Published in Overland Journal Europe, Summer 2019
Time travel to Portugal—2,000 kilometres forward; 100 years back.
Daylight was fading fast as we took a last exploratory walk through the twisted alleys in the almost deserted village of Antigo de Sarraquinhos. We stopped in front of the only house with a dim light shining through an open door at the top of a flight of uneven wooden stairs. The sight in front of us was mesmerising: rich brown hams and rings of chouriça (traditional Portuguese sausage) hung in abundance from the rafters under a rudimentary ceiling pitch-black with soot from decades of smoking. A single light bulb dangled unceremoniously at the end of two wires emitting the amber glow that had attracted us like moths to a flame. José and I edged closer for a better look—that was when the dog raised its head, looked down at us from its vantage point on the landing, and growled menacingly.
We regularly publish articles written by travellers with exotic, far-distant destinations in their sights and on ventures extending several months, if not years. But what about the majority of readers who have family and professional commitments? Someone who is disinclined to spend the equivalent of a house on an overland vehicle, but still wants to travel and experience something different firsthand without losing their autonomy, i.e., not tied to a commercial travel organisation. Well, that was the point when I started investigating possibilities and options on the mainland for European readers. Something within grasping distance; something which can be achieved in a two- or three-week holiday; something where you can experience an exotic, wild adventure and capture memories that will be with you for the rest of your life and motivate you to embark on another journey.
Little did I know how much this challenge had in store for us. The original idea was to explore Portugal and, after strategising with my close friend José Almeida of Dream Overland, to visit three different regions, learn the history, delve into its culture, and uncover some of the ancient traditions which are rapidly melting into nebular memory as a consequence of our fast-living and superficial modern society—younger generations don’t wish to be tied to their villages and mundane chores. Instead, they seek fame and fortune in the metropoles, along the coastline, and in the bustling tourist hubs.
So, we arrived in the very northeast of Portugal in February with the clear objective to mingle with the locals. And mingle we did. Our eyes and hearts were opened.
LIVING ON THE BORDER
Literally behind the mountains, Trás-os-Montes is the most northeastern region of Portugal, its enclosure sculpted by the wild and romantic Douro river gorge to the East, and the majestic mountainous belts of the Gerês, Marão and Alvão. Its geographic isolation, which was endured until the introduction of new highways as late as the 80s and 90s, meant this was the most remote region in Portugal and very much left to its own devices. As a result, the population has been characterised by their seclusion, the extreme terrain, and the hardy weather conditions, whilst their dulcet local dialect is more akin to a language in its own right. These are a proud people and, if you can break the ice of distrust, they are the most generous hosts, willing to speak endlessly of their rich history and ancient traditions.
However, the same geographic isolation also defined the intriguing mix of the population which began with a flood of Jewish immigrants escaping the Inquisition, followed by a wave of emigration as people went in search of opportunity on the more affluent side of the mountains—not to mention the colourful characters who came here looking to avoid the authorities and arrest elsewhere in the land.
Simple people doing simple things are the salt of the earth. Happy faces—enjoying rays of sunshine (and quite hot, too, for early February) on a bench in front of their house, a very popular pastime in the tiny villages.
There are several villages along the Douro valley where Jewish communities declared themselves as heathen to prevent persecution—locally referred to as the New Christians—and where they created industries focussed on commodities such as copper and silk.
Behind closed doors, they continued to practice their religion secretly, but to the benefit of the outside world and to demonstrate they were Christians, they paid for the construction of churches and other Christian buildings and monuments as proof of their religious orientation, even though they were in fact Jewish. Torre de Moncorvo, in the south of Trás-os-Montes, began as a village built and funded solely by the Jewish community after the original village was wiped out by disease. Ironically, Torre de Moncorvo has one of the most beautiful churches in the region.
Entrance way to a slightly larger home on this cobblestone road in another little village nestled in the mountains
As a visitor to Trás-os-Montes, you can expect bitter winters in the northern Terra Fria (Cold Land) and a sizzling summer in the southerly Terra Quente (Hot Land). In between the extreme seasons, the temperatures are very accommodating, even if the locals refer to their climate as “nine months of winter, three months of hell.”
With improved infrastructure came investment and industrialisation. From a Western European point of view where development and modernisation has been ongoing since the end of the Second World War, Trás-os-Montes only experienced these effects at a much slower pace and, as we drove off-pavement into remote and untouched historical villages with sometimes as little as 20 or 30 inhabitants, it seems that change is still struggling to establish itself. Maybe not such a bad thing after all.
