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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?




  1. Richard November 3, 2010 11:32 am Reply

    Wow this was amazing.
    Has that spooky feel like Sintra. Awesome views of the mountains. Gee life must have been tough back then i guess as well.
    Fantastic pictures once again Emma.

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  2. Suzanne McDonald November 3, 2010 12:51 pm Reply

    Superb commentary, most impressive. It only makes me more excited to have chosen Central Portugal as a place to write the next chapter. The photographs are stunning and the script wonderfully informative………….thanks Emma, I look forward to your next.

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  3. Maria Silva November 3, 2010 1:11 pm Reply

    Hi Emma,
    Fantastic pictures of countryside Portugal! It’s like stepping back in time, medieval times … But still amazingly beautiful! Just love to read your blogs! Keep similing 🙂

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  4. rodrigo November 3, 2010 5:10 pm Reply

    Stunning Emma. Love the article and photography. I will certainly make a point of visiting these villages.
    Thank you.

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  5. elis November 3, 2010 8:25 pm Reply

    Fantastic photos and text!!! ***

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  6. Jane November 4, 2010 12:34 am Reply

    The depopulated feel of this part of Portugal has been on my mind since we returned from our wonderful week in Coimbra last month. We did not venture up to the villages because our map was not up to it, but we did take the bus to Lusa and it was incredibly quiet. (We also enjoyed a marvelous lunch in the restaurant above the river beach there, which I am sure you will know.) Miranda do Corvo which is also on the bus route was a bit more lively but on another trip we passed through Penela and it was completely dead. There is a wonderful children’s playground there but where were the children? And how on earth do all the café owners make a living?

    Thanks for your blog, Emma, it is very informative and we love your writing. It is giving us a link into a country that fascinates us and we love very much.

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  7. Emma November 4, 2010 3:33 am Reply

    There’s a Robin Hood type story that plays around the Aldeias do Xisto, robbing from rich & poor alike. The authorities knew who he was, but because of the lack of access, left him to it. And this was back in the 1960’s, not the 1660’s!!

    Gorgeous pics. Beautifully written. Just love coming here each week!

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  8. judith tuttle November 4, 2010 4:30 am Reply

    What an interesting time your having….and the photos..delight!
    Thanks for the Blogg..I’m just much much older than I care to be and when feeling blue..often your e’s to me just make it “blue” in the sky sense!

    I’m sure a book will be done by you when your ready..good fortune…Judy

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    Emma   Reply: November 4th, 2010 at 5:17 am

    such a nice message judy, it cheers me up to read the comments! Yes, one day, a book. Have to build the house first :-/

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  9. Emma November 4, 2010 5:29 am Reply

    This came via email after explorer Mike from Kansas had somehow discovered the photos we had uploaded to the gallery BEFORE publishing the post. Amazingly his grandparents used to live in one of the villages and he could identify it from the pics – even though I had named the village incorrectly. Thanks Mike, great to talk to you. How cool is the internet sometimes.

    He writes: “Great stuff!! I think you’ve hit it “dead on” with your perspectives as to why some villages failed and some survived. Remote was not a big deal before the onset of paved roads and utilities as these folks pretty much lived a very self sufficient existence until modern times. In some respects it was a bit of a “crap shoot” when you consider that even the ones still around are not exactly easy to access. My mother has all of the old pictures and is planning on bringing them to my house when the come to Kansas City later this month. I plan on getting them scanned and sent over to you. My uncle (who was born in Vilarinho- the BIG town in the area- and lived in Silveira de Baixo until he, my aunt and grandmother came to the US to join my grandfather in the 1930’s) verified that the chapel you’re referring to is dedicated to São Lourenço (St. Lawrence) who was the patron saint of the villages in the area. My grandmother always had here “shrine” on her bureau (ok- it was a box that was decorated with fabric with statues- along with the requisite Our Lady of Fatima statue- S. Lourenço was in there too- as well as St. Anthony which, as you may know, the Portuguese do not refer to him as St. Anthony of Padua but instead S. António de Lisboa since he was born there!”

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  10. Nuno H November 4, 2010 7:29 am Reply

    Great photos indeed!

    The Scouts in Portugal have developed one of those hard to reach villages. It’s called Drave, and it’s situated in the area of São Pedro do Sul. http://drave.cne-escutismo.pt/english/main.php?action=why#drave

    The English version of the site is very poor. For Portuguese readers, the Pt version is more informative and includes a more detailed village history (2º link)

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  11. sam November 5, 2010 1:15 am Reply

    Hi Emma,

    We have an abandoned village just up the road from where we live and it is a really strange experience to go and have a walk around. Some of the buildings are ruinous but others still have remnants of their previous life, I mean intact bread ovens & rusty pots and lots of terracotta pine resins pots. We even discovered a patch of wild garlic…..!

    There are plots of land which are still well tended and our neighbours told us that their grandparents used to live up there but slowly the families moved down to the “main road” when the electricity and mains water came. I love the fact that although the houses are ruinous and it is a fair old hike for them, the families still tend the land, picking the olives & fruit trees and growing potatoes.
    ps. love the blog!

