The salt routes

The salt routes

The salt routes

Ilaria Persello

Salt roads are ancient commercial routes which have remained unchanged for centuries. They have connected coastal cities with the inland and vice versa. There was a salt road starting from every region, used to transport handicrafts or food goods to the sea and, in the opposite direction, bring upcountry valuable sea products. They exchanged goods through a network of roads and paths. Consequently, they could use the salt in the innermost areas for food storage, farming, and various craft activities. It played a fundamental role in the economic and social relations between cultures and countries.

In Roman times – with the exponential increase in the usage and demand for salt – they built new communication roads, including the famous Via Salaria (literally, Salt road), which connected the Adriatic Sea, Etruria, the saltworks of Ostia and the mouth of the River Tiber.

In Longobardic and Carolingian times, thanks to the foundation of Benedictine monasteries (such as the Bobbio Abbey), they recovered the administration and transportation of salt.

After the fall of the Lombardic by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne and the rise of the feuds, they attempted to maintain a safe passage to the sea, ensuring the safety of the convoys in exchange for taxes.

Salt thus becomes an instrument not only of exchange but also of power and a source of great wealth. They will increasingly burden salt routes with taxes/offerings, or gabelles, required for accessing these toads. And it is right because of these duties that smugglers will explore alternative salt routes, taking up mule tracks and ancient transhumance trails. The legal trade and smuggling of salt will not only make the Mediterranean an immense saltwork but will be the first glue connecting Europe.

From the saltworks of the Mediterranean to Northern Europe, passing through France and Italy, the salt routes were the first great arteries of communication and trade in Europe, uniting coasts to mountains. In Italy, too, salt has left traces of its paths, which climbed along slopes and descended through valleys. Where possible, in the plain, they preferred to carry out transports by the river to limit costs, employing large barges that could carry up to 60 tons of salt per load. In Valais, they built the Stockalper Canal in the Rhone valley to facilitate salt transportation. In Salzburg, Austria, the word salt is part of its name. And it was the salt that made Salzburg rich and powerful.

Today the salt routes, having lost their commercial value, have become a destination for excursions and trekking, winding through intact habitats of exceptional naturalistic interest.

A long journey, that of salt: from the coasts of Sardinia, Corsica and the Camargue to those of Liguria and Provence, then along the dirt roads and mule tracks towards Piedmont, the Rhône-Alpes, the Aosta Valley and the chain of the Northern Alps, up to Lake Geneva, where it took the great waterways of Northern Europe. An intertwining of streets, which have become evocative historical paths. Often they have evolved into the current communication routes, others in itineraries for trekking and mountain biking. (Teresio and Giovanni Panzera, The Salt Roads, a millenary economic and cultural history).

The salt routes, les routes du sel, the camin saliè (in Provençal), which connect Liguria, Piedmont, and France, depart from the Mediterranean, in particular from Cagliari. In this area, the history of sea salt extraction dates back almost 3,000 years ago, namely in the Molentargius salt pans in Carloforte. From the sites of Sardinia to Porto Vecchio in Corsica, a city of salt par excellence, to the Camargue with the most substantial saltworks in the Mediterranean and the oldest in France, Les Aigues Mortes, where the very white and valuable fleur de sel is collected. Without forgetting Marseille (the first city to obtain, in 1016, the concession for the salt trade) and Nice. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, together with the countries flanking the salt road, Nice lived in a golden age: it witnessed a continuous coming and going of mule caravans (nearly 30,000 a year).

Plants for the production of salt occupied large coastal areas. In Italy, the most significant saltworks was near Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber (the saltworks of Ostia), and those of Etruscan origin, near Fiumicino. Well known is the road that took its name from the salt, the Via Salaria, through which this product from Rome reached the innermost areas of the peninsula. The salt trade did not stop with the Romans. On the contrary, it spread and expanded throughout the peninsula even after the fall of the Roman Empire, especially in Comacchio and Venice, which became the main commercial centres of the Middle Ages, and Genoa and Brindisi. From the coast, they transported salt inland through the fluvial communication routes, mainly the River Po and its main tributaries.

