The Salt of Portugal

During Portugal’s ‘lockdown’ we spent two months in Tavira, a small historic settlement at the mouth of the Rio Gilão where it feeds into the Algarve’s extensive Ria Formosa waterway. We would ‘exercise’ ourselves daily by walking in between and along its salt pans. These large and prolific salt farms, rectangular in shape, range from as far as Faro to the west, to Castro Marim on the Guadiana River, Portugal’s south eastern border with Spain.

Tavira 25-29 May 2020 SOP (5)

Salt (NaCl sodium chloride). We know it as a seasoning for our cuisine, a preservative, and as salt-lick blocks for livestock.

Salt from the Algarve

These days, it is also used in the production of many other chemicals.

Tavira 19 Apr 2020 SOP (10)

Since mankind first walked on this earth salt has been highly valued, in fact it was once one of the most-valuable and much-traded products.

Photo credit: pinterest.com
Photo credit: pinterest.com

Salt caravans have been carrying crude rock-salt across central Africa since time immemorial. Broken out from ancient sedimentary salt beds it is first shaped into convenient slabs then strapped, pannier-style, onto donkeys or camels and transported to fabled trading posts such as Timbuktu and Mekele. This traditional harvesting process and mode of transportation continues today. The ancient sedimentary beds, found in in Mali’s desert region¹, Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression², and in the Sahara desert as well as parts of greater Asia, are vast and seemingly inexhaustible. They are, however, finite.

Contemporaneously, coastal dwellers in temperate climates found they could harvest a constantly renewable source from the sea by constructing salt ‘pans’.

Tavira 4 Apr 2020 SOP (14)

These ancient and extensive pans can be seen today in Namibia’s Walvis Bay³ and much further to the north – on the Iberian Peninsula’s southwestern coast where, in the process of colonisation, commerce and settlement the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, Romans, and then the Moors utilised the region’s idyllic features to develop this ancient venture. They also grasped the region’s potential for wide-scale production of much sought-after olives, carob, corn and grapes. But that’s another story.

Tavira 25-27 Mar 2020 SOP (25)

It was in this latter region, during the Covid-19 global panic that we had the leisure to explore the extent of Portugal’s salt pans on the Algarve province’s south coast. Its favourable climate and topography: broad river deltas and thousands of hectares of low-lying coastal flatlands with sheltering off-shore dune-islands, have long proven ideal for salt production.

Tavira 25-29 May 2020 SOP (4)

Tavira 8 May 2020 SOP(5)

With only wading and water-birds’ cries to accompany us we could turn our face in whichever direction we desired and walk for hours in splendid solitude under expansive summer-blue skies. On the chequerboard ‘tracks’ of the salt pans’ raised median mounds – used both by the pans’ workers and a few locals out for exercise – we had unfettered access to this tidal environment, enjoying the rich hues of the salt-tolerant bush and flora, large flocks of (very shy) pink flamingos, wading birds and the small, omnipresent mud crabs.

Tavira 25-26 Mar 2020 SOP (39)
Photo credit: tavira.pt

Nature, time, weather and tides; the process of coastal salt harvesting involves integration with all these factors.

Tavira 25-29 May 2020 SOP (22)

The result is a striking palette of colours.

Tavira 4 Apr 2020 SOP (24b)

Tavira-Santa Luzia 7 May 2020 SOP (4)

Faro-Tavira 3 Jun 2020 SOP (57)

While the pans when first flooded retain the colour of the bottom, under evaporation they increase salinity and algae starts to grow and flourish causing the water to take on a greenish hue. As flow continues and additional evaporation takes place the salinity increases causing the algae to die and become brown. The pink colour which often occurs is caused by another microorganism, a single cell life-form called halophilic bacteria.

Tavira-Luz 23 May 2020 SOP (4)

These thrive in high salinity brine. The cell membranes contain carotenoid pigments which give the crystals the pink-red color. The dark color increases the absorption of sun light which increases the temperature which in turn usefully increases evaporation and salt production.

Tavira 25-29 May 2020 SOP (9)

Tavira 25-29 May 2020 SOP (10)

Tavira-Santa Luzia 15 May 2020 SOP(2)

Tavira 25-27 Mar 2020 SOP (31)

The pans, all in different phases of enrichment and interconnected until deemed ready for final ‘salination’, alternately shimmer, glisten, or are glazed, ice-like.

Tavira 12 Apr 2020 (41) SOP

Some have the makings of a sugar-like frosted surface – the much vaunted ‘flor de sal’.

Tavira 30 May 2020 SOP (1)

Some pans are left fallow and dry; others are left free-flowing to the ocean tide and are inhabited by small fish – more food for avian raptors. It is a very busy, cyclical and timeless natural environment.

