The day had the breath of chill in the air and winter was peaking in the window, but the sun was still claiming the sea so we headed to the salt-pans on the Adriatic. There are two remaining “salt farms” in Slovenia near Portorož/ Piran and in “no man’s land” between the border crossings of Slovenia and Croatia. The salt –pans were the source of salt for centuries and function today as a working museum which produces salt in traditional ways. The sun sparkled on the surface of the stagnant water in the salt-pan squares shooting the reflection with the greater force of salt and called us into the basin of history.
The first documented discussion of salt making in this area was in 840, but historians believe that long before that time the process of claiming salt from sea water was happening in the delta of the Dragonja River. The richness of this production was claimed by the Venetian empire and sale to the Italians was compulsory until the end of the Venetian rule in 1797, when at that point the Austrian Empire claimed the salt monopoly. In the middle ages the design of checkerboard squares was introduced following the patterns established by Arab salt producers, and in 1358 the petola process was developed to create a carpet of algae, carbonate minerals and gypsum grown on the bottom of the salt plot as a barrier to keep the muddy floor from mixing with the seawater and the salt. Because of this crust the salt harvested her e was known for its purity in color and taste.
The conditions for producing salt were perfect in these protected delta because the climate is hot with a constant warm breeze in the summer and the sea level is relatively constant. Salt was produced in these closed basins by allowing seawater to flow, by gravity or aided by wind or hand pumps, first into a reserve basin and then five basins of different grades of salinity and then to the crystallization and collection basins. As the sea water flowed between the pans the water evaporated gradually, the salt crystals start to form on the surface of the brine (aqua madre), they become saturated and built up clusters of salt on the warmer surface. These clusters were raked with wooden scrapers (gavero) from the shallow pools into piles where, because of gravity, the surplus moisture leaked from the bottom. The dry salt was then gathered by hand and transported by wheelbarrow and wagons to storage units. It takes approximately, 50,000 cubic/m of sea water spread over 100,000 sq/m, of flat solar evaporation area, to produce 1,000 tons of salt a year and this daily collection of salt produced pure white unrefined sea salt. In good years the production was as high at 40,000 tons.
In 1903 the Austrians consolidated the salt-fields, bought up small producers and modernized the production. After WWI the Italians renovated the fields and enhanced the production to a high level. In 1957 the Yugoslav government built an infrastructure to prevent flooding, but because the mining of salt was more efficient than the evaporation process the sites were closed for production in 1968. The Slovene government has established this area as a protected wetland and a cultural heritage site. Salt is still produced in the traditional ways and sold as a specialty item for eating and beauty care. Areas have also been flooded to encourage greater breeding by sea birds such as the tern and claim this as a wildlife refuge.
Ruins of worker houses
Throughout the 1,400 acre salt-pans remains of the salt houses stand on deserted islands. The evaporation ponds and residences were all connected and separated by canals, gates, dikes and aqueducts. The salt was harvested daily and the flow of the sea water was controlled with the tides, so the workers lived in the midst of their work. Their homes were typically 2 stories with the living quarters on the second floor and storage of salt and tools on the ground floor, with an out side bakery. Now they stand naked with out their roofs and emptied of any sign of life. From the place where we parked the car, I found a recently constructed levee that lead me out to the houses. The mallards reminded me that I was investigating an area not open for tourists, but it was a lonely day and no one else but the egrets noticed.
The houses, still plumb square, are built of roughly cut pure white blocks of stone from the Istrian Peninsula [the same stone used in the White House] filled with left over chips and mud. There is little land around the houses but each had an area where they docked the boats that would have transported them along the canals. The absolute calm on these little islands was profoundly peaceful., and far on the horizon were the snowy peaks of the Dolomiti mountains, the sound of the sea was quieted by distance and not a single mechanical sound could be heard. It was marvelous!