Between Moons in the southwest

Every landscape photographer knows that one of the best times to include the Moon in landscape photos is one day before the full Moon. On that day, the Moon rises around the same time as the Sun sets; this results in a nice light balance during golden to blue hour transition, because as our satellite rises, the landscape is still illuminated by the fading light of the sunset. As a bonus, the following morning the Moon will set around sunrise time, again providing an excellent opportunity for a good light balance. On the day of the actual full Moon, it rises after sunset, which means the landscape will be darker.

During my recent vacation time in the southwest coast of Alentejo, Portugal, I had the opportunity to photograph during the full Moon, so I made plans to choose a nice setting for such. Being familiar with the area, I chose to photograph the Moon rise in Odemira, and the Moon set in Milfontes. In Odemira I set up near the local windmill, which in itself is an interesting subject. By being located in an elevated area, I would see the Moon rising over the surrounding hills. Then, in the ensuing morning I would go to Milfontes to photograph the Moon setting over the river Mira estuary. I have already shared some photos taken during such sessions in my previous essay.

All the best plans can be laid to waste if weather does not cooperate. Fortunately, I was lucky, as the weather cooperated. I drove to Odemira about one hour before sunset, to take some photos of this nice village. The winding road twists and turns as it descends towards the Mira valley, with some good view points along the way.

Odemira windmill
Odemira windmill

I spent several minutes photographing the windmill and the village during the sunset. It is a nice spot that affords a 360 degree view, from the village proper to the rising heights towards the South, that culminate in the Monchique mountain at 900m of altitude.

Odemira dusk
Odemira windmill – the wind blows through the cones
Looking South, with the Monchique mountain in the background

Once I saw the Moon rising over the hills in the East, I started photographing it, with the camera firmly mounted on the tripod. I was glad to have a telephoto zoom with me, to provide compositional flexibility from my fixed location. Light levels go down very quickly, so keeping an eye on the exposure histogram is very important. Also relevant is to avoid exposure times that would blur the Moon, which actually moves quickly in the viewfinder!

Moon rise – first peak
Moon rise

During this period, I kept an eye on what was happening behind me, as dusk was coming over the village. I made some interesting photos of the windmill and the day-to-night transition.

Transition
Moon rise

After this good photo session, I called it a day and drove back home for dinner. Next step: wake up before sunrise to photograph the Moon setting in Milfontes. The following morning the coastal area was partially covered in fog. I wanted to photograph from the bridge over the river, as it provides an excellent view of the estuary and the village. Fortunately, the area over the river was not completely covered in fog, and the setting Moon was visible. I set up my camera on the tripod in record time, and started to shoot.

Milfontes Moon set
Milfontes Moon set
Milfontes Moon set

Towards the East, the river was still under the foggy shade of the mountains, enhancing the quietness of the place at this early hour.

Dawn coming
Dawn over the river

After such a good outing, I returned home for a well deserved breakfast. No matter how many times I photograph in this region, I never get tired of it. There is always something new, due to the changing light and the time of the year. Following the Moon in about a 12 hour period was a great way of showing the character of this singular region, from the interior to the coast.

Interior waters of Odemira

I am writing this short essay as a follow-up to my latest post “Rural summer dawn”. In the latter I wrote about a simple morning walk near my house to photograph the surrounding landscape covered in fog. Fog can add interest to a familar area, which was the case. However, it can also last for a while, which is not good if you want to go to the beach.

Being familiar with the local weather conditions, namely that coastal fog can last for a whole day, I suggested to the family a trip to the interior, to visit two fluvial beaches: Santa Clara a Velha and Pego das Pias. I also wrote about those two places before:

https://blog.paulobizarro.com/?m=201911

So, after preparing a picnic lunch, we drove to the first place, the 50 year old dam of Santa Clara a Velha, in the river Mira. Sure enough, a few kilometres into the interior, the fog was gone and we were greeted by bright sunshine. The large lake of Santa Clara is a wonderful and refreshing place to spend the day, and that is what we did. I made a few photos, none memorable, but I do like this one where I used the polarizer to enhance the vivid colours of the sky and water.

