The Praid Salt Mine or Salina Praid is located in Romania’s salt zone surrounded by similar mines and a vast salt industry. The town of Praid grew up around the salt mine with many of its inhabitants working underground. Large tunnels were carved out beneath the countryside to extract the salt and left abandoned, however today, certain parts of the mine have been reopened for tourism.
Salina Praid is located in the Gurghiu Mountains in the county of Harghita. Transylvania is well known for its rich deposits of rock salt which were formed 13.5 million years ago when the area was a shallow sea with a tropical climate. Over time, layers of sediment formed on top, leaving the salt layer buried approximately 1.2 km deep (3,937 ft). Much of the subsoil of Transylvania features a layer of salt approximately 400 metres thick (1,312 ft). As the Carpathian Mountain range formed, some of the salt layer was forced to the surface.
Salt mining in the area dates back to Roman times and there are records of a mine in Praid since 1200AD. The Romans worked mainly on the surface, digging exposed salt up to 15 metres (49 ft). Many of the pits the Romans left abandoned after the salt had been extracted have become lakes. The Roman mine was administered from Praetoria Augusta near the current village of Inlăceni.
Modern underground mining operations began at Praid in 1762 with the opening of the Iosif mine. At that time, the salt was extracted by hand, put into buffalo skins and pulled to the surface with the help of a horse. Surface mining was operated in tandem with the underground extraction.
During this time, Transylvania was part of the Habsburg Empire and the mine was taken over by the state in 1787. Two new side chambers were opened shortly after and called the Carol mine and the Ferdinand mine. They reached 66 metres (216 ft) deep.
In 1864, a mine was opened next to the Iosif mine creating one of the largest underground cavities in Europe. This Parallel mine, as it became known, was deeper than the others. By 1896, this was the only salt mine from which material was being extracted in Praid.
Work began on a new prospect on the northeastern part of the site in 1898. The Elisabeta mine stretched about 200 metres (656 ft) into the hill. A large underground operating chamber was built to extract the material from this mine.
After World War II, a new mine was built which was named the Dózsa György mine after leader of the 1514 peasant uprising. This new mine featured a narrow railway for carrying the salt to the surface using 16 ton dump trucks. The railway allowed for deeper mining and in 1978, a new chamber was opened 40 metres (131 ft) below the original Iosif, Carol and Ferdinand mines. This took Salina Praid to a depth of 320 metres (1,049 ft) below the surface. At the same time, a treatment facility was opened at the salt mine.
The latest mine, the Telegdy mine, was opened in 1991 and uses a different method for extracting the salt called the Canadian Method. Small chambers are cut into the salt and square pillars extracted.
As mines became exhausted, they were left abandoned. There were suggestions during the Cold War that the Romanian government were using the mines to store weapons but this has always been denied. In the 1970s, The Communist Party of Romania was developing a closer relationship to the West and began welcoming an increasing number of tourists to Transylvania, lured by Bran Castle which the government marketed as the home of Dracula. The potential for tourism at Salina Praid became apparent and the abandoned mines were opened to visitors.
The salt mines gained a particular reputation for their health benefits. Following the extraction of the salt, large underground voids were formed which featured a unique saline micro-climate. It features relatively constant temperatures of between 14-16 C and low humidity of 66-70%. There is higher atmospheric pressure than at the surface and the air is strongly ionized. This is particularly effective in treating respiratory diseases and a wellness centre operates at the mine. Horizon 50 is located over a kilometre and a half from the entrance at a depth of 120 metres (393 ft). Visitors are taken to it by bus.
Other tourist facilities in the mine include a high ropes course, recreation areas, playgrounds, a restaurant, a museum and even a chapel. Salina Praid is the most visited mine in Romania with 200,000 tourists visiting annually. The town of Praid itself has become a leading destination for wellness tourists with a popular outdoor swimming pool as well as a number of saltwater spas.