Author's note: All photographs were taken by me (Lynne Gerard) unless otherwise specified. Please email for permission to copy or paste or share those photos I have taken. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
It took nearly three hours to drive from Ravenseyrie high up on Gore Bay's East Bluff (on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario, Canada) to the Greater Sudbury airport on the mainland, but in no time at all, I was flying on a "Bombardier" turboprop bound for the Toronto Pearson International airport. In a little over an hour, I landed in Toronto and after a bit of a wait, was seated on a much larger "Airbus" which wore the Lufthansa logo. This massive jet transported me across the Atlantic ocean, into the next day and 7 1/2 hours after departure deposited me at the international airport at Dusseldorf--a long enough journey in itself!--but wait, I still had to catch a "Boeing 737" and fly nearly another three hours in order to plant my feet in Portugal's international airport in Lisbon. For a gal who speaks only English, rarely gets off Manitoulin Island and had not traveled by air in roughly a dozen years, this was an awkward and stressful journey requiring the type of clear-headed bravery this 50 year old menopausal woman wasn't always confident she had sufficient reserves of.
My friends from Germany, hippologist Hardy Oelke and his wife Rose, were scheduled to land at the Lisbon airport one hour after my flight touched down. Somehow I found my way through the crush of travellers, and took up a chair just outside the kiosk of Sixt Car Rentals to wait for them as we had previously arranged. Hardy arrived first and after a quick welcome hug placed himself in a queue to claim the vehicle he had pre-reserved. I found myself breathing so much easier after that, knowing that I was no longer alone in a foreign land. Shortly before Hardy signed off on the paperwork, Rose arrived with their trolly of luggage...another familiar face, and a reassuring warm hug.
Off we went in the rented Opel with my mind feeling utterly warped as Hardy expertly sped through a snarl of big city traffic, completely self-assured of which lanes to be in and what exits were required to take us out of Lisboa in the direction of Almeirim. Truly, I marveled at how fast Hardy could drive through what seemed to me like a complete jumble of hyper-speeding automobiles, tangled highways and incomprehensible traffic signs, all the while speaking to me in English and switching fluidly back to his mother-tongue when talking with Rose. Maybe driving in Portugal isn't too different than driving in Germany? (Do all Europeans drive so fast?) Or maybe Hardy is exceptionally gifted in coping with a multitude of overlapping stimuli? If I had attempted to negotiate my way through those many roundabouts, I might still be circling, circling, circling without a clue of what to do!
Our first stop was at a supermarket where we purchased bottled water, assorted fruit and juice to sustain us during our visit to the Vale de Zebro preserve in the Coruche region where Hardy's Sorraia horses live completely wild on a territory of roughly 500 hectares. Before driving there, however we checked into the Hotel O Novo Principe, a modern establishment with kind staff (capable of speaking English) and very affordable rates where we would spend several nights lodging. After freshening up, we headed for the preserve! (**I guess the jet-lag fiddled with my memory, as Hardy tells me we went to the preserve first and the hotel after.)
At the time of my visit (late September into early October), Portugal, and especially the Vale de Zebro were painfully dry, which I understand is typically the case during the summer months. I was surprised however to experience such a drought and heatwave in late September--every day during my week in Portugal was in the low to mid thirties (°C) in the shade, much higher than that in the sun.
Everywhere in the fields of dried, dormant grasses one sees the obligatory tilled areas of the highly flammable vegetation which creates fire breaks and access roads designed to aid in halting the spread of wildfires should they occur. (In fact I understand parts of Portugal are on fire even as I write this.) The loosened soil is exposed to further drying and baking by the sun, and it appeared to me like a combination of white clay, sand and mica--slippery to walk upon in some areas and almost crunchy in others, providing quite a contrast to the faded yellow grasses and the greenness of those plants that are drought hardy.
Note the contrast between the tilled soil and the dried vegetation--a very common sight during my stay in Portugal.
The preserve is populated by sections of Eucalyptus which are grown managed and harvested for their highly durable wood which is exceptionally rot resistant and is used extensively for fence posts. Hardy relayed that the Sorraias rarely spend time in the Eucalyptus forests, unless they are being hazed by the top stallion and seek refuge in the tall, shaggy-barked trees. It looked to me like there was virtually no understory of plant life in these Eucalyptus forests, but perhaps this is due to the drought and the lateness of the season. I was surprised that though I saw many of these expansive areas of Eucalyptus trees in the various regions of Portugal I visited, I neglected to take a photo!
