For more photos on this chapter, including some fantastically coloured autumnal pictures of olive groves and vineyards, click here.
For the first time on our journey, we have to cover some distance in the space of a few days to get to Benfeita in Portugal, where we have been invited to teach a weekend of Tango. Travelling feels different when you have to get from A to B, rather than just stopping off when you like for as long as you like.
Strangely enough, as soon as we have a particular destination in mind, we seem to lose our way. Road signs seem to contradict each other, and we get stuck several times every day, trying to find our way out of yet another large town.
On the evening of the first day, we arrive in Ourense in the pouring rain. We find a car park near the thermal pools by the river, and after some searching we find a lovely spot; the Termas de Outariz, or more specifically the Pozos do Muiños. Unfortunately we are not allowed to take photographs, so you will just have to imagine what it’s like, sitting in a very hot thermal spring outside in the dark and rain, with the very fast flowing, swollen river just the other side of the pool. You can practically reach over the side and touch it! We are alone in the pools, except for one young couple. You can feel the hot water rising from below, in between the big flagstones that make the pool. When you get out, it’s nice and warm underfoot too. It was lovely!
We stay the night in that car park and bathe once more in the morning. The whole valley is clouded in mist from the hot springs.
The next night, we stop in the middle of nowhere, after a long day of driving through fine drizzle. This is our first night in Portugal. The following morning, we have a spectacle right outside our door: one man loads a tractor onto the back of a trailer, all on his own! Considering that in Spain, 7 men had trouble getting a turtle off a beach, this is a pretty impressive contrast!
After breakfast, we go for a little walk. The landscape is vastly different from anything we have seen in Spain. It reminds me of the higher parts of Dartmoor actually.
On the way up to the trig point, we come across a group of hunters and their dogs. 20 minutes later, we see a dog on his own scrambling through the bracken. Thinking it’s one of the hunter’s dogs, we take it with us and go looking for the hunters. The dog seems to be blind on one eye and quite deaf too, and strangely bumbling into things – very friendly to us though as it happily snuggles into Frank’s warm coat. It turns out the dog doesn’t belong to the hunters – it’s a stray! One man tells us that there are many stray dogs in the area, some much bigger than this one. We climb up into the van and drive away, heavy-hearted to leave the dog behind, but knowing that we cannot deal with every stray we meet…
This feels like a lesson we need to learn.
The next evening, having made good progress through Portugal despite getting lost in various towns and tiny little roads through the middle of beautiful nowhere, we stop for the night at the Monastery of San Joaõ de Tarouca.
We wake to find out that, once again, we have randomly stopped somewhere in an extraordinary location: cobblestone roads and little streams everywhere, dropping down a steep valley into a very fast-flowing river. There is a beautiful church, which is still in use but the monastery itself is in ruins, the monks having been expelled centuries ago. At the time, the land was annexed by the government, which subsequently sold it to local people who wanted to use it, and then recently bought it back again.
The ancient monastery gardens are now being re-cultivated on organic principles, as part of a project run by an association. They have only been on the land for 2 years and it’s impressive what they have done in such a short time. Daniela, a young, dynamic woman, gives us a tour of the large herb garden and shows us the terraces yet to be reclaimed from bracken and brambles.
It is an extraordinarily beautiful place and the enthusiasm is practically oozing out of her. They want to research which vines the monks originally grew along the long south-facing wall at the upper end of the garden. They want to bring back the importance of the elderberry in the valley, which due to the amount of sun it receives has an unusually high content of sugar in the berries, which they are already exporting to Germany. They have an organic shop, which sells their produce as well as other local artifacts. They plan to export their medicinal herbs, develop a range of natural cosmetics and forge links with organisations such as WOOFing etc. to share the beauty of the place with as many people as possible. They already have international links with people who would like to run projects on the site, such as wine making. They also want to restore the two chapels in the garden.
With all these ideas, it’s surprising to learn that there are only 6 people working there at the moment, with just 3 of them actually working the land. Daniela heaves a sigh as she looks across all the uncultivated areas – this will take us 5 more years, she says. It would be very impressive if they could realize even half of their plans in that time!
They are working together with (and getting financial support from) the local government, and the garden looks set to receive a lot of visitors in future.
It is fantastic to see such positive energy, to see this place, which had obviously been fast asleep under the brambles for many years, come to life again. I hope we can come back in a few years and see how the project has unfolded.
Meanwhile, if you are looking for a place to get in touch with the earth, to do some good work with a group of enthusiastic people, to be part of an exciting project, why not go and spend some time in a monastery garden in this charming little village of San Joaõ de Tarouca?
Click here to get to the association’s website. The monastery garden has organic certification. They also have a facebook page about the association, as well as a page about elderberry production, and a web page about their hotel.
For more photos on this chapter, including some fantastically coloured autumnal pictures of olive groves and vineyards, click here
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