Some people think of Torrevieja as just a seaside holiday resort. In the hustle and bustle of the summer season you could be forgiven for this. However, it’s also a town with a history and salt is at its heart.
Torrevieja’s population has rocketed in the last half-century, but its growth hasn’t always been due to the tourist trade. Torrevieja has a hidden ingredient – salt.
In the 1700s Torrevieja, like many coastal towns, was a small fishing village. Sailors from different parts of the world would visit and sometimes stop in Torrevieja and so the roots of the town and its cosmopolitan ethos were established.
However, Torrevieja has some unusual characteristics that would define its growth. It suitability as a centre of salt production was soon to mean that the little fishing village would begin its journey to a multi-cultural, thriving town.
The Torrevieja salt lagoon is the source of salt production here. The lagoon acts as an evaporation basin for sea water saturated with salt. However, it wasn’t always up to capacity. In 1482 an artificial canal was constructed – the ‘sequión’- which allowed sea water to enter the Torrevieja salt lagoon.
As the lagoon is below sea level, the water would enter by gravity and increased the amount of salt that could be made. There was a 15th century stone block bridge over the canal and a sluice gate regulated the flow of water. Unfortunately the earthquake in 1829 destroyed most of the arch although a few pieces do remain.
Originally, wind-powered ships used to be used for the extraction of salt from the bottom of the lagoon. As the production of salt increased they needed to find ways of transporting it, and so the Torrevieja railway line came into being.
It was only open for 100 years, but the Torrevieja railway line had a key place in the town’s growth. Even then, salt was in the air as someone recorded when the track was first opened:
‘A pleasant fresh breeze was blowing, which left a delicious taste of salt on our lips. The air was healthy and reviving.’
An observation shared by many of the people who buy property here. Unfortunately, the line’s launch did not get off to a good start as the train derailed. The dignitaries called in to celebrate its opening were forced to complete their journey in an old horse drawn trap. Not quite as dignified as they’d imagined.
The railway was used to carry salt to the port of Alicante and the Torrevieja to Albatera train was a significant addition to the blossoming town. It wasn’t only salt that it transported. The train began to shuttle some of the first tourists into the village during the summer season. An indication of things to come, at least as far as tourists was concerned.
Unfortunately for the people who live here now, the station closed in 1970, leaving Torrevieja without a rail link to this day.
The sailors too
Salt might be a special feature of Torrevieja but we shouldn’t neglect the importance of its sailors too. Throughout the 19th century Torrevieja was home to a fleet of sailing ships taking cargo such as shingle and salt to destinations such as Cuba and Puerto Rico. The ships would return with slightly more exotic products including sugar cane, tobacco or cocoa.
It wasn’t just produce that the crew brought back with them. They came singing and dancing La habanera, a tradition transported from the countries they’d visited. This music infiltrated the town and is still evident in modern Torrevieja too. The Habaneras shopping centre and International Habaneras competition held at the Eras de la Sal indicate that la habanera is still at the heart of Torrevieja.
Sea and salt worked hand in hand to raise the profile of the town. The salt trade was responsible for the development of the wooden ship building industry. In return, the development of Torrevieja as a port enabled more salt to be transported.
Throughout Torrevieja’s growth, fishing kept its key role. To this day, Torrevieja residents and visitors enjoy fresh fish from the local markets and in the port and paseo restaurants. The tourist trade has brought this thriving salt-producing town to the size it is now but you can’t go far without being reminded of its salt and sailor past.