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.
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?