Summer in the southwest Alentejo natural park is usually a very busy season, with a large number of people choosing the area for vacation. The main attraction are the many pristine beaches that exist along the coastline and that allow a well deserved rest in a natural and quiet setting. This bit of coastline is probably one of the last “wild” ones in Europe.
I spent a short vacation in the region last week, and noticed that this year the number of visitors had dropped considerably. No doubt the result of the ongoing pandemic crisis. The impact on the local economy will be significant, as in many parts of the World where tourism is a large part of the local income.
For this trip I had no definite plans concerning particular photographic endeavours. Weather permitting, I was hoping to spot comet Neowise after sunset, and go out to photograph the rural fields dotted with the typical hay bales. One of the things I like best about this area is the sea versus land dicotomy that is always present: only a couple of kilometres inland from the coast, the landscape is dominated by rolling hills and rural farmland. If it weren’t for the sea breeze, one might be well within the interior of the country. A true surf ´turf of geographic and climatic nature.
I had previously spotted a few places with abundant hay bales, but I wanted to find a location where they would be complemented by the native cork oak tree, to add a bit more of interest and context to my photos. I found such a place near the island of Pessegueiro, between Milfontes and Porto Covo. After parking the car, I started to walk around looking for potential frames in my mind. I had about 1 hour before sunset, so I was in no rush to start shooting. I normally take my time before setting up the tripod, just familiarizing myself with the surroundings and the light.
The light had a nice golden quality to it, thanks to the approaching sunset; shadows from the bales were long, complemented by some soft wispy clouds. For some photos I used a polarizer filter to enhance the sky and define the clouds a bit more. I kept moving around and trying different angles, to include the farm houses, the trees, the distant hills and some wind turbines.
Besides using a wide angle lens for greater depth and context, I also used a telephoto lens to isolate the subjects a bit more. Like in the previous photo, and the following ones.
What about the comet? I went to a dark area after dinner, at around 10.30 pm. I knew it would be visible to the northwest, just below the Big Dipper. It was actually easy to find with the naked eye, and it was a great experience seeing it with binoculars. I set up the camera on the tripod and took a few shots, testing the shutter speed to avoid star trailing. There was some atmospheric haze (the day had been very hot) that affected the visibility, as the comet is not very high above the horizon. But overall I am happy with the results, and above all I felt privileged for being able to witness such a spectacular visitor.
I was glad I went out for the comet that night, because for the next 2 days the entire coast was covered in fog!
As mentioned in my previous article, today I will write about a unique species of white storks in Portugal’s southwest Alentejo and Vicentina coast. Between Vila Nova de Milfontes and Sagres, this beautiful and still wild coastal region hides another interesting “secret”: it is home to only species of white storks in the world that nest in the coastal cliffs.
Since the 1980’s biologists have been studying and monitoring these colonies of birds. Today, there are over 40 occupied nests. One of the best locations to observe them is in the cliffs near Cabo Sardão. From the car park beside the lighthouse building, it is only a short walk to the edge of the cliffs. There is one nest right in front of the lighhouse´s direction, and another one just a bit towards the south.
Scientists have concluded that most of the couples are still migratory, returning at the end of the Winter. Often the nests are very damaged, and the birds spend a lot of time repairing them. They have to do so in preparation for the birthing of the younger ones in the spring and Summer. Observing these unique birds (plus many other species, of course, like the rare coastal eagles) is a great experience, particularly for the beautiful surrounding seascape.
The best times to observe the storks are during the early morning and late afternoon, when there is more activity relatedto finding food and bringing it to the young ones in the nests. I prefer observing them in the late afternoon, close to sunset, when the light has a magical golden quality. The photos below were taken during a couple of recent visits. A tripod and a telephoto zoom are recommended, for some more close-up compositions and more stability of the gear in windy days.
For sure I will return to observe these unique birds. Like them, it would be great to be able to fly and soar above these seascapes.
