Friday, January 27, 2012

A Week in Portugal / Day Six

What thoughts might this gentleman have as he sits in the shade on a hot October day looking down the road in the city of Castelo de Vide?

During my week in Portugal I was fortunate to be able to travel with my friends Hardy and Rose Oelke who are devoted Sorraia horse preservationists and annual visitors to this beautiful country. Over the course of my holiday we lodged in two different hotels. The first one was the Hotel O Novo Principe in the town of Almeirim (Santarem district) which gave us opportunity to visit several of the places in that general area where Sorraia horses are living. On the third day, we drove further east to Alter do Chão (Portalegre district) where we rented rooms at a renovated sixteenth century Franciscan convent, the Hotel Convento d'Alter--a place with all the modern amenities, yet impressing the senses with a feeling of more austere times.

This is definitely the type of place where a romantic soul with an affinity for high arched ceilings and old stonework can feel inspired. Where the Hotel O Novo Principe is all hyper polished, modern and spare in its decor, the Hotel Convento d'Alter incorporated the right mix of antiquated reproductions into its authentic medieval structure with a definite homage being paid to the Franciscan monks who used to occupy it. For additional views of this terrific place to take lodging have a look at the photo gallery page of their website.

The author's room at the Hotel Convento d'Alter

We stayed in this stately converted convent for three days while we took day trips to special places to see Sorraia horses as well as other destinations the Oelkes thought I might enjoy. We returned to Almeirim and the Hotel O Novo Principe for my last night in Portugal. Both establishments were much less expensive per room than I had expected, they were very clean, the employees were pleasant, helpful and often able to speak English--and both places had complementary internet for their patrons. I would recommend them both if you should find yourself traveling to Almeirim or Alter do Chão.

The former cloisters in the Hotel Convento d'Alter where self-serve breakfasts were offered (included in the price of a night's lodging) and where special gatherings no doubt take place.

Day six of my Portuguese adventure was a sultry Sunday morning and before driving up to the mountain town of Castelo de Vide, we three decided to see if we could find the vineyard that made a lovely wine we had been enjoying frequently at dinnertime. When we arrived at the vineyard, the entrance was open, but upon driving in, it was obvious that we had come during a time when the vineyard was actually closed--most likely for whatever Sunday observances the people here were in the routine of following.

Before we turned around to leave however, a robust, matronly Portuguese woman in a colourful cotton dress came out of a door, a string of keys dangling in her hand. She motioned for us to follow her. She led us to a building, unlocked a garage-like door which opened to a warehouse full of boxes of wine and a retail counter from which to sell it. Splendid! Though the proprietress did not speak English, we were able to point to the vintage of wine we were interested in, and were delighted to pay just 4 euros for a bottle of the Vale Barqueiros - Reserve 2007 Red.

A snapshot of one of the vineyard lanes. Wish I had walked down it and taken my photo perpendicular to the vines. Obviously this vineyard does a great job of irrigating their vines and it is always a delight to the eyes to see a verdant oasis in the middle of an otherwise parched landscape.

Both the Oelkes and myself would have purchased a case of this wine to have sent back to our homes with such a low price point offered to us, but the initial difficulty of having ourselves be understood when making out the shipping arrangements seemed too daunting a task and I believe I saw the woman show a definite sense of relief when we decided not to pursue that option. Hardy and Rose purchased two bottles, and me, with my small suitcase reluctantly bought just one bottle* of this very lovely dry, deep red wine.

*In my last article about my trip to Portugal I will share the sad tale of this coveted bottle of wine.

Off now, to Castelo de Vide!

Looking down from one of the upper sections of Castele de Vide

Situated on the Serra de São Mamede in the northeast Alentejo region, this city is an interesting mix of ancient history and religious diversity. The mountainous municipality contains a renowned Jewish sector and architecture from the thirteenth century as well as entire neighborhoods that were added on throughout each time period thereafter overflowing down the slopes. What is perhaps most amazing is that even the oldest sectors are dwelling places for modern day humans--Castelo de Vide is not an uninhabited fortress town, but is a thriving city with definite old world charm.

A very narrow passage on the medieval cobble road.

Our rented Opel, however was not quite small enough to squeeze through so we retreated to a parking spot and continued to ascend the mountain village on foot.

It is interesting to look back on the photos I took and to see the images captured by my digital camera. On this day (the only day in Portugal that we did not go to see any Sorraia horses) my eyes were enchanted by the architecture, the play of light and shadow and the delight of seeing an artistic touch in even the most mundane features of the surroundings.

