Slovenia’s Adriatic coastline may only be 28 miles long, but this stretch of the Istrian Peninsula is awash in deeply-held customs associated with the sea - especially the harvesting of Adriatic sea salt. During a visit of several days, I bobbed between the towns of Piran and Portorož, dipping my toes in centuries-old traditions that included sea salt harvesting and thalassotherapy.
Admiring the 180-degree panorama from atop Piran’s highest point, a mount where the Cathedral of St. George is perched, it was easy to appreciate the affinity locals feel with all things nautical. Piran occupies the tip of a narrow finger of land that stretches into the shimmering Gulf of Piran, and even at an elevation of almost 1,000 feet the presence of the sea is overpowering.
As I stood on the city’s ancient walls, my guide Irena Pahor gave context to my sensory impressions, sharing her own history and that of Piran. Breathless from both the stunning view and a ten-minute walk up the steep hillside through a maze of narrow alleys, I contentedly soaked up Piran’s ambience and Irena’s description of growing up in this idyllic spot.
The name of the town is said to originate from the Greek word pyr, which means “fire.”In antiquity, Piran's residents kept huge bonfires going on the very tip of the peninsula as a sort of lighthouse, serving as a warning for Greek boats going to their colonies.
“My family came to live in Piran in autumn of 1968 from Koper when I was a baby,” Irena said. “My mother Emilija was a nurse and my father Dimitrij worked for the Splošna plovba shipping company.”
“One of my favorite memories of those days is of our family’s Sunday morning walks around the city,” she continued. “After breakfast, my sister, mum and I dressed very pretty and, with my father, we went on our circle walk. We left our home at the top of the city walls, went first by the St. Georges church, than to the lighthouse at the top of the peninsula. From there, we walked on the riva, the promenade along the sea, to the main pier, where there was a sail boat with a restaurant. It looked like an old pirate’s boat and eating there from time to time was something special for me.”
Irena and I replicated her childhood strolls, reaching Tartinijev Trg, the town square. Here I gazed not down but up at the facades of the buildings lining the expansive plaza, charmed by the Venetian Gothic architecture, a legacy of the centuries the city spent as a part of the Venetian Republic. I admired a striking structure painted in a shade of a deep rose, which Irena told me was the oldest building on the square, built by a rich Venetian merchant to house his mistress. The lovers were not deterred by gossip about their affair; Irena pointed out an inscription between the upper windows, which says Lassa pur dir, or "let them talk.”
The Legend of St George
At the other end of the square, fishing boats rim the small harbor. Irena told me there is a legend that in the year 1343 St. George saved the city from a big thunderstorm. Two fishermen out at sea saw St. George on his horse in the sky, making all the black clouds disappear—she said there is a painting of this miracle in the Church of St. George, created in 1705 by Venetian artist Angelo de Coster. The Christian martyr St. George has been the patron of Piran for almost 700 years.
“An annual celebration dedicated to St. George takes place in Slovenia on April 24th,” Irena said. “Since before medieval times, this holiday marked the beginning of the salt harvesting season on the Slovene coast. Residents of Piran packed up all their necessary belongings on small boats and made their way along the shore to the Sečovlje salt pans. More than 2,500 people made the mini migration to this 1,600-acre expanse on the mouth of the Dragonja River and along what is now the Croatian border.”
The Sečovlje salt pans
Irena and I made the journey ourselves, driving through the neighbouring town of Portorož to Sečovlje Salina Nature Park, the Mediterranean’s northernmost salt pans. From a neighboring hillside, the wide inlet between the Slovene and Croatian coast resembled giant window panes, with the azure sky and billowing clouds reflected in evenly-spaced rectangular pools.
“The oldest existing document that refers to the Sečovlje salt pans is a 1278 statute granting Piran status as a town, but for sure the salt pans were made much earlier,” Irena said. “Some say salt was being harvested here at the time of Romans.”
“The salt fields were owned by the town of Piran, its wealthy families and the church and monastery,” she continued. “Working in salt-pans was seasonal work done by farmers and fisherman to supplement their primary livelihood. Workers rented a specific plot of the salt-field; typically a family worked the same plot for generations, as it represented a significant investment.”
“It was always very competitive between families to see who would have the whitest salt and who will harvest the most salt,” Irena told me. “The quantity and quality of salt always depended on how good salt fields were prepared and maintained to ensure good circulation of the water. If the basins were leveled correctly and petola made in proper way, the water evaporated better and the salt was whiter.”
“Petola?” I asked.
“It’s an artificially-cultivated crust in the crystallization basins made of green-blue algae, gypsus, clay and different minerals,” she explained. “Petola works as a filter, preventing the salt from mixing with the mud from the bottom of the basin. It’s the ingredient that makes the salt of Piran so white. Petola was brought from the Croatian island of Pag in 14-th century.”
“Incomes from salt making were very good though the work was very hard,” Irena said. “The man usually went early in the morning to work on the field. Meanwhile the lady and the kids took care that there was enough water in all of the basins. The woman of the house than had to do usual work at home, keeping it tidy and preparing meals. Kids were put to work in the salt fields and also fished and caught shrimp.”
She told me that families built houses on their plot; there were once 440 salina houses on the Sečovlje salt pans. Each house had a small garden, usually with a fig tree or some other fruit tree planted nearby. The household had to get their drinking water from further up the Dragonja River. They worked every day that the weather was good, except on Sunday, when they dressed up and went back to Piran to go to mass, air their houses, buy what couldn’t get in the salina.
