We are travelling north up the Portuguese coast from Lisbon, but before we leave the city, we visit the Jeronimos Monastery with friend and colleague Ricardo. He tells us that the church used to hold a mass for all the fishermen before they set off to fish in the faraway cold Northern seas; this was the importance of the cod haul to the people of 16th century Portugal. The emblems of fishing and the sea can still be seen carved into the majestic pillars of the interior of the church.
Our first stop is Caldas de Rainha, where we stay with the Periera family, Clara, Amilcar and their daughter Mariana, to visit nearby Salinas at Rio Maior. The town was founded by a royal princess who had a liking for the natural sulphurous thermal springs, and had a hospital built there. In Rio Maior, up in the hills about 20km away, there is a natural saltwater source which has been exploited for centuries.
Today, a well is pumped using ancient technology to fill the shallow, geometrically arranged pools of salt. The salt is scraped from the surface of the drying pools and piled onto raised pallets, making something akin to a primitive shelter in form, and allowing it to dry slowly in the sun. The ‘village’ of salt warehouses and wooden cabins is mostly deserted when we visit, an EU sponsored tourist facility that seems to be on hard times; the main customers of the cafes seem to be the workers of the salinas.
The Perieras tell us that Portugal is like that; tourists tend to cluster in droves at the main ‘sights’ such as nearby Obidos, and not visit the less well known places. They invite us to have a barbeque with them and as they pile plates full of grilled sardines, bream, fresh corn bread, and salad, we hear migration stories old and new. The economic situation has caused young people like Mariana to consider moving abroad in search of work, as the only job she can get in her hometown is as an ‘intern’ in a lawyers office, with a capped salary of around 600 euros a month (after a postgraduate archeology degree). Meanwhile, her dad Amilcar describes how he was exiled from Angola aged 20, when the Portuguese rule ended, and his family came back to Portugal with nothing, only the clothes on the back, no papers, or money. He had to start from scratch and began working to support he family, eventually becoming a teacher. He gets emotional when he talks about the country he left behind, says he could never visit, he is a ‘soudade’ – a word he says is impossible to translate exactly. Its meaning is to do with absence, nostalgia, about missing someone, or somewhere, knowing you will never see them again.
The next day we travel on to Figueira da Foz, a bustling seaside resort with mega casinos and an endless sandy beach. The town is reached by a suspension bridge across a wide delta, on one side of which lie abandoned salinas and the other a busy port.
The salinas here are also a tourist attraction; going back out of town and across the bridge, we follow signs for the ‘Ecomuseu de Sal’. The new timber museum building is an echo of the sparse scattering of timber huts which dot the flat landscape of the delta. Cristina, who it seems functions as museum guide, receptionist, salt dealer and much else, tells us that she is an ‘intern’ like Mariana, and her job here ends soon. As she shows us around her passion and knowledge for salt and its production are apparent, and it seems a wasted opportunity that she is not given more security and reward for her knowledge.
She says her father runs an industrial salt production facility which she used to help out at. Describing the different processes, she says that the industrial one, where water is forced through rocks, takes only 5 hours and uses the material only once; the salt then has to be cleaned, and chemicals added to it. The Salinas’ traditional production uses a natural filtration system in which the saltwater is let into beds slowly, increasing in salinity as it gets shallower and more concentrated, and then evaporating naturally to leave ‘pure’ salt which also contains other minerals. The salt water is re-used 4 or more times, and the evaporation process takes 5-6 days. But whilst the industrial salt-making is still in production supplying agriculture and industry, the Salinas of Figueria have dwindled from 229 to 45, once employing 1500-2000 workers at its height, now many pans lie empty or are used for aquaculture instead.
This seems to parallel what is happening to Portugal at the moment, where the natural resources of the country are less valued, and globalised industries mean that young people with skills and talents are going elsewhere or working for a pittance. Not to romanticise the life of a salt worker – as we follow the guided route walk for 3 hours in the baking sun, we pass one hut where the workers invite us to join them for lunch, and give us freshly caught and grilled ‘Carapau’ with bread and wine. The guys are very friendly and despite our mutual lack of language we exchange a few words. They go and fish in the early morning and then come to work on the salinas, and its hot, heavy work. Back in the museum, Cristina shows us the 35kg baskets women used to cart back to the warehouses on their heads. We can’t even lift it.