This trip to Portugal, I spent 3 days hanging out with José and his family in Vila Real de Santo António, right on the border with Spain in the Algarve region. During these days, we managed to fit in some beach time:
Some eating (of course):
A trip to the lighthouse (all Portuguese lighthouses are open to the public each Wednesday during Summer):
and a trip to the Salinas de Castro Marim – a salt mine and very different kind of day spa just outside of town.
This was a great morning excursion that started out with a guided tour of the traditional salt mining operation. As we toured the Travadouros (water reservoirs used for initial settling and evaporation) and Talhos (crystalliser ponds for depositing and harvesting the salt), we learned an enormous amount about the production of salt.
In this traditional method of mining salt, everything is done by hand. This means that the collected salt is already pure and there is no need for the bleaching or other chemical processes (which destroy much of the mineral content of the salt) that are utilised in commercial salt production. The size of the Talhos is such that the marnoto (salt worker) is able to easily harvest the salt from the surrounding barachas (dividing walls) without contaminating the water.
There are two different types of salt: normal crystalline salt and Flor de Sal – laminar salt crystals which form on the surface of the water. Flor de Sal is much rarer as it only produced through traditional mining methods (and even then constitutes only 5% of the mine’s salt production), and is therefore much more expensive.
Flor de Sal is harvested every day before it settles to the bottom of the Talho with a mesh coador. The unbroken crystals are placed in the plastic crates that are scattered around the works to dry.
This mine has a production of around 600 tons of sea salt and 30 tons of Flor de Sal each year.
Salt has been mined in the Algarve region for centuries and has seen the Greeks, Celts and Romans come and go. During the last century, salt mining in the area was strongly tied to the fish conserving and canning industry, so when that all but came to a stop in the late 1970s, so too did salt production. Most of the salt mines were abandoned in the 1980s, but one of the Rosa family couldn’t bear to see the family heritage destroyed, and continued to flood this land to keep it “activated”. Pretty cool huh?!
The guide was actually very talkative and gave us an enormous amount of information that goes way beyond the above. But I leave it to you to visit and find out the rest for yourself 😉
After the tour, it was time to check out the newest addition to the mining operation … a spa experience! We nabbed a place under the shade of the very cool bar/cafe area that has been set up to serve drinks and light snacks, and headed into the two pools that have been set aside for bathing.
The salt concentration in these two pools is around 250 grams/litre (sea salt is ~35 grams/litre), which makes it a very similar experience to floating in the Dead Sea. It was great fun to revisit that experience from more than 10 years ago, as it does feel very strange to not be able to sink!
The bottom of both pools are full of mineral-enriched mud, which you are more than welcome to slather on and let dry like a mud-mask as part of the spa experience. People pay massive amounts of money to do this in normal spas – here you can indulge as much as you want! They also offer massages, meditation and yoga if you are so inclined and book in advance.
All in all – a very cool experience, and not one that you would expect in the beach-focused Algarve region.