Ston, a Town Built on a Grain of Salt

Today the centrepiece of nearly every dining table, it may be hard to believe that salt once had the value of gold. The main food preserve until the industrial times, it was labour-intensive to harvest, not easy to come by and, as a result, lucrative.

The salt trade founded entire economies and funded roads constructed solely for its transport. Sometimes territories were purchased and long walls built to protect the salt works.

You’ll find one such territory an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik. The town of Ston, the gateway to the spectacular Pelješac peninsula, immediately strikes as a miniature replica of Dubrovnik. That’s because it is: with its own city walls, Placa street, St. Blaise’s Church and Rector’s Palace, Ston was an entirely planned settlement built by Dubrovnik in the 14th century. Fronting it, sprawled over 400,000 square meters, is its raison d’être: the salt pans, the oldest still active in Europe.

Archaeological traces suggest that salt production existed here already in the Roman times, when Ston was called Stagnum, ‘still water’. But the heyday began in 1333, when Dubrovnik, already an established trading centre at the time, purchased Pelješac peninsula from feudal landowners precisely for salt exploitation.

At the outskirts of Dubrovnik, this territory had strategic relevance as great as its economic potential. Dubrovnik immediately set out to protect its prized new possession, building seven kilometres of massive stone walls to cut off the peninsula from the mainland. Such a great endeavour made perfect sense; over the next centuries, salt went on to earn Dubrovnik as much as a third of its income. Today 5.5 kilometres of these ancient walls, considered among the longest defensive walls in the world, are preserved and open to visitors.

Salt is still produced in Ston in the same way as it once was, by pure forces of nature: sun, sea water and human-powered workforce. In late spring, salt pans are flooded with seawater, which then travels over a system of evaporation pools to the final row of nine crystallisation pools. Eight of these bear names of different saints – such as St. Paul, St. Peter and St. Nicholas – but the last one is named Mundo (‘world’, or informally ‘people’ in Spanish). In the old days, the salt from that pan was distributed to poor people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Today, the Ston saltworks churn out around 500 tons of salt yearly – an impressive amount. The harvest period, which runs between April and September, is a particularly attractive time to visit. That’s when the pools are filled with seawater and salt and striking to see. Although most of the salt now produced is of industrial quality, the edible portion is famed for its lack of bitterness. Pick up a bag of fleur de sel, the crème-de-la–crème harvested off the top, as an ideal souvenir of your visit to Ston.

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