There are two rather subjective reasons why I feel, as the blog’s industrious co-photographer would call it, a weird attraction for places called Slănic. Firstly, there is the trip I took with my grandmother to the resort of Slănic Moldova at the dusk of the communist era, where we were both subjected to asthma treatments, she because she had it already, and me because I was deemed possibly genetically tarnished and thus prone to it. My memories are somewhat hazy, but I remember getting really sick on a merry-go-round (sensible from an early age), taking a very proud picture while riding a confused looking plastic pony, and the smell of salt spreading through the inhaling tubes of the treatment centre.
The second reason is my silly joy of recognizing Slavic words in Romanian, slanik being salt cellar, so a place called Slănic is highly likely home to salt mines, of which there are plenty along the Carpathians and I once knew them all, as memorizing useless information is another questionable pastime of mine. (Memorizing mines is a hobby of mine, excuse the pun and peace out.) The most famous is probably the one at Turda, turned into an amusement park and recently featured by National Geographic too.
The one at Slănic Prahova, besides being comfortably located about halfway between Bucharest and Brașov, is also the largest in Europe open to visitation. The complex is actually formed of three mines: the new one, called Mihai or Salina Nouă, which is still being exploited currently, the Cantacuzino mine, closed but transited by the vehicles serving the other mines, and the Unirea mine, which is not exploited anymore and thus open to tourists.
The mine can we visited Wednesdays to Sundays during winter season and Tuesdays to Sundays during summer season, which starts on April 1st. The first transport to the underground is at 8 AM, the last one at 2:30 PM, and the last return from the underground is at 3:30 PM. The tickets cost 20 lei (roughly 4 euros), for which you can spend as much time as you want in the mine on the given day. In a rather Romanian development, transportation these days is done with minibuses. The lift which was used to carry people underground, dating back to the 1930s, had a minor incident, and instead of fixing it they went for the convoluted solution of enlisting a number of shabby looking vehicles driven by irate drivers, occasionally with a personal agenda. The Charon who ferried us back to the surface in a manner befitting an underground rally of death, for example, was on his way to the last bus back to Ploiești, which seemed to supersede any health and safety regulations which the European Union might have forced on us against our refusenik will.
If this sounds a bit scary, well, it was, but mining is no business for the faint hearted, and the adrenaline rush is well worth it. The mine lies 210 metres below the surface and is formed of 14 rooms, with a maximum height of around 55 metres. The temperature is 12 degrees throughout the year and ventilation is natural- the air is strong, as the Brits would say, and filled with minerals which are particularly helpful to people with breathing tract ailments. There are special resting areas for those who are in the mine for treatment, yet strangely a lot of people huddle around the small shops catering some basic drinks, snacks and an array of mildly to severely appalling souvenirs, for this area also has a fine wi-fi connection- there might be a lot of things going wrong in the country, but at least the force of the Internet is strong with us, even deep below ground level.
Further attractions include a small lake, a playing area for children and a variety of intriguing salt statues, among them one of poet Mihai Eminescu, looking totally baffled by having become a salt statue and being forced to stare away from his beloved Veronica Micle, a mere bas-relief on the wall behind. There’s also the dynamic duo of Trajan and Decebal, with the second one having a rainbow above him, this last touch being particularly interesting in the context of a generally rather LGBT unfriendly nation which nevertheless claims two men as its main ancestors. Yes, when the history teacher told us they are our ‘two fathers’ I had to ask about our two mothers, and he was deeply confused- let’s say I had a precocious way of endearing myself to authority.
The truth is, though, that all these amusements are secondary to the awe you feel. For nature, which creates immensities of minerals such as these, that seem to come from the belly of legendary beasts and end up rather prosaically in our soup, and for the people who had the skill and courage to build complicated structures to get to them.