On a culinary note, Trás-os-Montes is famous for its beef. The Mirandesa mountain cattle are native to the region, and accustomed to the terrain and weather conditions. Not only are they particularly attractive creatures to look at, with long horns and facial expressions that look as if they have been made up just for a photo shoot, but they produce incredibly succulent cuts of meat which, if seasoned merely with salt and grilled over hot coals, melt in your mouth and release flavours you just won’t find elsewhere.
These beautiful cows roam free on the narrow mountain roads—as do the wild horses.
If you prefer to try the local cuisine by eating out, then visiting a traditionally small restaurant in the towns or at the side of a road is a safe bet. Typically, a single portion is often enough for two healthy appetites as the main course is usually accompanied by anything up to three or four appetisers which may include different styles of grilled sausages, potatoes, maybe an omelette, and, of course, Portuguese bread which may or may not have morsels of bacon and ham baked into it. The locals are proud of their fare and servings of meat can easily amount to two or three steaks per head.
Portuguese wine is known the world over, but it is a lesser known fact that in 1758, the prime minister, Sebastião de Melo, demarcated the very first wine region of the world in the Douro: Região Demarcada do Douro. The first official wine traders were the English.
THE CUISINE OF CHRISTIANS AND NEW CHRISTIANS
Our visit to the Trás-os-Montes region during February coincided with one of the largest and most important smoked sausage festivals in the country: the Feira do Fumeiro, hosted in the town of Vinhais, approximately 40 minutes west of Bragança on the border to the Montesinho Natural Park.
Upon our arrival in town, we wandered the streets lined with small stalls which led to the main festival arena where large tents were erected for artisans to display their wares. We first ran into Victor Afonso who carves traditional masks primarily intended for use during the Dia dos Diabos festival which celebrates young men coming of age and permits them to run riot for a day hidden by anonymity thanks to these elaborately decorated masks and colourful costumes. Naturally, Vinhais is overrun with tourists during the Feira do Fumeiro, so it is not surprising that every few metres a new stand presents anything from dried figs, cheese, knives, wicker baskets, and musical instruments—everything from the region.
Those guys were having a ball at the fair in their heavy carved masks and traditional garb.
Set slightly apart from the tents is the main building where you will find the famous enchidos, smoked sausages, on display for the judges to appraise. Each family has their own secret recipe which lends the finished product its uniqueness compared to the next. My first impression was that there appeared to be two distinct types of sausage: one darker and one lighter in colour. José pointed out the difference to me. The darker sausage is made according to the oldest Christian tradition by local Portuguese farmers utilising mostly pork-based ingredients. They achieve the rich colour and flavour by being smoked under the rafters in a room with a large open fire for a period of time handed down by their ancestors.
Then there are the lighter coloured sausages known as alheiras. These were introduced to the region by the New Christians during the Spanish Inquisition when Jews fled from Spain and went into hiding in this remote region behind the mountains. In order not to be recognised by their religious diet, they created similar food yet used different ingredients, replacing the pork with bread, lots of garlic, fowl and rabbit meat. I found the pork-based sausages to be more robust in texture and flavour compared to the softer, more aroma-infused, gamey variant. That said, they are both amazing and represent the first shift in culture we came across caused by migration at the end of the 15th century.
There she is, standing right in the middle of the (now cold) fireplace, proudly holding up her smoked sausages for us to see.
Our mingling led to an introduction to Senora Fernanda, a lovely lady from the nearby village Fresulfe, who invited us to visit her at home. We drove out to the farm in the late afternoon and she welcomed us warmly as she stood in the open doorway to one of her kitchens. There was obviously going to be rabbit for one of the next meals as two skinned examples hung on hooks in what could best be described as her abattoir. We were first guided up into one of two lofts, the bakery with a large oven in the corner next to the stairs. Bread is a Portuguese staple and comes in several forms, including the one I mentioned earlier which is filled with chunks of meat and fat. But there is also another form of traditional dough-based meal, handmade in long wooden troughs, which was used as a substitute for pasta or the two Portuguese rice varieties, Agulha and Carolino, when they were unavailable or simply not affordable for the peasants. Cuscos, more widely known in North Africa as couscous, was exported round the world by the Portuguese.