The Salt Routes: trade and smuggling, between history and legend

The salt roads were pilgrim, trade and smuggling passages. They often wound along ancient regional borders or medieval streets.

It is the case of the salt walk that moves along the borderland between Liguria, Tuscany and Emilia, which coincided with the Via dei Linari and was a variant of the more famous Via Francigena.

Other roads that connected Lower Piedmont to Liguria have been important trade routes for centuries. They hauled essential raw materials such as salt, oil and spices from Ligurian and Provençal harbours in the valleys and passes of the Apennines, ending up in the markets of the main urban centres of the Po Valley. Other products such as wine and cereals made the opposite way to reach the ports of Genoa and Liguria. All these streets, a set of mule tracks and paths, were also called vie marenche (from marincus = coming from the sea), namely, salt roads.

The salt walk is a journey that unites the Alps to the sea. They create a collective cultural heritage and a sense of belonging to a Ligurian, Provencal and Piedmontese transit area. The salt made it possible to preserve foods, such as meat and fish, for a long time. In particular, salting was often the only way to transport marine fish in good condition to areas far from the coast (and made it possible to conceal the precious salt under a layer of fish). Among the salted fish that travelled along the salt roads, the humblest but the most significant for Piedmontese gastronomy was undoubtedly the anchovy. It soon became the most used fish in the subalpine areas thanks to its diffusion secured by the merchants from the Ligurian and Provençal areas and by the ancioè, the anchovy sellers who travelled throughout Piedmont to bring this delicious fish to the furthest corners of the region. That is where the anchovies of the Maira Valley come in, to which the writer Nico Orengo has dedicated his book ‘Il salto dell’acciuga’ (The anchovy jump). The volume, a wrongly forgotten small gem, starts with this tiny and humble fish revealing its significance within our tradition. A journey emerges along the ancient salt trade routes, from the alternating fortunes of the maritime Republic of Genoa to the House of Savoy, who made fortunes with taxes on the Alpine passes through which the salt reached Northern Europe. And along these routes, they made the history of the cuisine, from the Roman garum to the bagna caoda. A journey full of flavours, colours, anglers, smugglers, trough canals, passes, and bays to bring anchovies to the Langhe, Monferrato, Saluzzo or Vercelli area, Brianza, Pavia, and Milan, and explain why a Piedmontese gastronomic speciality, the bagna caoda, is based on anchovies.

Reading Orengo, you have the most unmistakable feeling that everything is connected: we do not need to get to the end of the twentieth century to talk of the European Union. For centuries there was an underground European community – actually submarine – that linked Liguria to Portugal, the Alpine nations to Scandinavia, which was greedy for salted fish. It was not just a symbolic union. It was a community of manufacturing, trade, and culture handed down and exchanged.

The salt ways brought economic development to the territories they crossed. Merchants and travellers, who needed to move from one centre to another, could count, along the different routes, on the presence of inns, refuges, parish churches, fortifications and customs, from which the feudal lords controlled their territory and committed themselves to keep the roads safe. The caravaneers varied the legs of their routes according to the seasons and the needs of their trade. They chose valley or ridge routes and stopped at different villages and districts of the Apennines. They travelled along some main roads, fragmented into different secondary itineraries.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the construction of more comfortable and faster communication routes and the development of new ways of transport, the salt roads gradually fell into disuse.

Today the legacy of these ancient paths is a set of passages that have become a traditional meeting appointment for hiking lovers. You can walk for a few hours or trek for several days, with different degrees of difficulty, immersed in evocative landscapes and natural surroundings, through villages with typical Ligurian architecture dominated by castles, churches and oratories. Through car tours, you can admire these valleys, their historical-cultural and geographical features, and discover the flavours of this link-territory stopping in farmhouses or taverns you meet along the way.

