welcome to emmas housethought

day trip: tentúgal

On my return journey from Figueira da Foz on the N111 a while back I caught a fleeting glimpse of the words Doces Conventuais which made me hit the brakes and for the Wookie to bash his head on the dashboard. Where I’m from, Doces Conventuais means Emergency Stop.


One might be forgiven for mistaking the cafés on the roadside of the N111 at Tentúgal for ordinary truckie stops. There are about 5 or 6 altogether on a strip of about 500m. A few are plain ordinary looking cafés and the others have slightly fancier facades. All sell the famous Pastéis de Tentúgal but there are two that offer rather more than just that.


For a start, the first one, A Pousadinha, has 5 different flavours of empada. Wha? An empada is a little pie, and we of Australian-Kiwi-English ancestry love pies. Normally empadas come in chicken flavour only, so to find a variety is really something in itself. None of the flavours is beef, or beef and kidney, or beef and onion, or beef onion bacon and cheese, but let’s not quibble. Let’s be happy there are duck pies, and piglet pies, and seafood pies. Tentúgal discovery number one.


O Afonso

A bit further up the road towards Coimbra there’s a fancier sign with a large parking area for O Afonso, and this place is a revelation. Are we in Greenwich Village? Covent Garden? Double Bay? There is gourmet stuff everywhere: teas, cheeses, local wines, sweet exotica in nice bags with gold labels. The displays, photographic wallpaper and furniture are like, groovy and expensive. Lo and behold, interior design, right here, in the middle of nowhere.


And then, OMG look what’s on offer to eat. I myself am obliged to a Pastel de Tentúgal, but The One has to pace up and down the counter several times umming and ahhing as everything here seems new and original and extraordinarily delicious. Our yummies are served with a proper tea pot and a gorgeous coffee cup and saucer á la Caldas da Rainha.


And THEN the empresaria, Dona Margarida, invites me back-stage, to the kitchen. Ya. For the uninitiated, doces conventuais are pastries invented and created by nuns (and brothers) in convents (or monastries), often centuries-old recipes (the Tentúgals come originally from a closed Carmelite convent of the 16th Century). Frequently these recipes are kept secret (in this case because the convent is not open to outsiders, the nuns speak with no one) and they were given as welcoming gifts in honour of visiting bishopry or benefactors, as well as being stashed in the secret cavity of the nun’s bibles for midnight snackage.

The Tentúgals came to prominence in the 19th century, as the convent was running out of money they sold their goodies at the convent gates. They became popular with students at nearby Coimbra university, and I suppose, as the convent closed, the sweets then became commercialised. Pastéis de Tentúgal can be found around the country at the more serious fabrico proprio pastelarias, but for the real experience you have to come here.


The village of Tentúgal is a turn off the N111, and what a little treasure it is. It’s so cute that it made The One angry. “I want to live here” he said, tearfully. It’s the way little villages should be. What makes it so is that it’s really old, first referred to in print in 980 but then taken under the wing and developed in the 11th century by a dude named Dom Sesnando. A lot of old buildings have stayed. This Sesnando Davides, by the way, built castles at Coimbra, Lousã, Montemor-o-Velho, Penacova and Penela. He’s a guy that got things happening.

I was trying to find the 16th century Carmelite convent – which is tucked away in a little square and distinguishable by a checked hat on its roof. (If you do want to see inside the convent, hot tip, the Dona of Casa Armenio is good to call upon, or else start with Margarida at O Afonso, or even there’s an office opposite the Igreja Misericórdia. Actually it’s hard to find someone who will not want to oblige in Tentúgal). But en route to the convent there are a few very impressive little churches worth looking in at. The first is the Igreja da Misericórdia, built in 1583. The Casa da Misericórdia in Tentúgal, I was told by the local historian, was the second to be established after Lisbon. The Casa is one of the longest running charitable institutions in the world, establish by Queen Leonor in 1498 who recognised the need for someone to look after Lisbon’s orphans, widows, druggies and useless. And they also run Portugal’s national lottery and have a special place in our hearts for the hope they give to all of us.


The church is very simple and the reredos is carved from wood – the figures are quite unsophisticated but still hold some colour: each scene depicts a story from the bible for the illiterate masses.