The air in the second loft we entered was heavy with the smell of old smoke and cured meat. We stood inside the fireplace as we were given a detailed account of how the different styles of sausages were made. Looking up, the ceiling was amassed with spider’s webs, some of which were dripping with soot and probably older than the farmer herself. This is the natural protection against flies entering through the roof which has to have enough space between the tiles to allow the smoke to escape. Needless to say, we left the premises with a bag heavy with meat.
This well-cured ham simply melts in your mouth—and is guarded by a watchful dog.
A PORTUGUESE PRINCESS IN ENGLAND
We drove into Bragança to meet with Luis Costa, a historian and local guide from Andad’i, and to learn a little of the town’s colourful past. The royal house of Portugal was established here 555 years ago. Even though Portugal is a republic today, there is still an heir to the throne.
The region is characterised by its undulating hills, making it a natural location for fortifications. Earliest recordings of settlements in the area date back as far as the Paleolithic era and, since then, the largest town and capital of the region has been conquered amongst others by the Romans, Moors, and Spaniards—each occupation contributing different cultural aspects to its evolution, some of which are still visible today.
The Romans began in their typical manner by creating private property, which in turn required a council, legislation, and a place for the council to meet and fell decisions affecting the population in the area. The Domus Municipalis is the last remaining romanesque construction in Bragança and the oldest town hall in the country. It was used as such up until political change swept the country at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. However, as far as the inhabitants of the citadel were concerned, they felt they were still bound by their own legislation, and local decision-making was still performed here until the beginning of the 20th century.
Inside, a wooden bench would have run around the wall where the council could reside and perform their duties as advisers, rulers, and judges. It is not entirely clear when the building was erected, but the upper part would appear to be from the 13th century; the Arabic cistern beneath, which was still in use as a reservoir for the citadel up until quite recently when the public water supply was connected, stems from considerably earlier.
We came across this very nice ancient sundial on our birdwatching hike that even the locals didn’t know about. Stone ornaments dating back to the Middle Ages; petrographs preserved from the Paleolithic era—we’re on a real treasure hunt.
When I first set eyes upon Bragança’s famous medieval citadel, I couldn’t help detecting certain traits that reminded me of similar structures in Britain. As it turns out, Bragança and England have a lot in common. More accurately, Catherine of Braganza became Queen of England when she was married to the frivolous King Charles II on May 21, 1662, as a sign of gratitude for King Charles I’s political recognition of Catherine’s father when he was crowned King João IV in Lisbon after having led a rebellion against Spain in 1640. Her dowry was impressive: £300,000 in cash, the strategical commerce gateways of Tangier and Bombay, and free trade relations with Brazil and the East Indies. In return, the marriage saw an agreement for the English to provide military support to the Portuguese in their fight against the Spanish.
Not the happiest of marriages to be sure, considering Catherine was Roman Catholic, marrying into a country predominantly Protestant, and Charles was renowned for bed-hopping amongst his mistresses. To make things even more complicated, Catherine could not bear Charles an heir and, following Charles’ death in 1685, his brother King James II briefly took the throne before being replaced jointly by William and Mary. Catherine returned to Portugal in 1692 where she went into retirement until she was named regent in 1704 till her death the following December.
Catherine influenced the English by introducing the popular habit amongst Portuguese nobles of drinking tea—to which her husband commented, “We don’t drink tea in England. But maybe some ale will do.” It is also thought that she may have introduced forks to the table.
Another reason for England committing to support Portugal against the Spanish and for the evidence of analogical design features in several castles throughout the country, is what is probably the oldest alliance in the world, Aliança Inglesa, which was signed between the two countries in 1386 and is still in force today.
There is also a chain of castles running between Bragança and Guarda that were built by the Knights Templar who came to Portugal and stayed after supporting Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, in his fight against the Arabs in the battle of Ourique on July 25th, 1139.
A medieval castle, the Castelo de Algoso in Vimioso.
I’M CUT IN HALF
Leaving Bragança in a northerly direction through the Montesinho Natural Park to the Spanish border, brought us to Rio de Onor, a village where progress is clearly struggling to settle in.
The village history dates well back into medieval times when Hispano-Celtic Asturian tribes called this area their home. Today, only a smattering of their unique language, Rionorese, which stems from the ancient Asturian-Leonese, is spoken by the remaining nine persons on the Spanish side and 20 on the Portuguese side. Everyone else has left.
