Ponte de Romano connects an austere wildness near Andorinha.
“I would rather be with God against man than with man against God.”
These were the words of the Portuguese diplomat and hero Aristides Sousa Mendes who, during World War II, saved the lives of thousands of Jews, Russians and stateless persons by issuing them visas against the orders of dictator Antonio Salazar.
Caladon had to research and write a school report about Sousa Mendes. We were fascinated by the man, whose ancestral family home is 15 minutes away in the village of Cabanas San Virato, which lies between Viseu and Carragel do Sal. The house is a magnificent 3-story mansion, which is losing its roof and top floor to the vestiges of time. There is a picture of Sousa Mendes on the welcome sign to the village. Huw and I followed brown tourist signs, which stopped before a right-hand turn opposite a grocery store. So, we went into the shop for broa, or a dense corn bread, and directions. The shop worker told us to make the right-hand turn and follow the road up the hill. She said that the house stood in ruins on a street corner on the left.
The Sousa Mendes Foundation hopes to turn the house into a museum of tolerance. A bank had repossessed the house when Sousa Mendes became broke because of his courageous actions.
Salazar had demanded that visa applications receive approval from the Foreign Ministry. For the applicants at the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux, the delay meant certain death. Many of them had fled persecution in Germany, Austria and other countries, where they had made their homes.
By July 1939, Consul Sousa Mendes had driven most of his 14 children to a train station in Spain so that they could return to Portugal and safety, according to Um Homen Bom by Rui Afonso. By this time, he had allowed 30 refugees to live at the Consulate.
For three days that July, he stayed in bed with an attack of nerves. When he got out of bed, he announced to those at the Consulate that he would side with God against man and that he even would issue visas at no cost, if necessary, wrote Afonso.
Sousa Mendes, two of his sons, two Consulate workers and a friend, who was a rabbi he met when working in Vienna, spent the next three days issuing visas. They made shortcuts in the process by abbreviating signatures and issuing one visa per family instead of per person. They worked almost nonstop through the night, setting up an assembly line so that the avalanche of visa seekers did not have to enter the Consulate. Visas were brought out to applicants in the street, said Afonso.
Then, Sousa Mendes drove to Bayonne near Biarritz to the Portuguese Consulate, where his colleague was following orders and not issuing unapproved visas. So, Sousa Mendes did. It is said that he issued visas in cafes and in his hotel room, Afonso wrote. By now, the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had recalled him to Lisbon.
However, before returning to Portugal, Sousa Mendes returned to Bordeaux, signing more visas along the way and, then, into Portugal doing the same. The Salazar government deemed the visas invalid. Sousa Mendes, himself, drove some refugees to the Spanish border to make certain that they were able to cross it. At one border post, there was a telephone and officials were alerted not to honour the visas. So, the Portuguese diplomat drove refugees to another post, where there was no phone. In one instance, it is said that he raised the border barrier himself, Afonso wrote.
Back, finally, in Lisbon, Sousa Mendes was stripped of his diplomatic status, forbidden to practice law or earn a living. The populace was forbidden to employ him. His children were not allowed job promotions or educational advancement. As a consequence, his children immigrated to other parts of the world.
Five years later, Sousa Mendes suffered a stroke, which paralysed his right side. His wife died three years later in 1948. He died penniless and shunned by people following orders in April 1954. Before his death, he asked his children to clear his name and that of the family.
Sousa Mendes had issued 30,000 visas. In the 1960s, he received recognition from Israel as the single person saving the lives of the most Jews.
In the 1980s, President Mario Soares apologised to Sousa Mendes’ family. The Portuguese Parliament promoted Sousa Mendes’ posthumously to the rank of Ambassador.
Thank God for Sousa Mendes and others who follow their consciences, not orders.
*** *** *** ***
One misty Sunday in January, we started a drive to Piodao, a village where all the houses are built of schist, near the town of Coja in the mountains of Serra da Acor. The weather forecast had said that the day would be sunny, and I insisted that it would be so despite the mist and rain.
It will clear up, I thought.
Our plan was to lunch at the only restaurant in the tiny village of Piodao, according to a dated guidebook of Portugal. So, we jumped into the car and drove to the mountain range east of us. We thought that we would drive from Coja, where we have been many times before. However, we changed our minds when we spotted brown tourist signs near the town of Arganil. I could see from the map that the roads were more squiggly, but I thought that the brown signs would make it easier.
They did not.
