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.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Week in Portugal / Day Five

Sorraia stallion on the range at Herdade do Font'Alva

Note: All photos taken by the author

I daresay I make a rather poor travel journalist!

It was back late last September when I made the long and stressful journey to Portugal to see the "homeland" of the Sorraia horses. I returned to Manitoulin Island on the fifth of October -- three months have gone by, Ravenseyrie is in the thick of winter and I am just now typing up my entry for "Day Five" which took place on Saturdayy, October the 1st. Such procrastination, eegaads! It was not my intention to drag out the telling of my trip and perhaps I can finish the last three days in a more timely manner.

Readers will recall that Day Four began with a visit to Herdade do Font'Alva and the hopeful anticipation of meeting Jose Luis d'Andrade. With his time that day already spoken for, it was suggested we come the following day and if Jose Luis was still not able to personally show us his horses, he granted us permission to walk the various ranges where the Sorraia stallions and mares were living.

Before trying our luck again at Font'Alva, my generous guide, Hardy Oelke, wanted to take me to a place he knew where there was a Neolithic dolmen nearby one of his favourite, "out of the way" spots with a grand view of the surrounding countryside in a remote area of the Alentejo region. Portugal is world renown for its megalithic monuments erected by prehistoric pagans. The many dolmens, menhirs and cromlechs would have made for an exciting week's worth of touring the countryside on their own, but having only a short seven days available for my sojourn to Portugal and many Sorraian "hotspots" to visit, I had to content myself with this modest, topless dolmen. For an closer look at some of the hundreds of megaliths in Portugal, you'll find nice photos and interesting information on the "Ancient Wisdom" website.

The surrounding area was lovely, with inviting shadows tumbling down the rocks into the greenery of the valley. The high view would have been very pretty indeed, except (like everyday during my week in Portugal) the intense heat was accompanied by stale, humid air which limited the clarity and distance such viewing areas could present.

After enjoying this bit of wilderness, Hardy, his wife Rose and I walked back to the Opel and resumed our drive to Font'Alva.

We were once again met with disappointment when we arrived at the d'Andrade estate. Jose Luis was not on the property, but quite an assortment of hunting parties were. Thankfully, as we went off to the range where Hardy knew the Sorraia stallions were kept, we were heading in the opposite direction of the different groups of men toting their rifles accompanied by expectant dogs at their sides. Nevertheless, when Hardy parked on the side of the service road and we got out to begin our hike we heard a gunshot which caused me to spontaneously jump and I began hoping that we were not going to be walking into an area where these hunters were aiming their deadly shots--no doubt the Oelkes were hoping the same.

We found a section of the barbed wire fence that allowed for a human body to slip through--though this was perhaps a bit easier for Hardy and Rose as they didn't have to hike a skirt up and expose their tender inner thighs to a potential bite from the barbs! More than once on our many outings I received a concerned look from Hardy regarding my habit of hiking out in a skirt and soft suede boots. Well, I just don't wear trousers of any sort anymore--its been almost two decades since I quit tight blue jeans and other such attire. Typically around our own farm, I wear split skirts (custom made by my very talented mother!) which are much less binding, afford great freedom of movement and allow me to climb fences or sit astride a horse with graceful ease. I wear them bare-legged in the summer (they are MUCH cooler than blue jeans) and layer wool leggings under them in the winter. But in the spirit of wanting to pack lightly for this journey, I left the voluminous split skirts at home and wore instead a traditional skirt in lightweight denim. As hot as it was in Portugal during my visit, this skirt was the better choice, being even cooler than the sturdier workman's denim and heavy cotton duct fabric of the split skirts. And, I am pleased to say, I became quite adept at crossing fences without exposing too much of myself to whomever might be nearby and never once did I snag any tender flesh! No one was slowed down by this hiker in a skirt! And anyhow...just think of those burly Scots from days gone by and all the hiking in kilts that took place through a landscape of gorse and thistles--no one would question their choice of attire, but rather marvel at their dexterity to avoid prickly foliage!

As we began to take in the stallion range, we pretty early on saw what appeared to be a beautiful black Percheron excited by our presence. Hardy relayed that he had heard Jose Luis kept a draft horse. This fellow was certainly a beauty and looked to be in great condition.

