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.
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.
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.
It is nice to be able to visit the same location several times, be it within 1 year, or several years. In any case, there are many opportunities to record the seasonal effects in the landscape, together with the differences imparted by varying weather conditions. During Christmas and New Year, while taking several days off from work, I had the chance to (re)visit one of my favourite places – the beach of Brejo Largo, located only a few km North of the small village of Almograve.
It is possible to reach the beach by car, via a dirt road that starts a bit inland, in Longueira. However, since many years ago, my preferred way is to simply walk there, either from Longueira, or from Almograve. The first time I went to this beach was more than 30 years ago, with my brothers. Driven by “word of mouth” from some German tourists, we ventured from Longueira (our family Summer vacation spot) towards the coast, finding our way through rural paths, pastures with cows, and coastal sand dunes.
Today, the path has changed a bit, due to alterations in the land occupation, but it still retains the same characteristics as before. Some parts of it, especially near the coast, are signposted, as they belong to well established walking trails. You can actually make a nice circular trek of about 8 km, connecting Longueira, Brejo Largo, and Almograve. I never tire of walking in this area, appreciating the local tranquility and beauty. In this late December time, some of the fields still have unpicked sweet potato, but not many; no doubt they will be picked soon, as this is an important produce for the local economy. Other fields are used as pasture for cows and sheep, or planting corn.
In several isolated pine trees, it is possible to see nests with storks – gone are the days where these birds would migrate to Africa to spend the Winter time in fairer climates. There is even an unique species of stork that nests in the sea cliffs all year round. From Longueira to Brejo Largo the distance is around 4 km, an easy walk. After about 2 km you will pass the last group of houses, and the path will continue between a small pine tree forest. The terrain will also become sandy, as it enters the coastal sand dune system.
The sound of the sea and the waves is quite clear, brought by the wind. It is a sunny but cold December afternoon, with a clear and blue sky. I am thinking that such sky conditions will not be very interesting for photography, and will have to adjust accordingly: limit the sky area in the compositions, and make the best use of the side light. I am now hoping for some mellow light filtered by the sea spray, right at sunset time. We shall see.
Photographically speaking, I only took my Fujifilm XH-1 with the Fujinon 16-55 f/2.8 zoom lens, plus the tripod and Neutral Density filters for some long exposures. All in my small backpack, plus water and snacks. I have also packed another jacket, as I will be back only after nightfall, and I know the temperature will drop significantly by then. By now, after using this system for 1 year, I am so familiar with it, that it feels like second nature. Being weather resistant also helps to provide some degree of confidence when using it in the beach. There are lighter combinations in terms of camera and lens, but I really like this one: both camera and lens are robust, and perform really well. I am almost always in Aperture Priority mode, and low ISO, on the tripod.
When I arrived at the beach, the tide was rising, with the waves reaching almost to the bottom of the cliffs. Thus, I decided not to descend into the beach, and stayed at the top of the cliffs. Looking at the light conditions from the clear day, and with only about 1 hour until sunset, I had to work quickly. Being familiar with the area, and already with several framing ideas in my mind, i quickly entered into my shooting routine. I tested a few long exposures, and saw that the sea was giving nice results; in the northern part of the beach, there is a large geological dike intruding into the schist, which makes an interesting subject. This dike runs parallel to the coast, but unfortunately it was already covered by the incoming tide in the beach proper.
I made a few more shots looking south, and then quickly walked the rest of the way, to photograph the beach in the opposite direction. I was completely alone, with the exception of a couple of walkers that were doing the trail. In the summer, the place will be busier… Keeping an eye for the sunset, I noticed the light changing very quickly, becoming softer and more “golden”. I found interesting foregrounds along the cliff edges, including the typical low lying shrubs buffeted by the wind. It was an interesting colour combination composed of the dark rocks, the greens and goldens of the vegetation, and the hazy blues of the ocean and sky.
I remained on the beach until after sunset, and then slowly made my way back to Longueira. About half way through I saw a good possibility for a few more photos, as the Moon and Venus were already bright in the blue hour sky, and the fog was starting to cover the low lying parts of the landscape. There was a horse roaming about, which I managed to get into one of my photos. I arrived home well into night time, but it was well worth it. As a final bonus, the windmill in Longueira had its Christmas decorations on, so I took a photo of it, as a final frame for this session.
