Over the centuries, the vast Sečovlje salterns, the shallow point of contact between the fresh waters of the Dragonja River and the sea of the Bay of Piran, have been imprinted with a grid of canals, levees and dunes. Every so often, stone houses, most of them in ruins, stand at intersecting lines, dotted on the grid like bolts fastening the salt ponds into the shallow grounds in order to prevent them from being washed away. In this flat treeless landscape, the remnants of salt-pan houses are the only vertical silhouettes on the horizon. The empty openings, once fitted with windows, look onto the blues of the sea and the sky – the sea cannot be seen until we approach the final separation between the grid of commercial interests interwoven into the flooding wetlands and the untamed blue skin of the sea waves. It is divided only by a dyke made of cut stone, which allows the produce, the salty sea water, to pass to the pools. The residents of Piran began building the grid of salt ponds imprinted on the wetlands, separating them from the delta, over seven centuries ago, before they were subjugated by Venice.
Yet similarities with the former master of the Adriatic are very telling: through regulated ponds, which have been appropriated from nature, meanders a Canal Grande, as it were, the former main riverbed of the Dragonja River. It is said that its meanders resemble the shape of a snake’s or dragon’s tail – even the name of the river originates from the Latin word for dragon, draco. For many, many years, cargo boats and barges have sailed through these canals carrying the white cargo extracted in the square pools, which drove the wealth of Piran.
When the Romans wanted not only to overpower their enemies, but annihilate them from the face of the Earth, they salted their fields, so the fields would never yield again. But to the people of Piran, the sea poured salt onto their best fields. The ruins of production infrastructure, which is what the salt-pan houses essentially were, and the almost completely blurred grid of salt ponds in shallow sea water reveal a proto-plant which could only be conceived by the Venetians. Not only the navigable canals and the land claimed from the sea by humans, even the process of decay is very Venetian-like, although, fortunately, it is much more solitary here. Today, when most of the former four hundred salt-pan houses have gone, leaving a few dozen picturesque ruins – with only a few currently restored – their chipped walls remind us of the last remaining visible vestiges of a gigantic submerged production machine. As if only a few chimneys, testaments to the industry lone gone, emerging from the sea surface, transformed into an object of nostalgia in a very Venetian way.
The quiet lowlands once resembled a hybrid between an expansive hacienda and a factory. Every year in April, on St. George’s Day, several thousand residents of Piran would leave the town and sail from the town’s cape to the Sečovlje salterns in a fascinating procession of barges, where they lived and worked for the next four months. After two months, the families were joined by the unmarried daughters who had remained behind in the care of extended family. The mysterious ritual enriched the production of the commodity with a collective cult value. While in the northern part of the Sečovlje salt pans, sea salt is still produced and harvested in the traditional way, the closely-guarded virgins, family life among the salt pans and varyingly strained social relationships between tenant farmers and landowners are a thing of the past – everything that separated pre-modern production, immersed in rituals and the natural course of things, from modern mass industrial production.
Today, both ancient and modern worlds are almost equally distant to us. In the abandoned southern part, the dilapidation is absorbed with the indefinite nostalgia of a decaying landscape, where the scent of the salt mixes with the smell of standing sea water. In the silence of perished times, interrupted only by the shrieks of birds, it is easy to forget that this was once a mass production facility. Mass production and consumerism transformed piles of wood and mud into carefully regulated canals with watersheds, gates and pumps, and natural stone into uniformly designed salt-pan houses, where the salt was stored on the ground floor, while the families lived on the upper floors.
The all-encompassing silence is a rather new experience for the seven hundred-year old saltpans, caused by the unreasonable opening of the gates in the 1980s, which largely destroyed the meticulous labour of generations. Perhaps this was the last, but definitely not the first unfortunate event. Under Austrian rule, work in the salt pools was sometimes suspended on the order of the emperor at the beginning of the season so that Piran salt would not threaten the hegemony of the Salzburg salt mines. During Venetian rule, workers often had to take back out to the sea several tons of the salt harvest which had been laboriously produced over the course of several months so that an abundant year would not bring down the price of the precious good. Mass production, tied to the market, has always been counter-intuitive. Words such as monopoly, dumping and competition only sound nice when they are out of date.
As tourists, we wander around our industrial past on paths carefully separated from the salt fields and ruins, a quiet in memoriam. We become observers of the past of mass production and trade in Europe, which can trace its modern origins to a place on the other side of the sea, by the other Canal Grande.
Written by Miloš Kosec
Photographs Ajda Schmidt