We followed the signs to Piodao that led us on narrow, twisting mountain roads. We climbed higher and higher, and still there was no Piodao. At one point, we stopped at a crossroads, where a sign warned that ahead was a 4-wheel drive road. We forged ahead, the road narrowing, until we came to our end of the road in Salgueiro.
Salgueiro was an attractive village of no more than 25 houses of grey and brown schist. Caladon said that another class had taken a school trip there to view a schist village. He could not believe that a coach could make it there on that road. He decided that an excellent driver in a minibus must have done the job.
Two men stood outside the one bar. Later, I thought that we should have stopped and checked whether they had sandwiches. Instead, we turned around and retraced our steps. There was a 4-wheel drive dirt road that left Salgueiro in the other direction. We have an estate car, or station wagon. So, we forged on past the crossroads back to a sign that we had ignored because we feared a diversion.
Meanwhile, the drive had reminded Caladon of Cornwall. “That’s the first slate roof I’ve seen in a long time,” he said, as he peered down on the view from the front seat. Recently, he has begun to ask to sit in the front. He is not 12 yet, but he is only a smidgen short of the required 1.5 metres he should be to sit shotgun in Portugal. So, sometimes, I let him.
As we climbed higher again, hugging a few hairpin curves, the mist had become drizzle which had become low cloud. We drove in and out of cloud. Once we turned onto one of these roads, we had to drive quite a way to find a wide enough place to turn around. On one road, 20 Land Rovers passed us going in the opposite direction. Twice more, we followed brown signs to Piodao. At the third sign, we said, “No more.” We were crawling, eyes glued to the white line down the middle of the road. It was not a relaxing drive.
Once out of the mountains, we drove to Coja for lunch. The café that we had visited Christmas before last was not there any longer. Another café, where we had had coffee outside spring before last, was dark and cold inside on what was now a rainy day. A third café looked bright, warm and full of smiling people. However, it was too full; there were no free tables.
Back to the car park, we trudged and all used the public conveniences, which made finding a restaurant or café less urgent.
We decided to try Route 66, a restaurant owned by Brits who recently moved to Portugal from Spain. We had eaten there once before – hamburgers and Motown music. Route 66 is on the N17 near Tabua. When we arrived, we saw vendors packing up a car boot sale. Inside, we asked whether they were still serving food. No, the kitchen had just closed.
It was 3 o’clock.
All was not lost. We returned home to a roasted chicken that Huw had prepared for the evening meal. Very good.
Piodao, we will see one day … one sunny day.
*** *** *** ***
“Ponte de Romana”
We drive by this brown tourist sign to a Roman bridge at least once a week on our way to Oliveira do Hospital and past the turning to Andorinha.
“One day, we’ll stop,” Huw had said, several times.
So, on another Sunday in January, we stopped and parked the car on the main road. Following the sign’s right arrow, Caladon and Huw walked ahead quickly, down a hill of sand and stone. After five minutes, they doubled back because the straight path did not seem to lead anywhere. The three of us walked off the road to the right toward the river. We followed the river toward the main road but, still, there was no sign of a bridge.
So, we turned around and resumed tracking the dirt road. However, this time, we turned right from it onto a path toward the sound of running water.
We walked across a granite bridge, wide enough for two horses, which had no railings or stone walls. Once on the other side, we scrambled down rocks to admire the magnificence of the stonework and the austere wildness of its surroundings.
Caladon and Huw, then, scrabbled up over the rocks, while I walked back toward the bridge on the road curving right. I found the remains of a stone house and two metal manhole covers for water, which were probably for firefighters. Caladon and Huw found waterfalls and calm water, which they thought made it a fine location for a get-away place. Huw was convinced that he had seen that land for sale on the Internet. Both he and Caladon enthused about the land.
I, on the other hand, do not even want to fantasize about buying more land. Our land is looking so much cleaner, I am contented with it. I do not want another property, make-believe or otherwise.
The wildness of this place with its boulders and scrub and hills is what made it beautiful, and it is also what made it inaccessible. Caladon said that he would build an asphalt road, which would solve the problem but increase the expenditure on the property.
Putting in the infrastructure to out-of-the-way properties in the Beiras is not a prohibitive cost, but it is substantial. I know of two couples who spent €15,000 euros and €10,000 euros for telephone poles and service.
As for roads, the Council is responsible for maintaining a road to each house. However, it can be a dirt road that is graded only once a year. The road always would be a concern because the rain creates channels and potholes. It is a good idea to have more than one access road.