The buildings, plots of kitchen gardens, and the cobbled thoroughfare are all reminiscent of the end of the 19th century. An impression lent considerable weight by the old gentleman who led his cows to the water trough, the equally old lady in black returning from her garden, and the lack of motor vehicles, excepting the post office van we saw twice as it came—and went across the second bridge.
As we walked toward the only bar/café on the Portuguese side, we ran into Juan who introduced himself as we reached the door and proclaimed he was cut in half—his mother being Portuguese and his father Spanish.
Juan gestured toward a small pile of rocks on the hill opposite the café and beyond the water mill, where a medieval observation post used to stand. There were regular battles between the countries with castles changing hands every few years. Not far from the border on the Portuguese side are still some large slabs of slate standing in the ground as a line of defence and reminder of the hostilities.
Inside, the café was unspectacular. Dark. A fire in the hearth, a short bar with beer on tap, a large coffee machine, and a refrigerator. Opposite the bar and along one wall beside the fire was a bench where mostly male villagers sat every day to lastingly sip their drink and chinwag of their past. A handful of small round tables and simple chairs were arranged in an irregular circle on the bare stone floor. Our entrance halted the discussion just long enough for everyone to acknowledge our “bom dia.” José broke into conversation with the keeper who ushered us to the empty chairs before joining us in the circle.
The elders continued with their tales, but we could feel their eyes and scrutiny. Coffee and wine were ordered, the mingling began. Having a border running through the village was indeed a problem as was the lack of certain commodities on both sides during Franco’s and Salazar’s dictatorships. Smuggling wasn’t as prolific here as elsewhere but if you were involved, you had to be very wary. Having coffee at home was a sign of your involvement as was wearing a particular kind of overalls made from a type of corduroy which was only available on the Spanish side. But contraband was a form of income.
The bar keeper explained that his premises had in fact been the police station during those difficult times. A remark that acted as a queue. A tall elderly gentleman rose from the bench and slowly came closer. He stretched out his hand to José and introduced himself as the former chief of police who had been in command up until the closure of the local station. A small prompt and he explained that smuggling was not really a problem here. First of all, everyone knew each other and did not want to provoke any bad feelings. Also, the mixed marriages meant there was a certain amount of border traffic anyway, especially when you consider the villagers on the Portuguese side used to take their cattle to graze on the Spanish side because that is where the meadows are. The illegal trafficking of commodities only occurred in the smallest quantities, and I got the feeling that the police weren’t actually looking for it anyway.
Now well into his 80s and long retired, Abílio occupies himself as a locksmith in the old traditional sense. We had actually noticed on our walk around the houses that the doors were kept closed with wooden locks. We were invited into his gloomy workshop where an array of his products was on display. But he wasn’t going to just show us his wares. He sat down on a chair close to the door where the sunlight carved a brilliant streak into the darkness, picked up a piece of wood, made a few pencil marks on the surface, and set to work. Shortly thereafter, he presented a fully functional lock with a clever hidden mechanism. A true craftsman working just as his ancestors had centuries ago.
The biggest excitement for the villagers today is directly related to their kitchen gardens. The deer come out of the forest and eat all the crops. Just days before we arrived, they had counted more than 60 deer in the gardens; the animals start on one side and eat their way to the other. One gentleman was complaining he had just lost all his potatoes.
Rio de Onor is also home to the Iberian wolf again. Until recently, they had nearly completely disappeared from the region before an effort was made to increase the population. Previously, they were not welcome because they would attack the flocks of sheep—very stealthily, as an old shepherd recalled. They would sneak up silently, kill a sheep, and disappear unnoticed. He would only become aware of his loss when he made a headcount upon returning home. Fortunately, there are so many deer locally today that they do not venture too close to the village or attack the few sheep held by the villagers.
Rio de Onor is a beautiful village which has stood still in time for what seems like centuries. But the lack of any younger generations and the average age of well over 70 of the remaining 20 residents means the village is slowly dying/going extinct—a harsh reality we were to experience several more times along our journey.
Yes, sometimes the trails end in brooklets.
OFF-ROAD BETWEEN STOPS
One of the undeniable attractions for overlanders venturing into Portugal is the ability to travel long distances through the countryside without touching asphalt—legally. When we presented our route and the destinations we wanted to visit, we were offered considerable support by the ICNF (Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests), the GNR (National Republican Guard), and last but not least our accredited guide José, insofar as they gave us access to otherwise restricted areas for our research and to enable us to reach destinations that would have entailed lengthy detours.