“The manager of the salt-field had to be very good meteorologist, knowing when the tide comes, what different clouds and types of wind means,” Irena said. “If you want to have a lot of salt, than you need a lot of sunny days with some nice mistral wind blowing, helping to evaporate the water. Mistral is a cold, dry wind coming from the north-west that usually causes a period of cloudless skies and luminous sunshine. Rain is not welcome in salt production as destroys salt and brine. Salt-making was and still is manual work, helped by nature.”
On the drive back to Piran, I remarked to Irena about how the influence of the sea seemed to be imbued in all the different aspects of daily life. She agreed, sharing with me another tradition.
“Another favorite memory is the annual ‘Neptune’s Baptism’,” Irena responded. “This event is organized by the nautical high school of Portorož, which offers a specialized curriculum in maritime skills and boat mechanics. Neptune’s Baptism is held on the first weekend after school starts and on this day the older pupils baptise those who are newly enrolled. The students form a procession that goes from Portorož to Piran, with the high school freshmen dressed as slaves, the older students as masters and an upperclassman designated as Neptune. In Piran the freshmen are ‘baptized’ and thrown into the sea.”
“The first Neptune's Baptism took place in 1947, the same year that the maritime high school opened,” she went on. “In 1948, as a 16-year old boy, my father came to study at Piran’s nautical school and he also was baptized in Piran’s harbor. At that time the school had its place in old custom house, where today’s aquarium is. The dormitory was in the palace Trevisini on the other side of the old fish market, facing the port of Piran.”
“With this baptism they are following the sailor’s tradition of promising to Neptune, the God of sea that they will be a good sailor and at the same time begging him to look after them while they were on the sea,” she observed. “The maritime custom of baptism is still observed today in another form—when ships cross the Equator, those sailors making that passage for the first time receive baptism rites.”
“I feel very closely connected to the sea. I can't imagine living somewhere else,” Irena told me. “My father’s whole career was connected to the shipping company. We spend our entire summer on the beach. My oldest son has been involved in sailing for 10 years. And I adore walking along the shore breathing nice sea air. To me, a view of the sea gives me feeling of freedom and immensity.”
Thalassotherapy with Adriatic sea salt
The next day, I experienced a connection to the sea in a completely new way—making my first foray into thalassotherapy.
Thalassotherapy is the medical use of seawater as a form of therapy; the term comes from the Greek word thalassa, meaning "sea.” It is based on the systematic use of seawater, sea products, and shore climate. The properties of seawater are believed to have beneficial effects upon the pores of the skin. Thalasso therapy is very useful for removal of dead skin cells and improving the skin's hydration levels and barrier function. Skin inflammation is reduced by bathing in water with high concentration of sea salt or brine, as well.
Terme & Wellness Portorož covers an area of 2.5 acres—it’s one the most comprehensive wellness, spa and health resort in Europe. The massive complex is comprised of seven wellbeing centers focusing on different approaches; true to the area’s heritage, thalasso therapy represents the spa’s core offering.
“In Portorož we are proud on a very rich tradition of thalasso therapy,” Janez Jager of Lifeclass Spa told me. “As early as the 13th century monks from the Benedictine monastery noticed that saltpan workers from the nearby salt pans rarely developed skin conditions or fell ill with rheumatoid diseases. In order to alleviate and treat these conditions and diseases, the monks gradually started using by-products that appear during the traditional production of salt, such as salt pan mud, which is called fango and brine, known as aqua madre.”
Arriving at the Lifeclass Spa, I was struck by the clinical atmosphere, contrasted by the assortment of people of all shapes and sizes padding around in terrycloth robes and slippers. After donning my own such garb, I underwent a three-part treatment: multi-jet bath, fango body pack and peeling massage, each of which were 20 minutes long.
I was brought to a room with an immense tub filled to the brim, which the attendant invited me to get in. Once I did, the tub took on a life of its own. Outfitted with what seemed like fifty nozzles, salt water was furiously pumped at every inch of my body, accompanied by some kind of aquatic strobe light that sent colored waves at me--the water in the tub turned magenta, then lilac, turquoise, emerald, yellow and orange. As I sat astonished in the middle of all this, I began to laugh uproariously. The attendant's eyes widened and a broad smile appeared on her face as she said "Have fun!" It occurred to me that she was probably unaccustomed to the childlike delight of an unsophisticated American who had yet to experience this particular brand of self-care. I didn’t care and continued to periodically giggle to myself until she re-appeared to bring me to the next phase of my treatment.
I was led to another room and instructed to lay down on a massage table heavily padded with layers of immense towels, on top of which was a huge sheet of saran-wrap. The therapist efficiently slathered me in a thick brownish-green slime and then said “Now I will wrap you up like a package!” She proceeded to tightly enfold me in the saran-wrap and thick towels, then moved to the door. "I will be back in 20 minutes. You will be OK?"
Happily, I was too relaxed enough from my multi-jet bath to argue about being immobilized in a mud cocoon and I said "Sure, sure." She turned off the light and after a few fleeting thoughts about what would happen to me if the building caught fire, I must have actually dozed off because the next thing I knew, the therapist was back, peeling me out of my fango pack.
After hosing myself off in the shower equivalent of the multi-jet bath, I was back on the table for a massage with with sea salt and essential oils. As the therapist began her work on my legs, I initially felt like I was getting massage with a brillo pad. But I almost immediately felt a surge of blood flow through my arteries and a much-needed revitalizing boost to my circulatory system.
I left Piran relaxed and reinvigorated after partaking in local traditions that benefited both my body and soul.
Useful link: Hotel Tartini Piran
My thanks to Irena Pahor, Sečovlje Salina Nature Park and Lifeclass Spa for sharing images.