Up in the air over Coruche

One of the activities that I have always wanted to try was to fly in a hot air balloon. After a few cancellations due to bad weather conditions, a few days ago I embarked on such an adventure. There are several companies that provide this type of activity in Portugal, selling tickets for flights over various areas of the country. I bought a ticket with the company Windpassenger for a 1 hour flight over the town of Coruche, which is located about 100 km to the East of Lisbon, in the river Tejo plain. This type of activity starts very early, before dawn, and the participants had to assemble at 6 am on a Sunday.

Arriving at the location, I saw 4 balloons that were getting ready for the flight. The air was being heated with large torches to fill up the large balloons, which is a slow process. I took the opportunity to walk around and make a few initial photos. For this trip, I had with me my normal kit of 2 cameras and 2 prime lenses, a wide-angle 14mm and a standard 35mm, which offered enough flexibility. The wide angle lens was a good choice to include the large balloons in the frame, and the standard lens was used for the more general views.

Preparations before takeoff.
Filling up the balloon with hot air.

The balloon I was in was the first to take off, allowing me to make some photos during the initial ascent. We went up at sunrise, so the light was quite nice. The interior of the balloon reminded me of a kaleidoscope, with all the various colors. Our pilot, Guido, occasionally had to engage the gas burners, to control the altitude. For a brief moment, the flames and the heat could be felt.

Going up at sunrise.
The balloon’s colorful interior.
Guido piloting the balloon.
Hot air shimmering.

The morning was very still, with no wind, and our course took us over the village of Coruche and the surrounding fields. This is an area of rice crops in the flat lands that surround the river Sorraia, a tributary of the Tejo. The dominant feeling among the passengers was one of tranquility, as the balloon quietly floated in the atmosphere. The visibility was good, thanks to the clear skies.

Flying over Coruche.
Coruche from above, with the Sorraia river below.
Tranquility.
In formation.
Over the landscape.
Shadow on the plain.

Unfortunately, 1 hour passes quickly, and soon Guido started to look for a place to land. There are supporting teams on the ground to assist in this phase of the flight, communicating with walkie-talkies. Once the location was chosen, the balloons slowly begun their descent.

Up in the air.
Flying quietly.
Birds’ eye view.
Looking for a place to land.
Landing.

After an uneventful landing, the passengers had the opportunity to celebrate their first balloon flight with a glass of champagne, to follow the tradition. Flying in a hot air balloon is no doubt a wonderful experience, and I have especially enjoyed the quietness and the sensation of being part of Nature. Of course it is also an excellent opportunity to make unique photos. At closing, I would like to endorse Windpassenger and their staff for their friendly and professional behavior.

The land of the Templars – part 2

This is part 2 of my latest essay, which is about a visit to the region of Tomar and Dornes in Central Portugal. Part 1 can be found here:

The History of Tomar is a very old one, dating back to pre – Roman times. The city was conquered by the Moors in 716, until re-conquered by King Afonso Henriques in 1147. Such was accomplished with the help of the Knights of the Order of the Temple. As a reward, King Afonso granted the ruling of the region to Gualdim Pais, a Templar knight. It was Gualdim Pais that in 1160 started the building of the famous Convent of Christ, which combines a religious structure with a fortification. It was the role of the Templars to defend the region from the attacks of the Moors coming from the South. With time, the Order grew in stature, and Tomar was chosen as its headquarters.

From Dornes to Tomar is a short drive. Upon approaching the city, it is possible to see the convent on the top of the hill, appreciating its defensive position. It is an important monument, classified as a World Heritage site. Its construction spanned many years, between the centuries XII and XVIII. The complex includes various structures, all of significant historical and heritage importance. The core of the whole complex is the Charola Templaria, a rare example of a circular temple, that was used by the Knights as a praying location, or inner sanctum. It is quite impressive to enter the Charola and admire all the works of art and the symbology that fills the place. The central part of the temple is organized according to an octagonal plan, surrounded by a corridor that has 16 faces. Walking around the room, it is possible to admire the many paintings and sculptures that depict episodes from the life of Jesus.

Exterior of the Convent of Christ, with the circular Charola at the end.
Entrance to the Charola.
Inside the Charola, the inner sanctum of the Templars.
Paintings depicting the life of Jesus.

