First trail in 2021- Santa Clara-a-Velha, Odemira

As I described in my previous essay, I spent the second weekend of January in the village of Longueira, on the Alentejo coast. I had the opportunity to make my first trail of this year in the Santa Clara-a-Velha region, in the interior of Odemira municipality. One of the highlights of this area is the large dam that exists near the village, which was built more than 50 years ago. I wrote about it in a post from 2019:

This particular trail is number 13 in the list of circular paths that belong to the Rota Vicentina. The full details can be found in the respective website:

Location map. The trail is the one on the right hand side of the map.

Whilst revisiting my records, I actually found out that this was the first trail I did in the region, back in February 2018. Since then, I have walked many more of them, but I have a fond memory of this one. Thus, 3 years later, I found myself again in a very cold morning in Santa Clara-a-Velha. After having a hot coffee in the local café to warm up a little bit, I started the walk near the church. With the typical white and strong blue colours of the Alentejo, the church was built in the 16th century. It was open, so I went to inside to admire the religious golden woodwork.

Inside Santa Clara-a-Velha church.
Inside Santa Clara-a-Velha church.

This interior region is already isolated and scarcely populated. The local economy, based on agriculture, cattle, and some tourism, has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. Hopefully all this will go away soon and people can return to appreciate the tranquility and the beauty of the area. After leaving the church, the path is parallel to the Mira river, following its northern bank. Because of the dam, which is upstream, the water is really quiet. The previous night was very cold, with freezing temperatures; as a consequence, there is heavy frost on the ground, with plants covered in ice crystals. I make some interesting photos along the way.

River Mira in Santa Clara-a-Velha.
Down by the river.
Farm along the trail.
Frozen field.
Frosted leaves.
Frosted leaves.

The first interesting stop is near the medieval Dona Maria bridge. The structure is not complete today, but it is possible to admire two large remaining arches. Again, a nice stop to make some photographs of the scenery. Continuing along the trail, the next few kilometres are a leisurely walk that follows the valley, surrounded by hills and agricultural fields and farms. This is a pleasant walk, enjoying the sunshine to warm up. After a while, we reach the bottom of the dam, a near vertical wall of rock. This is the first steep climb of the trail, but at the top we are rewarded by the magnificent view of the great blue lake. For those that want to spend a few more days exploring the region, there is a nice hotel that overlooks the lake.

Medieval bridge.
Old water well.
Along the trail, with the hotel at the top.

I have seen this view many times before, but I am always impressed. Today, the strong blue colour of the sky and the water, surrounded by green vegetation and the earthly yellow and brown, result in a strong palette. From the wall, the path continues along the margin of the lake. There are several nice spots for a swim, should you be here in a warmer season. In fact, I normally come here during the summer. Today, I stop to rest a bit and have a picnic lunch. The wind is picking up, which enhances the cold even more.

View of the Santa Clara-a-Velha dam and lake.
Blowing in the wind.

The path is well marked and is easy to follow. After a while, there is a sharp turn to the left (west), and we face the second steep climb of the trail, which reaches the top of the hill. From this vantage point, the view is panoramic, over the surrounding mountains. It is possible to see a few isolated farm houses. To the south, the heights of the Serra de Monchique (the second highest mountain in continental Portugal) dominate. This is a part of the trail that I particularly enjoy, due to the rugged landscape. From here, the final leg of the journey is basically all the way down, back to Santa Clara-a-Velha.

Mountains along the trail. Monchique is the highest one on the horizon, on the left hand side.
Farm along the trail.
Back in Santa Clara-a-Velha.

Concerning photo gear on this walk, I merely carried the Fujifilm X-S10 (nice small camera indeed), plus the small Fujinon 23mm f/2 lens. I have also used a polarizer filter to help bringing up more detail in the distant hazy landscapes. A few days after this trail, we are now back in lockdown. I wish everyone to keep safe in these difficult times.

First photos in 2021

As we enter the new year, it is clear that the Covid – 19 crisis is here to stay. Christmas and the New Year have come and gone, and I spent some days off of work at home, with the family. After that I decided to go to Longueira on the second weekend of January. I have a small house in that nice little village on the southwest Alentejo coast; it has been a sort of refuge on these dire times.

As always, I had my photo backpack ready, plus plans to visit nearby beaches and also walk an interior trail. It happened that on a very cold afternoon I went to one of my favourite local beaches, Brejo Largo. Looking at my records, last time I went there was at the end of 2019, more than one year ago.

So it felt appropriate to return and make some photos around sunset time. As I mentioned above, the weather was very cold for Portugal (still is today), with cloudy skies and a stiff northerly wind.

The small village of Longueira.

Even though it is possible to reach the beach using a four – wheel drive, I prefer to walk the 4 km between Longueira and Brejo Largo. It is a wonderful walk, crossing firstly cultivated and pasture fields, and secondly the coastal sand dunes covered with twisted pine trees and shrubs. Approaching the coast, one hears the sea before seeing it, as the the sound of the surf gets carried by the wind. After reaching the cliffs, there are two ways to go down, via rough steps excavated on the soft argillaceous rock: one set of steps on the northern end of the beach, and another one more or less in the middle. I chose to descend using the former, because it is also a nice viewpoint to start making some photos.

Arriving at Brejo Largo beach.

For this short photo session, I decided to keep things simple, using only one 23mm lens for my Fujifilm camera, complemented by the tripod and Lee Big Stopper filter. I am a big fan of long exposures, especially with such nice waves and clouds. As a bonus, the tide was low, so there were plenty of available rocks to use as interesting foreground subjects. The low tide exposes some interesting geologic features, such as long volcanic dykes that run parallel to the coast. Their lighter colour makes an interesting contrast with the predominant black schist.

Volcanic dyke.
Another volcanic intrusion.

I simply walked along the beach photographing the rocks, pools, and the beautiful scenery.

Rocks, sea and sky.
Winter time on the beach.
Tidal pools.

When sunset arrived, the colours were incredible, with red and orange streaks permeating the clouds. This light only lasts for a few minutes, so I was very busy just shooting. The beach has a very flat and nearly horizontal profile, which results in good reflections from the sunset colours on the thin film of water. I walked back home after dark and bracing against the cold, but it was well worth it.

Near sunset time, colours become more alive.
Low tide reflections.
Fiery colours.
Peak colour time.
Beach at sunset.
Nature’s display.
Colours start to fade.
Almost night time.

The land of the Templars – part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Manueline church, adjacent to the Charola.
Manueline window.

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

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

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

One of the cloisters.
The cistern.

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

The land of the Templars – part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fog lifts.

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

View of Dornes from higher up on the trail.

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

Tower of Dornes.

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