In this respect, life is much simpler living in a village. For us, living on the edge of Fiais da Beira in Portela, we have a road and we have privacy. Our neighbours, across the road, have forestry land and, therefore, live elsewhere in the village. Behind us, a retired doctor, visits two weeks in the summer and lives in Lisbon.
We made the right choice for us.
After re-crossing the bridge and climbing back up to the car, we drove 15 minutes to Bobadela. We walked around Roman columns and through a majestic entryway of stone. Then, we found the museum, which was closed for lunch. However, at the end of the museum road was a Roman amphitheatre! We were free to explore it, inside and out. Impressive! Behind the amphitheatre, it looked as though there was an archaeological dig. There were several uncovered stone structures.
Again, as was the case at the Roman bridge and museums, we had the amphitheatre to ourselves. When Huw and I lived in Sicily near Catania in 1994 and 1995, we also would find Roman and Greek sites, and have them to ourselves. The challenge was finding them. The same is true in Portugal, which has so much!
*** *** *** ***
On another rainy winter weekend, we drove to one of Coimbra's shopping malls called the Forum. Our first time there, it had the shops and food courts that you would expect from a mall. On the way back home, however, we visited somewhere new and exciting,
Near Penacova, we drove to the moinhos, or windmills, by following brown tourist signs to the summit of a hill, where we were surrounded by a dozen granite windmills. Then, we jumped out of the car and climbed a spiral staircase to the hem of a gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary. I am telling you that the wind nearly blew us from the stairs.
Back on the ground again, the windmills were closed and locked. Most looked in need of work. One, however, on the far edge, had new shutters and a coat of new paint. It looked glorious.
We continued our drive to the monastery of Sao Mamede in Lorvao, which has developed from the 6th century. For €1.50, a dedicated guide walked us round the rococo church and through its many periods of splendour.
On either side of the altar were the silver tombs of Dona Sancha and Dona Teresa, daughters of 13th century King Sancho, who have become saints. In the back of the main church is a grating of wrought iron and ornaments gilded with bronze. Above it stands a monumental organ in neoclassical style with 61 registers from 1795. Walking through the grating also led us to imposing stalls made of Brazilian rosewood and walnut from 1747. Spectacular!
The guide, who persevered in English despite a runny nose and constant sneezing, said that they are hoping for money enough to preserve the art in a museum upstairs. Now, they are doing their best, he said. In the Treasure Room, an 18th century painting lay on a carpet on the floor and was covered with a plastic sheet. It was being restored. There was no climate control in the monastery, just a lot of heart.
At the end of our tour, the guide recommended that we sample the pastries that the medieval nuns once made there. Across the road was a pastelaria. We were curious about the taste of pastries using turnip and squash. Many pastries were made with egg yolk like the popular pastel de nata found all over Portugal. Convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg whites for starching of clothes, such as nuns’ habits. Nuns and monks found ways to use the leftover egg whites in cakes and pastries. Everything at the pastry shop was delicious. We fully approve of these pastries, which were made with the nuns' secret recipes.
*** *** *** ***
We are turned on!
We have electricity eight months after we applied for it. I do not know why it took so long.
After the Pole, another pole was erected across the road in a less obtrusive position. For several weeks, we had two poles because EDP, the electricity company, said that the first pole was in a position not in accordance with its rules. This was the pole whose position we had lobbied to move after EDP erected it.
Mind you, we never saw any of this work being done. We did not see either of the poles go in or come out. Hard to believe, I know. We go to our land consistently. EDP contractors must have inside information.
After our aborted attempts in August to get electricity through EDP's office in the Oliveira do Hospital bookshop, we had further contact with EDP in Mangualde with our engineer, Patricia. This EDP office also was in a bookshop. A computer update of our case showing that the company had installed a pole still had not been done. However, the clerk there allowed me to fill out and sign a form in preparation for electricity.
Then, suddenly, in January, I received a text message from EDP confirming our appointment on the following Monday. What appointment? The message was followed by another and a telephone call.
So, Huw and I and Steve met EDP contract workers from Socorreias at our house. The contractors said that we needed a safety ring on the electricity box. No ring, no connection. EDP called again the following day on Tuesday. When would we have the ring? Friday, I said.
