Rio Maior saltpans

Salinas de Rio Maior, History of a Living Museum

The Salinas de Rio Maior are located about 3km from Rio Maior, district of Santarém. At the foot of the Serra dos Candeeiros, in the Natural Park of Serras de Aires and Candeeiros, they are a wonder of nature that has remained virtually unchanged since pre-Portuguese times. The history of the saltpans of Rio Maior is recorded in a living museum.

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the geological history

Rock salt, as the Romans called it, is a sedimentary rock formed in ancient marine basins that, through chemical reactions and evaporation of water, crystallized the salt, essentially composed of sodium chloride.

Due to the way they were formed, they are also called sedimentary rocks and, in particular in this case, chemogenic and evaporites.

The salts that make up these evaporites crystallize in the cubic system and constitute the mineral called halite (source: Infopédia ).

Image: Halite; Source Lech Darski; CCA 4.0
Image: Halite; Source Lech Darski; CCA 4.0

The rock salt deposit of Rio Maior occupies a large extension, between Leiria and Torres Vedras, having been formed millions of years ago, after the retreat of the sea, which is now 30 km away.

Exploration of Rock Salt

The history of Rio Maior's salt flats goes back a long way.

It is thought that the exploration of rock salt has existed since prehistory.

Salt was very important in ancient civilizations. In addition to being a condiment, it was used to preserve meat, fish and other foods. It is also used in the preparation of hides and in the preservation of leather.

In the Roman Empire they distributed rations of salt to armies and hence the word salary, from the Latin “salarium” which means payment for salt.

In the Rio Maior salt flats, salt becomes the means of paying for newspapers.

However, the Salinas de Rio Maior have eight centuries of history. There is a document, kept in the Torre do Tombo, in which Pero Baragão or D'Aragão and his wife Sancha Soares sold to the Order of the Templars “the fifth part they had of the well and salt pans of Rio Maior.

It is a contract describing the boundaries of the land that was sold to the Templars and witnessed by several people, dated 1177.

It is, therefore, a contract with an interesting historical particularity, as the conquests of Santarém and Lisbon in 1147 by D. Afonso Henriques took place 30 years earlier. D. Afonso Henriques himself was only recognized by Pope Alexander III in 1179, in the bull “Manifestis Probatum” (Source Infopedia).

With the extinction of the Order of the Templars, in 1312, its assets in Portugal were transferred to the crown and D. Dinis, upon founding the Order of Christ, gave him the assets of the Templars.

The importance of the salt pans remained and in the XNUMXth century, D. Afonso V was the owner of five butchers, in addition to belonging to the Crown ¼ of the production of the remaining sailors (salt workers) (Source: oak gallop, The Salt in the History of Earth and Man).

However, the salt pans became the property of the Counts of Vimioso by purchase from the House of Bragança and at the time when the first monarch of that dynasty was proclaimed King, D. João IV.

It was then the heirs of Conde de Vimioso who sold these portions of the salt pans to various owners and which remain today.

Salt Production in the Rio Maior Salt Flats

The rock salt deposit is crossed by many water courses, some of which feed a mother well, approximately eight meters deep and four meters in diameter (Source: Cultural Heritage, Salinas da Fonte da Bica). Salt water is extracted from this well, which is seven times saltier than the water in the Atlantic Ocean.

While sodium chloride in the Rio Maior Salinas constitutes 96% of the total mineralization, this figure does not go beyond 77% to 78% in the Ocean. This is the reason for the extreme purity of this salt in sodium chloride.

The salt water was removed from the well by means of picotas or storks that bring a bucket full of water, which is then conveyed through water troughs to the butchers or crystallizers, where the evaporation of water takes place.

Image: Salinas de Rio Maior; History; The well, the pieces and pyramids of salt to dry
Image: The well, the picotas and salt pyramids to dry

Butchers are compartments or tanks, initially made of earth and replaced by stone or cement.

Currently, hoses and pumps are used to remove the salt water from the well and conduct it to the butchers.

Each sailor who maneuvered the picket pole had to draw 100 buckets of water, a task that was called “a handle”.

The Rio Maior Salinas have 470 cuts of different configurations. There are also 70 sewers, where water is placed to be distributed to the butchers (Source: Cultural Heritage, Salinas da Fonte da Bica).

This salt water, depending on weather conditions, is exposed to the sun and wind for about a day or two so that the water evaporates and the salt deposits at the bottom of these butchers.

It is time for the intervention of sailors, the salt workers, to remove this salt to the threshing floors, where it can dry in small pyramids.

Image: Detail of the well and picotas, Salinas de Rio Maior
Image: Detail of the well and picotas, Salinas de Rio Maior

Each butcher has its owner, but the well and the picotas or the current mechanical means belong to everyone.

what history has left us

Flor de Sal

If there is a very hot period with little wind, it can happen that the water evaporates faster and this will allow the crystallization of the salt to be faster, which is why the crystals formed are finer.

This sheet of saline crystals forms on the surface and is collected at the end of the day.

Refined Salt Cheeses

The salt is molded into shapes and placed in wood ovens. They take on a form of cheese and, to be used, just scrape it with a knife to free the salt.

Wooden Houses or Huts

Once dry, the salt is collected in small wooden houses that serve as a store.

Image: Wooden house, olive tree trunks and door lock
Image: Wooden house, olive tree trunks and door lock

The outer side supports of the houses are olive tree trunks.

Image: Door lock, olive tree trunk as support
Image: Door lock, olive tree trunk as support

wooden locks

In addition to the houses, the locks themselves are made of wood. They have a set of grooves or teeth, like keys, that are placed with the teeth facing up. When you want to open the door, press the key upwards to release the lock.

Image: Salarium Restaurant door lock
Image: Salarium Restaurant door lock

No two keys are alike.

Image: Door locks
Image: Door locks

Writing Rules

Image: Writing rulers
Image: Writing rulers

Tavern keepers used rulers to apportion the expense made by each sailor in the tavern between each "grab".

They used signs such as circles and squares that represented the drink and the amount given.

When the harvest ended, the sailor paid his expense with the salt he had earned.

The "writing" was thus in plain sight.

Each one knew at any time what he owed and everyone knew what he drank in excess, helping the innkeeper to more easily receive the debts.

Guided Tours and Restoration in Rio Maior Salt Flats

The salt workers are farmers in this region, Fonte da Bica, Pé da Serra and Casal Calado, who complement their activity with the salt harvest, a typical summer activity.

They are now associated with the Cooperative that was born in 1979.

In this location, guided tours, shops and restaurants are available.

We chose the Salarium Restaurant, where we enjoyed a Medallion of Veal Flor de Sal, accompanied by a house red. Option we recommend.

Image: The gastronomic option
Image: The gastronomic option

Christmas in the saltpans of Rio Maior

During the Christmas period, there are particular attractions, either in the traditional nativity scenes made with salt, or in the stores' offerings.

Image: Detail of the Nativity scene at the Cooperativa das Salinas de Rio Maior
Image: Detail of the Nativity scene at the Cooperativa das Salinas de Rio Maior

With attractions suited to the time.

Image: Terra do Sal in a Christmas atmosphere
Image: Terra do Sal in a Christmas atmosphere

Location of Rio Maior Salt Flats

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