The City of Salt

Salies-de-Béarn, located in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, owes its name to the white gold that's found there: salt. Extracted from the many fountains that spring up in the heart of the town, it has been a source of wealth for the inhabitants for thousands of years.

Place du Bayaà à Salies-de-BéarnFondation du patrimoine

Si you nou eri mourt, arres n'y bibéré: If I hadn't died here, no one would live here.
This is the slogan engraved in the center of Salies-de-Béarn. It commemorates the legend associated with the discovery of the salt that made the town its fortune.

According to local lore, during a hunt led by Gaston Phœbus—the illustrious Count of Foix in the 13th century—a boar was struck by an arrow and disappeared into the surrounding marshes.

Reproduction d'un sanglier pétrifié dans le selFondation du patrimoine

The beast was found a few days later, covered in a thin glistening layer of salt crystals left behind after the marsh water had evaporated.

Before dying, it's said that the boar uttered the following words in the Béarnais tongue: Si you nou eri mourt, arres n'y bibéré.
And with this discovery of the salt waters, a prosperous town was born

Les fontaines du SaleysFondation du patrimoine

But in reality, people have known about and made use of the salt waters of this region of Béarn since the Bronze Age. In Roman times, the salt was already being extracted for thermal spa treatments.

Le travail du sel à Salies-de-Béarn by SauleFondation du patrimoine

In the Middle Ages, Salies-de-Béarn was organized in a spiral shape around Bayaà square in the center of town, where the main source of water was located. The inhabitants were all co-owners of the salt spring.

Over the centuries, rules around water usage were established, and in 1587, they were recorded in the town's Livre Noir–a book used to record important information, which usually had a black cover.

The owners of the spring then assumed the title of Stakeholders of the Salt Fountain (Parts-Prenants de la Fontaine Salée).

The days were punctuated by the sound of bells announcing the drawing of salt water into sameaux, which were wooden vats that could carry about 24 gallons (92 liters). The people who carried the sameaux were known as the tiredous.

Le musée du sel de Salies-de-BéarnFondation du patrimoine

The contents of the sameaux were poured into tanks outside houses, which carried water to private stoves for salt extraction. These tanks were called coulédés.

Some of these coulédés still exist in the town today, like this one here at the salt museum, which has been restored with support from the French cultural heritage foundation known as Fondation du Patrimoine.

Les berges du SaleysFondation du patrimoine

The number of sameaux per inhabitant was governed by the Livre Noir, and this information was recorded in an account known as the Compte de Saüce.

The allocation was determined based on marital status and where you came in the order of your siblings. Normally, the heirs were the eldest males, unless there were no male siblings, in which case women could become stakeholders.

To be a stakeholder, you also had to have been a resident of Salies-de-Béarn for at least 6 months. At the time, the town boundary was defined by the Saleys river.

Étapes de production du selFondation du patrimoine

Today, salt mining is semi-industrialized, but the stakeholders have remained beneficiaries. The 1587 rules of succession and ownership still apply.

Exploitation du sel des Salines de Salies-de-BéarnFondation du patrimoine

When the water was heated to 181°F in basins called salt pans, fine salt grains formed on the surface, which were then collected by hand.

Les salines de Salies-de-Béarn : usine de production du selFondation du patrimoine

The coarser grains of salt would settle on the bottom of the pan. Today, machines are used as standard to gather the salt, which is then drained and dried naturally.

Sel récoltéFondation du patrimoine

Consequently, the salt harvested in Salies-de-Béarn is some of the purest in the world. It is naturally white, unlike gray sea salt.

These characteristics have earned it the European Union's Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) label.

Moreover, Bayonne ham can only be marketed under this name if it has been salted with salt from Salies-de-Béarn.

Le kiosque à musique au coeur du jardin public (c.1894) by BourdetteFondation du patrimoine

In the mid-19th century, the market share of Salies-de-Béarn salt began to fall due to the less expensive process of extracting sea salt.

As a result, the stakeholders decided to revive an ancient activity: thermal spas.

The thermal spa was founded in 1857. It was serviced by the water from the salt springs of Bayaà and Reine Jeanne d'Oràas.

Napoleon III's doctor, Jean-Brice Coustalé de Larroque, was from Salies-de-Béarn. He extolled the virtues of his home town's salt water to Parisian high society, boosting its reputation.

Le grand hôtel du Parc (c.1892) by Xavier Saint-GuilyFondation du patrimoine

The arrival of this wealthy clientele led to the construction of luxury hotels, one of the most beautiful examples of which is the Grand Hôtel du Parc, which still exists today.

Today, its glass atrium houses the town's casino. It has been listed as a historic monument since 1995.

Carte postale de l'Hôtel de France et d'Angleterre (1884) by Rosita MauriFondation du patrimoine

The Hôtel de France et d'Angleterre is a symbol of the success of Salies-de-Béarn as a thermal spa town.

Built in 1884 for Rosita Mauri, principal dancer at the Paris Opera who had recovered from an injury in Salies-de-Béarn, the hotel welcomed many famous guests, including the painter Édouard Manet and Gustave Eiffel.

Hôtel de France et d'AngleterreFondation du patrimoine

The Hôtel de France et d'Angleterre was unfortunately destroyed in a fire in 1998.
Its owners did not undertake the necessary work to support its restoration. When the local council bought the complex in 2018, the walls were on the brink of collapse.

L'Emission Patrimoine - L'Hôtel de France et d'AngleterreFondation du patrimoine

In 2018, Mission Stéphane Bern, an organization that aims to preserve historical French buildings, made this property one of its top-priority projects.

Hôtel de France et d'AngleterreFondation du patrimoine

In 2020, thanks to the funds raised with the support of the Fondation du Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation), urgent works could be carried out. All the walls were secured and the hotel was no longer in danger of collapsing.

The local council is now considering a project to restore the site.

Salies-de-Béarn et son selFondation du patrimoine

Watch this video to find out about the history of Salies-de-Béarn and its salt heritage.

Credits: Story

We would like to thank Cécile Bergez, Director of the Béarn des Gaves Tourist Office, and Jean Pierre Dufourcq Brana for their invaluable help in creating this content.

If you would like to support the work of the Fondation de Patrimoine (Cultural Heritage Foundation), please visit:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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