By JOHN OLIVER & JEANETTE ELLIOT [email protected]
John Oliver and Jeanette Elliott moved from the UK to Portugal around five years ago and live in Ourique, Alentejo. John now follows his lifetime love of documentary photography, while Jeanette trains dogs and breeds Bengal cats as well as teaching belly dancing.
Having the photographic exhibition at São Domingos over Christmas, we had a great opportunity to explore a little bit of the terrain on the other side of our lower Alentejo. As different as chalk from cheese, the rugged landscape where water gauges deep clefts leaving towering rock ledges. Mertola sits high on its eyrie with a view which plunges down to the river below.
The castle is well placed to defend from marauding hordes, and provides a unique setting for its bi-annual Islamic festival when the tiny streets become a meandering bazaar, and the riverside becomes a stage for world music.
Leaving the town by crossing the river bridge above the historic tidal mills, you wind your way up the cliffs again and head for the old mining village of São Domingos. There is a distinct quietness to this place, no doubt tinged with great sadness at the demise of an industry that employed so many in the recent past.
A great way to explore around here is by bike – guests at the Estalagem can hire one. Various routes from the village centre radiate down to where the old mine workings are gently decaying. If you stop long enough at the old engine sheds you will probably hear the ghostly clank of engines – long since sent to the scrap yard.
To one side of the track the acid lake is well documented, with colour graphs describing the various rocks and ages of the workings, dating back to the Roman times and probably even before. It is a great shame that the rest of the site is not also documented for the visitor. In the gardens near the Estalagem there is a curious concrete structure. Look more closely and you find it is a modern art installation. Look even closer and you will see through the glass pane of the floor – to the miner condemned forever to work underground. This is to commemorate the lives of the miners lost to this treacherous occupation – but there is no plaque to tell the visitor what it is or who the artist was.
Just down the road a new bridge is being constructed to link Portugal with Spain. The area is uniquely placed to look at its natural and industrial assets and make a package for the tourist who doesn’t want the beach resort. An attempt has already been made, with the Spa hotel and the artificial beach on the village edge but the project is going cold for lack of enthusiasm to really make the most of the attributes.
Think of what the Americans make of the Grand Canyon, or the Canadians of the Rockies or even Australia with Ayers Rock. Portugal also has such treasures but really doesn’t make the most of them. Who allowed the railway to be ripped out and the locomotives sold for scrap? Other countries sell tourists the package with the steam railway journey through beautiful landscape part of the fun and romance. It could have been combined with the river trip and then on northward to some of the beautiful cities. Where are the people with foresight and the investment to really create a future for this country? Without this the heritage will continue to crumble and decay and the young people leave to find life in other countries, leaving only the old and their memories behind.
There needs to be training schemes which really inspire the younger generation and provide them with the skills and motivation to make a future for this country.
Recently the BBC aired a programme about the Alentejo and its cork industry – which is currently in crisis. The documentary was a fabulous insight into this diverse and synergistic landscape and the natural fauna and flora of the region. Although it talked through some of the strides the industry has made into the use of cork, it really didn’t go far enough into where this sector can go for the future. Why is there not more research and development into what other uses this fabulous material can be used for? How often do you see it in builders’ merchants beside man made insulation, or wall covering and flooring? It is a natural product and grown here so stop exporting it and start to think outside the box for new uses which will keep part of the landscape growing into the future.