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Deceptively unlike an industrial building, this is the extraordinary architectural complex of the former Royal Saltworks (Saline royale) of Arc-et-Senans, designed in the reign of King Louis XV by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, a man clearly ahead of his time. The site built for large-scale salt production is a total concept, being functional, aesthetically pleasing, defensive and philosophic in nature. Listed as a world heritage site in 1982, it has been impressively restored. Its museum, congress centre and the numerous cultural events which are held here, attract discerning crowds. Recently, hotel facilities have been provided and furnished by architect-designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte and architect-cartoonist Damien Cabiron. Spending the night here is to experience olde worlde Utopia…
Artist’s view of the initial Arc-et-Senans manufactory project, underlining its perfect angles and clearly designed shapes. © Royal Saltworks
The Royal Saltworks today at the center of the semicircle. © LaurPhil
Salt is a precious commodity; it was used for the preservation of meat, fish and vegetables. Since the Iron Age, this has been a very important and financially rewarding trade. It was tightly monitored to the point where the French levied a special tax on it called the ‘Gabelle‘. It is obtained through the evaporation of seawater (sea salt), and extracting it from designated substrates (rock salt), or heating salt spring water in a few rare regions in Europe. Franche-Comté is one of these privileged zones. Since the Middle Ages, the sauniers (salt-producing workmen) have been boiling brine (salt water) on wood fires to collect the salt crust which forms at the bottom of the heating pots. This procedure became gradually more refined over the centuries, finally reaching an industrial stage. In the 17th century, it was in these enormous flat pots that the brine, in pre-concentrated form, was brought up to 100°C. A colossal amount of wood was required to feed these intense fires.
This old engraving describes the huge reinforced vats of Salins in great detail. (Besançon City library).
A strategic territory as it is criss-crossed by numerous canals and communication links, near Switzerland, Germany and Italy, Franche-Comté possesses a rich substrate and has a flourishing economy. This region has only been part of France since the end of the 17th century, having been conquered after a long struggle and many tragic battles. King Louis XV sought to assert his sovereignty and re-invigorate salt production. The Salins saltworks, formerly so prosperous, were struggling to provide sufficient combustible material. Its installations had become too cramped and the salt content of the brine supplied was plummeting …
Now too distant from the forests which used to supply the wood, the venerable Saltworks at Salins were in steep decline. Its days were numbered … © Ester Westerveld
Claude-N. Ledoux, by Martin Drolling
The king entrusted Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, a remarkable Enlightenment architect, with the task of designing a new saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, near the extensive Chaux forest. In 1774, Ledoux was the king’s Architect and Commissioner of the Franche-Comté saltworks. His project involved bringing the brine from Salins down to the plain, using a 21-kilometre long saumoduc, made from hollowed out fir trees. The brine then became concentrated following evaporation in a so-called ‘graduation’ building, about 500 metres long, and exposed to the prevailing winds, before being heated in specially designed boilers.
In this immense wooden structure, the brine is projected from a height of 5 metres onto log bundles and then re-pumped and re-dispersed until natural evaporation concentrates the salt at 24 degrees.
The columns of the director’s house, alternating round and square drums produce ‘sharp shadows’ © Olivier Dargouge
It is in the design of the industrial complex itself that Claude-Nicolas Ledoux expresses his genius to the full. The manufactory was conceived as a coherent whole, each function corresponding to its own volume, articulated round the other buildings according to an organic and geometric logic. In this way, drying workshops, a forge, coopers, stables, accommodation facilities, refectory, warehouses, an infirmary and administrative offices all had their place in this immense, semi-circular complex, with radiating alleys. All eyes were focused on the Director’s House, embellished with a splendid colonnade. The complex also included a chapel, a meeting room and kitchen gardens for the workmen.
Ledoux’s original plan provided for the construction of a total ideal city, an ellipsis round the semicircle of the Royal Saltworks.
Salt production was placed under the supervision not only of the financiers of the Ferme générale, but also numerous soldiers and customs officers. The frontier is not far away and the region is crawling with bandits. The saltworks itself is protected by an enclosure adjoining a dry ditch. It has a guard house and prison. All along the saumoduc, there are 10 guard posts responsible for checking there are no leaks along the channel conveying the precious mineralised liquid.
The guard post providing access to the site is very impressive and seems to have been sculpted out of a monumental salt mine. © Saline royale
Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s project for the Royal Saltworks is symptomatic of the creative output of this brilliant architect. Influenced by the great philosophers of his time as well as the treatises of antiquity and the Renaissance, he shook up the purposefully organised universe of his masters. Ledoux sought to provide his volumes with “a soul, a face and a body”. His achievements express their beauty through the simplicity of their line as well as their functionality. He innovated using pure geometric forms, audacious proportions and the grandiose way he ennobled human activities – whether administrative or industrial. Many of his projects, which were visionary or even Utopian in scope, never saw the light of day. Many others were unfortunately destroyed because the royal architect fell from favour at the Revolution, several years later.