Santa Clara a Velha dam

In the middle of the afternoon we drove the short distance to Pego das Pias pools, another nice location for a swim. The Pego das Pias is a geomorphological feature carved over thousands of years by the Torgal creek, a tributary of the Mira river. The water has created a narrow gap in the hard rocks, much like a canyon. In the summer, the water level is low, but the evidences of flash floods are conspicuous.

Pego das Pias pools

The location is very scenic, with the quiet pools surrounded by the rocky canyon and many trees that provide plenty of shade. Several large blocks can be seen along the creek, reminders of the force of the water under flash flood conditions. I trekked along the margin upstream, to explore the area a bit more. The views from above are worth the effort, with plenty of green ferns and the famous “pias” – circular smooth depressions carved by the eroding waters.

Pego das Pias pools looking downstream
Water and ferns
Ferns
Dry creek bed
Boulders

Thanks to the coastal fog, we visited these two wonderful and quiet locations, which I can highly recommend. I look forward to coming to Pego das Pias after some heavy rainfall, it should be interesting.

Rural summer dawn

With the current ongoing pandemic, it is challenging and difficult to make any plans regarding travel or holidays, due to limitations, restrictions, and uncertainties. Thankfully, I often have the chance of taking some days off in my small house in Longueira, in the Alentejo coast. This is a region that I like very much, far away from the crowds; this year even during the Summer it is quieter than usual, due to the lack of foreign tourists.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a weekend there with the family, simply resting and going to the beach, enjoying some quality time. Of course I always take my photo backpack, ready for unplanned opportunities. This essay is about such an opportunity, that presented itself, and that I took advantage of.

One morning I noticed that there was a lot of fog over the area. This was just before sunrise, so I grabbed the camera and lens and went out just to see if I could make some interesting shots. This is a coastal region, and foggy mornings are somewhat common. I went out and walked around a nearby ruined house, which was surrounded by a herd of sheep. I noticed the soft light from the rising Sun, the dew drops on spider webs, and proceeded to make a few photos.

Ruined house
Sheep at dawn
Sheep at dawn

I continued to explore the area, and noticed some nice flowers and spider webs covered in dew. Thanks to the tilting screen of the camera, I was able to frame the subjects easily, from low on the ground.

Web sun rise
Web
Flower

After a while, the countryside was bathed by the sunlight, and the fog started to lift.

The day begins

I started to walk back home, but made one more stop, to photograph the well preserved windmill. I was attracted by the typical blue that is used in the Alentejo province, contrasting with the white. The red rooster at the top was a nice finishing touch. I also noticed a classic cardinal point indicator atop one of the houses and took a photo of its silhouette.

Typical cardinal point indicator
Windmill

This was no doubt a great start to this day. Later on, I would be taking the family to Santa a Clara a Velha dam and Pego das Pias fluvial pools, but that is a subject for another essay.

A simple morning walk

The ongoing 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 Sardao.

Lighthouse

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.

Into the ocean
First hint of sunrise
Cliffs
Here comes the sun

The morning 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.

In the distance

I stayed there until after sunrise, simply enjoying Nature, and returned home for a well-deserved breakfast.

Path
Flowers

Post confinement

Under the 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.

In early 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 article:

After 2 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.

Of course, 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 to deconfine.

Wind patterns in sand
Over the cliffs
Sea stacks

After some 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.

Natural flow
Resilience
Erosion

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.

On the edge
Spring in the dunes
Spring in the dunes
Small flower
Small flower
Clinging
Small flower
Tidal flow
Dune flowers
Cabo Sardao lighthouse

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.

Brejo Largo beach, SW Portugal, with the Fuji XH-1 and 16-55 f/2.8 lens

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.

Brejo Largo beach – volcanic dike
Brejo Largo beach – looking South
Brejo Largo beach – mellow light at sunset
Brejo Largo beach – cliffs
Brejo Largo beach – cliffs
Brejo Largo beach – wind blown
Brejo Largo beach – sunset
Brejo Largo beach – after sunset
On the way back – Moon over fields
Fields, fog, and horse
Fences and fog
Christmas decorations – Longueira