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'White Gold' Salted Away in Croatia

August 31, 2003|Snjezana Vukic | Associated Press Writer

STON, Croatia — They do it as their fathers did, and their fathers before them, and their forefathers throughout the centuries: Harvest salt by shovel at one of the oldest of the few remaining natural saltworks in Europe.

The saltworks in Ston, a coastal town just north of Croatia's Adriatic pearl, Dubrovnik, are said to date to Roman times. But the first written mention was in 1272 in the Statutes of the Ragusan Republic -- a small, independent state around Ragusa, as Dubrovnik was known. The statutes set strict rules for the production, storage and sale of Ston's salt.

It is Ston Bay's configuration that makes it a perfect place for the harvesting of salt. The sea flows in and some of the salty water is caught in "pools" toward the shore. As the water moves through the series of pools, it evaporates, helped by dry winds and high temperatures, and becomes saltier.

In the last row of 12 very shallow pools -- each named long ago after local saints -- salt is ready for collecting. Today, as long ago, workers dig the salt out with shovels and load it onto mine cars that carry it to the warehouse.

"It's only the sea, sun and winds, nothing else," says owner Svetan Pejic, who plans to invest more to keep the saltworks as it is. "The salt here is pure, natural, ecological."

For hundreds of years in the Ragusan Republic, which existed until 1808 when it was occupied by Napoleon's army, salt was "white gold" and Ragusa based much of its prosperity on salt exports to the Turkish empire and elsewhere.

Salt was so valuable that Ragusan law required the warehouse keys be guarded round the clock. Every sale of salt had to be observed by two witnesses. There were harsh penalties for those who violated the rules -- and hefty rewards for those who turned them in.

It is believed that the 3.3-mile stone wall around Ston was built to protect the saltworks.

Only 17 people work at the saltworks today, but for generations the town's people did little but dig for salt. At the main collection times -- from April to October -- the work was compulsory for all residents of Ston and nearby areas. They were paid in salt or gold.

Later, when Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia, Ston's salt was distributed throughout the then communist-ruled federation of six republics. At its peak, the saltworks produced more than 6,000 tons a year.

Pejic bought the works when Croatia's government began selling off state property after seceding from Yugoslavia.

Although the saltworks is not profitable and can't compete with mechanized salt mines, Pejic says it still has an important role to play.

"It will remain here, if only for tourists, so they can collect it themselves and take home the purest salt in the world," he says.

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