Similarly simple and decorated in wood is the Capela Nossa Senhora dos Olivais. It is very cute indeed with naïve and humble statuary.


Now it’s time for dinner. Casa Armenio has something of a reputation for its roast duck and I’m not sure that anyone orders anything else when they come here. The One, who is something of a connoisseur of rissóis de leitão (piglet rissoles, mate) was almost in tears again because Casa Armenio’s are that good. This is a damn fine restaurant. It has atmosphere and conviviality, it’s not pretentious but it feels a bit special, the food is excellent and we had to have three desserts. I’m tempted to say it’s my second favourite restaurant in Portugal (for the first favourite, see Braga). Tentúgal discovery number five.


leite creme at casa armenio

But where’s the gorgeous guesthouse? Anyone?

with thanks to emma and loz for making it all possible 🙂

two of a kind

I’d resigned myself to my solteirona1 status long ago. And I was comfortable with my ambiguity, my cats and my dressing gown. I would sail this ship alone, feeling already whole, not ever having known loneliness, for the world is a constant box of surprises, and adventure is always ready for those who know where to look.


I have loved, after all, and I have been loved. But we are creatures of habit, and I confess I am a Bolter2. I do have a heart, but it is a refugee from frontline action.

After a long time, I knew that the only way love could try to take me in was if it clubbed me over the back of the head and dragged me off unconscious into the cave. Love Chooses You, I often claimed. Like Malkovich’s excuse from Dangerous Liaisons “It’s beyond my control”. That’s the only love I’d settle for. Unquestionable. Definite. Certain.


If one was ever looking for husband, I could tell you how not to go about it. When I first arrived in Cú de Judas my mother asked wistfully “Is there anyone nice3?”. “Mother”, I replied, “I did not find anyone nice in a dynamic city of three-and-a-half million, or another cosmopolitan city of four-and-a-half million, so the chance of me finding anyone nice in a backward village of 20 is unlikely.”

And-But, if I ever had a list of qualities most desirable in a husband, “Surprise” would surely come before #2, A Sense of Humour, #3. Intelligence and #4. Beauty. And there it is.


We met only a year ago, and I was first struck by his number four. He was with someone. Next lunch I was with someone, but the third lunch “to talk shop” he made a reservation. As a woman of the world I knew that this was a sign. Straight from Emma’s How to Flirt Basics4 I can also tell you that the ordering of anything with breasts5 in the dessert-title is a signal that you or your dining partner have other things on their mind.


Then suddenly we were engaged. We don’t know quite how this happened, but it was not on the agenda on the first date: How to make Piri-Piri was. Somewhere between dinner at his place and Great Whites Under 3 Euros it was All Decided and rings were on fingers. Of course, no one knew what to say. There had been no warning, no back story, no relationship, nothing really to explain it.


So I didn’t tell anyone for a while, except my Sister-in-Law who rather fortuitously came for a luxy weekend in Lisbon. Thus, a fab wedding dress was bought, from the only possible place, A Outra Face Da Lua. Vintage heaven. Thanks to them, their enthusiasm and their creative chutzpah, that I turned out like an angel. Can’t remember the shop assistant’s name who picked out the frocks, but he was a winner. Thanks.


Luxy Sister-in-Law put me onto the earrings. She has a nose for antique french jewellery and that night her blackberry brought me my chandelier fantasy. Unique, collectable, 1960’s pure glamour gluttony. Really expensive, naturally, so now they are going on ebay because we need firewood. But thank you Helena, Harlequin Market, Paddington, Sydney, for this wonderfully delicious decadence.