One other important monument is the Manueline church, built between 1510 and 1513. This church was literally erected against the western facade of the Charola, and features one of the highlights of the visit, the famous Manueline Window. The Manueline architectural style appeared during the age of the Portuguese Discoveries, and its name comes from King Manuel I. The window combines various motifs, from religious to maritime ones; it has been described as a “poem written in stone”.

Manueline church, adjacent to the Charola.
Manueline window.

The window is quite impressive in its artistic expression, and I spend some time photographing some of the details.

Detail from the top.
Another detail of the window.
Detail of the stone ropes.

There are many more places and structures to visit in the complex, such as several cloisters and the cistern.

One of the cloisters.
The cistern.

The day had started in Dornes, with a very cold and foggy morning near the river Zêzere, plus a nice walk along a trail. Visiting the Convent of Christ was a great way to finish a very full day in the land of the Templars.

The land of the Templars – part 1

Recently I have visited the region between the city of Tomar and the village of Dornes, in the central part of Portugal. The plan was to visit some of the famous monuments of the area, namely the ones dating back to the period of the Templars, that is, the 12th century. I also wanted to walk the trail around Dornes, the small medieval village that lies on the bank of the river Zêzere. The area is shown in the figure below.

Location of major landmarks in the area. Trail indicated by the blue line.

The very old Order of the Temple was established in Portugal around 1126, a few years before the country’s independence in 1143. At the time, the knights had a significant role helping the first Portuguese King, Afonso Henriques, fighting against the Moors and expanding the territory towards the south. While the Order was extinguished by pope Clement V in 1307, in Portugal King Diniz transformed it into the Order of Christ in 1319, thus maintaining its patrimony. This important decision allowed the Order to establish its headquarters in Tomar, where they built the famous Convent of Christ. The nearby Tower of Dornes is also an interesting structure. I have decided to split this essay into two parts, the first one dedicated to Dornes, and the second one to Tomar.

The village of Dornes lies near the river Zêzere, about 2 hours drive to the northeast of Lisbon. I arrived early in the morning of 30th December, with the area covered by a freezing fog, and no soul in sight. No doubt, Covid and the cold were keeping everybody home. This is a mountainous region, characterized by forests and deep valleys. A large fire affected the area in 2017, and some of the effects are still visible when walking along the trail. Dornes has a very old history, dating back to Roman times, when the first fortification was built to protect the gold mining from the river. It also played an important role in the Christian reconquering of Portugal, when the Templar Knight Gualdim Pais decided to build the strong structure that we still see today.

Walking along the deserted streets, with the morning fog obscuring the river, it is not difficult to be transported 800 years back. The tower itself is unique due to its pentagonal plan. After a short walk near the river to admire the view, it was time to start the trail, which is indicated as PRZ1. Since it is a circular route, it really does not matter which direction to go, so I decided to do the trail counterclockwise. The first part is along the road leaving Dornes, but soon the path starts to climb the neighboring mountains. It is possible to spot the sunshine above the fog, and as the morning passes the fog starts to lift. Given the recent heavy rains, the forest is dripping with water, and green predominates.

Cold morning in Dornes.
Fog over the river Zêzere.
Branching out.
Small flower.

After a while the trail becomes more difficult, as it is clear that its maintenance has been overlooked. The path is covered with a lot of overgrowth, burnt tree stumps, and several signposts are missing at critical junctions. However, as the fog lifts, the views towards the village and the mountains are very nice and compensate for the extra challenge.

The fog lifts.

The trail keeps winding around and over the mountains and forests, until it arrives at a nice viewpoint over Dornes. From here, it is possible to appreciate its strategic location near the river. It is a beautiful view.

View of Dornes from higher up on the trail.
Dornes.

Returning to the village, I spent some time making some extra photos near the river, playing around with the reflections of the trees on the water.

Reflection.
Tower of Dornes.

In terms of photo equipment, I used my usual Fujifilm kit, consisting of a couple of cameras and lenses: one 24mm wide angle, one 90mm telephoto. This was flexible enough to allow different framing, according to the scenery.

Another trail in the Odemira region of Alentejo, Portugal

With the ongoing Covid – 19 situation, and the concurrent confinements, I am lucky enough to still be able to go out occasionally and walk along some of the many trails near Odemira. These trails are part of the Rota Vicentina network, and over the past couple of years I have walked several of them and have written about the experience here in the blog.