During a recent weekend trip to the southwest Portuguese coast, I had the chance to photograph in the Cabo Sardão area. This is one of my often photographed locations, so it is a challenge to come out with something new, or a different approach. In this occasion, I have planned to tackle two different obiectives. The first one was to photograph the white stork species that lives in the area: this is a unique species of stork, because it nests in the coastal cliffs, and will be the subject for a future essay.
The second objective was to make a few panoramas by shooting a series of photos for later stitching in the computer. There are many sweeping coastal vistas in the area, and sometimes a wide angle lens is not wide enough to encompass the entire scene. For creating panoramas I have been using Panorama Factory, a software that does the job very well.
The first image is a set of 3 photos taken with my Fujinon 16mm f/1.4. The image shows the coast at low tide a short distance away from the Cabo Sardão lighthouse. The hour was close to sunset, so the scene was illuminated with golden light.
Next is the classic view of the precipitous cliffs with the lighthouse in the top. This is an assemby of 6 photos, as above taken with the 16mm lens, spanning a large angle of view; larger than what would have been achievable with only a single shot from my wide angle lens.
For the third and final image I waited for the full Moon to rise beside the lighthouse. Again, it would have been difficult to get the image with a single shot. This is an assembly of 9 photos taken with the Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom. I like the result because the lighthouse is also lit, as the Sun had just set behind me.
This was an excellent occasion to dust off my panorama abilities, but honestly, these days it is really easy to achieve good results with just a bit of care in the field. For these photos I used a tripod, but this was dictated by the low ISO and concurrent slow shutter speeds. The key concern is to have sufficient overlap between the successive shots, so the software can stitch them correctly.
crisis has taken away simple things that we took for granted, but with the slow
reopening life seems to be gradually returning to “normal”. In the previous
essay I described my first photographic landscape session after the confinement
period. Since then, I was able to go out again for an early morning walk in the
area around Cabo Sardao, in the southwest Portugal coast.
I have been
there so many times over the years I probably lost count, but I always enjoy
returning. The place is beautiful, and it is a privilege to be there,
especially at sunrise and sunset. The best light for landscape photography is
precisely around those times of the day, which in May requires waking up very
early. This can be a challenge, but after being confined for so long, I suppose
I will stop complaining about that! So, I woke up at 5 am, grabbed my camera
and lens plus tripod, and drove the short distance between my house and Cabo
For this early
morning walk, I simply carried one camera and one lens, plus the tripod. The
lens I had with me was the 35 mm one, which on an APSC camera like mine
provides the angle of view of a classic 50 mm on so called full frame cameras.
Even though I normally photograph in this location with a wide-angle lens, I
can also use the 35 mm lens effectively, challenging myself to get a different
sort of compositions and images.
was very quiet and peaceful, with clear skies and no wind. The light from the
lighthouse was still on, as the sunrise was still several minutes away. I made
some photos of the cliffs, the lighthouse, the sea, simply enjoying the place.
I noticed that the storks had already returned to their nests, so I need to go
back with a longer lens; this is a unique species of stork, that lives on the
sea cliffs, and will provide a different type of photographic challenge for me.
I stayed there until after sunrise, simply enjoying Nature, and returned home for a well-deserved breakfast.
current health crisis, many governments have implemented states of emergency,
where confining people to their houses to break the infection chain was
required. In Portugal that state of emergency lasted for 6 weeks, from
mid-March to end of April. Thanks to this, we had success in curtailing the
spreading of the infection and are since 4th of May slowly reopening
some economic activities.
March, just before the lockdown was put in place, I managed to make a short
trip to my house in the southwest coast, in Longueira. I wrote about it in this
months, and with the lifting of restrictions, I was able to return with my wife
to Longueira for a weekend. The local municipality, Odemira, has only 5
reported cases as I write this. This is not strange, because Odemira is the
largest municipality in area, and the one with the lowest population density.
This is a trait common to the entire province of Alentejo, where social
distancing is already the norm, due to the large distances between villages.
It was good
to go back and travel a bit in the area; all the restaurants and small cafes
are still close (they will reopen 0n May 18th), and there was hardly
anyone on the streets. But at least it
was possible to enjoy this “new freedom” while admiring the views in Milfontes,
Almograve, and Cabo Sardão, for example. After being at home for 2 months, it
was great to be out in one of my favorite places.
