There is a reason why the Swiss excel at digging tunnels: they have been doing it for a very long time. In 1680, tunnels were dug into the Vaud Alps near Bex to get at salt buried there more than 200 million years earlier.
According to legend, a young shepherd noticed his goats preferred to drink water from particular springs. Tasting the water, he found it was salty. Later, in 1475, Bernese invaders boiled this salty water in large pots to extract the salt. But, by 1680, the salty springs were drying up. That’s when the digging started.
Back then digging was slow and labourious. It took two men a month to dig one metre. Today there is a labyrinthe of 50,000 metres of hand-dug underground tunnels, wells and galleries connected by trains, paths and stairways.
The tour starts with a short film in a large underground cavern. A multilingual guide with a knowledge of salt as deep as the mine itself then whisks visitors through more tunnels and galleries to a waiting underground train.
Once onboard, the train heads straight into the mountain. Far from any mobile phone signal, with overhead rock up to 800 metres deep in places, you get a real sense of how deep under the mountains you are.
There is a choice of enclosed or outdoor train seats. Riding al fresco lets you feel the breeze and take in the underground smells of salt, sulfur and other underground odours.
At times it feels like you might be on a fun park ride, except this is real! Weaving through the low tunnels gives a sense of how hard life was for the miners, working on their knees unable to stand up. These were tough times requiring a level of determination and tolerance for discomfort hard to imagine today.
After eight minutes the train arrives at its end stop, deep underground. A short walk from the train brings you to a large open cavern. Here the guide explains the surprisingly interesting history of salt.
Hundreds of years ago salt, or “white gold”, was a highly precious commodity. Like the spice trade, the salt trade made a huge mark on politics and business. It also claimed many lives.
The Bex mine is still fully operational. Water, now injected into the rocks, comes out with 30% salt in it. It’s then heated to remove the salt. Salt concentrations at Bex are some of the lowest in the world, and the operation is only made economically viable by an onsite hydro electric plant which makes the plant energy self-sufficient.
Switzerland has only three salt extraction facilities. One in Bex and two (Riburg and Schweizerhalle) near Basel, where salt was used as a key ingredient in the early dyes and pharmaceuticals produced nearby. Roche and Novartis might not exist without Swiss salt!
Together these Swiss salt producers extract around 600,000 tonnes of salt annually, most of which is used on icy roads and by industry. Only a small percentage ends up in food.
The tour also includes interactive sections. Visitors can try their hand at chipping off a souvenir rock fragment, hollowing out a larch log – once used to ventilate tunnels, and tasting food made with the end product.
There is also a live display showing the old method of salt production – shown below. This method is still used to produce special salt products.
Guides are able to answer questions in a wide array of languages. The one accompanying us knew when iodide was added (1923) to Swiss table salt to prevent goitre, and fluoride (1972), to prevent dental cavities.
Our guide reckons there is plenty of salt left in this corner of the Swiss Alps: probably enough to keep the mine busy for another 200 years.
The tour takes around 1 hour and 45 minutes but feels shorter. The mine is a 45 minute drive from Lausanne and 1 hour 30 minutes from Geneva.
The site is well ventilated and a constant 18 degrees celsius year round. The company recommends booking in advance.
Website: Salt mine
Where: Route des Mines de Sel 55, 1880 Bex, Switzerland.
Parking: free on site.
Dates: from 24 March 2018 until 6 January 2019
Times: various times throughout the day. Booking recommended.
Dining: there is a restaurant nearby and picnic tables.
Entry: adults CHF 23, children (5 to 15) CHF 14 (CHF 20 and 12 if bought online).
Booking: via website
Language: audio guides available in French, German and English