In 2020 I had planned to explore the trails a bit further, in other municipalities of the southwest coast; unfortunately, the restrictions have curtailed the plan, so I have been circunscribed to the municipality of Odemira, where I have a house. Thus, it is still possible to travel and drive inside the municipality’s boundaries. As a result, I have been repeating several walks that I did in 2019, and this time I want to write about the trail around the village of São Martinho das Amoreiras. The first time I did this trail I wrote about it here:

When revisiting a familiar place it is difficult not to take photos from the same spots and of the same subjects. This second time doing the trail, the weather was far from being sunny, like in the first time. Early December, the weather forecast included heavy showers, which could provide a different feel and experience in the areas we were going to cross. The landscape is dominated by gently rolling hills and rural farms and small villages. There are green pastures and fruit orchards, that provide for the local economy.

Of particular relevance are the Arbutus (medronho), olive oil, and honey. The Arbutus is particularly attractive this time of the year, as the small trees are blooming and have plenty of the red fruits. Unfortunately, there are many abandoned and ruined farm houses along the way; as the older people pass away, there are no young ones to follow up this rural lifestyle.

Abandoned farm along the trail.
Fields and clouds.
Green and blue.

Approaching rain.

Given the large amount of recent rain, the landscape was different from one year ago, and there were more animals grazing in the field. Everything looked fresher, which was nice, following very dry Spring and Summer periods.

Grazing.
Close by.
Bird.
Food stock.

After lunch (quick picnic), the weather really closed in, with lots of rain. We decided to cut the walk short, after 9 km (of a total 13 km), because these interior roads are not very safe under such conditions, especially in the dark. While resting a little bit in São Martinho, I noticed some nice Autumn colours in the trees, and took a few shots.

Autumn colours.
Autumn colours.

On the way back the rain stopped, allowing us to enjoy the leisurely drive through a winding road that provided excellent spots from which to photograph the countryside.

Arbutus.
Along the road.
Farm house.

For this walk I used Fuji X-T3 and X-H1 cameras, fitted with the Fujinon 16mm f/1.4 and 90mm f/2 lenses. These were more than adequate to get the shots I found along the way. Light conditions for photography were changing quickly, with alternating dark and light patches on the landscape. Contrejour was common, and I exposed to preserve the highlights. Shooting RAW was a safeguard against such challenge, ensuring files were maleable enough to obtain a good result.

A trip to Northeast Portugal – part 3

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 here:

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.

Road map between VNFC and FEC.

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.

Almendra – old manor house.
Almendra – church.

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.

Castelo Rodrigo.

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.

Castelo Rodrigo – defamed coat of arms.

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.

Almofala roman tower.

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 begins.

Barca de Alva – a nice viewpoint before the road descends into the Douro valley. This is a 13 shot panorama.
Barca de Alva – another panorama.

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.

View from the road over the Douro river. Border with Spain.
View over the Douro river from Penedo Durão.

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 visit.

Freixo de Espada a Cinta – main square with church and castle.
Freixo de Espada a Cinta – onion basket.

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.

Congida fluvial beach. Panorama of 16 shots of the Douro river.
Star trail.
Night photo.

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.

Congida before dawn.
Congida before dawn.
Congida before dawn.

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.

Between VNFC and Peso da Régua. Route 222 follows the Unesco World Heritage site, for the Douro wine country landscape.
Douro valley near Peso da Régua.

A trip to Northeast Portugal – part 2

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:

https://arte-coa.pt/en/visit/

Location map of the rock art sites.

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.

Before sunrise.
Before sunrise.
Almond blossoms.
Almond blossoms.
Museum building.
Fog over the river Côa valley.
Fog over the river Côa valley.

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.

Côa river near Ribeira de Piscos.
Ribeira de Piscos rock art.

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.

Castelo Melhor – castle at top of the hill.
Castelo Melhor.
Castelo Melhor.
Castelo Melhor.
Castelo Melhor seen from afar.

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.

Erva Moira – Côa valley and wine country.
Côa river at Penascosa.

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.

Penascosa rock art.
Penascosa rock art.
Penascosa rock art – 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 trip to Northeast Portugal – part 1

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 site.

