28 October 2011

The Alentejo

The first thing we saw in the Alentejo region of Portugal was a dead cow. It had been dead for a little while, lying amid rocks and scrub not far from the dirt road. This isn't the coast or the wine region, it's the backcountry, a place that is slowly becoming emptier and more forgotten. For all its harsh beauty, the Alentejo is being left behind.
The landscape is one of desert grasses and cacti, rocks and sheep, barking dogs and land turned by hand. There are cork oaks and olive trees in rows. Summer temperatures are among the hottest in Europe. A rainstorm during our stay brought relief for the farmers; it hadn't rained in five months. It smelled like fall and burning grass. The yellowed earth was particularly striking when the sky was blue and the autumn light cast long shadows.
Already the most sparsely peopled part of Portugal, the Alentejo loses residents every year. Young people leave for Lisbon, Guimarães or the southern coast, leaving their parents and grandparents to work the rocky earth. The further into the countryside we went, the older the people - men hunched over donkey plows, women making lace with crooked fingers. The picturesque, whitewashed villages are even becoming emptier. In Marvão, once a bustling town, there are only 15o people left and the streets are silent. In Castelo de Vide, above, shutters hang loosely in front of vacant windows.
The region is ancient. Monoliths from prehistory, roman roads and ruins, rocks piled for millennia. In the middle of a cork forest, down a rough road, a little clearing exists around the Menhir da Meada, the tallest on the Iberian peninsula. Emperor Augustus, of Rome, built a cobbled highway through the plains around 25 BC - even then, the land was mostly empty. Travelers passed through on their way down to the sea, or up into the Spanish netherworld of Estremadura.
There is amazing beauty mixed in with the rust and stone - and some good food, too. We ate deliciously salty cheese, dogfish soup, hearty kale and Pão de Cabeça bread. From a farmer, we bought an assortment of tiny, sweet tomatoes and two perfectly ripe persimmons - the fruit was almost liquid inside, and honey-sweet. Oranges grew everywhere, showing up bright against the fall browns.
We camped for a few days down the street from a small bull-fighting ring, across the lane from a pasture where the bulls were being raised. One feels, here, that this is Portugal's mortal corner. Unlike the timeless seashore, or the age-old beauty of the cities, this is a region that reminds a traveler that age can also mean death.
The locals tend to lump all tourists together as "northern-european." The people they mean arrive here from the sterile outside, wide eyed and infrequently. They come for the heat and quiet, or to find some mythical piece of real Portugal. What they are looking for is on the verge of vanishing, a way of life that no-one wants to lead anymore.
The Alentejo after all, isn't changing, just petering out. But, on cold October nights in little bars, the locals huddle together and drink. Reserved on the street, in a taberna they are a cheerful, loud lot - even the most elderly of them give booming greetings and goodbyes. At the end of these short days, with winter approaching, the scene is certainly that of the "real" Portugal, of a people entrenched in their earth and place, happy to see that their friends and neighbors are still there.


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