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Portugal's Schist Villages become a haven of eco-friendly travel

By JEANINE BARONE | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 22, 2017

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 freshly 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, Portugal, 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 eco-tourism 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 about these stone communities, hidden in a rugged landscape, 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.

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, leaves whispering 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, Pedrosa 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

In Ferraria de Sao Joao, even some of the animal sheds are decorated with flowers.
JEANINE BARONE/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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