The Santa Clara – a – Velha Dam – 50 years old

During the first half of 2019, I have been photographing a lot inside the area of Odemira municipality in Alentejo. This is a region that combines a beautiful coastline and beaches, with more interior plains and hills. Thus, it is often described as a “different Alentejo”. Several reasons have contributed to these photographic endeavours: doing several of the various trekking paths; assembling a portfolio for an exhibit; attending more local events; or simply taking more weekends off. There are many highlights in the region of Odemira, and you can get a very good idea from this institutional video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0ZqjNZ8o7w

One of such highlights is no doubt the Santa Clara – a – Velha dam, located about 50km inland. Simply getting there from the coast is a wonderful drive, best negotiated in a leisurely fashion. This is not a land to be appreciated, and understood, at a social network pace. From the coastal road that stretches south from Milfontes, simply follow the directions to Odemira, Boavista dos Pinheiros, until you reach Sabóia. Along the way, you will pass rolling hills and farm country which, depending on the season, will be covered with fresh green grass and trees, blooming flowers, or golden and dry hay. Dotting this landscape, you will notice the conspicuous cork oak trees, some of them very old and majestic, plus grazing cattle.

Now and then, a road sign will seemingly point to nowhere, but by investigating more carefully, you will often arrive at a small village, with just a few houses. It is a great opportunity to spend some time with the locals and witness old and traditional ways of living. In Sabóia, the train station has a couple of beautiful painted azulejo panels depicting the nearby scenery. We are very close to the transition between Alentejo and Algarve provinces, but such border is smoothed by a succession of increasingly higher mountains to the south, culminating in the second highest peak in continental Portugal, Monchique (900m altitude).

After Sabóia, it is a short drive until the quaint little village of Santa Clara – a – Velha. It is worth visiting the small church, with its traditional blue and white facade, and walk slowly towards the river Mira, which winds its way under large willow trees. This village is the starting point of two circular walking trails, each about 12km long. One of them goes to the east, towards the dam, so it is a good choice when the weather is pleasant. Otherwise, it is another short 3km ride until the dam.

The Santa Clara – a – Velha dam was inaugurated in May 12, 1969, so this year marks its 50th anniversary. It was the largest dam in Portugal until the more recent Alqueva was built. It reaches a depth of 83m, with a total capacity of 485,000,000m3. The lake is a true haven of peacefulness and quiet, and a respite in the hot summer days. The only sounds that disturb the quietness are the ones coming from the wind rustling the trees, and the birds singing. It is amazing how quiet it gets. And dark too, which was one of the reasons I visited recently. Coincident with a new Moon, I shot a star trail over the lake. Having previously scouted the area, I set up my tripod with camera and lens facing north; the plan was to shoot for a total of about 1 hour exposure time, to obtain a nice star trail around Polaris.

Many other photographic subjects of interest are available, from the mountain scenery, to some of the infrastructure of the dam. Sunrise and sunset are particularly good times to photograph, as the light is more interesting. For example, sunrise is quite nice looking to the east, as the light is reflected from the calm water. At sunset, it is worth to relax in the balcony of the local hotel, while admiring the view; in this occasion, the warm day was coming to an end, and the golden light was filtered by the haze, bathing the hills in a surreal atmosphere. Visiting this dam is no doubt an enjoyable experience, as it provides a stark contrast with the coastal region.

Location
Location
Church
Church
Trail
Trail
Mountainscape
Mountainscape
Fluvial beach
Fluvial beach
The lake
The lake
Morning
Morning
View
View
First light
First light
Morning quiet
Morning quiet
Start trail
Start trail

Southwest Alentejo in June – part 3

This is the third and final instalment of a set of posts I wanted to make about my recent vacation in the area of Longueira, Odemira municipality, Alentejo. The first post talked about photographing the river Mira and the countryside near Vale Figueira, and the second post addressed the small fishing harbour of Lapa de Pombas, in the coast.

For this final piece, I want to take you to Milfontes, which is one of the highlights of the region. This is a village that is rich in history, from its colourful 16th century stories of pirates, to more recent “invasions” of peaceful tourists. From the three photographic sessions I wanted to carry out during this time – off, this was the one I had really planned: I wanted to photograph the interesting polygonal coastal rock formations at low tide during sunset. When the conditions are right, the water remains in small tidal pools and reflects the colours and light of the sunset, making for a truly spectacular scenery.

A quick research about tide, sunset, and Moon rise conditions, led me to reserve the evening of 15th June for this objective. There would be an excellent combination of a 70 cm low tide close to sunset at around 9 pm. The Moon would rise near full within that time period, perhaps providing more opportunities. The only thing that was more uncertain was the presence of dramatic clouds to fuel the interest during sunset; the only thing that was persistent during the day were some strong winds and clear skies… hoping for the best and keeping my fingers crossed, I pickled up my backpack and tripod, and made the short 10 km drive between Longueira and Milfontes, arriving about 1 hour before sunset.

I parked near the small lighthouse in the northern bank of the river mouth, which is not a bad location for nice views of the coast to the south, and the village proper, to the east. I spent some time making a few photos with the new Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 lens that I am testing (and that I have used for the photos in the previous two chapters of this essay). Even though this lens is larger and heavier than the 14mm f/2.8 lens (that I have used for years), after a few days of using it I was very comfortable – it basically feels and handles like a grown up version of the 14mm lens (same set of controls) – with the bonus of being more robust (it has Fuji’s Weather Resistant construction and labelling), and 2 stops faster (which can be handy sometimes). One other important change is that the aperture ring is a lot less “free rotating” in the 16mm lens, compared to the other.

Anyway, enough of gear talk… From the vicinity of the car park and after a few photos, I walked down to the beach, where the tide was already very low; I think that the combined effort of near full Moon plus the approaching summer solstice were contributing to such low tide levels. Even better for my plans. Walking along the sandy shallows and the rocks, I managed to reach a good distance away from “land”; this allowed me to make some photos that were completely new to me, which was excellent. In some places, the sand had consolidated into sharp – edged rock formations, so be sure to wear good shoes (summer – type flip – flops will not do!). There were plenty of interesting sand patterns, waves, and the view of Milfontes from this far away to keep me busy for a while.

As the Sun was approaching the horizon, I made my way back and entered the area that I was really interested in, featuring the above mentioned polygonal tidal pools. I took a few test shots to get a feel for the compositions, and finally decided on a location to set up the tripod. I already had a few filters ready in my pockets, as being prepared and ready helps a lot, especially if working over water – you don’t want to drop your precious Lee Big Stopper ND filter on the tide pool, or fumble in your backpack when the light is just great. My greatest fear – lack of an interesting sky – went away, because as the sunset approached, there were long and wispy clouds reflecting the light. This turned out to be a highlight of the session for me, and I was soon shooting frame after frame, as the light changed colour and intensity. I spent more than 1 hour in that place, shooting well after sunset. What a fantastic way to end the day, and I felt blessed to be able to witness this show of Nature.

Milfontes - location
Milfontes – location
Arriving view
Arriving view
It's looking good
It’s looking good
Estuary low tide
Estuary low tide
Sand waves
Sand waves
End of the road
End of the road
Erosion
Erosion
Tide pools - general view
Tide pools – general view
Tide pools
Tide pools
Touching
Touching
Moon bonus
Moon bonus
Colour harmony
Colour harmony
Stripes
Stripes
Exit
Exit
Two banks
Two banks