the key motivations for the French revolution of 1789.

Over the centuries the power struggles in the area of the Maritime Alps between the Counts of Ventimiglia, the House of Savoy and the Counts of Tende led to new routes being explored to avoid heavy duties, but the geography of the region meant that the high mountain passes were inaccessible during winter months when it was important for the trade to continue.

According to Pierre Laszlo in his book Salt: Grain of Life, in 1776, 18,317 mules of general commerce left Nice, 16,124 bound for Cuneo and 2,178 bound for Turin. At the same time, 30-35,000 mules of salt made the journey.

In time the political situation settled, the roads improved enough for use by carriages, in 1882, the Tende pass tunnel was completed which connected the road from the French side through to Limone, on to Cuneo and finally Turin. It was a true feat of engineering and, when it opened, it was the world's longest tunnel at just over 3km. Just under twenty years later the incredible railway connecting Nice to Cuneo was also completed, and the transportation of goods was revolutionised. As we finish the tour in Cuneo we will have visited many of the most important stops along these ancient salt routes. This tour will run twice next year with departures in June and September 2017.