Salt production and trading has been carried on in Beyond for two thousand years. Salt from the "salines" in the Camargue was transported by boat along the Mediterranean coast, and then inland through the mountains by mule. The routes often avoided the main roads so as to avoid the "brigands". The first photo shows part of the "salines" in the Camargue.
A major pair of salt roads in the Alpes-Maritimes was from the coastal area between Nice and Ventimiglia. The route from Nice was up the Vésubie Valley, via Saint Martin-Vésubie at the head of the valley. The Ventimiglia route went inland through the Roya Valley, over the Col de Tende and into the Piedmont.
A Route du Sel in the Vaucluse passed near the Fort de Buoux, up the Aiguebrun valley to Sivergues and Apt. The second photo shows an old stone pillar marking the Route du Sel along the isolated Aiguebrun river, near the Fort de Buoux.
From the Bronze Age (1800 BC) on, Ligurian "drailles" linked the Ligurie maritime with the "alpages" of the upper Roya. The "drailles" were paths for people, troops and mules, and sheep and goats on the transhumance.
When the Emperor Octave Auguste conquered the Ligurians, he made a route from Ventimiglia (Albintimilium), up the Roya Valley (Vallis Rutubae) and over the Col de Tende to Borgo San Dalmazzo.
By the beginning of the 9th century, just about all the Roman roads had disappeared. The difficult passages were destroyed by the local population as a protection from the barbarian invasions. Even with the roads torn up, however, the Goths, Lombards and Sarrasins penetrated the interior to ravage and occupy territory on both sides of the Alps. The Sarrasins maintained the route through the Roya, from "Milnière de Vallauria" to the sea to embark the minerals.
During the Arabic occupations, people stayed inside their fortified homes and villages. After the Moors were chased from their last bases of the Ligurian coast, trade began between the interior villages and the Mediterranean. At the beginning of the 13th century, the Counts of Ventimiglia restored the route between Ventimiglia and Piedmont via the Col de Tende (Corniae). By the end of the 13th century, the Counts of Provence, who had the salt monopoly, became masters of the Compté de Ventimiglia and part of the Piedmont. They maintained the route between Cuneo (Coni) and the coast.
In 1388, the Count of Savoy took control of the Roya-Piedmont region, and took over the salt monopoly. In 1407, the Count of Tende (Pierre Balbe II, Lascaris) closed the route, demanding exorbitant taxes. Since the route was also becoming dangerous because of brigands, the Lords of Savoy made another salt road, linking Nice and Turin, passing via the Haute Vésubie, completely within Savoyian territory.
The route over the Col de Fenestre (about 16 km west of the Col de Tende) was impractical because the pass was closed during the winter, so the Roya valley continued to be the main Route du Sel through the 16th century. The villages along the route were heavily fortified, including l'Escarène, Breil, Saorge, La Brigue, Tende, and Limone (Italy). At the same time, another southern route was built between Breil and Menton, to increase the off-loading points on the coast.
In 1458, the Duke of Savoy created the official title "La Gabelle du Sel de Nice", a tax specifically for the salt trade. This salt tax stayed in place until 1790, when it was abolished.
In 1581, The Compté de Tende went under the control of the House of Savoy, making the entire area between Nice and Piedmont a single territory. In 1592 a Nice-Piedmont road was started, essentially to bypass the difficult route over the Col de Brouis. Because the principle use of the road was for salt trade, the construction was under the control of the "Gabellier Général du Sel". The new route opened through the Gorges de St. Dalmas-de-Tende, Berghe and Saorge, following the course of the Roya and the Giandola to Tende, avoiding the "agglomerations" of Breil, Saorge and La Brigue. This route was still in use in 1608. Below Saorge, a plaque engraved in the rock commemorates the inauguration of the "grand chemin ducal de Turin à Nice", a fantastic engineering feat for the 16th-17th centuries.
In 1680, the main towns on the Route du Sel were Nice, Sospel, Saorge, Tende and Coni (Cuneo, Italy). In spite of a couple of wars in the region during the 18th century, Nice-Turin traffic increased steadily. In 1776, 18,317 mules of general commerce left Nice, 16,124 for Coni and 2,178 for Turin. At the same time, 30-35,000 mules of salt made the journey.