Dawn in Almograve with the Fujifilm X100V

You can tell from my recent posts that I have been using this camera a lot. From occasional and general type of shooting to trekking, this camera is a powerful photographic tool. Today, I want to share another experience, this time using the camera for landscape photography in the southwest coast of Alentejo, Portugal. More precisely, during dawn in Almograve beach.

My wife thinks I am crazy, but I like to wake up before dawn to catch the best light on the landscape. Or, in this instance, the seascape. This time, I simply grabbed my tripod and X100V and went off to the nearby beach of Almograve. Arriving in the dark, I set up the camera and tripod and started experimenting with long exposures. I often use a Lee Big Stopper ND filter, but this time I wanted to try the in-camera 4 stop ND filter and see what type of images I would get. The previous version of the camera had a 3 stop ND filter; 1 stop more ends up making a significant difference for this application of long exposure photography.

Below are some examples of the long exposures I was able to shoot, some of them up to 4 minutes long.

Dawn in Almograve beach.
Rock.
Passage.
Moon and rocks at dawn, Almograve.

As you can see, the soft light of pre-dawn was wonderful, with changing pink and purple hues in the sky. The longer exposures also imparted the sea with an ethereal quality.

Rock and Moon.

In closing, I can say that the images look great, and the new 4 stop in-camera ND filter opens up a lot of possibilities for long exposure photography.

On the trail with the Fujifilm X100V

As promised, what follows is a brief write-up of my experience using this camera on one of the Rota Vicentina trails. This is a network of many walking trails that exists in southwest Portugal, with a total of around 750km. The one I am writing about today is one I have previously done in December 2019 (details in the link below).

https://blog.paulobizarro.com/?m=201912

My wife and I enjoyed this trek so much last year, that this year we decided to do it again. With the Covid-19 pandemic still ongoing, we take any opportunity we can to go out and enjoy Nature in this region. So this year, in the beginning of October, we went again for this hike, which provides some great views from the top of the hills, plus some wonderful contact with local farmlands and old ways of rural life.

The weather was wonderful, with plenty of sunshine and puffy white clouds. This time, I only took the little Fuji X100V, tucked away in a small shoulder bag, with a spare battery and polarizer filter. Last year I went with more gear (2 cameras and 2 lenses), so this time around I wanted to see what different types of photos I would come back with. With a 23mm lens on APSC format, the X100V is an excellent camera for occasional shooting, be it landscapes, reportage, or documenting.

This trek is notorious for the very old cork oak trees that can be found along the way. I had some fun time playing around with various compositions and using the polarizer to enhance colours, sky, and clouds. I also tried a few black and white versions from the Raw files.

Old farm house and cork oak tree.
Cork oak tree.
Cork oak tree.
Cork oak tree in black and white.

The well know Arbutus trees are starting to bear fruits which, when ripe, are delicious. They are important for the local economy, as a source for the famous spirited medronho aguardente.

Arbutus tree on the trail.

About half way along the trek, the road climbs towards the top of a hill, where the tiny chapel of Nossa Senhora das Neves can be found. This is a wonderful place to have some rest and enjoy the 360 degrees scenic views.

Panorama view from atop the mountain. Near Our Lady of Snow chapel.
Chapel in the distance.

It is also a very good spot to have a picnic lunch. After this, the rest of the trail winds up and down the hills, before descending to the valley. I ended up using the polarizer a lot and liked the results.

Distant view.
Crossing ways.
Man and cork oak tree along the trail.
Fields.
Door and cloud.

I was quite happy with the images I made, and again confirmed that the X100V is a powerful little companion for such occasions. I will keep using it a lot on the trail.

Sunset walk with the Fujifilm X100V

I recently wrote about the latest iteration of the X100 series of cameras in the article below.

I have been using the camera whenever the opportunity arises, in short walks, or even on long trails. One of these recent short walks in the beach near my house, Carcavelos. Since June I have been working under a mixed regime, one week in the office, one week at home. Thanks SARS-COV-2… anyway, one of these afternoons, after work, I went for a sunset stroll on the beach. The little Fuji X100V is a perfect companion for such occasions, so I took it along.

The weather forecast included some rain showers and clouds, courtesy of storm Alex, so things were looking promising in terms of potential photographic interest. Looking through the window, there were indeed some clouds, but also occasional sunshine. Upon arriving at the beach, the weather was great, with golden light that with time turned to the typical post-sunset blue hour. I simply walked along the surf, making some photos here and there.

