Wednesday 21 October 2020

Sečovlje - a salacious experience

 Intimations of a second lockdown in Slovenia drove us off our backsides and into the open air while we could still do so - or at least without wearing masks while outdoors. We headed for a local nature reserve in Sečovlje (I think you pronounce it seh-chow-lee-ay), right on the border with Croatia, which co-exists with one of the few remaining salt pan works in the region. Since we moved back, I have been talking of another autumn walk here. I have fond memories of our several visits about a dozen years ago, and some spectacular photos courtesy of a friend with far better photographic skills than I. 

The last time I visited was to go to the summer open air spa in the middle of the salt pans, a traumatic experience involving disposable thong underwear. Quite the opposite this time. Convinced there was going to be a cold wind blasting across the open landscape this time of year, I stuffed hats, gloves and an extra layer of outerwear in my backpack. Apparently, I was wrong: by the time we paid the small entrance fee, we were so warm that we threw all the outer layers back in the car and set off sans coats.

First excitement for me was a profusion of Michaelmas daisies. I start to hanker after growing them every September - our school's Founder's Day was on Michaelmas, and we used to wear posies of Michaelmas daisies for the church service. This is all pure nostalgia - when I was a teenager, we thought it stupid and complained about wearing weeds. But anyhow, here they were at last, the first wild ones I had seen in Slovenia. But we were in a nature reserve, so was this a gift of Mother Nature or a test of my moral fibre?

They have now built a boardwalk across the water and parallel to the main path so walkers can avoid cyclists and the odd car (they are working on cutting down motor traffic through the park). Trauma occurred early on when Alcuin got two splinters from climbing the rail. We got one out, and I assured him the other would soak out in the bath, so he proceeded to stop about every six feet to lie down and dip his hand in the water (at least that was his excuse). Actually, he stopped about every six feet for something most of the walk - getting or handing back the map, asking for a snack, asking for a drink, handing back the snack... Ted just kept walking on and back, probably tripling his exercise.

An abandoned salt worker's home

So, the nerdy stuff that interests me at least: salt has been harvested here since about the year 800, and some of those centuries were pretty cut throat. When the Venetian Empire took control, coercing the towns in the Eastern Adriatic to sign a compulsory purchase agreement, they deliberately destroyed most of the nearby salt works to create a virtual monopoly. They periodically continued this policy, leaving the Sečovlje pans untouched to become the most important source of salt in the Venetian Empire. In the wake of its collapse, the Austrian Empire took over and formally declared salt a state monopoly in 1814. By the mid-twentieth century (and more political changes of hands), salt mines were seen as more profitable; the pans declined, and were bought up by a succession of small companies. In the 1990s, the process of declaring the wetlands a nature reserve began. The Sečovlje pans are one of the last in the Mediterranean area (nearby Štrunjan has some, but the area is currently closed to walkers).

The simple evaporation process has been largely unchanged for centuries. Sea water is filtered into a huge network of rectangular basins, pans, linked by a series of small canals that have a miniature lock and dam system to let water in and out. The salt is moved down from deeper to shallower pans until it has evaporated to the extent that the salt can be scraped out. A little rail network enables the harvesters to push the wagons of salt to the salt works where it is piled up to dry out. The most gourmet salt is the fleur de sel (flower salt), that forms as a crust on the evaporating sea water.

The canal/channel system

What draws me to the reserve is its bleak beauty, its vast flat lands stretching out to the sea. Here and there a mallard plods across the shallow water, leaving a trail of footprints in the brine-soaked clay. A little egret (the park's symbol) perches on a canal, to spread its wings and fly off with a cry as we approach (over 200 species of birds have been recorded here). Tiny red brine shrimp dart through the water beneath the shadows of salt flies. Patches of purple Michaelmas daisies and golden samphire flowers cling to the sides of the scrubland, visited by saline bees (I wonder what salt pan honey tastes like?). We were lucky to spot a shore crab, too, scuttling through the seaweed of the canal. 

Dry pans

Apart from the board walk, the basics have not changed since our first visit. A shop and gallery half way along the walk, a visitor centre at the end of the main path (updated of course), and a bar that I'm pretty sure was not there before. I spent generously in the little shop because of course although I pass their outlet in town about every day I never bother to go in - plus we are trying to put money into local businesses hurt by the epidemic.