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.

The entire trip.

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.

Belmonte – castle.
Belmonte – general view.

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.

Location of Marialva.

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.

Marialva – view from the road.
Marialva – pillory square.
Marialva – castle.
Marialva – old friends.

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.

VNFC – looking North.
VNFC – pillory and town hall.
VNFC – church.
VNFC – almond blossoms.

Cante ao Baldão – Odemira

Since a few years ago, the township of Odemira, in the southwest of Alentejo, has organized a series of cultural events called “Sonoridades & Sabores”, which can be translated as “Sounds & Flavours”. These events occur every couple of weeks between November and January, each time in a different parish. The idea is to preserve the local culture, in this instance a decades – old traditional way of singing. A few days ago I attended the event in the Reliquias parish, in a café of the small village of Ribeira do Salto.

The programme included “cante ao baldão”, an old and traditional way of singing “ao despique”, where several “cantadores” or “singers” challenge each other around a table, improvising and often replying to previous “provocations”. The singers are local people that come from the various neighbouring parishes, and have known each other for many years. “Baldão” means without any rules, so once the first singer starts, the others will follow, normally rising to the challenge. These tend to include personal stories, talking about honour, money, earth, water, hardships of rural life; in the end, they sing about life in this land that hugs the Southwest Alentejo and Algarve Sierras.

The group of “cantadores”, is accompanied by a musician that plays the “viola campaniça”, a musical instrument that is a regional example of the Portuguese guitar. In Odemira and nearby townships, the first historical record dates from 1916. This is also known as “viola alentejana” and is the largest of the Portuguese guitars. The same music – “moda marianita” – is played constantly during the event. The first singer will start the “story”, and after him, each one will continue, sometimes for hours. There are no breaks, and soon the group finds its own pace, while the player keeps adding the musical tones from the wire strings.

The “cante” is complemented by some typical local food and wine, fostering a feeling of familiarity between the singers and the assistance. The fare draws from local products, such as cold cuts, olives, and cheese. It truly is a special occasion, that brings the community together around the table, sharing stories, eating, and drinking. It is important that such heritage is not lost, as most of the singers are old men; I was happy to see that one of them was a teenager. Hopefully, these traditions will be preserved for the future.

It was the first time I have attended such an event, but I had a rough idea of what to expect, from published descriptions. This has helped when selecting what photo gear to bring with me. In order not to be conspicuous – the room in the local restaurant was small and packed – I only took my little Fujifilm X100F. This was the perfect choice for this occasion, as the camera is silent and has a fast-wide angle lens. I was standing halfway down the room, so I had a good view of the singers. I made a lot of photos, sometimes standing, other times just keeling in the cramped space between the chairs and the wall.

During the rest of the day, I also took photos of the local people, which are very friendly and welcoming. The older folk were proud that their traditions still lived on and were being passed to the new generation. I felt privileged to be able to attend such an occasion and look forward to participating in future ones. Below I point to a couple of links that have some historical background and references for this tradition. I also include a link with a short video taken with my phone.

https://www.facebook.com/1825621627/videos/10212846908087253/?id=1825621627

http://www.pedromestre.com.pt/v1/index.php/pt/gifts-2/viola-campanica

Location map of Ribeira do Salto. Other reference villages are indicated by the arrows.
The venue of the event.
A local farm.
Old friends.
Smiling with Tobias, the little dog.
Local crowd.
Viola Campaniça.
Getting ready.
Starting.
Cantador.
Younger generation.
His turn.
Going around.
Listening.
Feeling.
Dry throats after 2 and a half hours.
Night comes.

Odemira remembers Amália Rodrigues

It is probably not very well known, but Amália Rodrigues (1920 – 1999), the greatest name in Portuguese Fado, had a small house in the coastal village of Brejão, Odemira municipality, in the Alentejo coast. In the 1960’s, when Amália was already famous, she visited this part of the country searching for a place that would offer her some tranquillity, away from the limelight. The story goes that she stopped her green and golden convertible car in the quaint village of Brejão, which is located a couple of km from the coast. She entered the local café enquiring about properties for sale. The café owner happened to have one for sale close by near the beach of Seiceira. After visiting the place, she fell in love with the beautiful and secluded small beach and bought the land.