Today I want to share another trek I did recently along the Rota Vicentina, a network of 750 km of walking trails in the southwest of Portugal. This time around, near the end of the year, my wife and I walked the 12.5 km of the São Martinho das Amoreiras circular pedestrian route, which is one of the recent additions to the vast number of trails. Like the one described in the previous blog post (Nossa Senhora das Neves), this one is also located in the interior of Odemira municipality. Although they share some common traits – the typical hilly and green rural landscape, with scattered farmhouses – the Amoreiras trail allows visitors to see some of the best products of the region, such as bread, honey, arbutus, and olive oil.
This is a scarcely populated parish (around 1,000 inhabitants), so tranquility is never far away. Still, you will see resilient people, mostly old, that keep alive the traditional ways of living, working in forestry, farming, and livestock. More recently, rural tourism/guest houses have opened, managed by younger people, offering visitors with the possibility of experiencing the region, offering a combination of activities, such as horse riding, star gazing, and, of course, trekking.
The trail starts in the village, and is easy to follow, thanks to the various signposts. Near the beginning, you can admire the main church in São Martinho, built in the 18th century, built under the auspice of the Order of Santiago de Espada. . Walking along the narrow streets surrounded by the typical low and white washed houses is a nice way to start the trek. After leaving São Martinho, the path quickly follows rural dirt roads and ways . There are numerous small farms with grazing animals and fruit orchards, limited by stone walls and creeks. Several of the older farmhouses have been abandoned and are in ruins, but the fields are still tendered to. Depending on the season, you will be able to see many birds, including a very special bird of prey: the Bonelli’s eagle. There are plenty of trees also, with relevance to old specimens of pines, cork oaks, cedars, and eucalyptus.
For us, there were several highlights on the trail, such as the windmills on the top of the highest hills; these afford magnificent panoramic views of the landscape. They are also good choices for a picnic lunch stop. It is wonderful to spend the day walking leisurely along this trail, winding up and down the green hills, surrounded by nature and tranquility. It seems unreal that the busier coastal area is less than 1-hour drive from here. These interior routes allow the visitors to get in touch with a way of living and cultural traditions that are increasingly rare. They offer a different perspective about the region, where communities are more isolated; the economic activities are a complement to the coastal ones, where fishing (and tourism) prevails. People are friendly and easy going, with the local cafés and public gardens serving as meeting points to warm up under the winter sun.
Human occupation in the area dates back to pre-historic times; this is witnessed by the nearby prehistoric Pardieiro Necropolis, a funerary structure that is 2,500 years old (Iron Age). The site holds several tombs, and some stone slabs were recovered, bearing samples of the first form of alphabetic writing on the Iberian Peninsula.
At the end of the day, if you are driving back towards Odemira, along the twisting N123 road, you will cross several other small and picturesque villages and farms dotting the landscape. Make sure to stop along the way to make a few more photos. This was another great trek in the interior region of Odemira, highly recommended. The link is provided below, for all the necessary details. Needless to say, I took a lot of photos along the trail, a selection of which I am showing below.
A few days ago my wife and I had the opportunity to hike along a recently inaugurated trail in the Odemira municipality. This trail is part of the Rota Vicentina, a network of 750 km of pedestrian routes, that includes several circular paths. Such is the case of this new trail, labelled as NossaSenhora das Neves (Our Lady of Snow). For the logistical details, please visit the websites indicated at the end of the article.
This route of Nossa Senhora das Neves has a total length of 13 km, but there is the possibility of alternative and shorter distances, 8 km or 5 km. It crosses some of the most isolated and beautiful parts of this region, with a landscape that comprises fertile valleys and higher rocky hills. At the top of one of these hills, at around 200 m altitude, one can find the small chapel of Nossa Senhora das Neves, a quiet place that affords a 360-degree view of the surrounding area.