I took my photo backpack with me, ready to go on a photo walk, should the
opportunity present itself. That was the case one afternoon, where I spent a
few hours near Cabo Sardão. I have photographed this area so many times, it has
become a challenge to obtain different photographs. This afternoon, the weather
was quite unstable, with many showers and the occasional sunshine spell. I
parked the car at the end of a dirt track, near the cliffs, and just admired
the view and the feel of the place. I was thankful for my family being healthy
and felt blessed for being able to be back here, enjoying the salty wind in my
face and the crashing of the waves below. I could not think of a better place
minutes of simply “being there”, I started walking along the coastal trail,
paying close attention to potential photographic subjects and elements. We are
in the middle of Spring now, so there are many flowers around, some of them
quite small, others clinging to the rock fissures, all buffeted by the strong
winds. These winds keep shaping the consolidated and rusty colored sand dunes
into small canyons and plateaus, where rounded pebbles have found their resting
place. The surrounding landscape seems to strike a balance between the erosional
forces of the sea, wind and rain, and the resilience of the rock cliffs.
In my pursuit of finding new angles for familiar subjects, I often ended up lying flat on the ground photographing small flowers, sometimes isolated, other times as foregrounds for the receding cliffs and sea. I have also tried several long exposures, with the idea of conveying this feeling of perpetual change, showing the relationship between the natural elements of water, wind, and rock formations. During the afternoon there were a few showers, but even then, they helped to keep the atmosphere clear and bright. I kept shooting until sunset time, simply enjoying being out in such beautiful surroundings. Hopefully, this health crisis will pass sooner than later, and we will emerge from it stronger and better human beings.
Here in Portugal, as in many other countries, we are under a “state of emergency” to combat the pandemic. This means that all non essential personnel was sent home. Some manage to keep working from home, and all schooling is also home based. People can only go out for specific reasons: work, groceries, pharmacy, and local walks. Always keeping a safe distance and avoiding gatherings. So far, after 1 month, the results are encouraging.
Of course, one of the things that I miss is going out and making photos, so I thought about planning a few outings within a reasonable walking distance of my house. I live very close to the beach in Carcavelos, one of the most popular ones on the coast near Lisbon. It is a place I regularly visit to photograph all year round, especially at sunrise. But, as part of the current measures, all beaches and walkways have been closed. My first planned outing was to Carcavelos beach, but this time I would have to choose a different viewpoint; I normally would go to the beach proper at low tide to make photos, which was impossible now. The path that exists along the beach front is also closed.
I then decided to try and scout a few places and viewpoints on the sea side of the road, especially over the rocky outcrops that exist along the coastline. These are quite safe to walk on, and before sunrise, I was sure of not finding anyone else, so all was fine. With this plan in mind, I left the house about 1 hour before sunrise, with my photo backpack and small tripod.
Weather was good, with a few clouds and the Moon still high. My first stop was near a cross that exists by the side of the road, on a dangerous curve of the road, where many accidents used to happen in the past. Today, a traffic radar and lights moderate driver’s speed. I managed to make a photo of the cross with the Moon in the background, under the predawn light. I actually made a few more photos around this location, some long exposures of the sea and waves hitting the shore. Some of the rocks resembled ramparts and castles in my imagination.
After getting some interesting photos in this spot, I walked back towards the beach. I decided to try a few shots and compositions from various places, including the nearby rocks descending into the sea, the fort in the distance, and the interesting sky. It was around 7 am by then, and even this early, normally Carcavelos is already busy with surfers and joggers (I usually jog in the beach). Since the beach is closed, there was an eerie feeling over the area. Below are some of the photos that have resulted from this session. As you can see, the light was changing fast, and I had to work quickly. The colours were transitioning between the blues typical of pre-sunrise, to the warmer pinks and yellows of sunrise.
In the coming weeks, my idea is to continue to explore these beaches around my house, from a less conventional perspective. Always abiding to the safety measures, of course. As an hobbyist landscape photographer, I am used to be out of the house when most people are sleeping, so from this angle, things have not changed (much).
