- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

STON, Croatia — They do it as their fathers did, and their fathers before them, and their forefathers through 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 salt from Ston.

It is the configuration of Ston Bay that makes it a perfect place to harvest 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 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,” said owner Svetan Pejic, who plans to invest more to keep the saltworks just as they are. “The salt here is pure, natural, ecological.”

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

For hundreds of years in the Ragusan Republic — which existed until 1808, when Napoleon abolished it and gave it to Austria because the Italians had used it to resist him militarily — salt was “white gold” and Ragusa based much of its prosperity on its export to the Turkish empire and elsewhere.

Salt was so valuable that Ragusan law required the warehouse keys be guarded round the clock, and 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.

Seventeen persons work at the saltworks today, but for generations the town’s people did little but dig for salt. During the main collection period, 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 all over the federation’s six republics. At its peak, the saltworks yielded more than 6,000 tons a year.

Mr. Pejic bought the works in the 1990s, 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, Mr. Pejic says it is still important.

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

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