In Por­tu­gal, a haven of eco­tourism rises from rocky ru­ins

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JEANINE BARONE

Why would a young, dy­namic per­son pack up and leave buzzing Lis­bon for a life in a di­lap­i­dated stone ham­let with just 40 res­i­dents? It didn’t take long for my guide, Pe­dro Pe­drosa, an en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious en­tre­pre­neur and avid moun­tain biker, to make the case. I was in­stantly en­am­ored with my ac­com­mo­da­tion, a con­tem­po­rary cot­tage stocked with home­made cheese and fresh-baked bread, and with the ham­let’s serene pic­nic spot where ta­bles were nes­tled in a clus­ter of cork trees.

When Pe­drosa first stepped over the thresh­old of this vil­lage, Fer­raria de Sao Joao, in 2005, th­ese and many other fea­tures didn’t ex­ist. Long ne­glected, as so many farm­ing vil­lages have be­come after be­ing left by young peo­ple, it was a col­lec­tion of cracked, crum­bling houses over­grown with weeds and vines, and an­i­mal sheds in heaps of rub­ble. And lots of stone, pre­dom­i­nantly lime­stone and quartzite, plus a lit­tle schist — the coarse rock, of­ten fea­tur­ing dark bands, that glints in the light and dom­i­nates much of the sur­round­ing re­gion.

Pe­drosa saw the po­ten­tial: an au­then­tic land where the old ways lived on, where he and his fam­ily could slow down and be im­mersed in na­ture, yet not be too far from the city. “All this in a vil­lage that could be re­born from the ashes, with the help of the new Schist Vil­lage project that was start­ing up,” he said. So, us­ing his own money and a gov­ern­ment grant, he be­gan build­ing his house and the guest ac­com­mo­da­tions.

Fer­raria de Sao Joao and 26 other ru­ral vil­lages built wholly or partly of schist are now part of the Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Vil­lages), an eco­tourism com­plex lo­cated in a moun­tain­ous re­gion of Por­tu­gal’s in­te­rior that is ge­o­log­i­cally rich in this meta­mor­phic rock. Six­teen years ago, a re­gional depart­ment of the na­tional gov­ern­ment, with the help of fund­ing from the Euro­pean Union, re­solved to rein­vig­o­rate what were largely aban­doned vil­lages as hubs for tourism, bind­ing them to­gether with a grand phi­los­o­phy: Em­brace an in­ti­mate con­nec­tion with na­ture and trea­sure the old ways while of­fer­ing goods and ser­vices for the 21st cen­tury.

From the mo­ment I heard men­tion of th­ese stone com­mu­ni­ties, hid­den in a rugged land-

some cling­ing to ver­tig­i­nous slopes, I was in­trigued and knew I had to ex­pe­ri­ence them. That’s when I turned to Pe­drosa, the co-owner and op­er­a­tor of A2Z Ad­ven­tures, a small com­pany run­ning so­cially re­spon­si­ble bik­ing and hik­ing trips in Por­tu­gal, in­clud­ing ones in the Schist Vil­lages. For sev­eral idyl­lic days, he guided me on day hikes through­out the re­gion, shar­ing his love for, and com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing, this land.

A pas­sion

After a two-hour drive from Lis­bon Air­port, sud­denly, past clus­ters of tall eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, Pe­drosa veered right at a white­washed chapel, with as­phalt giv­ing way to cob­bled lime­stone as we en­tered his home vil­lage of Fer­raria de Sao Joao. The only sounds: creak­ing branches, whis­per­ing leaves in the wind and an el­derly res­i­dent’s cane tap­ping on the street.