Given the current health crisis and the need to stay home, I am taking this opportunity to write a bit about this Fujinon lens which I have been using for a little over a month now. I like to make some macro photos while hiking on trails, should the situation arise. Given it’s focal length, this lens is also suitable for portraits, and some landscape photos with a tighter field of view.
During my time with the lens, I already used it in my 4 day trip to Northeast Portugal, and in a couple of weekends in the Southwest coast (Longueira). As a macro lens, it only goes to 0.5x magnification, but that is why it is small. Other lenses that reach to 1x (or life size) magnification are larger. I do not mind this limitation, as for what I normally photograph (flowers, details, some insects), it is enough. Below are some examples.
I also use the lens for landscapes, when I want to achieve a narrower angle of view, or isolate a particular element of the scenery. I show some examples in the ensuing photos.
Optically, the lens is superb, with plenty of sharpness even from wide open, nice bokeh, and the typical excellent Fujifilm colours and contrast. Here is one of my first shots with the lens, the obligatory cat shot.
This is the third and final part of a series about my recent
visit to the Vila Nova de Foz Côa (VNFC) region. Parts 1 and 2 can be found
We departed VNFC early in the morning and started the
journey to Freixo de Espada a Cinta (FEC), several km to the North. The road
passes through a beautiful area of Portugal, limited to the East by the Douro
river, which marks the border with Spain. This is a high altitude granitic and
schist plateau, part of the geographic feature known as Iberian Meseta. The
first village is Castelo Melhor, which I have alluded to before. From there,
only a few km away, lies Almendra, considered one of the most beautiful
historical villages in Portugal.
Its name comes from the Arabic word for almond, and it is
obvious why; once more, the almond trees are conspicuous in the surrounding
fields and farms. The village has several historic buildings, like the Manor
(“Solar”) that for generations belonged to the Almendra Viscount. It is a
palace from the XVIII century, built in the baroque style. Even though it lies
in ruin today, its grandeur is still very apparent, with imposing granite
facades. A long time before that, in the year 569 AC, the region was under
Visigoth domain. The other important building is the Church of Our Lady of
Angels, which was built in the XVI century; it has an imposing profile, and its
large size and strongholds attest its relevance in these frontier lands.
From Almendra, the road leads to Castelo Rodrigo, even
closer to Spain. The landscape in between is characterized by granitic plateaus
and sparse vegetation, with isolated boulders that have resulted from erosion
by wind and water. Today it is quite warm for February, but it is not difficult
to imagine the cold winter winds whistling thorough the region. Castelo Rodrigo
sits atop a hill, which at this time of the year is surrounded by blooming
almond trees; this makes a very picturesque scenery, so I had to stop to make a
few photos. The entire medieval town is enclosed inside the castle walls, as a
fortification, which was required, given its tribulated history that tells of
many frontier wars with Spain.
However, the history of the place goes well into the past, from pre-historic times to romans and Arabs; finally, in 1297 it was incorporated in Portugal. It is well worthwhile to spend some time walking along the narrow streets, feeling the history of the place. Also spend some time tasting the delicacies in the shops, particularly the almonds and almond liqueur. Inside the castle, note the “defamed upside down coat of arms”, a punishment by the King of Portugal imposed on the local nobility, who sided at the time with the opposing Spanish party in the war.
The next leg of our trip would take us to Barca de Alva, one
of the entry points of the International Douro Natural Park. Before getting
there, be sure to stop in the roman villa of Almofala, with its well-preserved
tower. Given that it was lunch time, we had a picnic in a small resting area by
the side of the road, under the shade of a willow tree, and close to a small
creek. I even made a few long exposures of the running water, just for fun.
Approaching Barca de Alva, it is interesting to notice that
the topography starts to change; in fact, the plateau area we had been crossing
since morning, transitions into a rougher terrain, that descends precipitously
towards the Douro valley. This is an important location, as it marks the end of
the 200 km long train route that starts in Porto in the coast and goes along
the Douro river upstream. Unfortunately, part of the route has been deactivated
and is in disuse. It also marks the point up to which the Douro is navigable.
