June 26, 2009 / 2:35 PM / 10 years ago

Portugal village worth its salt with the tourists

SALINAS, Portugal (Reuters Life!) - Shoveling drying salt in a pit under scorching sun while tourists and fellow villagers drink beer and look on from above may sound like a miserable experience, but not in Salinas, Portugal.

The presence of tourists in the cafes on the ancient wall above the salt pit in this tiny Portuguese village some 100 km (62.14 miles) north of Portugal’s capital Lisbon is more than welcome and causes no consternation.

“One thing works with the other. Without tourism, the salt business would probably collapse, and vice versa,” said Casimiro Froes Ferreira, 82, and the head of the Salinas cooperative.

The village has been extracting salt since at least 1170, when the local ruler sold part of the pit to the Knights Templar — the first known record of Salinas.

In the middle of a pool in the salt pit lies a deep well of water heavily laden with salt — Portugal’s only natural saltworks. The water is pumped to shallow cells in the pool where it dries up over a few days, leaving a layer of salt.

“We work seven days a week between May and October when the weather is good and when salt needs to be dried and removed — practically the same way our ancestors did. After work everyone just joins the crowd in the bars overhead,” Froes Ferreira said.

Most of the village’s old salt depots and stores — made entirely of wood, including door locks to avoid corrosion from salt — have been transformed into souvenir shops and bars, where one can try a local cheese baked in salt.

Even the local bikers club is headquartered in such a hut.

“It’s really cool, it’s kind of like one of those medieval fairs, but you know it’s for real, and the people are real,” said Eliza Castro from Lisbon, who stopped in Salinas with her two children for a meal and some sightseeing after visiting the ancient castle of Obidos nearby.

Some larger, newer depots are also made of wood, as cement and metals are easily corroded by the mineral.

Maria Luisa Santos Dias, 74, who like most workers here is a member of the cooperative and owns a plot in the huge 28,000 square meter (301,400 sq ft) pit, swaps periods of work in the sun with rest in the diner. Here she grabs a snack, chats to neighbors and helpfully provides directions to visitors.

“I feel good here in the pit, I started at seven in the morning today, before anyone got here,” said the woman, who is wearing heavy rubber shoes to protect her feet from salt. “I married a salter many years back and got to liking this work.” Her son, Jose Antonio, 37, and 16-year-old granddaughter Ines often work alongside her.

“When I was six I started coming here and played with a wooden shovel. I’m no longer a little girl, but I still like coming here to work,” said Ines, who is a student.

The cooperative was formed in 1979 after a crisis caused by growing imports, which nearly killed off the salt industry in Salinas and put an end to small private salt depots.

Although hardly prospering, it now makes ends meet thanks to its “all-natural” salt production, including manual collection and cleaning, which have attracted eco-conscious consumers in Germany. Only a small part of the work is done with the help of machinery, mainly lifting the salt from the pit.

“Here in Portugal we have to sell at the production cost, we’re not competitive. But the Germans want the salt the way it comes out of the pit, the way it was done for centuries. And they pay extra for that,” Froes Ferreira said.

Salinas produces 1,500 tons of salt a year. Workers earn 4.5 euros ($6.27) an hour, which makes up more than the average salary in Portugal of 840 euros, but only in the hot season.

“It’s more of a good supplement, people have to have other jobs. But we have the tourism and our little invention - the cheese in salt. That’s strictly for tourists, of course,” he said, admitting that he does not like salt in his food.

Additional reporting by Jose Manuel Ribeiro, Editing by Axel Bugge and Paul Casciato

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