As you travel south along the 46km stretch of the Slovenian coastline, literally the last attraction you’ll see before reaching Croatia is the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park (Krajinski park sečovljske soline).
Sat next to the Dragonje River marking the border, the saltpans were once the largest in Slovenia and are now a designated regional park.
The park is divided into two, Lera and Fontenigge. We went to the Fontenigge section, which is so close to the border we actually missed it and spent 45 seconds in Croatia before – much to the amusement of the border guards – turning around to find the narrow gravel path that is the entrance.
Having got over the initial surprise of seeing a passport control at a European border in the first place, hardly common these days, we drove down the path in no man’s land to the edge of the saltpans. At the end there is a small hut where you can buy a ticket and souvenir salt but little else, so it’s worth stocking up on water before embarking down the 2km path on foot through the park itself.
The saltpans at Fontenigge have been out of use since the 1960s and are now a protected wetlands area. There are numerous species of plants and up to 650 types of butterfly have been recorded here. The saltpans also attract large numbers of migratory birds such as cormorants, herons and gulls which potter around the reserve harvesting its goods.
Starting at the hut, visitors walk down a 2km path past the saltpans. Laid out on a grid pattern intersected with canals and dykes, they are scattered with deserted and decaying stone houses of the families that used to work here. It is a peaceful and somewhat eerie atmosphere here, with the occasional faint taste of salt in the air.
Salt harvesting took place here for centuries and during the first half of the 20th century, more than 40,000 tonnes was collected each year. Saltpanners and their families would move here from April to September and live in modest dwellings that saw equipment stored on the ground level, with the living area on the first floor.
To harvest the salt, workers channelled seawater into the grid-like saltpans before leaving it to settle in a number of different crystallisation basins and eventually removing the water using pumps and natural evaporation. Today the saltpans are full of wildlife and a birdspotter’s paradise. It’s a long trek down the path but eventually you arrive at the Saltworks Museum. Here, in what are the only intact buildings left in the area, visitors can see a reconstructed family dwelling and exhibitions documenting the work that was carried out here. It was 30C on the day we visited in September, giving a good indication of the hard physical nature of salt harvesting under the scorching sun. Salt was a very important commodity in the days before refrigeration, and its value would have rarely been seen by those that harvested it. As we retraced our steps back to the entrance, it was not difficult to imagine the ghosts of those that worked here – toiling away in the sun for the benefit and luxury of others. For visiting information go to the Sečovlje Salina Nature Park website: http://www.kpss.si/en/intro