Historical salt paths, the Piedmontese salt routes appear in all variations. There are those from Genoa, Imperia, and Savona, but also from the French Riviera and Provence, up to Monferrato, Cuneo, Saluzzo, Asti, and Turin. By connecting the Po valley with Liguria or the French region of Provence, they allowed the commerce of this precious element, acquired with difficulty in the northern provinces, distant from the sea. The same applies to trade in other regions, or geographical areas, between the coasts where they produced salt and the inland areas where the good was required.

One of the Piedmontese salt roads connects Limone Piemonte (Cuneo) to Ventimiglia (Imperia). It is still utilised today as a trekking and mountain bike route, coinciding with some sections of the old military road and the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri. It runs entirely within the Ligurian Alps. Another, less known, united the Saluzzo territory with the Dauphiné and Provence, in France, through the Buco di Viso tunnel, a tiny underpass of 60 m., built in 1480 to connect the Provencal saltworks of Aigues-Mortes with the Po Valley and the Marquisate of Saluzzo. The Buco di Viso could thus break the Savoy monopoly in the salt trade. The caravans of these merchants then continued their journey to northern Europe. They always stayed at high altitude through Alpine passes for safety reasons and to avoid duty up to the rampart of Mont Blanc. From here, on a very challenging route, they bypassed the massif of the highest peak in Italy and, through France, across the plain, they reached Lake Geneva. Here the journey on the back of a mule halted. The salt journey continued on water. While the mules – like ships, mules never travel unloaded – were loaded with new products for the backward journey.

The Savoy salt route started from Oneglia, through an arduous path between the mountains where traders had to always remain at a high altitude to avoid excessive gradients and dangerous areas for ambushes and more or less legitimate tolls.

The salt roads intersected, changing names and directions towards Pavia and Milan. Then they become the great Lombard or Malaspina salt route and the Emilian salt route towards Parma and Piacenza.

The south-north axis employed the Alpine passes letting the salt through the Italian territory across the Alps towards Switzerland and Northern Europe. The Styrian Salt Road, on the other hand, from the high Adriatic Sea, through Pordenone and Venzone, led to Austria.

We should not forget some Italian salt routes, perhaps the oldest ones: the Via Salaria, the Via del Sale in Trapani (known since the Phoenician times), and the Via del Sale in Florence (or Volterrana), some key routes that commenced from Cervia and the Abruzzese salt road.

The Via Salaria is an ancient Roman consular road which connected Rome with Porto d’Ascoli on the Adriatic Sea. Traced by the ancient Sabines in the second millennium BC, mainly for salt commerce, it was later conquered and improved by the Romans. On the western side, they employed the Via Salaria to transport salt from the ford of the Tiber to Rome. It connected the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic coasts.

They travelled by sea along the Rotta del sale (Salt Route) from Cervia to Venice. From Cervia to Rome, by land, they followed the Cammino del Sale, a historical and cultural itinerary of an ancient tradition. From Cervia to Marradi and Florence, one travelled along the road of wheat and salt: the grain of the Romagna plain was indispensable to Florence and its survival, and so was the salt of Cervia.

The Via ad Salinas in Abruzzo is a historical commercial salt route of ancestral origins, lost in the mists of time. Italic peoples used it at first, followed by the ancient Romans, from the Abruzzo coast to the Apennines, also linked to transhumance.

The Sicilian Salt Road, known since the time of the Phoenicians, runs along the Sicilian coast in the stretch going from Trapani and Marsala, passing twenty-seven saltworks and two natural reserves, the Stagnone Islands of Marsala, including the beautiful island of Mozia.

Finally, the Volterrana, an ancient salaiola road, was used by the Etruscans to link Fiesole to Volterra and connect them to the port of Piombino. The Volterrana has remained a significant road over the centuries: its route, full of markets, hospices for travellers, and hospitals for pilgrims, on several occasions, intersects the Via Francigena.


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