White Gold – Salt and the Story of Pag, Croatia:
The approach to Pag is over a seemingly nondescript looking concrete bridge (but of course a landmark, built in 1968 which has huge importance for the economy of the island); for a moment, perhaps subconsciously influenced by the young driver who’d told me it wasn’t his favourite island, I wondered if my request to visit had been an error of judgement. But, once we had parked and walked to the harbour edge, I was content that there would be at least a little to see on my brief visit. And I was looking forward to tasting the famous Pag cheese.
We waited outside a large warehouse with a curious sign.
Our guides arrived – we were, apparently, going to see the Museum of Salt. Now, my agenda said nothing at all about salt. But, within twenty minutes of listening to Mate Branko Donadić explaining a little of how significant it is to the Island, I was hooked. Of course it does have a role in the cheese production – the salty grazing lands gives a unique flavour to the local sheep’s milk. But, the role of salt in the history of Pag is fascinating. It’s an essential part in our diets and the word salary comes from the Latin word salarium – money paid to Roman Soldiers for the purchase of salt (sal in Latin). From around 6000BC, salt has been a valuable commodity across the world. While processed foods with added salt have made us very aware of the dangers of too much salt in our diet, too little salt has health risks as well. And, for Pag, the production of salt has been central to the development of this Island’s economy.
Until relatively recently, production of salt was a very labour intensive activity and the main employment for local people. The shallow waters of the bay have a salt concentration of around 3.5%, compared with the North Sea at around 1% and the northern Adriatic at 1.5%. Using a series of salt pans, over a period of 40 days the concentration of salt is raised in steps up to between 25 and 26%. At this point, natural crystallisation occurs and the salt can be ‘harvested’. In the old days that involved standing in the salt pans, raking up the salt and then shoveling it up to fill wooden crates. Backbreaking work, particularly in the heat necessary for evaporation to occur and the salt to form
Mate told us that the top layer of salt, the first crystals are what we know as fleur de sel, the finest of natural sea salt.
Modern salt production is only an adaptation of what has been done for centuries, to enable the production of salt throughout the year and to reduce the labour intensity of the work. Seven times more salt can now be produced by around 90 workers, compared with the 600 or more who were needed before automation. Pag produces two thirds of the total salt production of Croatia.
The island, with its long, shallow approach and impermeable mud sea floor, has the perfect geography for natural salt production. Because of the unique geography, the history of Pag, as Mate explained, is intrinsically linked to the production of ‘White Gold’. It was the precious salt that led to the intense level of conflict suffered by the island over centuries as Croatians, Hungarians and Venetians battled over the territory, rich in salt, as valuable at the time as oil is today.
The old town of Pag was built near the saltpans on a hilltop and you can still see a fine old church and the remains of a Franciscan monastery. I was fascinated to learn that the front of the chuch was built in 1392 by the sculptor Paul from Sulmona, a lovely town in Abruzzo that I visited on my recent trip. But, during battles between Zadar and Venice, the old town was badly destroyed and inhabitants asked to move to the site of the present Pag. The island, along with much of Dalmatia, was sold by the Croatian King Ladislav to Venice in 1409, after his accession to the throne in 1403. And, the beautiful ‘New Town’ was commissioned and designed by Giorgio da Sebenico in Venice following Italian design principles of the time. It was fortified, with city walls and watch towers, one of which remains. Once built, the people of Pag processed from the old town down to their new safe and modern town, en masse, so we are told.
The main infrastructure of the town is formed by two main roads running at right angles to each other and crossing in the square which forms the heart of the town and is home to the main Church and the Bishop’s palace. Mate told us that when the new church was built the inhabitants of the island were convinced it would be given ‘Cathedral’ status, but that was never the case.
The Church is stunning. While it may never have been given Cathedral status, the interior is beautiful with ornate silver ornamentation and fine lace work. The elegant statues on the exterior and lace-like rose window surround a space that once was taken by a winged Venetian lion originally marking ownership by the Venetian rulers of this territory. But like much of this area of Croatia it was removed during the Second World War to avoid conflict with Mussolini who saw the Winged Lion as a symbol of Italian ownership and believed that any area showing the lion was part of his territory.
Apart from salt, the island is also home to some of the finest lace and most skilled lace makers in the world. As Mate explained, those women who were not lace makers worked on the salt pans. And, given choice, having seen some of the photos of the old salt pan workers, I know which occupation I would have preferred. The lace is recognised as some of the finest in the World – inscribed in the UNESCO‘s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (isn’t that a wonderful way of saying ‘this is amazing’ ) . For me too there seemed an almost intuitive link between the fine crystalline free form of the lace (the Pag lace workers are unique for not working to a ‘pattern’), the stunning sea and hillscape and the salt itself.
I had planned on writing just one article about Pag. But, the heritage of the island now seems to form a natural first section. There’s more to Pag than salt, lace and architecture. And for that you’ll have to wait for my next post.
With thanks to the Tourist Board of Croatia for hosting me on this trip and in particular to Mate Branko Donadić and Bernard Maržić from the Pag Tourist Office for their passion and inspired tour.
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