The Mediterranean microclimate of the region, and how it affects the Douro
valley, becomes apparent here: there are many fields cultivated with vineyards,
almonds, orange and olive trees. This is where the region of Port wine truly
The rest of our trip will follow the road along the border
with Spain, and it is impossible not to stop along the way to admire the
landscape from several viewpoints. The most famous one is located just before
arriving at FEC and is called Penedo Durão. This is a rocky spur that juts out
over the Douro valley, at an altitude of around 700m. From this vantage point,
and in the right season, many birds that are typical of this Natural Park can
be observed: griffin, Egyptian vulture, peregrine falcon, amongst others. It is
a great place to stop and appreciate the surrounding nature.
By the time we arrive at FEC, the sun is going down behind
the mountains. This is another town rich in history, and whose foundation is
lost in the mist of time. The origin of its name “Freixo” (Ash tree) and
“Espada Cinta” (sword at waist) is not clear, and there are several legends.
One story says that a goth nobleman whose name was “Espadacinta” took a nap
under a Freixo after battling the Arabs in the Douro river. Another tells how
king D. Dinis, when passing through this land, lied down to rest under the
shade of a Freixo tree, but not before placing his mighty sword against it. While
sleeping, the tree’s spirit guided the king to establish wise guidelines for
the future. Regardless of the story, the town is full of interesting places to
From FEC to the fluvial beach of Congida is a quick and
short drive. This is a great place to spend the night, in peaceful tranquillity
by the river Douro. The light of the setting sun reaches the banks of the
river, bathing them in golden hues. I make haste with my tripod and camera to
take a few shots of the surrounding scenery. At night, I went out to make a
star trail session. As the river runs North to South, pointing the camera to
the North will ensure a nice star trail rotating around Polaris. Fujifilm cameras
make this extremely easy to set up, with their built in intervalometer. I
programme the camera to shoot 100 frames of 30 seconds each, this will give me
a total of 50 minutes of movement.
The following morning, I was out of the room before sunrise; the weather had turned cloudy, but that was good, as it added some more interest in the sky area for the photos. I walked around the beach, trying out different foregrounds such as boats and willow trees. I also opted for some long exposures, between a few seconds and 2 minutes; this has resulted in some interesting movement effects in the clouds. In the end, I decided to convert some of the photos to black and white, for added visual drama.
It was with a sad feeling that we left the area and returned home, after a few very fulfilling days in a beautiful part of the country. But we left with our hearts and minds richer, after experiencing all the culture, history, and landscape of the region.
This is the second part of a four-part instalment about my recent visit to the Vila Nova de Foz Côa (VNFC) region. Part 1 can be found here:
For the first full day in VNFC, we had booked a visit to two
of the Upper Paleolithic (22,000 – 10,000 BC) rock art sites located along the
Côa river valley. In the mid- 1990’s, archaeologists working in the area
discovered several open – air rock art sites, and soon their importance was
recognized. At the time, there were plans to build a dam in the Côa river,
which would have drowned them. A big public discussion went on with arguments
from both sides; at the end of it, the dam was cancelled, and a large part of
the area was classified by UNESCO as World Heritage. Rightly so, if you ask me.
These sites constitute the oldest record of human engraving
activity in the world, being also unique in the fact that they exist in the
open, not in caves, as it was more typical of the time. 20,000 years ago, man
engraved thousands of drawings depicting horses and cattle on the schist rocks
of the Côa valley, a tributary of the Douro river, in northeastern Portugal. The
engravings essentially portray animalistic figures, although a human
representation is known. The most represented animals are horses and bovines
(aurochs, which are now extinct).
Since 2018, Arte do Côa (which includes the Vale do Côa
Museum and Archaeological Park) has become part of the Council of Europe’s
Cultural Itinerary, where sites such as Lascaux, Chauvet, Niaux (France),
Altamira (Spain) or Valcamónica are represented (Italy).
