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Salt more precious than gold

THERE is an old Slovak folk tale about a king who had three daughters. When the time came for him to decide on a successor, he asked his daughters a probing question to see who had the wisdom to follow him to the throne. "How much do you love me?" the king asked.
The eldest princess said he was dearer to her than gold. The middle one valued him above her silver jewellery. His youngest and most beloved daughter said, "I love you more than salt."

THERE is an old Slovak folk tale about a king who had three daughters. When the time came for him to decide on a successor, he asked his daughters a probing question to see who had the wisdom to follow him to the throne. "How much do you love me?" the king asked.

The eldest princess said he was dearer to her than gold. The middle one valued him above her silver jewellery. His youngest and most beloved daughter said, "I love you more than salt."

I thought of these words while visiting Solivar, once a salt factory and now an open-air museum cared for by the Košice Slovak National Technical Museum. If you visit Solivar like I did, you will get to taste the freshly made salt that the museum prepares on a small scale for its visitors - and the crude white substance really is delicious.

The exhibition speaks of the long history of salt making in Slovakia, as well as the hard labour and the unsophisticated wisdom of our ancestors. Located on the outskirts of Prešov in Eastern Slovakia, the museum fails to attract the mainstream. It is not surprising, therefore, that those who do make it to Solivar are attended with special care.

I started with a short walk to the salt pit where soľanka was put in two large leather sacks and lifted by konský gápeľ, an ingenious hauling mechanism pulled by horses, until 1908. The salt solution was then poured into wooden gutters and carried away to another building filled with četerne, huge containers for storing soľanka. Made of pine, the četerne are constructed without a single nail.

Upon entering the dark, long building stacked with četerne, I was taken aback by the crystalline beauty of salt sticking to the wooden beams, which were wet from remnant moisture. The guide explained that the remainder of soľanka had been pumped up from the salt pit just before the factory closed down for good (the pit was back filled). Strolling past the cascade-like systems of četerne, I couldn't help thinking how skilled the builders must have been.

A newer, modern salt factory has been operating in Prešov since 1925. The antiquated factory produced salt right alongside the newer one until 1970, my guide told me.

"There was a great demand for salt made here as it was thought to be better - more salty - you know," the guide said.

Another short walk took me through a patch of grass. I was reminded that we were walking over a graveyard. The plague scourged the area some 200 years ago. A small chapel honours the people's sufferings, my guide explained.

I then went into the varňa, the building where salt was cooked. This used to be the central part of the old Solivar factory with a complex system of pipes, pre-heating, and evaporating tanks as well as drying units. Here I was allowed to find the real taste of salt, which is made in a mini-model tub, then packed into dainty cotton bags and sold as a souvenir to visitors.

After leaving the varňa the guide explained that the salt used to be shipped to the nearby storehouse by a small railway. A fire wiped out the storehouse in 1986. It was an imposing two-storey edifice with a beautiful clock tower and a magnificent wooden roof. A burnt out hulk, it now stands as a reminder of the former architectural gem.

A photograph of Solivar wouldn't be complete without klopačka - a wooden tower topped with a graceful onion-shaped roof, which is a symbol of miners. As its Slovak name suggests, the tower used to announce working hours and other important events to the salt miners by striking a plank.

The old king from the Slovak tale was furious at his youngest daughter and banished her from the kingdom. "Don't you dare come back until salt is more precious than gold!," he cried.

Then suddenly, all the salt in the country vanished. People and animals weakened and fell ill. Guests left the king's castle in a hurry because the food was inedible. And most importantly, nobody could welcome guests with the customary bread and salt.

In the end, the young princess returned home with a precious bag of salt and a magic wand opened the door to a huge salt mine.

For a guided tour in Solivar near Prešov call 051/7754-427. The museum is open all year round Tue-Fri 9.00-17.00 (admission every full hour). You can also visit www.stm-ke.sk

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