There are two recommended places to start the walk: one in the North near Ribeira do Seissal, and one on the South near Monte da Espada. I chose the latter because it is easier to reach via a municipal black top road that comes from the village of São Luis. Monte da Espada is a small and tranquil little village, really no more than several clustered houses and farms. From here, you will be walking in a northerly direction, along a dirt road. During the first kilometers, the road follows alongside agricultural fields, with abundant cork oak trees – some are very old and magnificent, attaining large sizes – fruit trees, and grazing cattle. This is the traditional combination that supports much of the local economy and population; unfortunately, it is being replaced by more intensive mono-culture of eucalyptus and pine trees, which provide a faster profit, but are also riskier in terms of preventing forest fires. Make sure you do not miss the well of Vale Figueira, on the right hand side of the path – it is part of several springs, tanks, and wells, that collect the water. In this well, you can read the verses written by the people to show their gratitude for such a gift of life.
In between the hills, lie fertile lands where rare plants can be found, such as the Centaurea vicentina, endemic to the region. All year round, many plants bloom in the fields. Winter is a good time to see two rare plants, the Portuguese heath (Erica lusitanica) and the tree heath (Erica arborea). After the recent rains, the land is green, and the weather was cooperative, with the sun peaking behind the persistent morning haze. The walking routes in the interior are less popular than the coastal ones, so we saw no other trekkers during the entire day. This results in a truly unique experience, with a complete communion with nature. The silence is only interrupted by bird song, the rustling of the wind in the trees, or by the cows and sheep.
After about 3 km, the path reaches Figueirinha, a place that is a rural tourism house. For those wanting a respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life, this is a perfect location to spend a few days exploring the region. We say hello to the owner, who was tending to the small orchard, and continue our walk. Reaching the northern end of trail, we turn right, and take a deep breath, before starting the steep climb towards the chapel. This can be seen from a distance, as it is perched on the top of a hill. After a few twists and turns, we reach the top, and stop for a well deserved rest. The small chapel is very simple, and next to it there is a wooden platform erected around a large tree, with a few shaded benches and tables. The legend says that the Virgin Mary once appeared on this hill, so the people built a little chapel at the bottom of it. However, one day the stones miraculously showed up at the top, so that is where the chapel ended up being finally built. There are also some older remains from what is likely a settlement from the Middle Ages. A special place no doubt.
After passing the chapel, the path turns southwards, winding up and down across successive hills, until it finally reaches a wonderful valley that is full of the famous Arbutus tree, or Medronheiro. The fruit of this tree has been used for a long time to make an alcoholic liqueur, or aguardente de medronho. Some local companies use it to make chocolate sweets filled with this famous aguardente. Between October and November, the trees are in bloom, but we found a lot of them already bearing the conspicuous orange and red fruits. I can assure you that it is also quite tasty simply picked from the trees.
After a restful picnic lunch, we continued our walk, now descending to a flatter terrain, again crossing small farms scattered along the valley. In this part of the trek, we came upon the largest mushrooms we have ever seen, some reaching 30 cm in diameter. By then, the weather was closing in on us, with some heavy clouds and light rain, but soon we saw Monte da Espada again, marking the end of our trek.
Of course, I took many photos along the way, some of which I am sharing here. I am starting to assemble a portfolio of the landscapes of Odemira’s interior, for a possible exhibit in 2020. But at the end of the day, I was quite happy to have discovered such a beautiful part of this region.
Going back to the same place as the seasons change can be rewarding and an interesting experience. In the last few years I have driven across this farmhouse many times, normally on my way to Santa Clara a Velha damn, near Odemira, in the Alentejo province of Portugal. The land inside this farm is cultivated for cattle feed and has some excellent examples of the typical cork oak tree dotting the landscape.
There are several interesting compositions and framings, but the one that has attracted me the most in this place is placing a tree in the foreground, and the house at the top of the hill in the background. The two can then be connected visually by the farmland in the middle, which makes for a natural link between them.
I have now photographed this place in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. This small project has happened subconsciously, and only recently have I realized that I had collected a seasonal portfolio of this location. What changes the most in the land, whilst the tree and the house remain as more fixed elements in the landscape. During Springtime, the land is lush with greenery and flowers, which wane and dry out in golden hues come the Summertime. During Autumn and Winter, the fields are cultivated again, thus initiating a new cycle.
I like how these changes mark the passage of time, while the old trees are almost like guardians of the land, witnessing the endless seasonal cycle of life. Seasons come and go, but some things never change, which is comforting. So, give it a try, and run your own small project like this one, documenting the seasonality of a landscape or other theme that attracts you. Results and images are bound to be interesting and rewarding.