On Friday, Huw and I and Fernando Gomes, the electrician, waited for Socorreis, who called us from the village center for directions. I walked there in a few minutes and told them -- at the end of the road, turn right and, then, make the second left downhill.
Once there, one man climbed the pole while the other fidgeted with the box. Fernando and I looked on. In 30 minutes, we were connected.
We are connected.
*** *** *** ***
The early morning birdsong, the burst of pink and white plum blossoms, and the sweet scent of mimosa trees make me smile.
Spring, as the postmaster at Ervedal da Beira said, is finally here!
I am outside most of the day. Last weekend, Huw, Caladon and I each took charge of a fire. We burned bramble roots as compared with last year's bramble leaves. Sometime in March, Oliveira do Hospital, understandably, will ban bonfires. We would not want to burn at a risky time anyway.
There always will be more to burn because we keep working. However, this year, we do not have years of neglect to go up in smoke.
This week, I began to bush-cut. This year, I began by focusing on terrace borders, where there are often grapevines, and around short plants and young trees. Growth is so rapid here that grass and other foliage will hide these small plants. It happened last year, and it was a nightmare.
Also, I began cutting as soon as I finished with the fires. Last year, I marveled at the beauty of the white and yellow chamomiles and other wildflowers. I waited for the flowers to seed before even thinking of taking the rocadora to them. That was a mistake! By that time, we had torrential and unrelenting rains. I regretted waiting. It was so much more work cutting through the stems of tall, well-established flowers and, on some terraces, hay!
Live and learn.
Because of the continuous work on the land and our neighbor Anibal's wife's sheep, there is far less bush-cutting. This past winter, I aimed to reveal many of the grapevines that were hidden by bramble.
There is one area, especially, that surprised me with sweet white grapes when we first arrived one and a half years ago. It borders the dirt road to the house of our Dutch neighbours, Wilfred and Pim. It took minutes to spy grapes through the foliage. I could not pick grapes without bramble pricking my fingers.
Today, the grapevines are naked to the world. There are a few bramble roots behind them against the stone wall, which I could only cut back to the ground. Still, that area is so good-looking now. It will be easy to pick grapes in September.
I hope that we will not have frosts or hard rain again this spring. Who can say? All I can do is make good use of time.
This year, I have a better idea as to how to do it. Next year, I will have even more knowledge through experience. I am just a baby in this new life.
The days are busy with work on the quinta and work on the house. Huw and I spent one March morning with Patricia, the engineer, and Rui, the helpful owner of Macompar in Mangualde, where we chose tiles for the floors, walls and bathrooms. Afterwards, Patricia drove us to the window factory, where we chose the frame colour of brushed aluminium.
We spent one afternoon with Steve, the project manager, visiting a wood workshop with Huw's design of the kitchen and utility room. The workshop in Casal Sao Joao near Coja would be impossible to find on our own. There is no sign marking the business. Three brothers, Luis, Vasco and Joao do all the work there.
Beforehand, we had understood that kitchens were not available in Portugal. Many foreigners have opted for merchandise from a popular Swedish company, which is in Lisbon, two and one-half hours away. However, we saw a granite display kitchen at a cheese festival in Tabua, which we liked very much. Later, we visited the showroom of Iberstilo and liked the kitchens, which ranged in price from €2,500 to €5,500. When we mentioned Iberstilo to Steve, he told us about the brothers.
Portugal is personal. Much of what we know about it is by word of mouth. Much of our business here has been done by word of mouth. There is so much here in Portugal -- craftspeople, antiquities, prehistoric and ancient Roman ruins, museums and natural beauty. However, you are unlikely to find them on the Internet, in guidebooks, or in newspapers.
Portugal is personal. When people talk with you, there is no doubt that they are talking with you, concentrating on you, valuing you. They are not thinking about rushing off to the next appointment or about how little time they have for you.
Portugal is personal. This is the intangible for which foreigners grope when they try to explain their reasons for moving here. It is so difficult to capture in words that we often nod our heads in unspoken acknowledgement as an expatriate stumbles over the words, and we move on to another topic.
Years ago, when foreigners visited Belize, they would be amazed at the ingenuousness and generosity of Belizeans. If, for example, a tourist said that they liked johnny cakes, powder buns, or some other traditional food to a Belizean, it would not be unusual for the Belizean to make the visitor that food. Vacationers would be shocked by this generosity. How could people who have so little give so much, they would ask.
Have so little of what?
