Monday, May 01, 2017

Salt of the Earth

I tried to visit the salt mine "Salina Unirea" in the foothills town of Slănic twice. The first time was last Fall when my good friend Rose visited from California.  We'd stayed in the southern Transylvanian city Braşov the night before and planned to drive back over the mountains to Bucharest via the little town of Slănic to check out their salt mine which I'd heard was quite a popular tourist attraction.  The route looked pretty straightforward on the map as the two-lane "highway" that passes near the town runs more or less parallel (just one mountain range to the east) to the busy route that every Bucharest resident uses to get into the mountains.  Just 57 miles of country highway through lovely Fall foliage - what could go wrong? I estimated 90 minutes for the drive and we left Braşov at noon. 

As in every other Romanian city, just minutes beyond the broad avenues lined with Communist-era apartment blocks, the landscape instantly becomes rural and the clock rolls back a century.  We began to ascend the foothills of the southern Carpathians and quickly noticed that we were the only car going our direction.  We stopped to take pictures of the idyllic landscape: trees coming into color, shepherds with their flocks, craggy peaks and yellowing meadows.  Yay! 

Blocuri! (Apartment "blocks")

Shepherds tending their flock

Also on the job...

What to watch - the incredible landscape or the road?

Late September coming into color.

Perfect traveling weather.
However, it also became very clear that this alternate route (DN1A) is used almost exclusively by semi-trucks who are diverted off the main highway (DN1) to make way for passenger traffic heading to Transylvania. Alternately motivated, meaning not here to gaze at the scenery but rather to deliver their load, the truck drivers have no problem careening down the mountain in fourth gear. Further, on a sunny Saturday when nobody returns to Bucharest, they aren't expecting oncoming vehicles and like to use both lanes to help straighten the curves.  Curves? That's funny - the paper road map I used to pick the route didn't look too winding. What a surprise it was therefore to find this to be the reality:

Route DN1A south of Brasov
Given all the above, it should have been no surprise to come around a turn and find a freshly jackknifed semi truck crashed head-long into the cliff face bordering the road, its trailer blocking all but about half of one lane.  With no emergency vehicles on the scene, we were relieved to see the driver seemingly unharmed sitting on the guardrail on the shoulder.  He positioned himself where the other truckers, barreling downhill around the curve unknowingly towards his wreck, could see him and was motioning with his hand for them to slow down while talking on his cell phone.  I stopped to ask if he needed help or a lift somewhere, but he shook his head and carried on being his own flare.  A few minutes later near the summit, we passed a sign welcoming us into Prahova County from Braşov County.  Shortly after that, on the down slope, we encountered a road crew and stopping the car, I rolled down the window to tell them about the crash just down the road.  Really? No, he didn't know about it! But wait, was it in Braşov or Prahova County? Oh, Braşov? Ah, okay. No, we work for Prahova County. Sorry, can't help. Have a nice day!

Finally the topography leveled somewhat and we continued through little villages in the southern-slope foothills.  However, besides the steady oncoming flow of semi-trucks, the trip became more exciting with new obstacles popping up 'round the bends, such as:

I managed to keep the car on the road, not rear-end any rear ends and we made our way down into the valley.  En route, we couldn't resist pulling off to check out a roadside monastery: 

Monastirea Suzana

As they say, "cleanliness is next to godliness"!
FINALLY we got to our destination, the little valley town Slănic.  For a blue-sky Saturday, fI was surprised to see the town so quiet.  After a few mis-directions, we found the salt mine ticket booth and entrance.  Unfortunately, we also found the sign "Closing time 2:30 daily" and the cashier dropping her window shade for the day. The estimated 90-minute drive had taken two and a half hours, averaging 38 mph of switching and backing, and we were now exactly five minutes too late for the last trip into the mine.  ARGH!

Which also means it was 2:35 and we hadn't eaten since breakfast. Might as well salvage our visit to this cute town with a spot of lunch before hitting the road again, right? Unfortunately the shawarma spot was locked tight and the wood-fired oven pizza place had just one guy on duty and didn't look capable of producing a pizza in less than 45 minutes. How about that charming little town park under the shade trees with the bench of old timers nursing their beers?  We decided to get some food from the market and have a park picnic instead. Indeed!  

With our bag of rolls, ham, cheese and drinks we headed for the park to find a good spot. Turning in a circle on the grass, I took in the park and saw table, table, another table...hmmm... there didn't seem to be any... chairs. What?  The old timers were watching us, the silly tourists with their grocery bag looking for a place to sit.  Sirs, what's up here? Where are all the chairs... or benches? I asked the group. Without hesitation, one guy tossed up his hands and shouted, "Ha! Asta e România!" (like "that's Romania for ya'!") cracking up his buddies.  They got another chuckle as we sat down on the curb, balancing our sandwich makings across our laps and sweeping away the ants.  Romania wins again.

The second time I visited Slănic was yesterday.  It's the May 1 Labor Day long weekend and the forecast called for Sunday to be drizzly, but Saturday and Monday to be blue and sunny. After my first attempt to visit this damn salt mine failed miserably, I'm determined to see it before we leave.  My husband and I agreed that if we're going to be going underground, we might as well do it on the dreary day and leave the sunny days for being above ground.  Sounded sensible.  As Slănic seemed to be just a sleepy town my first visit - I didn't expect it to be too crowded, even on this holiday weekend. 

And again, I was wrong.  

We got our first clue when the traffic cop directed us to park along the road far from the full parking lot and ticket booth.  We joined a steady stream of people making their way over a bridge, through the parking area and towards a little collection of souvenir and snack stands. Provisions - yes! We found a sandwich stand and grabbed a ham and cheese to go. 