The Royal Saltworks museum resolutely puts the spotlight on the creative (and metaphysical) achievements of this grand architect through a series of splendid scale-models of his (futuristic) plans. © Saline royale
One of the drying workshops in ruins in 1932 © Saline royale
The Royal Saltworks remained an ongoing concern for a little more than a century before going bankrupt. When, in 1918, lightning set fire to the Director’s House, the site was already almost in ruins. Bought in 1927 by the Département of Doubs, the complex was gradually put back into shape. Occupied by Spanish Republican refugees, then by soldiers in 1939, the site was requisitioned the following year by the Germans, who used it as a barracks for their troops. During the war, Arc-et-Senans became a holding centre of gypsies under the French Vichy Government.
Renovated carpentry work of the drying workshop © Aurore Galland
Numerous artists and journalists got together in the 1950s and 1960s to breathe new life into the old ‘industrial amphitheatre’. In 1973, the Royal Saltworks joined the network of the Association Cultural Encounter Centres. UNESCO listed it as world heritage site under the title of an industrial complex in 1982, for its innovative ‘integrated factory’ concept. Restored with talent and panache, the former drying workshops and the Director’s House now house two exciting permanent exhibitions, dedicated to salt production in the 18th century and to the genius of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. There is a multi-functional Meeting Centre spread over several other buildings in the complex.
Near the gardens, used by a festival in keeping with an annual theme, a bar-restaurant and a three-star hotel enable visitors attracted by the site with its evocative atmosphere, to prolong their experience. Each room has been designed by the celebrated architect-designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte and given a personal touch by the architect and strip cartoon author, Damien Cabiron.
Although slightly modernised since the period where they housed the salt-producing workmen, the rooms have retained a purity of line and a simplicity of which Claude-N. Ledoux would have been proud. © Saline royale
Musée Ledoux © François Jouffroy
There are three exhibitions to visit at the Royal Saltworks. “Stories of Salt” helps you understand how a saltworks functioned in the 18th century and the production of ‘White Gold’ throughout history. The Ledoux Museum focuses on the life, work and visionary genius of this celebrated architect though 57 splendid scale-models.
Garden Festival © Saline royale
The “Memories of the Site” recounts what happened to the Saltworks after it closed down in 1895. Not to be missed – if you visit the complex in the summer months – the very creative garden festival. Families and children will have the opportunity to enjoy activities specially designed with them in mind.
Old Saltworks of Salins © Ester Wersterveld
About half an hour away, why not visit the Great saltworks of Salins-les-Bains where there is a remarkable discovery trail centered round the production of salt in the old days (before the industrialization of the 18th century). The installations of the period are still in very good condition and the museography does a particularly fine job of bringing back to life the multiple faces and very harsh working conditions of the salt workers.
Besançon, also a world heritage site because of its 17th century fortifications, offers visitors plenty of interesting sights to discover, including an 11-movement astronomic clock, and 13th-16th hospital buildings belonging to the Order of the Holy Spirit, the wonderful gardens of the Château de Vaire le Grand and numerous remarkable religious buildings.
Admirable gallery of the old Hospice of the Holy Spirit, whose chapel became a protestant church after the Revolution. © Office du Tourisme de Besançon
In Montbéliard, Pontarlier, Ornans or Morteau, many museums put the spotlight on a particular heritage feature, local crafts, or an artist from the region. In the season, you may also enjoy taking part in one of the numerous cultural events organised in Franche-Comté in homage to its history and traditions.
Arc-et-Senans is only a 1-hour drive from Dijon, the capital of Burgundy …
To fully appreciate the period atmosphere of the Royal Saltworks, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books (nothing beats a good historical novel to bring old stones back to life). Listening to some period music may also be a good way to transport you back in time… A few suggestions:
Learn and understand
Books to savor during your stay
The perfect setting for a little music
Merci à un concours d'IntoHistory de nous avoir fait découvrir la Saline Royale!
Vers 18h, quand les grandes portes d'entrée se ferment pour les visiteurs extérieurs, c'est un privilège de continuer à profiter du site jusqu'au coucher du soleil!
Les Espaces sont magnifiques, les petits déjeuner buffet bien remplis, l'accueil est irréprochable et le tout dans un environnement hors du commun et propre.
De plus, la région aux alentours est très belle.
Encore Merci à IntoHistory.
Lieu magique où il fait bon de s'imprégner le soir sans la masse des touristes et à l'aube en se promenant dans la diversité des petits jardins... Belles chambres, grandes, propres et gardant le cachet de l'époque.
A découvrir et à venir voir et revoir !
Vraiment top la Saline !
Un lieu magique.
Accueil, restaurant, environnement, propreté, calme... im-pec-cable.
Etonnamment, l'hôtel était peu fréquenté en pleine période estivale...
Merci à intoHistory pour cette découverte.
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Saline royale (Royal Saltworks)
+33 3 81 54 45 17
Hotel’s own website
(in French only)
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