I'm going to display the photos now, with occasional comments/observations/musings these images have inspired.

The face and voice of noon at Castelo de Vide

Twelve bells was not the only sound to be heard. There was also the voice of this dog in the upper window calling out "Hello, hello you there!" to...

...this dog walking down the hillside with one of the inhabitants of Castle de Vide. Where are they going?

I don't know the destination of the Portuguese woman and her dog friend, but it appeared that along the way they came upon a man they knew and paused for an exchange of pleasantries and perhaps... share a comment or two about the tourists gawking at every little thing and taking photo after photo.

Oh how many images of these Portuguese people I wanted to photograph but refrained because somehow, in my core being to do so felt intrusive and slightly voyeuristic. In every village we went through, the local people seemed to me to be so beautiful and natural in their surroundings...looking always like a romantic image that ought to be captured in a painting. For sure I wish I had taken more photos of the Portuguese people--but when something doesn't feel "right" it is best to listen to one's inner voice and show some restraint. I sure am glad I never felt it was inappropriate for me to be photographing the Sorraia horses!

I wonder about you women of Castelo de Vide, out and about on this hot autumn day...

When you return, from some errand or visitation, with your heels clicking on ancient artful cobbled pathways, and you see before you a splendid door--the door to YOUR home--does a feeling of love and admiration catch in your throat? Or, being so familiar with the antiquated architecture of your medieval city, do you absently pass through from out to in, seemingly oblivious to how extraordinary such an entrance is?

Even a derelict door on a crumbling villa looks inviting to me!

There were several cats napping on the rooftops of the villas. This one looked especially "in the zone":

A gorgeous and refreshing looking covered fountain

We walked through different sections of the castle, along with quite a number of other tourists who were using this hot October Sunday to explore Castelo de Vide. Though I neglected to take a photo of the castle from a distance, I did record some of its more intimate features.

How many architects and creators of human spaces these days consider the elementals (sun and seasons, day and night, light and shadow, warmth and coolness, etc.) when configuring angle of roof, placement of doorway, alignment of window? Looking at the majority of homes, businesses and park structures here on Manitoulin Island, it seems by and large the exquisite effects of elementals interacting with structural edifices have been completely ignored. Buildings these days seem to be mostly a way to shield oneself (hide/escape) from the natural elements and in the most economic, uninspired manner with no thought to how artistic accents, mindful arrangement of walls & roofs and integration with the environment can enhance the overall human experience. What I appreciate about so many aspects of old world architecture is that in addition to creating an inhabitable interior space, a definite appreciation for how a structure interacts with the outer elementals has been taken into consideration and capitalized upon. Just look at the play of shadow and light in some of these photos!

Imagine the way the stonework absorbs the heat of the sun, how delightful the coolness of the shade feels by contrast and how angle on angle lead the eye down the road with the anticipation of more inspiring sensations to be seen and felt beyond the bend!

This following photo was taken by Hardy from the highest point of the castle, looking down to where Rose and I were enjoying a shade break:

Lynne Gerard and Rosa Oelke on one of the roof tops of the medieval castle at Castelo de Vide

(photo: Hardy Oelke)

In my next photo is yet another image of a fabulous looking door, but clearly the people who live behind this entry are making the most of the warm of the sun-soaked masonry. I wonder if they make some homemade vino with the bounty of grapes that look so pleased to be growing here:

I was very taken by how even the cobble alleys and roads had here and there an artistic flair. Were these sunburst like patterns preplanned while the road was being laid? Do they signify something about the surrounding buildings or something below the surface? Or are they the personal expression of whomever had been working on building these roads? To just walk down a cobble road is a pleasant enough experience, but to stride over these impromptu designs awakens one's mind to the presence of those who actually made these roads. Did they sing or whistle while working? Were they happy and fulfilled by their lives? To see these artful touches makes me believe these road builders where promoters of beauty and those who promote beauty typically sing while they work and their lives overflow with joy they help create.

And then there is another gift I found on the cobbleways of Castelo de Vide. It is a very frequent occurrence for me when I am out hiking the wilderness of Ravenseyrie, whether following the trails the horses have made, or letting the light through the forest take me on a different route, I find, right at my feet a bird feather. And so my house and studio abound with the feathers of our local birds. And because I take so many walks and find so many gift feathers along the way, when a purchase is made at the gallery, I wrap it in paper and string and tie a feather to it. My customers always seem pleased for this extra souvenir from Manitoulin Island. I don't know what kind of bird left this feather for me to discover while walking through Castelo de Vide, but how terrific it felt to know that this particular "magic" that I receive here at home was also available to me while in Portugal.