A Eucalyptus forest, similar to those that I saw in Portugal
(Photo credit: Forest and Kim Starr, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo credit: Forest and Kim Starr, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
All throughout the Vale de Zebro are the very attractive Stone Pine and Cork Oak trees. Cork Oak trees are a highly valuable asset to any landowner's property and most everywhere you see these iconic trees, you notice they have been completely girded of the outer bark on their trunks!
This harvesting of several inches of the outer bark occurs once every nine years and does not harm the trees which can live upwards of a hundred and fifty years. Portugal supplies 50% of the world's cork needs, and in the Vale de Zebro, these cork trees, along with the round-topped Stone Pine trees supply refuge from the heat of the sun. Like the Stone Pine, the Cork Oak trees keep their foliage all year round and are considered evergreens.
I had Hardy stand next to the trunk of an exceptionally large Stone Pine to provide a sense of scale to this grand old tree. These trees are the source of the great tasting pinenuts that are so wonderfully nutritious and bring a special flavour to authentic pesto sauces.
Though the landscape was so still (not even a whiff of a breeze to cool us) and arid, it was nonetheless alive with the sounds of birds, insects (lots of flies, just like home!) and the subtle spiced-perfume aroma that appeared to be emitted by the Cork Oak trees. I was told that I had come at one of the least appealing times of the year, for in the spring all the dried vegetation I saw spread out before me is, in that season, a magical carpet of wildflowers and fresh grasses that bombard the senses with beauty. Maybe so, but I could still appreciate the grandeur of this wilderness landscape within which Hardy's Sorraias live their lives. How very appropriate and lovely they look in this faded autumn environment!
Given the vastness of the Vale de Zebro and the seemingly endless hills, valleys and clusters of forest, I was amazed that we found most of the Sorraias early on in our hike. As it turned out, all but the two 2 year old bachelor colts were grazing in the same general vicinity. Did they know I was coming and rather than being as elusive as they normally are they decided to give me the gift of seeing them on my very first day in Portugal?!
Hardy observed that one of the young stallions had managed to acquire two mares (one with a foal) meaning that now there were three distinct breeding groups. With the exception of a brief discussion between two of the stallions, it appeared that given the time of year with no mares being in heat, the close proximity of these separate family bands was tolerated by each of the three stallions.
After several hours of exploring the Vale de Zebro and photographing the horses, we weary human travelers hiked back to the Opel and back-tracked to Almeirim stopping by the hotel to wash the dust off our bodies then walked to one of the local restaurants (O Pinheiro) to wash the dust out of our throats--and fill our hungry bellies. How ravenous I was!
The full-flavoured red house wine, delicious bowl of olives and fresh-baked bread served to take the edge off our hunger as we waited for the dinner to be served. Being a vegan in Portugal means I did not experience their cuisine at its finest, though I could see at every establishment we dined in, the seafood and beef and hand-crafted cheeses are what meals are based upon and were proudly served and well appreciated by the restaurant patrons.
On this first night, I enjoyed a lovely "soupa de legumes" (pureed vegetable soup) along with a tossed salad and an order of roasted potatoes in garlic (excellent!). Hardy and Rose ordered a particular fish dish which came with platters of salad, a boiled medley of cabbage, carrots and potatoes. There was plenty to eat, too much in fact, something I experienced at every restaurant we dined at. To finish this first meal, I enjoyed a well prepared demitasse of espresso.
Before laying my head on my pillow, I connected with Kevin back on Manitoulin Island (five hours behind the time in Portugal) using my iPad and the FaceTime application. It would have been absolutely the perfect way for us to keep in touch (we are telephone-challenged at Ravenseyrie) except that though Kevin could see and hear me and I could see his wonderful, handsome image in the live video, the audio feature wasn't working. (Kevin later discovered this appears to be a glitch that often occurs between those in Europe who are attempting FaceTime connections with North America.) After marveling that I was actually here in Portugal and had already experienced my first trek into the Vale de Zebro, I drifted into a much needed slumber with visions of light grulla horses on an arid, but lovely landscape.