During the following years, she built a house near the edge of the cliff, overlooking the beach. It took longer than normal, but then one must remember that back then, public networks for commodities like electricity and water were not available. For many years, this house was her refuge, a place where she and her husband could rest. She is also well remembered in Brejão, where she made many friends in the local population. Today, the house and surrounding property belong to the Amália Rodrigues Foundation, and are part of a Rural Housing Tourism unit.

To celebrate her 100th birthday anniversary, a series of initiatives were recently kicked-off in the municipality and will last for several months. One such initiative was an open house day on October 12th for the public to visit the house and have a glimpse of the artist’s life. The house holds several mementos of Amália, including paintings and photos, but the simplicity of the décor is striking. I made a few photos, as they were permitted. However, the real asset is indeed the quietness and tranquillity of the location; the only sounds are the ones carried by the wind, such as bird songs and the waves from the beach. The day ended with a Mass celebrated in the garden, with the participation of Fado singer Ana Valadas. It was truly a unique experience, listening to Fado in such a beautiful surrounding.

I also had the chance to visit the beach, which today is called “Amália’s beach”, of course. Nested between the cliffs, a small stretch of golden sands is bathed by the incoming waves of a deep blue sea. No wonder that Amália chose this place as her personal refuge. The weather this day was wonderful, with a balmy early Autumn Sun, and some wispy clouds. Unfortunately, the day was ending, but for those with more time, this beach lies along one stage (between Cabo Sardão and Zambujeira do Mar) of the Rota Vicentina, a series of walking trails totalling some 180 km along this Natural Reserve of Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast.

I still had the opportunity to walk a little bit around the area, scouting for future visits. I made a few photos of the beach and cliffs, and at the end of the day I simply enjoyed the sunset. Which, in this part of Alentejo, never disappoints.

Amália's house
Amália’s house

Amália's house
Amália’s house

Amália's house
Amália’s house

Amália's house
Amália’s house

Amália's house
Amália’s house

Painting detail
Painting detail

Painting detail
Painting detail

With César, her husband
With César, her husband

Some portraits
Some portraits

Small adjoining house
Small adjoining house

Open air mass
Open air mass

Fado singer Ana Valadas
Fado singer Ana Valadas

Way to the beach
Way to the beach

The beach
The beach

The beach
The beach

Map  - red circle indicates location of house and beach.
Map – red circle indicates location of house and beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day in Constância with the Fujifilm X100F

During the summer months in Portugal, a good alternative to avoid the crowded beaches on the coast is to head out to the interior. In recent years, the popularity of fluvial beaches in the interior of the country has increased, as they offer a nice experience to those that look for the quietness of a rural setting. Far from the busy coastal beaches, it is possible to combine a visit to a historical village with a cool swim to mitigate against the summer heat.

One of such places is the village of Constância, that I have visited recently with my family, simply to spend a nice and quiet day surrounded by nature. This village is in the Central area of Portugal, and sits atop a small peninsula, nested between the rivers Zêzere and Tejo. Constância is rich in historical and cultural heritage – the first Iberian inhabitants have settled here, followed by Romans, Visigoths and Arabs. One of the greatest Portuguese poets, Luís de Camões, author of the Lusiadas, has lived here between 1547 and 1550. In more recent times, the metal bridge over the Zêzere was designed by Gustav Eiffel, of Parisian fame.

The fluvial beach is a nice spot to spend the day, swimming in the clear and fresh waters of the river or resting in its forested green margins. Before leaving, we decided to stroll around the village in the late afternoon. The village has many points of interest, from its pelourinho to several medieval churches and chapels. Consequently, there are many interesting details to notice and photograph, wandering around the narrow streets. It is well worth it to walk up the village until the top of the hill, from where a broad view of the Tejo river opens to the east.

For this day trip I only carried the small Fujifilm X100F camera, the perfect tool for such occasions. It was entirely suitable to take a few obligatory family snaps, plus the required documentary shots. I also quite like the Acros B&W film simulation, which I have applied during RAW conversion. I think it suited the historical feel of the place nicely.

River Zêzere
River Zêzere

Constância
Constância

Constância
Constância

Constância
Constância

Constância - church
Constância – church

Constância
Constância

Constância
Constância

Constância
Constância

Location map
Location map