Golden beach.
The loner.
Sand, sea, and sky.

There were several surf schools operating at the time, and they always signal their position with flags. One of the attractions of the X100V is the fast f/2.0 lens, so I tried a close shot of one flag with the lens wide open, so the background would melt away. It’s nice to have these options in a small camera. This camera is small but quite responsive, so this type of unplanned photography on the go is easy to do. The fact that the X100V looks like some old film camera also helps in being unobstrusive when among people.

Surf school.

I stayed in the beach until after sunset, as the sky started to show magnificent colours. I did not have a tripod with me, so I had to raise the ISO more than I am used to, but even so, the quality of the RAW files was quite good. At the end of the day, it was an enjoyable and relaxing walk, and I was able to make some interesting photos with this nice Fujifilm camera.

Gone for the day.
Trio.

Next time I will write about my experience with it when hiking on a trail along the Vicentina route in southwest Portugal.

A morning walk with the Fujinon XF 90mm f/2 lens

When considering the subject of “landscape lenses”, normally the consensus converges towards lenses with a wide angle of view, that is, below the typical 50mm standard lens. Of course, such lenses are very useful for providing “depth” (foreground to background relationship) and including the grand vistas often associated with landscape photography.

But many interesting landscape photos can be made with normal and telephoto lenses. The latter can provide a very different photo, by isolating or drawing the attention of the viewer to a particular detail in the scene. This article provides some examples that I made during a short early morning walk in Carcavelos beach, near my house. It is a location I visit many times, which poses the challenge of trying to obtain different photos from the ones I took before.

I used the Fujinon XF 90mm f/2 lens, which is labeled as a portrait lens. On this occasion, I wanted to see what type of photos I could make on the beach, looking around for interesting subjects. There is a large fort on the eastern end of the beach, and normally there are many surfers that arrive very early. So I simply mounted the lens on the camera, grabbed the tripod, and went out.

The first shots I took were simply playing around with the shape of the lens’ aperture: rounded wide open, polygonal stopped down.

Dream
Dream – 2

As expected, there were already many surfers in the water, plus some others doing their warm up. I made a few shots of them, using long exposures to capture the ambiance.

Warm up

The next photos show the fort in the distance, and the pontoon up close. The tighter angle of view from the lens provides a different result from using a wider angle lens.

The light
Into the blue

I had a great time simply walking along the beach, enjoying the pre-dawn light, the changing colours, and the breaking waves.

Apparition
Vigilant
Wave
Wave – 2
Wave – 3
Into the water

As for the lens itself, it is no surprise that it delivers excellent results, and it is another high quality tool in my landscape kit. Delivers sharpness, great colour, and contrast.

Fujifilm X100V – initial photos

I have just returned from a few days of vacation in southwest Alentejo, during which I had the opportunity to use a friend’s Fujifilm X100V camera. This is the fifth generation of an iconic camera, and it introduces two major changes to previous models: a redesigned lens (to improve the performance at close focus distances, while wide open) and an upwards tilting screen. At least, these are the major modifications that have made me curious to try the camera. Oh, and of course the camera now is weather resistant, provided you add the adapter plus filter set.

The camera maintains the overall nice retro design from past iterations, and feels robust in use, which are both good things. I made several photo sessions during my days off in the region, including Odemira, Milfontes, Almograve, and Longueira. I tested the close focus performance, which is indeed very good, but to be honest this is something I have never used much with previous versions. What is very nice to have is the tilting screen, which facilitates low angle shots significantly; it is something I am used to in my other cameras, so I am glad it was added.

My first shots were taken during a short walk at the end of the evening near the village of Longueira: rural scenes, an old tractor, and the local windmill were used as test subjects.

Tractor
Tractor wheel close up – excellent performance and gradual fall off in the background

Fuji have also updated the ND filter to 4 stops, which may come in handy in some instances. I had to engage it for the shot below, as shooting against the light easily surpassed the camera’s top shutter speed.

Windmill close up, shot at f/2 with ND filter engaged

During the following days I had occasion of making more close up photos of several subjects, and they all came out very good. Seems like the new lens is indeed more capable in this type of situation.

