the Middle Ages until the early 20th century, the town of
Turda in Transylvania was famous for its salt-mining industry. By
1932 the mines had fallen out of use and were closed, but in 2009
they were renovated thanks to financial aid from the European
Union. Today the largest mine Salina Turda functions as a 120m-deep
museum and attracts thousands of visitors every year.
I visited Romania in July to work with the Ratiu Foundation, a
not-for-profit organisation which supports education and research
into the culture and history of Romania and the Romanian people. I
was based in Turda and Cluj-Napoca where I helped at an anti-sex
trafficking consortium, and I spent 80 per cent of my time with sex
workers on the highways. Visiting the salt flats was a moment of
peace from what was a very demanding project. I stumbled upon them
one day after a local said: “You want to see the real Romania?
On the perimeter of Turda town there are water-filled salt
quarries between areas of dense forest, and pools of thick, salty
mud that are dimpled with footprints. This is where the elderly
locals come to bathe.
Andrei, a 30-year-old former truck driver, stands beside me as
he overlooks the salt flats and says: “It’s a free space for
Romanians, Romas, whoever. We are all covered in black clay and we
are all here to heal.” The clay has extraordinary qualities and can
ease the effects of degenerative rheumatic conditions. In this
community clay treatments are performed ceremoniously, particularly
in preparation for the bitterly cold winter months.
The fall of Ceaușescu’s regime and the consequent end of
Communism in Romania is spoken of as a victory. Nikalae, an
80-year-old Turda resident, stands before me as his son applies
scorching-hot black clay to his arms and back. He is one of many
locals standing uninhibited, bare-chested and beaming in the
38-degree heat. He turns to me, his gold teeth glinting in the sun,
and says resolutely: “Ceaușescu removed the bars and the theatres.
He removed our community. Then all of a sudden we were free. We
didn’t know what to do, so we went to the salt flats.”