After leaving Castelo de Vide, Hardy took us to see a different segment of the Rio Sorraia--in fact it is the spot where the tributaries of the Sor and the Raia converge and become the Sorraia river. It was by now even hotter and that water sure looked inviting. In fact, in one area of the river there were a number of people having picnics on the banks and cooling themselves in the water. It was nice to find the quieter spots on this part of the Sorraia river to simply enjoy the natural elements after seeing so much of the man-made structures at Castelo de Vide. Though we didn't see any Sorraias on this day, knowing that their progenitors used to live wild along this waterway many, many years ago made me feel connected to them just the same.

My next entry will have an account of a visit we made to a place where some Sorraias were living that very few people know about.


June said...

Lynne, having myself moved from Europe to the new world, I have often felt bereft by the lack of sense of place here and by the lack of architectural beauty - both planned and serendipitous. You wondered whether the Portuguese women, on returning home, appreciate their surroundings or take them for granted. I know when I still lived at home in Britain, I felt continuously nourished not so much by the beauty around me, but by the character and autonomy of the buildings and landscape. Things had been there since before any person alive could remember. Southern Europe is more beautiful visually than the British Isles, but both have that sense of the world being more than just raw material or wilderness or whatever works of man the current generation feels like throwing on top.

It's getting worse here. As one drives around this country, the ugliness is relentless. Efforts to beautify - such as a town we lived near in Mississippi, Madison - often fail miserably. Zoning laws brought about ridiculous efforts at beautification - such as the gas station adorned with Corinthian columns, the red brick Walmart, etc. When I drove from Madison home to our town, Canton, I'd breathe a sigh of relief when I saw the old blue rusting school bus sitting in a vacant lot - to my eyes so much more full of character and history.

eva said...

The American building style, where it was not trying to imitate European cities like in the North East, reflects the life form of people whose essential being in the world is “passing through”. The buildings sit flat on top of the landscape and are built to last for one generation basically. Then they go out of style or fall apart whatever comes first. These are the houses of people who don’t intend to stay. To me, too, these ancient European villages evoke a sense of home and belonging, but when I look at them now through the lens of Lynne’s eye, they seem unreal, that people are actually still living in those dwellings and probably don’t even pay much attention to the fact that cars look like things from outer space in that environment. Do they have computers and televisions and microwave ovens inside?

I am wondering though if anyone worries about an earthquake there? That’s the main reason why in California you are not allowed to build a house out of native rock. And unreinforced masonry buildings must either be retrofitted or get condemned. But there is definitely a movement toward more “organic” buildings that fit the landscape and are made out of natural, non-toxic building materials and are constructed to regulate the temperature naturally, like these old buildings, keeping cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Just like anything interesting, it’s having a hard time being embraced by the mainstream culture.

Lynne, you have an amazing collection of door photos, you could put together a coffee table book! Oh and I love that feline meditating on the roof. Did you have withdrawal symptoms not seeing any horses?

PS: I can imagine what happened to that wine….

June said...

Your photos are just gorgeous, by the way. I love looking at them!

Máire said...

I am transported back to Portugal through those photos.

Lynne Gerard said...

I can really appreciate your unique appraisal of old wold European architecture versus Americas attempts at old world revival to "beautify" gas stations and mega stores like Walmart. It would be something if that type of facade for such structures would shift the awareness of those of us who frequent such establishments, but I wonder if we are on the whole too "drugged" by consumerism to even notice what shadow and light magic can occur in roofs and curves amd angles???

I doubt the vision of a Walmart, brick sided or other, will ever swell the spirit like other edifices manage to you have so well note.

Thanks for your comments, June!

Lynne Gerard said...

I can appreciate all the thoughts the images from Castelo de Vide prompted in you. I do think within the ancient homes people have Internet and microwave ovens, etc. and these modern elements probably seem to sure seemed that way at the Hotel Convento de Alter, and the blend of modern and ancient was really terrific!

Yes, those doors were really speaking to me and helped me deal with not seeing horses that day. Doors are portals to other realms and so sensual to me!

Let's just say I hope those customs clearance chaps (the buggers!) at the Lison airport enjoyed my bottle of wine! They wouldn't take pity on an ignorant traveler, which happened to me again at Heathrow!

Maire...where have you been when in Portugal? Nice to have a comment from you! Thanks!