Faro-Tavira 3 Jun 2020 SOP (59)

Faro-Tavira 3 Jun 2020 SOP (53)

¹ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZ1eQ99Triw
² https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgDiW2ELx7k
³ https://www.bbc.com/news/av/business-48201024

For those of you who have a deeper interest in the source of salt I would keenly recommend this site:
http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/africa/tuareg_salt_caravans/index.php

Tavira 30 May 2020 SOP (2)
Unless credited, all photos by JC & R Watkins

NOTE: While being keen followers of the Portuguese food website “Salt of Portugal”, we have no affiliation to it.

The Colour of Travel

Maroc Tetouan M'diq 
What is it that draws us out of our comfort zones to venture far afield in search of – whatever?

Portugal Obidos 
While a sense of adventure and a desire for a frisson of danger from the unknown may first set some of us out on that course, others may plan travel only in order to lie back and relax in a comfortable environment well away from the stress of their work.

Rockingham Beach Perth WA 
But I have a theory that binds us all:

Portugal Lagos coastal walk 
I believe that, subconsciously, it is COLOUR we seek.

Portugal Castro Marim 
We usually plan our travel with little or no conscious regard for any of our five senses.

Caligraphy Shop - Assilah Morocco 
Subconsciously though, we yearn for a new swatch of colourful palettes and patterns that are mostly absent in our daily lives and that we know will be present when we take that journey.

Maroc Chefchaouen 
We will look for them, and they will be the font of most memories we retain.

Spain Bilbao Sopelana 
We absorb colour through our retinas.

Esperance Western Australia Southern Coast 
It pleases our aesthetic sense of order: light, contrast and warmth, shadow, clarity and balance.

Sicily Giarre Riposto Mt Etna 
Pleasurable harmony.

Albany Coastline Western Australia 
It is not to be found only in nature however.

Maroc - sheep grazing 
But also in architecture and design.

Scallop Shell Emblem Northern Spain 
Which we encounter while travelling.

Spain Bilbao museum 
The colours of such cleverly constructed and juxtaposed edifices will often morph with the passing of the day. Their colourful and contrasting images linger in our memory.

Spain Seville - la seta 
Ancient or modern, these incredible feats of design, engineering, masonry and such draw our eyes.

Italy Rome church art 
It has us doubly pondering the brilliance of artistic vision and monumental labour involved in their construction.

Buckingham Church UK 
Some people are drawn by the appeal of a change of climate, and this is understandable but relates not only to the change in ambient temperature but in improved ambient light; a light that emphasises contrasting colours.

Esperance Western Australia 
This, once again, is a visual appeal.

Portugal Evora 
It is a well-established fact that light can be spiritually uplifting.

Caceres Spain 
I would suggest the olfactory appeal of travel is not a major drawcard. When travelling, smells can be wildly diverse, from strongly offensive to seductive, but the memory doesn’t store them like it does colour.

Sri Lanka food market 
However, the visual appeal of the less offensive endures.

Maroc Tetouan - market butcher 
The sense of taste would come as a strong second in the travel appeal stakes as far as I am concerned. I do love my food and the best place to taste flavours from abroad will, in my mind, always be in their country of origin.

Barbeque Fish Portugalete 
But taste is harder to recall than colour.

Italy Naples - Mount Vesuvius Pizza 
The aural appeal of travel can linger and impact heavily on one’s memory too, from pleasant to downright annoying. Yet many of these aural impacts are accompanied by rich, colourful visuals:

The clip clop of donkeys’ hooves

Maroc Tetouan - rural folk 
A goatherd’s sing-song calls and whistles to his mountain flock with their clonking bells

Sicily Caltabellotta - shepherd 
The drumming of torrential rain

Spain Bilbao Festival 
The omnipresent din of motor vehicles in overcrowded towns

Sri Lanka Colombo traffic 
A festive and noisy village wedding ceremony

Pre-wedding Street Celebrations Tangier Maroc 
A bellowing beast being brought to its ritual festive sacrifice

Maroc Tanger - pre wedding celebration 
The early morning peal of bells from a cathedral too near to your bedroom

Portugal Caldas de Reinha 
The crack, boom, wiz and whistle of a celebratory fireworks display

Spain Bilbao Fireworks Festival 
And let us not forget the cheerful babbling of a stony brook

The gentle lapping of wavelets on a sun-dappled, palm-rimmed white sandy beach

The rhythmic yet sinister pounding of waves on a coral island’s outer reef

A village water seller’s bell announcing his presence

The baker’s chant as he does his morning deliveries

The town’s noisy rubbish collection in the middle of the night

A muezzin’s monotonal call to the first prayer of the day


Largely though, time and again my past (and future) travel speaks to me through its primary colours.

Portugal Elvas - fort