Well now the story turns a tad dull because the paperwork part of getting married is absurdly bureaucratic and somewhat unromantic. Dunno ’bout you folks but waiting in line at Registos for six hours does not make me smile. Cast aside one’s ideal Beach Wedding, Castle Wedding, City Wedding: my advice to young noivos6 would be just to find a cooperative and courteous Registo who understands the difference between Love and War. Seriously, I’d begun to think I’d mixed up the words for gun license and marriage licence. Or maybe arms trafficker. The paperwork went on and on, not at all unlike getting my visa: Bureaucrat Modus Operandus Page One: Stop the customer getting what they want. Never mind that the customer is a taxpaying Portuguese resident and therefore pays your wages, dumbass. Never mind this operation-marriage-invasion is costing the customer a small fortune which goes slap into the Portuguese economy direct from their mothers’ foreign bank account. And certainly never mind knowing the law, regulations or procedure – just make it up as you go along. Every Registo had its own special set of requirements, including the procurement of stamps from departments overseas who could not, did not, provide them. Over their dead body were we getting married. We went through five conselhos’ Registos but I single out Porto for being the worst. Rude beyond rude. Easily gets the prize for rudest Portuguese I have ever met. City of Porto, you lost our business. You suck.


Almost defeated and being threatened with Gretna Green by The One and His People, we re-visited the Registo of Lousã, where they employ human beings. Fernanda, god bless her, was excited for us. One small tweak to the paperwork (and even an apology from the Aussie embassy for a typo: an apology from a government employee? I nearly cried. God bless you too, Cristina) and we had Salazar’s approval. Oh the joy. We were free to be together. To be Us, We. Each One, of Two7. Wedded and Bedded.

By convenience, or just more serendipity, Lousã has an adorable palace hotel which I have a soft spot for. We coordinated dates between the Conservadora and The Mélia. Wedding, Honeymoon, credit card, tick tick tick.


All I had left to panic about was that summer had turned into winter and my dress had been bought in July. So I dragged my flu-ridden self to Coimbra for a last minute thermal underwear mall attack, where Etam sorted me out with a sexy kit. Not recommended for Antarctic explorers, perhaps, but undergarmets nonetheless.

It’s all been a learning curve obviously, but did you know that a bride is required to submit to a hairdo rehearsal? This I never knew, and will never know. I went instead to a proper hairdresser who knew when the 1960s was, and she made me look like a glamourpuss in half an hour. Ana, Cabeleireiro Hair Studio, thank you, gorgeous work.


Now all I have to thank is two extraordinarily talented people, Tango, AtomicdogmA.com and Penfold, papersurfer.com who came to document the event, to give us some proof that we weren’t making the whole thing up. Are the pictures brilliant or what?


I’ve never wanted to get married. I have always disliked weddings. And I’m not sure I have believed in love for a long time. I certainly do not subscribe to the notion that “there is someone for everyone”. I absolutely refute that being a part of a couple is an ultimate goal of life.


But I believe that being happy is the meaning of life. And to love and be loved is our greatest, noblest ability. And now I also believe in chance, perhaps in fate and I believe that if this amazing stroke of luck can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

Thank you, meu querido marido.


1 old maid

2 Love in a Cold Climate

3 Potential suitor for settling down with

4 The book that comes after “My Life as a Peasant” and also after “Mary and Fred’s Guide to Cat Massage” but before “Great Toilets of the World”.

5 Burgo’s Seios De Noviça

6 engaged people, or bride/groom-to-be

7 as in, Seven of Nine, borg identity, Star Trek


the hunt for the great wild mushroom

Mushrooms. The steak of the vegetable kingdom. Versatile, tasty, healthy and lots of varieties. Except in the supermarket boondocks of Central Portugal where exotic means Swiss Brown or Oyster at extortion prices.

In Australia we are spoiled with a plethora of fresh Asian mushrooms like Shitake,  Enokitake,  Straw and Black from China and very weird wobbly moist seaweed like fungi from Japan. For the wild forager there are Field and Pine, and Australian Morels, but alas, the god and goddess of mushrooms the Porcini and the Chantarelle are exclusive to Europe. These we can only get them dried or wraaapped in plaaastic.


Mushroom #1: a mystery

The chance that there might be a secret cache of Chantarelles hiding here in the forest gets me out of bed on a cold and wet morning. Our story begins with a walking of the wookie and the discovery of 16 different-looking mushrooms in the space of an hour. Then I sent the pics to Rick at Permanent Portuculture who, while insisting he is no expert, does have the guts to eat what he picks himself.