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  12. Pete November 5, 2010 6:18 am Reply

    I was recently offered to swap my Lisbon apartment for an entire village (around 20 ruins) in Tras-os-Montes: the owner basically saw no financial interest in holding on to them (kind of sad, really).

    I’ve just returned from the Sierra de Grazalema in Andalucia, and what stuck me there, compared to Central Portugal and the Alentejo, was that the villages seemed – demographically – to be bearing up relatively well: lots of young families, small businesses etc., with recent graduates doing the commute to larger towns like Seville/Ronda/Jerez/Malaga.

    Portugal’s problem seems to have been the lack of development of its secondary cities (under Salazar, and even post-entry to the EU). Lisbon/Setubal/Cascais/Sintra and Porto in particular have sprawled enormously since the early 1970s, but cities like Coimbra, Evora, Castelo Branco etc. have not expanded to support a lot of satellite villages in the ‘one-hour commute’ zone around them. This map says it all:


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    pilar   Reply: November 6th, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    you are totally right!

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    jane   Reply: November 10th, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Thanks for your post. It explains a lot about how the area around Coimbra felt to me.

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  13. Michelle Evaristo November 5, 2010 7:38 am Reply

    How awesomely amazing! And you own it now. I used to love going into the abandoned houses that were in parents hometown when I used to go spend summers in Portugal.

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  14. pilar November 5, 2010 12:37 pm Reply

    Querida Emma,
    always get emotional with your descriptions; they are so profound and mystical and they DO translate so much of the “portuguese soul”. Obrigada!

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  15. Isabel November 6, 2010 7:41 pm Reply

    Actually, I’ve talked with my brother, the landscape architect, about these abandoned villages and their history. He doesn’t know anything specific about these particular places, but doesn’t think they were a spin-off of transhumance, as I thought they could be (apparently, flocks from the Coimbra area were moved to Serra da Estrela, not to Serra da Lousã). But generally speaking, people in those areas lived on herding of sheep and goats, that require great extensions of land, usually of common use, not privately owned (baldios). They would settle on the rare patches where land was flat enough for their kitchen gardens and maybe some rye. There is even a researcher from the U. of Michigan that thinks that the main purpose of those the sheep and goats was not to produce food, but fertilizer for very unproductive soils. Then, around the 50’s or even before (accelerating in the 60’s) people started emigrating in droves, first to the Americas and then to France and Germany. I wonder if the change of the juridical status of the baldios from common land to private use, that took place in the 40’s I think, didn’t provide an extra push to look for more viable economic alternatives elsewhere.
    Anyway, beautiful they are, these villages, and quite suitable for those that experienced a life of plenty and are looking for simplicity and beauty… with flushing toilets 😉

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  16. Cristina November 8, 2010 8:10 am Reply

    Terrific post and photos Emma! My father’s family is from one of the renovated aldeias do xisto that you have mentioned. As some of the comments also suggest, economic reasons led many (including my own relatives) to leave, bound for Lisboa or beyond. Interestingly, many of them (including my parents) have since returned, building or renovating homes thereby helping to breathe new life into these towns and villages. The changes that I have seen in these aldeias since I was a child have been incredible and show the real potential for rural tourism and for alternatives to urban living.

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  17. Jaime November 8, 2010 4:33 pm Reply

    Emma Great Post, thank you! this is an amazing place, for sure. but I was thinking of the cold winters, the solitude of the mountains, poor housing, livestock as only friend … and suddenly, all this paradise becomes a little more somber and sad. Maybe these people simply had enough and sought a different life. Human beings always seek the different, what for me is good, for you can be a nightmare … and one never comes back to what we once abandoned, so nobody came back to these houses and it´s difficult life. Only other people, tired of other places, can come and fill these mountains with life. Hope so…

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  18. Mandy November 9, 2010 11:57 am Reply

    Hi Emma,

    I have done no work today. Nor will i do tomorrow, i think! Your blog is just so funny and on point that when i’m not pissing myself laughing i’m subconciously nodding so hard my neck has started to hurt. I’m Aussie too, and i went to Portugal earlier this year. For the last six years i have lived in a former Portuguese colony working for NGOs and the UN. Six years though, more than a few cultural assumptions had been made, and i develoeped a burning desire to see what ‘they’ were really like ‘over there’. Starting with cake as one does,I felt that i had been blind but then i could see when i went to Portugal finally and tasted what REAL pasteis are like, here they are just like our traditional snot blocks! And don’t even get me started on Portuguese people… wow, i have never met such genuine, friendly, and helpful people… well, at least when they’re not, um, working in a former colony and getting just a liiiiiiittle bit competitive… ok, so there’s quite substantial rivalry with the aussies over here. But hey. I can have the ‘Who Really Discovered Australia’ conversation every Friday night until four in the morning with random Portuguese policeman… i learned Portuguese this way, i call it ‘Disco Portuguese’.

