The salt works in Sečovlje

An activity that has survived for thousands of years

Salt works in Sečovlje. Photo: Bojan Marčeta /UKOM archive

Saltmaking is one of the oldest economic activities on the north-eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, and the salt trade was once one of the most important branches of commerce in the territory of present-day Slovenia. This trade had a decisive role in the development of Trieste, Piran, Izola and Koper. At the beginning of the last century, Slovenia's coast – all 46.6 kilometres of it – was dotted with saltworks. The most important of them were the Piran saltworks, although all that remains of them today is a section of the small saltworks in Strunjan. The extensive Sečovlje saltworks at the mouth of the river Dragonja, covering an area of around 850 hectares, are however still active today. In 1989 the municipality of Piran created the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park, encompassing the area of these saltworks and the nearby Seča peninsula. The Sečovlje saltworks are the northernmost saltworks in the Mediterranean.

Past and present hand in hand

Over the course of their long centuries of existence (first written references date from the second half of the 13th century), the saltworks have gone through periods of prosperity and recession, and have not infrequently been on the verge of collapse.  The process they developed is unique in the Mediterranean even today. The traditional manual harvesting of salt in salt ponds is a particular feature of the cultural heritage of Mediterranean Slovenia and helps ensure the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the saltworks were owned by wealthy families, churches, monasteries and charitable institutions. The saltworker was merely the tenant of the salt field and the producer of the salt. The golden age of saltmaking in Sečovlje was from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, when these areas were under the control of the Venetian Republic. Following the collapse of the Venetian Republic (1797), the saltworks came under Austrian control. Austria later proclaimed salt a state monopoly.

Salt works in Sečovlje. Photo: Ubald Trnkczy

Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the saltworks in Sečovlje once again passed to Italy. After the Second World War the Yugoslav authorities prepared numerous studies and reconstructions designed to facilitate industrial salt production. Many organisational changes were made, but success was limited. In 2000 the Soline company (the company operating the saltworks) also took over the management of the nature park. A year later the government of the Republic of Slovenia adopted the Decree on the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park in order to protect the valuable natural elements and biological diversity of the salt ponds ecosystem. In 2002 the saltworks were acquired by Mobitel d.d., a mobile telephony company in which the state holds a majority share.

The salt trade is an interesting story in itself. Great numbers of merchants and carriers were involved in the salt trade.The conditions of trade changed constantly over the centuries, but the free trade in salt was eventually prohibited by state monopolies.

The Museum of Saltmaking

Photo: Ubald Trnoczy

Salt is obtained in salt fields consisting of evaporation ponds and crystallisation ponds. Sea water is drawn from the evaporation ponds into the crystallisation ponds by a gravity system or with the help of pumps. In Fontanigge, part of the Sečovlje saltworks which is today abandoned, these pumps were driven by windmills. In Lera, the newer part of the saltworks, where salt is still produced today, a modern pumping system was introduced by the Austrians over a hundred years ago. Just over ten years ago, an up-to-date museum complex opened in Fontanigge, next to the Giassi canal.

The saltworks museum currently consists of two renovated saltworker's houses and the salt fields belonging to them, and a formerly navigable canal which was also the main seawater inflow. One of the houses contains a collection of old saltworkers' tools and an account of the history of saltmaking in words and pictures. The other house contains two salt stores, two simply furnished rooms and a kitchen for the use of the workers in the museum salt fields. A salt field consists of a series of ponds for the different stages of evaporation, and crystallisation ponds where the salt is "harvested" in summer. Visitors to the museum have the opportunity to buy elegantly packaged salt in special gift bags and a certificate of authenticity proving that it is genuine Sečovlje salt.

Saltworks also famous as a rich treasury of flora and fauna

Vodomec (kingfisher). Photo (source): www.natura2000.gov.si

Today the Sečovlje saltworks are also famous as a rich treasury of flora and fauna and are classified as one of the most important natural heritage sites in Slovenia. The abandoning of saltmaking in the greater part of the saltworks has created special ecological conditions in which only organisms adapted to these special conditions can survive. These include a number of special plant species (halophytes) that only thrive in salty soil, while among the animals are representatives of some rare Mediterranean species such as the Etruscan shrew (Suncus etruscus), the smallest mammal in the world, the Italian wall lizard (Lacerta sicula) and the lesser mouse-eared bat (Myotis blythii), which are found nowhere else in Slovenia. There are also some rare species of shrimps, molluscs, fish, etc.

The saltworks in Sečovlje are also a refuge for numerous birds, which find ideal living conditions here. Over 200 different species of birds have been observed in the area of the saltworks, and 80 of them also nest here either permanently or periodically. In spring and autumn flocks of migratory birds stop in the salt fields, and great numbers of birds also spend the winter here – gulls, ducks, geese, sandpipers and other species. The saltworks are also protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as a wetland of international importance as a waterfowl habitat.

Saltworks as an additional tourist attraction

Sečovlje at sunset. Photo: STB archive

The Sečovlje Salina Nature Park is today an important tourist attraction on the Slovenian coast, although of course this is not allowed to impact on conditions inside the nature park. The buildings in the area of the saltworks represent a valuable example of cultural heritage, from both the architectural and technical points of view.

The nature reserves within the park are subject to special protection and any interference with the flora and fauna is strictly prohibited.

Since the nearby town of Portorož still retains something of the status of a health resort, it is worth mentioning that some hotels there use mud from the saltworks for therapeutic purposes: specifically for treating rheumatic illnesses.

The nature park also includes the Seča peninsula. For visitors, however, the biggest attraction is the outdoor Forma Viva sculpture exhibition.

Text by Jože Prešeren