Mushroom #8: also a mystery

A couple of people die in Portugal every year from eating wild mushrooms. Mostly it’s the fault of the Amanita Phalloides, with the I-told-you-so common name of The Death Cap. Another Amanita, Virosa, also not-kiddingly known as the Destroying Angel usually knocks off a few more souls in the world each year. Fascinatingly, one of the poisons carried by the Amanita interrupts the production of DNA, so organs which constantly reproduce cells (like the liver and kidneys) are fatally affected. Most poisonings occur where foraging is most popular, der, like in North America and Europe, but heaven help you if you eat the wrong thing in a third world country where dialysis and liver transplants may not be at your immediate disposal. One story of a whole family in Nepal being poisoned, then misdiagnosed and not appropriately treated, died from blood loss, which poured out of every orifice. Apologies to those eating breakfast.

So, be warned. This is not an authoritative guide to surviving mushrooms. You life is in your hands.


young Fly Agaric

Here we have a nice example of the Fly Agaric (amanita mascara), a poisonous and hallucinogenic fungus. The Lapps of Lapland have a wealth of folklore surrounding the Fly Agaric, including drinking the urine of the reindeer who feed on the mushroom, which apparently is a safer way to achieve the desired effect. Apologies again to those eating breakfast.

It would help anyone trying to identify mushrooms to get as many references as they can, as appearances vary from photo to photo, and a single mushroom can vary greatly according what stage of development it’s at. Check out Baby Fly above and Mother Fly below. And check out any of the google pictures links – wildly different examples. Don’t trust any of them.


Older Fly Agaric

“Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain & Europe”, by Roger Phillips is pretty much the bible of the mushroom faithful. The novice forager should learn to recognize the few that are worth eating, the few that are deadly, and the more common ones that will make you sick.


Mushroom #5 : The Parasol

Here we have the Parasol (Lepotia procera) edibility excellent, late summer and autumn. Not frost hardy. Habitat: open woodland and pasture.  Like most mushrooms you can’t put it in the freezer because of its high water content, but you could try drying it.

There are about 14 000 kinds of mushrooms and fruiting fungi, but there are only a very few anyone bothers to eat. It’s because very few are tasty. Here is a brief list of the shrooms worth eating (according to Phillips)

  • Field mushroom – (Agaricus campestris)
  • Cep – (or porcini, penny bun) – (Boletus edulis)
  • Chanterelle – (Cantharellus cibarius)
  • Shaggy ink cap – (Coprius comatus)
  • Horn of plenty (or trumpet of death, black chanterelle, black trumpet) – (Craterellus cornucopioides)
  • Hedgehog fungus – (Hydnum repandum)
  • Chicken of the woods – (Laetiporus sulphureus)
  • Giant puffball – (Langermannia gigantea)
  • Parasol mushroom – (Lepiota procera)
  • Shaggy parasol – (Lepiota rhacodes)
  • Field blewit – (Lepista saeva)
  • Wood blewit – (Lepista nuda)
  • wood-blewits

    Wood Blewits, picked by Rick

  • Fairy ring champignon (or scotch bonnet) – (Marasmius oreades)
  • Morel – (Morchella esculenta)
  • Oyster mushroom – (Pleurotus ostreatus)
  • Cauliflower fungus – (Sparassis crispa)
  • St. George’s mushroom – (Tricholoma flavovirens)
  • Truffle – (Tuber aestivum)
  • That’s not even 20, and the deadly poisonous ones don’t even number 10.


    Mushroom #6 : Panther Cap

    Rick reckons this is probably a Panther Cap (Amanita pantherina) super poisonous. Steer clear of it, and really don’t lick, pinch or even kiss accidentally. This guy could be so bitchin’ that he could transfer toxins through your skin and set you puking, or worse.


    Mushroom #7: The Crumpet

    This is in the world of could be this or that, but it is not a crumpet. Rick’s money would probably be on Peppery Bolete (boletus piperatus) which is edible, pops up in late summer and autumn. Found in various locations, particularly birch scrub, mixed pine and birch on sandy soil.

    On the other hand, it could be Red Cracked Boletus, which is common, found in mixed broadleaf woodland in autumn, and edible.

    OR it might even be Boletus pruinatus, which are rare.

    Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an underground thingy called a mycelium, a felt like mat that spreads in an evasive extra-terrestrial kind of way, like a thing from another planet, very 1950’s sci-fi. Mushrooms are groovy, see. There are many that look the same, or nearly identical, and accordingly some are named “false” whatsists or “deceiving” doodad.


    Mushroom #9: Log Dudes

    Rick thinks these could be either of two things, both tend to grow in the same vicinity. He would say these are Sulphur Tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare) very common, habitat in big clusters on stumps of trees. Not edible.

    Or possibly, they are Honey Fungus, (Armillaria mellea), very edible when cooked. Similarly found in abundance, often nearby Sulphur Tufts. A problem if you have it on your trees as it attacks its host, with no known cure. Good job you can eat it.


    Mushroom #10: The Poo

    Common Earth-Ball (Scleroderma citrinum) late summer to winter, common, hence the name. Not edible.  Found on heaths, mossy and peaty ground, mixed woodland, and especially on sandy soil. When you stamp on one near the end of its life it explodes a black cloud of spores. Dramatic, but mean.


    The Poo again, this time looking more like The Potato


    Mushroom #11

    Rick says he’s not entirely sure about mushroom 11. Looks again like Sulphur Tufts, but also looks a bit like Galerina mutabilis, which are edible and good apparently, they grow in the same conditions in a similar way, abundantly, and almost as common as sulphur tufts, which are not edible, very common and are all year round.


    Mushroom #15: Proper Forest Fungi

    A Polypore (Coriolus versicolor). Very common, grows on deciduous trees all year round. Not edible, but used as an Asian herbal remedy to treat cancer.


    Mushroom #16: The Tiger

    Probably a Lepiota, a parasol of some kind. in its early stage, not easy to fully identify, could be a Lepiota rhacodes, or Lepiota hystrix. but it could also be something else known as The Prince, (Agaricus augustus) which is good to eat, habitat in both deciduous and coniferous woodland, late summer to autumn. and often quite large.


    The Cep

    Now, if you’re looking for something definitely edible, here’s a pic of Boletus edulus, (cep, penny bun, porcini). The three on the right are edulus, one on the left is Gyroporus castaneus, Chestnut Bolete, superb. Found by Rick last winter (around Serra do Açor). But what about my favourite, the Chantarelle? Last time I was in Sweden, where my friend Catarina is an enthusiastic forager, I saw Chantarelles in a supermarket with “origin: Portugal” marked on them! So where are they hiding?

    And if you are wondering where all the other numbers went, well they were either older or younger varieties of ones we’d already named, or they were boring and I left them out, or we didn’t know what they were. They were not Chantarelles, that’s for sure.


    Mushroom #13: Tiny Red Dudes: A Mystery

    guy fawkes vs são martinho

    A terrorist verses a saint.

    Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated on November 5th and commemorates the day Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were busted for trying to blow up the British parliament and kill King James 1 in 1605. It’s otherwise known as Bonfire Night, traditionally accompanied by a large hot pile of burning stuff, fireworks and spiced warm red wine. Quirkily, the celebration these days is almost commemorating Guy Fawkes the man, and what a damn fine chap he was. At the time he was noted as a fun guy to be around, and now in today’s reading of him, as someone with the balls to blow up the government, not an uncommon desire amongst any populace from any time to time.


    His mission was a religious one, that of radical Catholic conquering moderate Protestant, which all things being equal, should actually be offensive to us these days, just as we might be offended by jihadists putting the boot in to anyone thinking differently. I was even a little shocked to hear that burning effigies of the Pope is part of the tradition, and while I don’t believe in mickey mouse, I can understand a whole lotta people getting their knickers in a knot over that.


    So Guido Fawkes is like the patron saint of anarchy, or at least of critics and lefties. In more recent years burning effigies of Margaret Thatcher and George W has become the the trend (and I wonder if any Tony Blairs got done on the weekend). As an Australian I can understand this: our heroes are anti authoritarian. Never mind that James I appears to me to be a pretty moderate sort of bloke, the cheeky little political stirrer that Guy Fawkes represents is the hero of November 5.


    the "mask" of guy fawkes, symbolises anonymous anti-authoritarian protest

    Come November 11 in Portugal, Saint Martin gets a look in, and it would not be considered unusual to invite your friends around, light a big bonfire, roast some chestnuts and warm yourself with this year’s wine to celebrate. Martin of Tours (b.316) had somewhat of a grand career, being one of the most famous early Christians.  He apparently became a Christian at age 10, when it had only just been recognised as a legal religion but was far from being a popular one.