    So i’m hoping i can get SOME work today, because i’ve kind of gotta find someone to move into my house and adopt my dog before next Friday. I was getting impatient… i just wanted a taste… so thank you. I recommended your blog to my best friend too, who lives there with Portuguese Army Husband.

    All the best and keep writing! It’s nice to feel we’re all aussies in this little humour boat floating on pasteis and wine. 🙂

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    Emma   Reply: November 12th, 2010 at 4:11 am

    @Mandy, tis nice to be on a humour boat indeed – tope story, thanks for stopping by!

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  19. Emma November 12, 2010 4:16 am Reply

    Thanks for all the great comments on this post – and especially for all the extra contributions… from nuno, pete, sam, isabel, cristina, and again mike. Those first hand accounts make it all so real! Thanks all… I think you have made it one of my favourite posts. x emma

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  20. jane mcbennett November 19, 2010 12:03 am Reply

    Hi Emma

    If you log onto the BBC New Magazine section for today 18 Nov there is an article about Britain’s abandoned villages. Thought you might be interested. Sorry can’t email the link: I am not very good at that kind of technology

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    emma   Reply: November 19th, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Cool Jane, thanks.

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  21. Vern November 24, 2010 1:17 pm Reply

    Hello Emma,
    My son in Melbourne has just forwarded your blog in Portugal.
    Wow! What can I say, it’s one of the best I have seen.
    I know of blogs in the Phillipines like this, also in Thailand.
    I am a born wanderer and currently living in Hobart Tasmania, originally, I was born in the UK and spent my first 20 years there.
    Left the UK with £10 in my pocket to work my way around the world in 1949. I travelled and worked in over 50 countries.
    I am now 81 and still travelling.
    I call them refugees in reverse, but there are thousands of people like yourself abandoning the West to live a more frugal and peaceful existence. In the Phillipines I know an American who is building small rooms for prospective settlers to rent out at very low rents.
    In many countries new settlers don’t bother about visas, just overstay and pay a small fine every year, then visit somewhere like Malaysia, obtain another visa and stay for another year.
    The authorities turn a blind eye as these people provide money which these settlers spend on rent, food, entertainment and so forth.
    I also know about thousands of yachts which are cruising isolated oceans of the world, some are single sailors, and others are travelling with young children. There are blogs on wonderful sites.
    I will write more later and list some sites.
    In the meantime I will try to devour your posts over the next few days.

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  22. ana martins December 7, 2010 2:43 am Reply

    Once upon a time, back in 1999, when touring around Serra da Gardunha (near Serra da Estrela) we were smitten by a stone house in ruins.Found the owners but to straight out the paperwork was a nightmare and we gave up. A few years later we returned to the same area and it was still there, untouched but by nature. We managed to assemble all necessary documents to legalize the property and finally bought it in 2004. However, sadly enough, our lives took us elsewhere and we never got to restore that beautiful stone house. Perhaps one of you, fellow readers, would like to check it out and bring it to life? You can see some photos and more details at http://www.custojusto.pt/Castelo+Branco/1583189.htm. Thanks.

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  23. Lynn March 29, 2011 5:22 am Reply

    Hi Emma,
    I don’t want you to give away your secrets but I love that area of Portugal called “terra de xisto”. I want to explore for more than a day trip, can you recommend any camp grounds in that area? I saw one in Serpins that looks OK but don’t know. Thanks 🙂

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    Emma   Reply: March 30th, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Hi Lynn. If it’s aldeias do xisto you want to see then I think the highest concentration of them is in the serra da lousã. There’s no camp ground up there that I’m aware of but there’s a very good youth hostel in Lousã, and on the other side of the mountain a very nice camping ground in Castaneira de Pera. I haven’t seen the Serpins grounds, but that would put you closer to the villages of Aigra Velha, Aigra Nova, which we visited a couple of days ago and are very nice. Hope you have a car… you’ll need it! If it’s the Terra do Xisto in general your after, then you could look as far as Gois, Arganil and up to the Serra do Açor. Lovely country! http://www.aldeiasdoxisto.pt This site (if you havent seen already) has the stone villages and lists of places to stay including camping and yurts…

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  24. Coby Smith May 28, 2014 8:28 pm Reply

    Beautiful landscape. The fact that it reminded you of Thailand really sticks with me as that is how it looked when I was in Burma. This article might be of value to travellers interested in South East Asia – http://www.travelindochina.com/blog-articles/welcome-to-burma

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  25. Marcelo Caetano da Silva August 2, 2017 5:11 am Reply

    Hello Emma, I’m Marcelo Caetano da Silva from Brazil, I was in 2015 in the villages where my mother was born in Silveira de Baixo and my great granddaughter was from Silveira from above, in search of new opportunities they abandoned everything there, my grandmothers with my mother and Two aunts came to Brazil, while other relatives went to other places …

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    Emma   Reply: August 3rd, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    @Marcelo Caetano da Silva, wow that’s amazing! Thanks for commenting Marcelo, muito obrigada!

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