Portugal’s winter wonderland.jpg

Portugal’s winter wonderland

• Snowfall was registered all over Portugal, especially in the north. This picture was taken in Vila Pouca de Aguiar, Vila Real, on Sunday. Photo: Pedro Sarmento Costa/Lusa
• Snowfall was registered all over Portugal, especially in the north. This picture was taken in Vila Pouca de Aguiar, Vila Real, on Sunday. Photo: Pedro Sarmento Costa/Lusa

PORTUGAL’S SURPRISE snowfall this week has brought much delight to the Portuguese, but also difficulties and frustration. Some parts of the country, including Lisbon and the Algarve, saw their first snow for more than 50 years.

While children enjoyed sledge rides, snowball fights and building snowmen in some parts of the country, many people found the road closures due to the snow frustrating and others struggled to cope with the unusually cold conditions.

In the Algarve, Sunday saw snow falling on Alto da Fóia at the peak of the Monchique mountains. It is not a rare occurrence at the Algarve’s highest point (902m), but, on this occasion, the snow settled, carpeting the area with two centimetres in depth. Weather experts state that there hasn’t been this amount of snow on Fóia since 1993.

Early on Sunday afternoon, the snow caused traffic queues stretching back six kilometres at the entrance to Monchique through the Portimão roundabout and Via do Infante accesses. A GNR patrol team was deployed to the area to ensure public safety and the police received many calls from people in Fóia wondering when it would be possible to descend the mountain. Traffic in the area only returned to normal at around 9pm.

Such was the wonder at the unusual phenomenon that scores of people, curious to see the spectacle, descended on the Monchique area last Sunday and Monday.

With temperatures across the Algarve sinking to zero and below, the snow continued to fall after the weekend, with Monday seeing further areas receiving a coating, including the highest points in the boroughs of São Brás de Alportel, Tavira and Loulé. The snow settled in a few other locations including Barranco do Velho, Montes Novos, Cortelha and Parises, reaching depths of 20 centimetres.

Coaches from São Brás de Alportel Câmara transported schoolchildren from the borough up to the mountains last Monday for a day of play in the snow. Snowball fights replaced lessons in what turned out to be a very different day for the children – extremely cold but great fun.

With the exception of Fóia, the last time it snowed in the Algarve was a staggering 52 years ago, in February 1954!

Road closures and delays

Portugal’s main northern motorway, the A1, which connects Lisbon and Porto, was closed on Sunday morning, remaining that way for a total of seven hours. Initially, traffic police closed the A1 between Santarém and Leiria from mid-morning, due to the heavy snowfall in Serra dos Candeeiros, however, the closure was later extended as far as Pombal.

In the Alentejo, in the Évora district, police took the decision to close the A6 between Montemor and Estremoz. Then, at the end of the afternoon, the closure was extended to the Marateca section, where it links to the A2 between Lisbon and the Algarve. At the same time, the Instituto das Estradas de Portugal communicated the fact that the GNR had also decided to close 15 roads in the same district.

Brisa, the company responsible for the country’s motorways, issued warnings on all its computerised display panels to advise motorists of the closures and warn them of the hazardous driving conditions. A helicopter was deployed to assist traffic police in order to check that no vehicles had become trapped due to the hazardous conditions.

Misery in the cold

It is estimated that around 700,000 homes in Portugal are without any form of heating, signifying that 2.2 million people are suffering from the cold this winter. However, it’s also not good news for some of those with heating – the national statistics institute has reported a higher prevalence of accidents in the home due to the use of fireplaces and electric fires.

Évora in the Alentejo has seen very icy conditions. Following the snowfall at the weekend, the freeze set in, making it necessary to close many schools in the area on Monday afternoon. The slippery ice has also caused many falls, with around 50 people arriving at the hospital casualty department with fractures and serious cuts.

Deluge of calls

and text messages

Such was the wonder at the unusual phenomenon of snow in the Portuguese capital that the mobile phone networks reported extremely high traffic, due to all the text messages and phone calls sent to report the exciting news. The activity was particularly high between 3pm and 3.30pm on Sunday, the precise time of the initial snowfall in Lisbon. Many took photographs of the snow with their mobile phones, sending pictures with accompanying messages such as Temos neve aqui! (We have snow here!)

Major network provider Optimus reported a 42 per cent increase on the normal traffic registered on Sundays for the Lisbon area. Meanwhile, the ‘boom’ in traffic took place between 3.40pm and 4pm in the Alentejo, again co-inciding with the initial snowfall.

Vodafone went as far as announcing that the level of traffic was comparable with Christmas Eve and New Year, periods that traditionally see the general public reaching for their phones to call and send ‘texts’ to loved ones. Vodafone also confirmed that such was the level of traffic on its network that customers may have experienced delays in receiving messages.