    Martin’s story starts with a “all round good bloke” type tale of him ripping his cloak in two and sharing it with a beggar. That night he dreamt of Christ wearing the cloak, and thus Martin’s vocation was confirmed. During the middle ages, the cloak itself became a big-time holy relic, which means it must have spent a really long time in the back of Martin’s cupboard before anyone remembered it was there. Like, a couple hundred years at the very least.


    A number of small events seemed to lead up to his fame. He went conscientious objector at 18, moved to Tours in France where he made radical Christian friends, then became a hermit in Italy, did a bit of evangelical preaching and then became bishop of Tours. According to Wiki he “made an impression” not only with his nice personality but by smashing up old temples and other nice old pagan bits which today would have fetched a high price at Sotheby’s.

    But Martin was really one for the quiet life and set up a nice cave-dwelling monastic order which became remarkably popular. The followers of this puritanical sect did nothing at all, had nothing at all and wore rough clothes. Other than that, Martin was recorded as unsuccessfully intervening on the part of other Christian sects against the Romans. It’s hard to tell just how well known the guy was during his lifetime, but he did have a personal biographer, so that puts him in league with say, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Victoria Beckham.

    Not unlike photo editing software altering a picture the way we prefer it to be, history gave St Martin a little more saturation, a little softening around the edges. He was taken on by French royalty as a mascot, made patron saint of France, soldiers and horses (do cats have a patron saint?), and his cult grew so that they had to build him a new shrine because he received so many visitors. St Martin’s shrine is a stopping point for pilgrims walking on their way from Santiago de Compostela to Rome. Probably without St Martin, Tours would not see so many tours. Boom boom.


    Multiple miracles were attributed to St Martin, as devotedly told by his contemporary biographer Sulpicius Severus. Just the usual stuff, raising people from the dead, curing the paralyzed and casting out devils. Once he avoided being killed by a falling tree, another time he seemed to possess some extraordinary fire-fighting skills. Nothing too overwhelming.

    What’s really missing from St Martin’s story is a gruesome and untimely martyrdom. Maybe that’s the real miracle, that as an early Christian pot stirrer he avoided being strung up, bled or otherwise subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Apparently instead he lived to the age of 81, which in the 4th century has got be quite remarkable, or complete bullshit.


    Not so Guy Fawkes. First he was tortured, until he confessed and gave up his mates. For treason in the 17th Century, the in-vogue punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered, which I’m afraid means exactly that: hung until you were not quite dead, then have your nuts chopped off and your guts cut out, then beheaded and cut into four bits. But our hero Guy managed rather cunningly to jump off the gallows and break his neck before the savagery could begin.


    So there we are; these are the stories behind our motives to get together with friends around a roaring fire with a glass in hand. Two men with intentions of changing the world, but is that enough? I’d hate to think that in 500 years they’ll be a Feast of Arnold Schwarzenegger.


    I wouldn’t be a true Australian if I didn’t mention here that November 11 was also the day the Queen’s representative in Australia, the Governor-General sacked the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. Whitlam had been elected in 1972, following 23 years of conservative government, after proposing what’s remembered as the most “definitive statement of policies ever proposed at an election”. The first three years of his term witnessed profound change, reform, and controversy as he led Australia into a more forward looking, creative, humanitarian era. His policies included significant health care reform, the end of conscription and the implementation of free legal aid. Leading up to his dismissal as prime minister, the senate (with a majority of conservative coalition members opposed to his policies) blocked bills of supply to the government and produced a stalemate. This ended when for the first and only time in Australia’s history the Prime Minister was dismissed by the Monarch’s representative (a position appointed by the Prime Minister himself). It provoked immediate and widespread protests in the streets and is still considered the most controversial constitutional event in Australia’s history. Gough Whitlam continues to contribute to and comment upon the political landscape today. He is 94.