Driving into the hills and following trails along the border meandering between the two countries, we were made uncomfortably aware of the devastation caused by the horrendous fires of the previous two years. Large expanses of blackened ground and charred trees are omnipresent. Memories of the news bulletins regarding the deaths caused by the fires and the inadequacy of escape routes and correct signage are a stark reminder of the amount of work necessary to improve safety and access for the emergency services. It’s a task that members of Lost Cultures, Forgotten Heroes are volunteering for on forthcoming trips, and hopefully something that the general public can support by simply not leaving empty plastic bottles and other refuse. Portugal relies upon its visitors adhering to common sense and a leave-no-trace mindset.
View across the wide Douro river valley with its famous vineyards and small hamlets, and Spain on the other side.
The views across the terrain are breathtaking. The trails less travelled lead to some of the most picturesque spots you can imagine and provide drivers with all levels of experience everything from sand to rock, from dry rivers to forests. On one section of our journey, we drove out to some tungsten mines which, now closed, used to be very productive during the Second World War when, Portugal as a neutral state, supplied both the Germans and the British with the raw materials for certain munitions. We had driven for several hours, clearing our path of overgrown trees and shrubs, climbing peaks and dropping back down into valleys, until we reached the deserted settlement that marked where the miners lived and worked. Truly a forgotten place. The area is closed to the general public because the ground beyond the buildings is unsafe and prone to subsiding under the weight of vehicles.
As if we had tripped an alarm, we heard a vehicle nearing and a green 4WD Nissan with the unmistakable insignia of the Guarda Nacional Republicana drew to a halt beside us. Initially, very formal, the tone of conversation changed upon presentation of our documents and the letter of permission for us to travel here. After explaining what we were doing, the three offices bid us farewell and we set our sights on our next port of call, Miranda do Douro.
BASE CAMP IN MIRANDA DO DOURO
The region surrounding Miranda do Douro kept us occupied for the best part of a week, so the tourist board ensured we had access to a campsite in town which would normally be closed in February. Even though the days were quite pleasant, the nights were bitter cold with temperatures below freezing.
The hugely amicable Pedro Cordeiro joined us on this stage with his inexhaustible wealth of local (insider) knowledge. A keen ornithologist, he had us up early on the first morning and guided us to one of his favourite spots on the cliff tops of the Douro gorge. The sun was high in a clear blue sky, with no wind, and unrestricted views in both directions along the river and across to Spain. The muddy river was far beneath us and ran between the steep, ragged walls of the gorge. Hard to imagine how smugglers would have transported contraband from one side to the other. I should point out that, if you travel to this area on your own and would like to take in the spectacle of birdlife, you will most likely be confined to a glass-topped boat which leaves from close to the dam. Under Pedro’s guidance, we were about to experience something rare: watching the birds from below as they soar in the skies and from above as they return to their nests. I have accompanied ornithologists in the past and, other than watching certain species catch its prey on the ground, I was either looking up into the trees, or beyond into the skies.
Observing Egyptian vultures, griffon vultures, golden eagles, and the seriously endangered Bonnelli’s eagles in their natural habitat is mesmerising. Especially when we watched them drop down beneath where we stood and swoop parallel to the rock face—their wings correcting every gust and turbulence reflected from the steep walls as they near their nest. Graceful and powerful.
These birds play an enormously important role in the ecology of the region as well as assisting in public health. When cattle, goats or other animals die in the wild, these birds will strip the carcass to the bone, thereby preventing the spread of disease. When the number of cases of mad cow disease suddenly escalated in 1993 and infected animals were exported from the UK throughout Europe, Portuguese farmers were grateful for the cleansing performed by these birds. This did, however, cause an imbalance in their population which led to another problem when there were fewer incidences of cattle deaths in the wild. Today, nature conservationists have established designated feeding grounds where farmers can take registered animal carcasses to help alleviate the problem.
Another, more scrutinizing look around this rugged landscape, and one can identify small patches of fertile ground scattered between the rocks on these steep cliffs which were used to cultivate crops of rye and plant olive trees as recent as the 80s. Difficult to reach and maintain, this is just another indication of the hardships the locals had to endure if they were to survive in this region.
