The Froufe trail: forgotten terraces and abandoned houses.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020, 21:54

Walking down the road from Froufe village to the river

At the height of summer, when the hold which Coronavirus had had over the people of Portugal began to weaken, we were at last able to choose a new place from which to start our walks. We and a group of our friends drove up the Lima valley towards the Spanish border. Before we got there, however, at Entre Ambos os Rios - literally between both the rivers – we turned inland towards the village of Froufe, where a walking trail follows a little river of the same name.

To read what the walk is like and see something of what we saw, click here.

The parish church of Froufe

We parked in a square near the church, an imposing building for a such a small village.

As an aside, it seems to me that there are two main kinds of church in the Minho. The first is a slim, elegant, usually baroque one, whose white plaster walls, windows and doors are edged with grey granite blocks. Their towers often end in a small cone topped with an onion as though the church had somehow ventured forth from Moscow with no particular destination in mind and unexpectedly landed up in Portugal's most northerly province. The second is a solid, often squat stone building with tiny windows. These churches look as if they have the DNA of fortresses in them. With a bigger, more powerful Spanish neighbour breathing down their necks, maybe the Portuguese builders and those who commissioned the churches, saw them as havens that they could retreat to in the event of an invasion. Froufe church is one of the latter kind.

A rural road outside Froufe

Our circular walk began along a country road, which our guide assured us was overhung by trees whose grateful shade would shield us from the burning sun. As you can see this was only partly correct and soon some of us were already broaching our bottles of water.

A rustic cross on a roadside boulder

Halfway along the road we came to a rustic iron cross whose arms ended in flame shapes - though you can barely see them against the foliage. Elsewhere, I would have thought that the cross had been erected to commemorate the dead of a road accident but, unless a boulder had been hauled there specially to make a base, it seems more likely that someone had seen a rock in need of enhancement and thought that passing travellers could do with some protection.

The Portuguese find it hard to resist planting a cross on every prominent stone or outcrop. They remind me of the hymn, "On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross". There's one just above the villages of Calheiros and Brandara. It's so difficult to get to that some enterprising locals have installed a metal handrail with which the faithful – or the just curious - can haul themselves up to a small viewing platform next to the cross.

The heat eventually took a toll and the less athletic and fit amongst us began to wilt when, just where we were due to turn down towards the river, serendipitously we discovered an open café/bar. This led to a discussion about whether it was advisable to go in and get a drink or whether wisdom/discretion – that is to say increasing discomfort and thirst – were the better part of valour. Eventually, knowing how thorough the Portuguese have been about cleanliness during the pandemic, we opted for the drink. (None of us caught Covid-19. And all of us felt a lot better.)

The chapel of São Tomé with festive decorations

It was now time to leave the rural road and head towards the river. We passed a tiny chapel dedicated to São Tomé – St Thomas – which was decorated with fading plastic bunting. It didn't look old enough to have been put up in 2019, so I assume it was an attempt to salvage something from this empty year.

The Portuguese love a 'festa'. Any excuse, however trivial, can be worked up into a party when women can don national dress, men get out their accordions and the young start a dance.

No village, however small, would normally forgo its 'festa' to celebrate the local saint's day. Coloured plastic wreaths and streamers would be slung across the road, palm leaves and branches cut and tied to lamp posts. On the day itself, fireworks would be launched with a bang to tell everyone in the country round about that there was fun to be had, stalls would be set up with sweet meats and music would blare from loudspeakers. The vicar would first celebrate mass and, if our local feast is anything to go by, his sermon would be extra-long as he knew he had a captive audience. At last the fun would begin and stretch way into the wee small hours. This year all feasts have been cancelled. So, what of these sad fading decorations? Perhaps that was all that had been allowed for the commemoration of the feast of St Thomas.

The River Froufe in summer with little water

The metalled road became a cobbled track which narrowed as we reached the river. The heat of high summer had sucked the water out of the ground and the Froufe seemed no more than my local river in York. The Foss, except after prolonged heavy rain is just a stream with delusions of grandeur. So too the Froufe. It was a diminished force when we got to the bridge to the northern bank though in winter, I imagine, it will roar over its stony bed.

A cobbled road by an abandoned terrace

On the northern side of the river, the path is again cobbled. Why, you may wonder, has the local council gone to such trouble for a mere walking trail? Well, of course, it hasn't. Roads like this were once the main throughfares in most villages. Was this once a remote hamlet? Did it have a name? If there were any about, maybe local people could have told us but all we could see were the stone walls supporting once productive terraces.

The trail runs through overarching trees making a grateful shade

We had at least finally come to the dappled, cool shade we had been craving. When the cobbles ran out and the track became beaten earth who cared? We were now cool and had the leisure and the will to look around. There up ahead, is the evidence of habitation, the home of someone who once tilled the lost terraces here.

An abandoned house by the side of the trail

Here it is, a rustic house still roofed and sturdy even if poky and abandoned. People once grew cabbages, potatoes and maize beyond that wall on the right. There would probably have been vines too, for which farm labourer can end the day without a glass of wine with his dinner? Now it is all gone and in places it is as though it had never been.

An overgrown terrace with maturing trees

Am I exaggerating? I don't think so. Look at the size of the trees growing where once there were crops. This land has been abandoned for decades.

People tell me the exodus took place after the 1974 revolution. Until then, Salazar kept his people in subjugation. The elites got a good education and had employment possibilities: ordinary folk were offered just enough knowledge to get by but not to "get above themselves". After all, if you are on the wrong side of history, still fighting colonial wars, you need young men who have no choices and so can be called up as cannon fodder.

After Salazar's death, the iron grip of his political creation, the Estado Novo, was broken, allowing the Portuguese in their thousands to leave for France, Germany... even some to Britain and America. – where they could make better lives and earn more money.

The old often stayed on in their ancestral homes but eventually, without the help of their overseas sons and daughters they became progressively unable to tend their vegetable gardens. As they too moved away or died, the uncultivated terraces returned to nature. Rewilding happened here before it was a glimmer in Greta Thunberg's eye!

The trail becomes overgrown with bracken intruding on the path

Further on still, though we didn't seem to climb, the river dropped away below us and the path become narrower and more overgrown. Bracken, beginning to wither in the late summer heat, impeded our passage.

A rock covered with stonecrop

The rocky bones of the earth, covered with low clinging stonecrop, began to peep more frequently through an undergrowth of coarse grasses dotted with little blue pompom flowers which were home to pretty orange and black forest butterflies.

An orange and black woodland butterfly amongst the grasses and blue flowers


Eventually once again we ran into a wide rutted, dirt road indicating that we were getting closer to habitation once more.

The track grows into a rutted dirt road

We were almost back to Froufe. There was just the river to cross again at what is called the Poço de Froufe – Froufe Well – though it's more like a pond where the locals can bathe.

The pond known as Froufe Well proves a pleasant place to bathe

And so back through the village, past a second chapel and a holiday let with an old cart wheel against the steps to the door.

A stone chapel and a holiday home with a cart wheel in Froufe

And so well exercised but hot, thirsty and hungry we arrived back at the church where we had parked the cars. Fortunately, we had all agreed to bring out own picnics and so we gathered under a canopy of wisteria.

A picnic reward at the end of the walk

Do you have a favourite walk with curiosities to see in the countryside? If you do why not tell us where it is and what you can see. (If you are Portuguese, please feel free to write in your own language. You don't have to write in English. Lembre-se: o que é importante não é a língua mas a contribuição.)


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