Soon a small, somewhat chunky, thick-necked dun horse wandered on the scene. He didn't look like a pure Sorraia, with very short legs, bunching type musculature rather than the longer, leaner muscling typical for Sorraias and seemed to be a companion of the draft horse. He also looked like he had been getting roughed up by other horses, judging by the numerous bite marks on his tawny coat. [After I posted this, I had an exchange with Hardy regarding this dun stud and was told he is not a crossbred, but represents an off-type, one that neither he or I would recommend in a Sorraia preservation breeding program.]

We continued on and I photographed just a few of the many enchanting rock forms we passed, some of which may have been Neolithic dolmens similar to the one we had visited earlier in the morning.

In fact after my return from Portugal, subsequent research on the internet turned up a research paper titled: Antigüedades de Fontalva / Neo-eneolítico e época romana What a man Dr. Ruy d'Andrade was! In addition to all that he is renowned for (including his former mayorship of the town of Elvas!) we can add to his many great foresighted, social-minded, preserving-for-posterity undertakings, the willingness he and his family possessed to allow the appropriate researchers to study and document the archaeological prehistory of their estate. The article says that the d'Andrades faithfully donated to the Museu Geológico numerous artifacts they would find on the estate ranging from the Paleolithic to Visgothic time periods.

But I digress again from our subject...the Sorraia horses at Font'Alva...

How spectacular it was! - as we continued our hiking in the stallion range - to have a beautiful dun Sorraia crest the ridge as you see here:

Soon two handsome grullos also could be discerned from the shadows of the Cork Oak trees, with a string of bulls in the back:

Off farther to the left was a threesome of two duns and a black grullo:

Some young Iberian bulls were also on this range and they were much more disturbed by our presence than were the horses, taking to flight at first sight of us:

I don't know whether we saw all the Sorraia stallions living in this particular range, but after a bit more hiking, Hardy determined it was time for us to begin searching for the mares which he last recalled being turned out several ranges beyond the one were presently were. Through the barbed wire fence once again and off we went, with me becoming completely disoriented in no time at all, but fully trusting that Hardy had his bearings and when all was said and done we would see some Sorraia mares and find our way back to the Opel on this very hot autumn day in Portugal.

What a spectacular landscape to be hiking in! I loved it--even though I was dusty, sweaty and beginning to get slightly weary--there was simply too much to see and wonder about to feel anything but happy to be where I was, even though it was obvious my chance to spend any time with Jose Luis d'Andrade himself was non-existent.

As Rose, Hardy and I hiked in the heat, we each were scanning the ground for good hoof impressions and fresh manure--mostly we saw only dried up traces of horses having been pastured in these ranges. How many did we pass through in search of the mares? I lost track...five, maybe six different ranges (Jose Luis told Hardy that Font'Alva comprises 2,000 hectares!) Sometimes we saw mirages of Sorraia in the shadows, sometimes we only spotted bulls in retreat. There was one exception in a particular sector we were hiking. While the group of bulls were in retreat, one massive fellow - handsome as he was fearsome - turned and began walking toward us! I don't know about Hardy and Rose, but right then and there I began looking around the landscape to see if there were nearby trees or rocks to clamber up lest Mr. Bull decided we two-legged invaders out to be charged. After stopping and giving us three puny humans a long slow appraisal, Senhor Touro turned and with a stately bearing trotted off to catch up with his range mates.

In one range, I found a most interesting spot where one of those "cattlebeasts" (as Canadians often refer to members of the bovine species) left behind his corporeal body and let his spirit mingle with the twinkling stars. The area where I found these bones almost seemed like it was a "holy" spot, being the top of a small rise with large rocks at the edge of the uppermost section. Not a bad place to lay down and take one's final breath, at least to my way of thinking.

Several feet off from the internment area I found the bull's cranium. Since this lovely treasure would not fit into my carry-on luggage to take back as a souvenir, I did what any romantic artist would do...I found a tree in which to hang it and took a picture instead:

Several hours had gone by and we were beginning to think that the mares were not where Hardy had last viewed them and we may not come across them at all. It was decided we should begin heading back. Honestly, I would not quite know which direction "back" was, especially since we were not retracing our steps exactly, but I knew Hardy was familiar enough with the property that he would find a landmark that would give him all he needed to put us on a trajectory back to the parked car. One such landmark I was happy to see again was the Castelo de Font'Alva. Imagine an estate with its own medieval castle! What a terrific thing it would have been to see this part of Font'Alva, too!

If we had known we were going to have such a difficult time locating where the Sorraia mares were, I would have suggested we should pack a lunch and some liquids and what a terrific picnic break we could have had on the many inviting shaded cool, table-like rocks! But we were a weary group at that point with quite a walk ahead of us and much of the excitement and anticipation had melted away in the heat. When we finally reached the rented Opel, it didn't matter that it was now sitting in full sun and our water was not the least bit cold--it revived us just the same.