Pe­drosa pointed out his home and, next door, my ac­com­mo­da­tion, the Vale do Ninho Na­ture Houses — three for­mer an­i­mal sheds rein­vented as chic, min­i­mal­ist cot­tages, with blank stone fa­cades. “The win­dows all face south­west,” said Pe­drosa, to max­i­mize so­lar ex­po­sure. After study­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal plan­ning in Lis­bon, he be­came a seeker of sus­tain­able so­lu­tions. This Schist Vil­lage is his pas­sion. Con­structed of lo­cally sourced stone and pan­eled in­side with sus­tain­ably gath­ered pine wood and cork — with so­lar pan­els cov­er­ing the ad­ja­cent bi­cy­cle garage and laun­dry room — th­ese ed­i­fices rose from a bat­tered jum­ble of rocks.

From my sunny com­pact stu­dio, I de­lighted in the syl­van views: groves of olive trees and, in the dis­tance, an orig­i­nal for­est of ch­est­nut, oak, pine and eu­ca­lyp­tus. In the back yard, I al­ter­nated be­tween re­lax­ing on the terra cotta pa­tio and join­ing other guests cool­ing off in the com­mu­nal nat­u­ral swim­ming pool whose wa­ters are pu­ri­fied as they cir­cu­late through a nearby re­gen­er­a­tion bio-pond Pe­drosa cre­ated, lush with botan­i­cals. In­side, the bath­room was stocked with hand­made soaps us­ing oil from lo­cal olive trees; my bed­side lamp was sculpted from the wood.

Even break­fast was an eco af­fair: My kitch­enette of­fered a cor­nu­copia of lo­cally sourced de­lights. I found it stocked with eggs from Pe­drosa’s chick­ens, honey and oats from a nearby vil­lage, home­made yo­gurt, lo­cal jams and goat cheese pro­vided by a res­i­dent shep­herd, Fa­tima.

After a walk to the other end of the vil­lage, Pe­drosa and I came to a tan­gled for­est of lovely old cork trees — where Fa­tima herds her goats up the hill­side early each morn­ing. I spot­ted ini­tials carved in many of the trunks, and Pe­drosa ex­plained that they are part of an in­no­va­tive pro­gram to raise funds to pur­chase pic­nic ta­bles as well as to de­fend this pro­tected species and the vil­lage’s cul­tural her­itage. “The trees come in three sizes,” he said, “a dif­fer­ent price for each; we’ll carve your ini­tials or paint a cus­tom sym­bol in the one you choose to adopt.” (The cork trees aren’t harmed; they thrive even when the bark is re­moved dur­ing har­vest­ing.)

Driv­ing to an­other vil­lage in the net­work a mere six miles away, we passed a hand­ful of moun­tain bik­ers at­tracted by the net­work of trails in the area. In short or­der, we came to a dra­matic set­ting: The Schist Vil­lage of Casal de Sao Si­mao stretches across a moun­tain ridge of rugged cliffs, fram­ing a yawn­ing canyon. “Only two peo­ple live here full time,” Pe­drosa said as we strolled past grand stone houses show­ing off flower-be­decked fa­cades and im­pres­sive tim­ber bal­conies fronting the canyon.

To ex­pe­ri­ence the wild land­scape, Pe­drosa led me on a twoscape, loop down to the canyon bot­tom and then back up. Wan­der­ing be­side threads of rush­ing wa­ter along an an­cient ir­ri­ga­tion canal, we spot­ted rem­nants of a by­gone way of life: an aban­doned mill owner’s house now draped in ivy, with mas­sive mill­stones once used to grind corn and wheat. “Some of th­ese ch­est­nut trees are cen­turies old,” Pe­drosa said as we nav­i­gated through the well-shaded for­est. On the as­cent, we en­coun­tered a scenic river where cou­ples and fam­i­lies pic­nicked on the peb­bled beach, and teens hopped from boul­der to boul­der, plung­ing into swim­ming holes. My only dis­trac­tions from this cheer­ful scene were sev­eral birds of prey — ea­gles, black kites, and kestrels — soar­ing above the ma­jes­tic clifftops.