CARPENTER BY DAY, SMUGGLER BY NIGHT
Pedro led us to the small village of Vila Chã de Braciosa so that we could talk to his father-in-law, Luciano Martins, and dial the clocks back to the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Arriving at lunchtime, the typically warm Portuguese welcome was amplified with homemade wine drawn from a large barrel in an outhouse, sliced chouriça and fresh bread served on wooden boards. We were gestured into the low-ceiling kitchen where a fireplace, flanked by two benches, was to our right; a small table with chairs to the left. Daylight entering through the open door and a small window above one of the benches, struggled to reach into the corners of the room. Typically, this was where the family gathered when they weren’t working, and it was certainly the warmest room in the house during winter.
The master carver on the job.
The woodworking trade had its benefits of being constantly in demand throughout the year, making and repairing whatever the farmers and neighboring households required. But it also had a skillset destined for employment long after the sun had dipped beneath the horizon and plunged the Douro gorge into darkness.
The border with Spain, running from north to south, saw smugglers continuing their work as late as the early 80s. Smuggling was an occupation, a way of life even, which provided a regular source of income for the local farmers. But there were many risks involved. Not least, the fact that living in a small village made it difficult to keep a secret because everybody knew everybody, including members of the dreaded PIDE (the fascist political police). Consequently, manufacturing and hiding the wooden smuggling gondolas entailed certain expertise in the art of deception and was continually fraught with the risk of being discovered which would certainly be punished by apprehension and imprisonment.
Needless to say, the smuggling continued.
There were three common methods to carry people and goods across the gorge, all entailing a strong rope which had to be tensioned between two anchor points before the transfer could begin—and disassembled hidden amongst the rocks again before daylight. Firstly, a small box slung beneath the carrier rope with two lighter ropes for drawing in each direction; secondly, a larger version of the first with a perch where a woman could sit whilst being pulled across; finally, a larger two-tier gondola suited for men who would kneel on the top level with their stash beneath them and use their hands and arms to propel them from one side to the other.
For the sake of risk management, cash settlements were not made on the spot, but served through a network of common friends. Payments from Spain were made in pesetas which needed exchanging for the local escudos.
Wasn’t it a little suspicious going to the bank with a large amount of illegal currency?
On principle, the banks themselves were more than happy for the business, but everyone involved in the transaction had to be permanently on their guard because the GNR were everywhere and fully aware of the illegal wheelings and dealings.
The conversation wandered to a different topic and it was clear that Luciano had something he wanted to get off his chest.
During the 60s, it was quite popular to emigrate to France in search of employment and better earnings, something very feasible for a skilled carpenter. As you might expect, this too was forbidden under dictator Salazar which only inspired rings of handlers and smugglers as more and more people wanted to “jump” the border. After paying a sum of money into the network, the first stage of the journey led to Spain before they were transported to France or elsewhere—not unlike the refugees we see coming from North Africa today.
France was the shortest, less costly, and most popular destination in a bid to escape poverty, being subscribed into the army to fight in the colonial wars, or simply for political exile—if you were deemed to oppose the regime, you could be “prosecuted”. France was the planned destination for our carpenter, but things went quickly awry. Having crossed the border into Spain, the handler took them to a hideaway barn and left them with a promise of returning later with food. Alas, it was not he who came knocking that evening, but the Guardia Civil who identified themselves before opening the door with a not so appetizing “You’re under arrest!” Out of self-preservation the men all hid their knives in the straw to prevent any misinterpretation of their demeanor. They promptly found themselves in jail with 40 more men and one woman where they remained incarcerated for the next 10 days.
But the memory borne to this day is in respect of an 18-year-old prisoner amongst them. This was his third visit behind these bars and the officers were keen to make an example by beating him until he nearly died before returning him to the cell. The tale recounts, as he tried to stop the bleeding and clean away the blood with a handkerchief, an officer returned and offered to let him have a shower (more as a sign of remorse for the beating than out of mercy). His back, as he was led away, was the last they ever saw of that young man. Silence.
Upon being returned to their village, the group of men went to see the fixer who had organised the Passador (smuggler). The original deal had been to smuggle the men to Paris. If they didn’t succeed, they would get their money back. The fixer was an unpleasantly loud, fat man who swore he didn’t have the authority to return the money and had to ask the Passador’s approval. The group set an ultimatum: the fixer was to refund the money within a few days or the PIDE would be informed of his whereabouts and undertakings.
Finally, back home, Luciano took up his tools once again as a carpenter until someone suggested they tried again. This time they crossed the river and succeeded in reaching France where he stayed for nine years. During his stay, Salazar wrote to President de Gaulle of France and requested he send all the Portuguese home. There was no clear reason, so de Gaulle responded by saying, “I have enough food and wine to feed them, so they are staying here.”