Soon we were back on the road headed for a small café that sold the type of ice cream treats Hardy and Rose favour. (There are several of these places Rose and Hardy stop regularly for ice cream on their annual visits to Portugal--a sweet tradition in more ways than one!) For myself, I was hoping to find a dark beer. I knew that I probably wouldn't come across anything as delicious as my Kevin's own brew of Ravenseyrie Stout, but it was worth a try to at least find something heavier than a lager. The proprietor did not speak English and of course, I had forgotten my little Berlitz Portuguese phrase book and I had not taken the trouble to memorize the word for "beer" (cerveja) let alone request a dark beer or a bona fide stout, if such a thing could be had in Portugal. "Do you sell dark beer?" meant nothing to the kind gentleman and I felt ashamed to not have prepped myself a little better. His son was summoned, a handsome brown-eyed young man with a friendly, warm smile like so many Portuguese males. He immediately understood that I wanted a beer and set a bottle of lager on the counter. I said "Sim" [yes]...but, dark, por favor...or, hmmm, brown...?" He indicated he didn't know what I meant. I began to pantomime a bit. I pointed to my eyes and then touched a blue bowl on the counter - then I pointed to his eyes and the put my finger on the bottle of beer. Yes! Instantly the young man knew what I wanted and pulled from a refrigerator under the counter a bottle of dark beer and fetched me a glass. With big smiles on both our faces I paid for my prize and carried it outside to join Hardy and Rose at a shaded patio table. Knowing how much Kevin would appreciate this little beer story, I got my camera out and took a photo for him.

After we felt suitably recovered from our hours of hiking at Font'Alva, Hardy drove us off to Elvas to see the views from up where the castle looks over the landscape. First, though we drove by the amazing Aqueduto da Amoreira, built in the 15th century on top of the foundation of the earlier aqueduct constructed by the Romans. Very impressive!

The Castelo de Elvas was closed to the public on that day, so we contented ourselves with walking the surrounding walls and getting some photos of the terrific view.

I love this photo of feels like it would make a great reference for a painting.

There were intriguing narrow roads winding away from the castle and I was thinking it would be nice to get some photos of the architecture for Kevin. I wandered a bit and captured some images of doors (I have a door fetish) some very humble, others opulent and grand.

Hardy assured me that I would find even better scenes to photograph the next day when we were scheduled to spend some time at a 14th century fortress city, Castelo de Vide (the name of the city as well as the castle).

After leaving Elvas, along the way Hardy and Rose spotted a resort hotel they had been meaning to check out and see what the amenities and rates were like. While they were in the lobby obtaining information, I wandered around the premises taking photographs.

There were sections that were in derelict condition and, as is so frequent in Portugal, one finds horses or burros in the most unlikely places!

What vibrancy this donkey has in his just a moment of communion with him, I feel he knows everything about me!

On our drive back to Alter do Chao, we decided to stop at an interesting looking "mom and pop" restaurant in the village of Viamonte, another place that Hardy and Rose traditionally like to dine at. It was sometime after 4pm I would guess and the restaurant was closed, but the madre invited us to dine there just the same and seated us in the cool shadows of the far back seating area. The kind senhora asked her son, Bruno (who remembered Hardy from a previous visit) to come help decipher our English and bungled Portuguese requests and soon we had laid before us a true feast of foods--just what our tired and hot bodies longed for. I made out very well with salad, potatoes, cabbage, bread, broccoli and a hearty red wine. How appreciative we were at the happy hospitality these people showed us, even during a time of day when their restaurant is closed!

We drove back to the hotel (which I will tell about in the next journal entry--it was such an impressive place!) and went to our rooms earlier than usual. I had time to hand wash some of my clothes and type a long email to Kevin, before meeting the Oelkes in the hotel restaurant for a little dessert before turning in for some sleep.

We didn't see as many Sorraia horses as we had hoped to on Day Five, nor did it seem fate allowed for a dedicated Sorraia preservationist from Canada to connect with the president of the Portuguese Sorraia association...but I felt very pleased to have spent as much time as we did hiking out over the Font'Alva landscape as well as putting in a little sight-seeing that was not horse related. And--still suffering a bit from homesickness--I was now one day closer to returning to my own wonderful life at Ravenseyrie!

Turret on the surrounding wall of the Castelo de Elvas