There are three sites open to the public for visiting, with
guided tours departing from the dedicated museum in VNFC, and the village of
Castelo Melhor. Depending on the exposure to sunlight, two of the sites have
morning visits (Ribeira de Piscos and Canada do Inferno), while the third one
can be visited in the afternoon (Penascosa). For more details, please see here:
The museum in VNFC is located about 3 km away from the town,
along a road that this time of the year is full of blooming almond trees. I
made an early start, before sunrise, to make some photos of the landscape. It
is simply a beautiful landscape, with the soft rolling mountains and steep
hills descending into the Côa and Douro valleys. The terraced hills are a
testimony to the perseverance of man to try and tame Nature for centuries. Today,
the almond and olive trees dominate. So early in the morning, the river valleys
are covered with fog, which adds mystery and beauty to the landscape. The
museum’s building itself is quite interesting, as it was built to resemble a
large block of schist lying in the ground.
The first visit was to the Ribeira de Piscos site, a small
creek that is a tributary on the left bank of the Côa. As all visits, it
requires driving in a 4WD along some rough dirt tracks, but our guide, Marina,
handled that smoothly. One of the main attractions – besides the rock art
itself – is being able to experience the surrounding landscape and the
peacefulness of the area. The highlight of this visit is the engraving of a
human figure, the famous “Man of Piscos”. There is also a small rock with four
small horses finely engraved with an amazing level of detail, including ears
and hooves. The last rock panel holds a near – life size aurochs’ depiction,
that would have been visible from the opposite bank of the Côa river. Closing my
eyes, it was easy to imagine being here 20,000 years ago and picture our first
ancestors living in the vicinity and hunting these animals. At the time, an Ice
Age was on, but today, in late February and at the bottom of the valley, it is well
over 20 Celsius, quite warm for the season.
It was with some regret that we had to return to VNFC, where
we had lunch. In the afternoon, we would visit the Penascosa site, meeting our
guide in the village of Castelo Melhor. Again, the drive from VNFC to this
small village afforded impressive views over the landscape, with the bonus of
the ever-present almond trees in bloom. Castelo Melhor is an old village, with
a small castle in ruins at the top of a hill. Its history goes back to
pre-roman times. It’s first “foral” or charter, was granted in the year 1209 by
king Afonso IX of Leon. In 1297, the village became part of Portugal.
From here, a short drive takes visitors to the Penascosa
archaeological site, located on the right bank of the Côa river. This is a busy
place with more visitors than in the morning, because there are more rock
panels and engravings to see. Still, the silence in the landscape along the way
is only perturbed by chirping birds and buzzing bees. Before descending to the
site, it is mandatory to stop and admire the view, including the Erva Moira
winery and farm on the opposite bank of the river. Again, this is typical Douro
wine terraced landscape, but with a significant area where almond and olive
trees are cultivated.
Arriving at the site, indeed several 4WD vehicles are
parked, attesting to the popularity of the place. Still, the groups are split
between the several rock panels, and everything proceeds at a leisurely pace,
as befits the location. A few meters behind us, the river Côa glides smoothly,
surrounded by the mountainous terrain. Pre-historic man has left us a
significant number of engravings (36 engraved rocks), depicting several
animals. In some instances, a sensation of movement is transmitted by having
the same animal’s head in three different positions. Also unique to this site
is the representation of a fish.
At the end of this very full day, we were all left with a
profound respect and admiration for our ancestors of the Côa valley. They were
true artists, and they were the first to bring art from inside the darkness of
the caves to the full light of day.
In terms of photos, there are no restrictions, except it is
not allowed to touch the rocks, of course. I found it useful to have a small
macro lens like the Fujinon 60 f/2.4 to be able to achieve some close-up
details of the engravings. Plus, some macro photos of the almond blooms. Other
than that, a wide angle is mandatory for the sweeping landscapes.
On part 3 of this series, we will depart VNFC and will go to
Freixo de Espada a Cinta, crossing one of the most beautiful areas of Portugal.
We will end the day right at the border with Spain in a fluvial beach at
Congida, well inside the International Douro National Park.