    abandoned villages

    Central Portugal is dotted with small mountain ranges that shelter isolated, intriguing and picturesque villages. Although it’s easy to imagine how remote most of Central Portugal must have been before the sealed roads of the mid-late 20th century, access to these particular villages must always have been considerably more difficult when you look at the mountainous slopes they have been built on, away from any major rivers and several kilometres from any of the larger, more established towns.silveira de cima wide shot

    Many small communities had to have been completely self sufficient in this region, no doubt many across the whole country, but these villages are so much more isolated, and without any obvious advantages (other than the security brought by their height and their spectacular beauty) I can’t help speculate that their isolation served another purpose; as hideaways. I can’t find any evidence of this idea but I think about Jews and the Inquisition, or the more recent history of anyone avoiding Salazar or Franco and laying low in the hills of Central Portugal. Indeed, even today it would be an excellent place to abscond to.


    Ghost towns quite blatantly have a life after death, just as the ruins of great civilisations inspire awe, even the simplest little abandoned village breathes a soft symphony of history and life. I think because they solicit more questions than they divulge secrets. Only the stones remain, undisturbed and slowly ageing, alone in the quiet forest.


    It reminded me of Angkor, Cambodia, where the smaller, less famous temples, like Ta Prohm are overwhelmed by the growing forest, as though the buildings are being assimilated by the trees to become one organism.


    The rural desertification of Portugal, generally characterised by young people leaving the countryside in search of work, is intensified here, as living conditions in these remote villages still seem somewhat medieval. The mountain villages that have already been restored and renovated by Portuguese and foreigners, have the luxury of telephones and electricity – but you can see in the untouched houses that remain in the same villages that without insulation summer and winter wouldn’t be too comfortable. The steep terrain would have meant herding goats and other livestock & farming the land very serious work. The houses are generally tiny and built deep into the ground, abutting other houses. Someone might argue that being on top of one another was an insulation of a kind – but all I see is damp and no privacy. It’s gorgeous and rustic, but the truth is there are easier places to live.


    But these two villages Silveira de Baixo and Silveira da Cima actually seem grander and larger than the still-occupied and renovated villages of the Aldeias Do Xisto group. Silveira do Baixo has the ruins of a chapel, and the remaining dwellings are large and spread out over a wide area, rather than terraced. Certainly the forest seems to have re-claimed most of the terrain, and any agricultural land is difficult to make out, but these houses look as though they would have had gardens, and were spaced by smaller stone out houses for animals and storage.


    So why were these abandoned while the other villages live on?  In Ireland in the latter half of the 19th century, famine was a major precursor to whole villages packing up and shipping out. Catastrophe can end a village’s life. Was the water supply contaminated, or reduced due to drought? Could the village been invaded by marauding Danes who slaughtered, ravaged and burnt the village to the ground like in the Swedish town Sjöstad, Närke in 1260. The same happened in the French village Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944, when occupying Germans massacred the village’s population. The entire area around Chernobyl is home to several villages disbanded due to contamination. Dam building, the invasion of fat highways or other reclamation of land by the state are other reasons.


    However, it’s not too much of a mystery why, sadly, these villages are abandoned. Families getting older with no kids who want to stay, a gradual erosion of trading connections as better roads were put in other places and job opportunities arose elsewhere. I’d say the introduction of electricity and the exclusion of access to it for some of these villages may have sounded the death nell for them. As the larger towns grew and access to better health care became available people moved to where they could access it. The chance to immigrate, particularly revelant to Portugal and Spain during the 60’s and 70’s, following other family members to better opportunities. It’s all economic.


    But times continue to change, and the fortunes of these villages might be reversed. The Aldeias do Xisto program has been very successful in renewing interest in these remote villages as a valuable cultural asset. Foreigners continue to seek out seclusion and peace where they can hope to live more simply, sustainably and healthily. Once on a visit to a profoundly expensive English lawyer I was brushed aside to make way for clients who were buying an entire abandoned village.  It can be done, and eco-tourism is the future.


    But for now, we are happy to stumble over the stones of our own secret ancient cities, even if they are only 50 years forgotten. What more is there than intrigue and imagination, and the misty breath of village ghosts?



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