Nearly 10 years later, Portugal was still isolated from the rest of Europe and smuggling thrived for another decade after Salazar’s regime was deposed in ’74. Woodworking, farming, and smuggling. In the end, Portuguese families living and toiling along the border were turned a blind eye by the local authorities. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the Spanish who, after having refugees returned to the border post by the PIDE, shot them on the spot because it was deemed they would not sympathise with Franco.
There are still so many stories to tell and so many craftsmen, the last of their ilk, who I want to introduce. But for now, there is a growling dog peering down at José and I from his vantage point on the landing…
A big voice emitted from beyond the door before a man of many years and small stature came to the banister and quietened his rather large four-legged friend. Not speaking Portuguese, my impression was that we were unwelcome trespassers and should move on. How wrong could I be? Strutting down the stairs in heavy boots, well-worn attire and his characteristic flat-cap, he exchanged pleasantries with José, stopping on the second or third step so as to remain at eye-level with us.
“What is your name?” José enquired. Head held high, his right hand clenched to a fist, he punched skyward: “Domingos Moura!” A proud little bugger.
Domingos bidding us farewell—as he now wants to lie in the shade of that tree in the back and take a well-deserved afternoon nap after our plentiful fraternal Sunday lunch. The night before he entertained us in his wine cellar. Yes, sometimes the trails end in brooklets.
He listened to our purpose for visiting his village before inviting us into his parent’s house. Nothing seems to have changed in the last hundred years or so: the ground floor was occupied by cattle, sheep, or whatever brand of meat the farmer drove out to his fields, and the family lived directly above benefiting from the rising warmth in winter. As it turned out, Domingos doesn’t actually live here, but came for a nap under the rafters heavy with cured meats.
“I don’t have much,” he said, “but what I do have, is yours. Let’s go into my cellar.” The sentences blended together as he enthusiastically herded us down the stairs and around the side of the building. Entering the even gloomier cellar, our eyes took a moment to adjust before revealing the floor amass with five-litre bottles of wine. Domingos stooped, picked one up and pulled its cork before settling it on a large wooden barrel. Five vessels of varying design and size became tankards and the drinking began. Strong wine.
The cellar was expansive and the light poor. I didn’t immediately see the 14-month-old cured ham hanging from the ceiling until Domingos took a large knife and started carving long slices from it. Flavour? What shall I say? Tender meat, rich in aroma, and a perfect match for the robust red we merrily consumed until late. We ate sausage, toasted each other repeatedly, and I swear I could understand what he was saying by the time we prepared our farewells.
But that was not all: Domingos had a soft spot for us and invited us to join him and his family at their home for Sunday lunch after church the following day. Once again stating, “I don’t have much, but what I do have, is yours.” We offered to pay for the wine and meat, but he brushed the gesture away: “Why do I need money, we have everything here in the village.”
We arrived the following morning, slightly the worse for wear I might add, and were again greeted by Domingos who first proclaimed he hadn’t expected us “city folk” to make the journey to his remote village again, and then drew his sentences to a close by saying we all had too much to drink the previous evening. We had hardly crossed his threshold before he presented the next bottle of wine and bid us to take our places at the long table.
Immersion into a remote farmer’s family. Soup cooked in a large cast-iron pot in front of the open fire, meat, vegetables and potatoes—all home produce—and wine.
Domingos’ stories flowed and he explained that, other than a short subscription in the army, he had never left his village. A village that once, as we have seen so often, was home to a few hundred and now left empty other than the 30 souls who remained.
It was eventually time for us to leave. “But now you must pay. You have been my guests and sat at my table, now you must take the cows into the fields.” Okay. Big cows.
True to tradition, we weren’t taking just Domingos’ cows to the pasture, but all the cows in the village. First we collected his from the barn before following them from door to door as the herd grew by small numbers. We didn’t actually have to do anything other than trot along behind and avoid stepping in the fresh country pancakes. The cattle knew where to go and the dogs kept it all together.
Arriving at a large field, we watched as these clearly very content creatures displayed their emotions: kicking, running, jumping—occasionally into a neighbouring field where one of the dogs would speed, of its own accord, to round up the stray and return her to the fold.
We stood together with Domingos. He eyed the herd and was at peace with his world. “You can leave now. I am going for a nap under that tree.”
For more of our experiences in this remarkable region in Portugal, join us at LCFH-Expedition.com