These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Solivar: Saline drip

By James Thomson

    The mighty gápeľ, at Solivar
 The mighty gápeľ, at Solivar
 Photos by James Thomson

If you can bring yourself to leave the Renaissance splendour of Prešov's city centre for a few hours, another impressive destination (at least for the technically-minded) lies just a single trolley-bus ride away.

Solivar, a Prešov suburb named after the sixteenth-century salt mining complex around which it is built, is at the terminus of trolley bus number 1. Its modern-day museum is a short (if not very-well-signposted) walk from the bus stop. In contrast to the salt mines near Kraków, in southern Poland, which are a huge tourist attraction, Solivar is not (yet) drawing large numbers. Partly, this may be the result of its slightly run-down appearance.

The museum-organised tour of the odd-looking buildings is in Slovak and rattles along at a brisk pace, with fairly short shrift being given to questions. But stick with it and some remarkable sights are revealed.

Perhaps foremost among them is the gápeľ. An enormous contraption housed in a large, distinctively-roofed hall, it provides a glimpse of how large-scale processes were managed before the industrial revolution came along.

Salt-mining began here in 1572, but in 1752 the mines filled with water. This allowed the salt to be extracted in the form of brine. But to do this on a large scale the gápeľ was built: it is a huge horizontal wooden winch, with oak-beam arms almost 15 metres across, to which four pairs of horses were hitched and used to pull up 2-3 tonnes of brine at a time in giant bags. They hauled up one bag every five minutes. The entire apparatus sits on one three-centimetre-wide axle mount, and all of it still works.

Hard to credit, given that this was once the biggest salt-producer in the Habsburg lands - is that the process here was only electrified in 1908. Salt extraction continued at what is now the museum site - known as the Leopold shaft - until 1970.

Also part of the tour are a walk on top of the gigantic, one-million-litre capacity settling tanks, made entirely of wood and stone, and around the so-called cooker, where the water evaporated to leave the salt.

Unfortunately, what would be one of the main attractions, an enormous salt store with double roof which was built by carpenters without using a single nail, burned to the ground in 1986. There are pictures of it in the museum; its weed-strewn remains are visible nearby.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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