A few days ago, I returned from a trip to Northeast Portugal,
particularly to the region of Vila Nova de Foz Côa (VNFC). It was a family
vacation trip, that I had been planning for some time; finally, during the
Carnival holyday break, we managed to go there for a few days. I have family
roots in VNFC, as my grandparents were from there, and I used to visit for
vacations when I was a child. The trip was split into several days:
Day 1 – drive to VNFC (around 400 km), of course with a few
stops along the way, in medieval villages (Belmonte and Marialva).
Day 2 – visit the Upper Paleolithic rock art sites in the
region, which since 1998 have been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage
Day 3 – drive from VNFC to Freixo de Espada a Cinta (FEC),
visiting a few other old villages along the way, such as Castelo Melhor,
Almendra, and Castelo Rodrigo.
Day 4 – drive back home, in part along route 222, that
follows the Douro river and its many vineyards. A landscape that is also
classified as World Heritage.
This region of Portugal is extremely rich in history, with
numerous cultural and landscape places to visit. It is characterized by several
mountain chains that surround the Douro and Côa rivers and is close to the
border with Spain. During February and March, the almond trees are in bloom,
adding a beautiful character to the landscape. We were lucky that in many
places, these trees were still in bloom; it is quite an experience to see the
steep hills covered with the white blossoms. When the wind is strong enough,
the flowers falling from the trees resemble snow.
Of course, I made a lot of photos, who wouldn’t right? I
thought it better then to split this piece into several parts, following the
several days, as indicated above. I will start with the first day of the trip,
where the highlights were the medieval villages of Belmonte and Marialva.
Belmonte is located near Serra da Estrela, the highest
mountain in continental Portugal, in the Beira Baixa province. As many other
villages in the region, Belmonte´s history goes back to very early times of
Portugal’s foundation as a country. In fact, the establishment of Belmonte as a
village was granted by king D. Sancho in the year 1211. Today, there are many
interesting sites to visit, like the castle and medieval Jewish neighbourhood.
This is also the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who discovered Brasil in
the year 1500. Arriving there at lunch time, we had a picnic and did some
sightseeing around the castle and old town.
From Belmonte we kept driving North, towards VNFC, enjoying the nice sunny weather and the mountainous landscape. A few km before VNFC, lies another medieval village, Marialva. I remember stopping here when I was a kid, and even today Marialva is an invitation to a child’s imagination about knights and castles. The whole village is enclosed inside the castle walls. Its history goes back to Roman times, after which the Goth tribes occupied the region. In the year 1063 it was conquered by D. Fernando Magno and received its present name. The first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, granted it village charter and status (“foral”) in 1179.
This entire region near Spain has seen quite a number of
independence wars, and was never very populated. The first kings, attempting to
attract people to the interior and sustain the conquered lands, offered
incentives to the villages – granting permission to hold markets and offering
lands. It is quite telling that today, in the XXI century, the current
government is still granting incentives to attract people to the interior… some
things never change.
Seeing Marialva’s castle at the top of the hill, surrounded
by farms, is a very nice sight. It is possible to stop the car at the entrance
of the village and visit it. Of course, the mandatory thing to do is to walk
around and inside the ramparts. There are not may inhabitants today, and the
few that we met were old people – this is a common thing in these small
interior villages. The view from the castle over the surround landscape is
beautiful, encompassing many kilometres in all directions, with mountain ranges
and farmlands covered in fruit trees and granitic boulders.
We found a couple of old ladies that were selling some local
products, including almonds and olive oil. I remember being a kid and breaking the
almond shells in my grandparent’s house. I bought a bag of almonds, which are
very good. After visiting Marialva, I left with the feeling that I was exiting
a time machine. The eery silence at the top of the ramparts is a stark witness
to the isolation of the place.
After a few more kilometres, we finally arrived in VNFC, where we settled for the night. Not before doing a bit of walking around, bringing back childhood memories. The historical centre includes the church, pillory, and town hall. The first charter was granted by King D. Dinis in 1299. On the northern exit of the town, by the side of the road, is wrth to stop and admire the view towards the Douro valley. We rested there until sunset, simply admiring the view. The next day was going to be very full, with the visits to some of the pre-historic rock art sites.