At least there are chairs here!

Visitors get their salty souvenirs
Lunch bags in hand, we headed for the mine entrance, turned the corner and saw a line of hundreds of people waiting to go in.  Or more accurately, hundreds of families waiting to board the mini-bus to carry them deep into the mine at the edge of town, as the elevator - which according to the sign usually takes 90 seconds to descend - is broken.  We joined the end of the line, now doubling back on itself, just as the drizzle started. 

That awning is the head of the line.

The now-defunct elevator shaft.  I'm thinking the mini-bus is a safer choice anyway.
During the 90 minute wait, I made some friends. First at the line for the bathroom in the parking lot, I chatted with a friendly tour group of pensioners whose Romanian seemed really hard to understand.  I mean, I got the gist of what they were saying - but their accent was pretty strong.  Oh, you're BULGARIAN! Okay, that explains it.    

Next, the families around us in line begin to endear me.  Surveying the crowd, it was clear that we are among the "real folks." I mean the working class, unpretentious types in acid-washed jeans, with raven-black or magenta dyed hair on the women and track-suits stretched across beer bellies on the men. Despite the long wait and the dreary conditions, they were in great humor, laughing and teasing each other while passing around little paper boats of fried donuts covered in chocolate sauce. The fathers held their wives' purses while the mothers took wet wipes to the kids' sticky fingers.  When the drizzle got a bit more serious, one dad and son took off for the souvenir stand to buy an umbrella. They returned with one covered in kittens and daisies, causing a good laugh from the rest of the family. "It was the only one left!" announces the boy.  His dad told us they're here for a "mini-vacation" and, dragging on his cigarette, proclaimed that the air at the bottom of the mine is some of the purest on earth.  By the time we reached the head of the line, we'd second-hand smoked about a half-pack and were looking forward some of that purest air on earth. 

I seriously considered offering to trade my umbrella for his. 
Our mini-bus arrived and we bought our admission tickets ($5 each) and piled into the shuttle. Space was tight, so I sat on my husband's lap for what I assumed was a two-minute ride.  Wrong again.  We drove to the edge of town and then entered the mine through a one-lane tunnel with about two feet to spare on all sides of the van. Corkscrewing deeper and deeper, the road eventually widened into two lanes. In this bedrock of salt, the surfaces are carved to a smooth polish of marbled black, gray and white. The fearless driver kept the mini-bus in 3rd gear speed for the 15 minute descent into salty Middle Earth and I did my best not to grind my seat bones into my husband's lap. 

The end of the road was blocked by a plywood wall with two doors cut into it: entrance and exit.  We all piled out and excitedly stepped through the doorway into a holding area for the folks waiting to get back on the shuttle, and then through another plywood barrier to the massive cavern itself.  Incredible! 
230 ft tall cathedral ceilings anyone?

All surfaces are carved salt.
 The mine keeps a constant temperature of 53 degrees and 50% humidity, and while I can't vouch that the air is the purest on earth, I was happy to find nobody sneaking off for a smoke. We walked from one massive "hall" to another, seeing the attractions they've developed since the early 1970s when it stopped being a productive mine and changed direction to be a tourist destination.  We found carvings of historical Romanian figures, two tired-looking, mostly un-decorated Christmas trees, some bouncy castles for the kids, a few ping-pong tables, a soccer pitch, a pedal-powered go-kart area for the bigger kids and the "sanatorium" with its rest areas for people under "supervised medical treatment" (per the website).

Romanians CAN'T resist playing ping-pong or badminton, and the bottom of a salt mine is no exception. 
Resting rooms in the sanatorium area complete with piped-in bird song emanating from speakers.
Oh, and a family pic-nicking and playing a board game. Why not?
Wouldn't be complete without Mihai Eminescu!

Perfectly still reflecting pool.
We were awe-struck by the sheer size of the caverns and the perfect geometric shapes of the marbled supporting walls.  The hundreds of families from the line were now scattered throughout the immense halls, happily entertaining themselves in the stark surroundings.

After about an hour, and figuring we'd seen it all, we returned to the exit, or really, the plywood-enclosed holding pen where we waited en masse for the return of the mini-buses.  Like dogs waiting for their people to return home but not able to see down the road, we kept our ears pricked for the sound of the returning vehicles we couldn't see beyond the wall. The "line" was about ten people wide and 30 feet deep.  In front of us was the single exit door controlled by an unseen employee on the other side.  I was re-united with my tour group pals from the restroom line and they took turns taking pictures of the smiling American who still couldn't quite understand them.  Just then the door cracked open and the mob turned ugly.  Swelling strongly from behind us, they began shoving forward as if this were the last chopper out of Saigon. It was clear I was no match for pensioners who'd spent their formative years fending for themselves in bread queues. Fearing I was going to be crushed against the salt wall, I called out to my husband who put his hands on my back and pushed me through the Bulgarian rugby scrum and finally the doorway.

On the other side were three waiting mini-vans whose drivers leapt aside as the crowd scrambled to get one of the 48 seats.  We were lucky to grab two this time. Seriously, after 37 years of "developing the mine as a tourist destination" THIS was the best they came up with to get us out?
Moments before the crowd turned. 

So - it took two full days of trying, but I finally got to see the salt mines.  And despite risking my life with oncoming semi-trucks and a shoving mob, waiting 90 minutes in the rain and no park benches for lunch, these two days lived up to my motto: Do whatever makes a better story.  Sometimes when everything goes as planned, it's just not as much fun.