Old wall close up
Grass close up at f/4

I also used the camera during a session dedicated to photograph the Moon rise and Moon set in Odemira and Milfontes, respectively. One day before the Full Moon, our satellite rises around sunset time; the following morning it sets close to sunrise time. This is a very good chance to make some interesting photos. In Odemira I walked up one of the hills to set up near the local windmill, but I made a quick diversion to photograph an old abandoned farm house.

Ruined house in Odemira, B&W conversion
Rusty bucket, Odemira
Windmill in Odemira
Windmill in Odemira

Wind blowers against sunset

As soon as the Moon started to rise behind the distant hills, I was busy making several photos of the surrounding landscape.

Moon rise in Odemira
Odemira dusk
Moon rise in Odemira

The little camera worked flawlessly and without skipping a beat. The following morning I woke up very early to drive to Milfontes to photograph the Moon setting over the Mira estuary. This is such a beautiful and peaceful location, I never get tired of returning to it.

Mira dawn and Moon set
Mira dawn

During the following days I have continued to use the camera as a documenting companion to my holidays. I took more photos in Almograve and Cabo Sardão.

Flag and waves, Almograve beach
Strolling, Cabo Sardão
Going home, Cabo Sardão

This was an excellent chance to try this new camera, which looks to me as a good upgrade from previous versions: the tilting screen is important to me, and the new lens performance at close up is good to have as well. Overall, the new X100V is a very worthy successor in a line of cameras that has helped establish Fujifilm’s reputation in the digital imaging age.

Panoramas by the sea

During a recent weekend trip to the southwest Portuguese coast, I had the chance to photograph in the Cabo Sardão area. This is one of my often photographed locations, so it is a challenge to come out with something new, or a different approach. In this occasion, I have planned to tackle two different obiectives. The first one was to photograph the white stork species that lives in the area: this is a unique species of stork, because it nests in the coastal cliffs, and will be the subject for a future essay.

The second objective was to make a few panoramas by shooting a series of photos for later stitching in the computer. There are many sweeping coastal vistas in the area, and sometimes a wide angle lens is not wide enough to encompass the entire scene. For creating panoramas I have been using Panorama Factory, a software that does the job very well.

The first image is a set of 3 photos taken with my Fujinon 16mm f/1.4. The image shows the coast at low tide a short distance away from the Cabo Sardão lighthouse. The hour was close to sunset, so the scene was illuminated with golden light.

Low tide

Next is the classic view of the precipitous cliffs with the lighthouse in the top. This is an assemby of 6 photos, as above taken with the 16mm lens, spanning a large angle of view; larger than what would have been achievable with only a single shot from my wide angle lens.

Cabo Sardão lighthouse

For the third and final image I waited for the full Moon to rise beside the lighthouse. Again, it would have been difficult to get the image with a single shot. This is an assembly of 9 photos taken with the Fujinon 50-140mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom. I like the result because the lighthouse is also lit, as the Sun had just set behind me.

Moon rise

This was an excellent occasion to dust off my panorama abilities, but honestly, these days it is really easy to achieve good results with just a bit of care in the field. For these photos I used a tripod, but this was dictated by the low ISO and concurrent slow shutter speeds. The key concern is to have sufficient overlap between the successive shots, so the software can stitch them correctly.

Some photos made with the Fujinon XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro lens

Given the current health crisis and the need to stay home, I am taking this opportunity to write a bit about this Fujinon lens which I have been using for a little over a month now. I like to make some macro photos while hiking on trails, should the situation arise. Given it’s focal length, this lens is also suitable for portraits, and some landscape photos with a tighter field of view.

During my time with the lens, I already used it in my 4 day trip to Northeast Portugal, and in a couple of weekends in the Southwest coast (Longueira). As a macro lens, it only goes to 0.5x magnification, but that is why it is small. Other lenses that reach to 1x (or life size) magnification are larger. I do not mind this limitation, as for what I normally photograph (flowers, details, some insects), it is enough. Below are some examples.

Almond blossoms
Poppy
Approach

I also use the lens for landscapes, when I want to achieve a narrower angle of view, or isolate a particular element of the scenery. I show some examples in the ensuing photos.

Field in fog
Fog over river Côa valley
Fog over river Côa valley

Optically, the lens is superb, with plenty of sharpness even from wide open, nice bokeh, and the typical excellent Fujifilm colours and contrast. Here is one of my first shots with the lens, the obligatory cat shot.

Jonas the cat

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.