In Portugal, people still know how to give of themselves. I am proud that Margaride Lauriano, my great-great grandmother, was Portuguese. I am proud of Portugal's generous culture. I am proud of Portugal.
It is an honour to live here, and I thank God for it.
*** *** *** ***
Thousands of Dutch, British, German and other foreigners call the Beiras region in central Portugal home. We appreciate the tranquility that exists here, and it is far more affordable here than in the countries that we have left behind.
I believe that many of the "Sub-35: Geracao Ja Fui” ("Under 35: The Generation That Was,"), as the Expresso newspaper described them, will return to the emptying interior, and the land and houses of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in the near future.
Young Portuguese who have emigrated to the United Kingdom, Switzerland or France in search of jobs will take stock of their lives. Some will mourn the loss of extended family, time and themselves, and they will return home much sooner and much younger than did previous generations of emigrants.
In 2013, 30,121 Portuguese immigrated to the United Kingdom; 20,039 to Switzerland; 18,000 to France; 11,401 to Germany; 5,302 to Spain; 4,651 to Angola; 4,590 to Luxembourg; 4,227 to Belgium; 3,759 to Mozambique; 2,913 to Brazil; 2,079 to Holland; 918 to the United States; 629 to Canada, and 446 to Italy, according to an Expresso article quoting figures from the National Institute of Statistics.
In the same March 14, 2015 article, Jose Cesario, Secretary of State of Communities, said that finding mechanisms to encourage return of the emigrants, especially of the most qualified, is a priority in the Strategic Plan for Migration.
“... Vai necessitar de respostas muito concretas,” Cesario said. “E preciso fixar populacao em Portugal e uma das formas de o resolver e fazer regressar as pessoas.... Mas e dificil encontrar mecanismos de financiamento de programmas. E um esforco cultural grande que nao se faz de uma dia para o outro. Os que emigraram recentemente, na sua maioria, sairam profundamente desiludidos com o pais. Sairam frustrados, revoltados. E normal que nao pensem em voltar nos premeiros anos, sobretudo se agora estao a ganhar mais dinero.”
“It is going to require concrete solutions,” Cesario said. “The population of Portugal needs to be stabilized. One way to achieve this is the return of people. But it is difficult to find financial mechanisms for programs. It is a big cultural effort that won’t happen overnight. The majority who have emigrated recently left profoundly disillusioned with the country. They left frustrated and outraged. It is normal that they are not thinking about returning in the first years, especially now that they are earning money.”
I agree with Cesario about the first years. Emigrants will stay to earn the money. Salaries are low in Portugal. I talked with a newspaper photographer who said he made €800 to €1,000 per month. However, the cost of living is higher where the salaries are higher, and those pricey cultures reflect a lack of time for people, families and friends. This disconnect will push young people back home after they have made and saved money.
The Portuguese people and government must find ways to pull them back. Money is not always the answer. Challenge can attract talent back home.
This economic crisis encourages us to re-evaluate the system that broke down. When I read about business successes in Portugal, they tend to be by people working for themselves, not conglomerates. Those people will always be in the minority, no matter what the country. Some young people in primary and secondary schools look toward the Internet as a way of earning a living. They talk of becoming “You Tubers”. They do not work on the land with their grandparents.
The disdain for farm work is a cyclical one that all countries experience once people are exposed to another way of life. Eventually, we return to validation of working on the land because whatever the economic system, we all need to eat. The economic crisis pushes us into a place in which farmers, once again, will be valued and respected just as chefs now are valued and respected.
Without farmers, there would be no chefs.
We all need to eat, yes. We also need to eat well because food is one of the greatest pleasures of being alive.
We should never lose sight of the joy of eating, eating, eating! And planting, planting, planting!
*** *** *** ***
I am not the same.
I get my hands dirty.
I listen to myself as I work on the land.
There is a kind of channeling that happens between myself and the land. It is intimate. Now, I better understand the relationship between people and the land that they work everyday. The relationship is transformative. As the land changes, so do I. And our bond deepens even more.
I live in more awareness of the land and its many stages through the seasons. Now, in early spring, vigorous growth of grasses, and chamomile and dozens of other wildflowers cloak the land. Lone eagles, flocks of swallows, and the visits of resident robins fill the sky. I can smell the freshness in the air when it rained the previous night.
It is not only the land that has fewer brambles choking it. I, too, have fewer blocks in my mind and soul.
I am not the same.
My soul sings louder, I feel freer. I am a part of the whole, of nature, of Creation.