A better bird photo courtesy of my friend, Martin

The little documentary at the visitor centre reminded or informed me of so many things we don't think about when we are sprinkling the white stuff onto our chips. It has been an element of religious rituals for eons. You might think of modern day pagans and witches using salt, but it's a valid sacrament in liturgical churches, too. Or do you remember throwing spilled salt over your shoulder into the devil's eye? Did you know we get the word 'salary' from the fact that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt? Think, too, of salty language or salacious gossip. Perhaps we don't give salt enough respect nowadays.

I know the shadow is there, but I rarely get a photo of myself

I was glowing when I got home - literally, because I had caught the sun. I was not expecting that in October. And yes, small confession - we brought home some Michaelmas daisy seed heads. Then I found out that they are actually sea asters and like salty soil. So much for that.

Touristy stuff. The salt pans are about a twenty-minute drive from central Koper. They are in the middle of a little village, and there are places to eat close by, but I have not explored the area. Here is the website. I found that the Slovenian language version was more up-to-date than the English version, which still said the reserve was closed until further notice, so you might want to double check the original with a translation tool. At the time of writing, the museum and the road that leads to it (a walk on the other side of the reserve) were definitely closed. You can also explore the salt pans with the Nexto app, that covers several tourist areas in Slovenia. I'm not big into electronic tourist guides (I like to read and then experience the place), but others may love it. Take layers and sun cream - there can be a biting wind in the summer, and apparently, scorching weather in the autumn. And if you go in the summer, of course you can try out the Thalasso Spa, but be prepared to bare all.  

Thursday 15 October 2020

QuickLit October 2020

 Back to linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for QuickLit after a September trip to see family in Dorset, England (and play in the sand and eat lots of cake). Plus, the local bookshop owner agreed to stock my novel set in Dorset!

Local fame for A Dorset Summer :)

Fun family fact - the Seaweeds book next to it was published under a project my brother was involved in! Here's a few reading highlights from the last couple of months:

Daphne Du Maurier - Mary Anne

This is another of Du Maurier's fictionalized family biographies, this time of her notorious great-great grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke, who pulled herself out of poverty to become a courtesan, and was for a short time the mistress of the Prince of Wales - until she reached too far. Du Maurier does not paint a pretty world or likeable characters, but this is the eighteenth century where reputation, money and a woman's body are commodities in the game of politics. Not as riveting as her fiction, but interesting if you are already a Du Maurier fan and want to know more about her family.

Jane Borodale - The Book of Fires

Keeping to the eighteenth century for this literary historical novel, shortlisted for the Orange prize. Agnes is seventeen and pregnant out of wedlock. When an unexpected way out presents itself, she flees to London and ends up as the apprentice to a fireworks maker, from whom she hides her shame. But her salvation has a time limit, and her all choices are desperate. Lyrical, lots of fascinating details about pyrotechnics, and a surprise happy ending.

My book stash from the UK, with the new Kindle I bought there on top

Jenny Colgan - The Endless Beach

My Mum gave me The Book of Fires to read, and I left her this when I was done (because my bags couldn't take one. more. thing). A sequel to The Summer Seaside Kitchen (or The Cafe by the Sea if you are in the US). Flora wonders if her new relationship with Joel is actually getting anywhere. Lorna, her friend and headmistress of the tiny island school, is wrestling with her love for refugee doctor Saif, whose wife and sons are missing. Only Flora's brother seems to enjoy unalloyed happiness with Colton - but their new love is about to be tested to the full. Typical delicious Colgan fare that will keep you turning the pages.

Plenty of new publications from my critique group this past month or so. Here' s a sampling:

Ursula Thompson - Brothers of the Sun. Book 1: All at Sea.   Piratical debut.

Katherine Pym - Begotten. Fantasy based on the ancient Sumer civilisation.

Maggi Andersen - Introducing Miss Joanna. Second in her romance novella series Once a Wallflower. Plus The Heir's Proposal. Maggi is prolific :) Oh, and a romance novella collection she contributed to, The Midnight Hour: All Hallows Brides, won the RONE award!

Anne Marie Brear - Market Stall Girl. Historical family saga set in Yorkshire.

Hope you are having a safe and happy October. I confess this is the time of year when I am grateful I have moved back to Europe and only have to think about Christmas :)