Though I spent my nights stargaz­ing — an ac­tiv­ity in short sup­ply in New York City — the area also of­fers other sources of night­time en­ter­tain­ment. In Penela, a town 25 min­utes away, I sat­is­fied my oenophilia by vis­it­ing D. Ses­nando, a res­tau­rant whose owner is a wine con­nois­seur. I lin­gered over a glass of the Monte da Pe­ceguina, a dark red with flo­ral notes, that paired well with the warm Raba­cal cheese driz­zled with lo­cal honey. An­other night I vis­ited nearby Eshour pin­hal, which was in the mid­dle of a three-day arts fes­ti­val. I joined what ap­peared to be most of the town — in­clud­ing the mayor and his fam­ily — in the main square to lis­ten to the con­tem­po­rary Por­tuguese band Pen­são Flor.

If I were seek­ing other di­ver­sions, I could have gone to a movie house in Coim­bra, where there are also places to lis­ten to tra­di­tional Fado mu­sic. And the pic­turesque Schist Vil­lage of Can­dal, which I vis­ited on one of my ex­cur­sions, has an open-air cin­ema in Au­gust.

Stair­cases of stone

It’s ei­ther up or down stone stair­cases in Can­dal, which is com­pletely con­structed of schist and lo­cated about an hour’s drive from my lodg­ing. Above, Res­tau­rante Sa­bores da Aldeia, a shop and cafe, shows off wares from con­tem­po­rary re­gional ar­ti­sans. I couldn’t re­sist buy­ing a piece of schist brightly painted with an im­age of a cot­tage, as well as a col­or­ful felt beaded neck­lace. Two ta­las­ni­cos, tart-like baked goods rich with chest­nuts, honey and al­monds, made for an en­er­giz­ing snack be­fore our planned one-hour trek. Our path — nar­row, dot­ted with boul­ders in spots and rimmed in ferns — even­tu­ally brought us to car-free Cerdeira, the most re­mote of the Schist Vil­lages. The tra­di­tional cot­tages — eight of which are now charm­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions — cling to the steep ver­dant val­ley slope.

Lunch­ing un­der a grapevine­draped per­gola at Cafe da Videira, Pe­drosa in­tro­duced me to Ker­stin Thomas, a wood sculp­tor who moved here 28 years ago when there wasn’t even a side­walk or elec­tric­ity. As we dug into a thick slice of baked goat cheese and veg­etable pie, I learned how she and 30 of her friends from Lis­bon were the driv­ing force be­hind re­pur­pos­ing this vil­lage into a vi­brant art cen­ter, com­plete with artist res­i­den­cies, work­shops, stu­dios, and a unique no-smoke kiln cre­ated by a mas­ter Ja­panese ce­ramist.

Lo­cals built every­thing us­ing tra­di­tional meth­ods and ma­te­ri­als from the area, and dif­fer­ent artists, in­clud­ing Thomas, dec­o­rated each guest cot­tage with their works. Later, after clam­or­ing up the schist lanes zigzag­ging the ham­let’s length, I vis­ited the art gallery dis­play­ing cre­ations by th­ese sculp­tors, ce­ramic artists and pain­ters. A wooden chair sculpted to re­sem­ble a hoe was es­pe­cially in­ven­tive and eye­open­ing, as was my en­tire jour­ney through th­ese re­vi­tal­ized stone vil­lages, trans­formed from des­o­la­tion and de­cay into an en­chant­ing new life.


TOP: In the Por­tuguese Schist Vil­lage of Fer­raria de Sao Joao, the Vale do Ninho Na­ture Houses, a trio of for­mer an­i­mal sheds, have been rein­vented as chic cot­tages with sim­i­larly min­i­mal­ist land­scap­ing. ABOVE: Cerdeira, the most re­mote of the vil­lages, is free of ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic. Its tra­di­tional cot­tages cling to the steep ver­dant val­ley slope. Eight of them now are avail­able as tourist ac­com­mo­da­tions.


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