What is the world’s most valuable mineral? Gold? Diamonds? These probably come to mind more readily than an everyday mealtime condiment. Yet, in the days before refrigeration, salt was a very valuable commodity due to its utility in preserving food. Soldiers were often paid in salt—indeed the word ‘salary’ is derived, etymologically, from this.
Situated 90km north of Barcelona, an extensive deposit of rock salt near the town of Cardona, known as the Muntanya de Sal, was, therefore, an important source of income for the town of Cardona and the owners of the salt mine, the Dukes of Cardona (also known as the ‘Señores de la Sal’).
LA MUNTANYA DE SAL
The Cardona salt mountain is a unique geographical formation in Europe and is one of the largest specimens of its kind in the world. It was formed two million years ago when the Mediterranean sea started to recede, leaving behind a salty sedimentation. This low-density salt was then pushed up through the earth’s crust, creating the giant savoury extrusion, which would be translucent if not for its coating of reddish clay. What’s visible above ground, however, is only the tip of the ‘saltberg’—the deposit plunges down one thousand metres underground, reaching well below the Mediterranean sea, and it continues to grow upwards each year.
The salt at Cardona has been exploited as a natural resource since the Neolithic age, through the Roman period, and continued to function as a working salt mine until 1990. By the Middle Ages, Cardona had become the most important salt producer on the Iberian Peninsula, with its ‘white gold’ being sent all over Europe via the port of Barcelona. The salt was originally mined from the surface. However, with the discovery of gunpowder at the end of the 18th century, miners were also able to extract from below ground.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the next step in mining at Cardona with the discovery of potash, which can be used to make both fertilisers and dynamite. This led to a flourishing of the Cardonian economy—the county went from relying on agriculture and textiles to being a predominantly mining community. The town’s population doubled, which led to significant urban and social changes. When the mine finally closed, a total of 37,874,843 tonnes of minerals had been extracted at depths of up to 1,308 metres.
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Today, the Cardona salt mines have been converted into the Parc Cultural de la Muntanya de Sal, where visitors can descend into an otherworldly wonderland. The maze of interconnecting tunnels and expansive galleries are coated with a pure white crust that is patterned in places with swirls of red magnesium salt. Furred stalactites hanging from the ceiling grow at a rate of one centimetre every three weeks, while folds of stalagmites rise from the ground, creating undulating, peaked formations. At the entrance, the Monumento al Minero (Miner’s Monument) pays tribute to those who worked in the mines, especially to the many who lost their lives there. The site also houses the Art-Sal exhibition, a showcase of intricate salt sculptures. Hour-long guided tours of the salt mountain run from 10am to 3pm Monday-Friday, and 10am to 7pm at the weekend.
Standing guard over the salt mines, on the opposing hilltop is the impregnable fortress of Cardona Castle, home to the Dukes of Cardona from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The fortress, one of the most important in Catalunya, was originally built by the illustrious Count Wilfred the Hairy in 886 and demonstrates both Romanesque and Gothic styles. The necessity to protect the salt mines prompted the dukes to ensure that the castle was impenetrable—a reputation which became widespread following its resilience during the 1714 War of Spanish Succession, when the castle garrison was one of the last to surrender. Around a century later, even the formidable Napoleon was unable to overwhelm the fortress, and the castle has since become a symbol of Catalan nationalism and strength.
Within its walls lies the Church of Sant Vincenç of Cardona, built between 1019 and 1040 in the Lombard Romanesque style. This year, the church was named a ‘Treasure of European Film Culture’ by the European Film Academy due to its appearance in the 1964 Shakespeare-inspired Orson Welles film, Chimes at Midnight. While only 15 days out of the nine-month shoot took place in Cardona, 30 minutes of the film’s final cut were shot there and many residents still fondly remember those two weeks, when actors John Gielgud, Keith Baxter and Marina Vlady graced the streets of their small mining town. This is a new initiative that aims to highlight locations as places of special historical value. So far only eight places have been given the title, with the Church of Sant Vincenç being the first one in Spain. The castle is open from 10am-1pm and 3pm-7.30pm and guided tours are also available.
The town of Cardona itself is also well worth a visit. The old town encompasses a labyrinth of narrow, medieval streets and ancient arcades, while noble houses (visit Carrer dels Escassany for some good examples) stand as testament to the wealth garnered from the salt industry. The Plaça de la Fira is home to a bustling market that has taken over the square every Sunday for 1,000 years and is overlooked by the imposing 14th-century gothic Església de Sant Miquel.
- Bus. Barcelona (Estació del Nord) to Cardona. 1 hour 45 minutes.
- Parador de Cardona. Delve into the past and live like a Cardona duke for the night at the 4-star Parador hotel, which is situated within the castle.
- Bremon. For a more modest budget, the 3-star Bremon Hotel, a former school building dating from the 19th century, is located in the town’s historic centre and offers a terrace with castle and mountain views.
EATING AND DRINKING
- La Volta del Rector. A welcoming, family-run restaurant housed in a 12th-century vault. Traditional, local food.
- La Premsa. Housed in a masía believed to date from 1307, this restaurant and hotel offers a range of Mediterranean dishes from both coastal and mountain regions.
Festa Major de Cardona. September 10th-13th 2016
Cardona’s most important annual festival, celebrated since 1674 in honour of Nostra Senyora Verge del Patrocini, takes place this month and combines both religious and civic events. One of the most iconic activities is the bull run, which dates from the 15th century and takes place in front of the town hall. Part of the run involves a show called the cargolera, in which the bull is taunted by someone inside a giant basket, who then rolls around on the floor as the basket is pushed this way and that by the animal—it’s claimed that this isn’t cruel to the bull nor dangerous for the person, but that’s a matter of opinion. Other events include the Processó de la Mare de Déu Petita (Procession of the Little Virgin) and the Ball de Bastons, a dance in which performers clash sticks together, strangely reminiscent of English morris dancing. Other events include sports, concerts, plays and even cinema projections.