The Solar dos Girões was constructed more than 400 years ago as the family home to the noble Beltrão – Soveral dynasty. In those times, the lands were controlled by feudal lords, and subsistence farmers were in service to the land owners. That era is still in living memory in this remote mountain district. In 1948, the last in the Beltão line passed away, and the estate was bequeathed to the Catholic Church. The Diocese of Viseu used the house and lands as a Seminário, and many nuns and priests whiled away their summers here tending to the vines and apple orchards.
If we delve deeper into its history there are many tantalising questions still to answer. The Muxagata valley was once home to a neolithic settlement, important and strong enough to craft temples into the rocky outcrops. They carefully positioned Dolméns on the hill tops to mark the cardinal transitions of the year. These elegant constructions confirm the existence of an integrated culture that spanned from Portugal to Ukraine, and from Scotland to North Africa. Although scholars often estimate their age as five millennia, the true beginning of this bold and sophisticated civilisation may well have been before the end of the ice age, a tumultuous period from 17000 to 11000 years ago, when the ice melted and utterly changed the physical geography of the Earth. When were the Neolithic peoples here in our Wolf Valley? What kind of agriculture did they practice more than fifty centuries ago? Had they already domesticated grains and vegetables? How did they harvest water to irrigate their crops in the hot summer months?
A mere two thousand years ago, the Roman empire had colonised the region in pursuit of precious metals. They mined copper here, and the wide riverside meadows and water-rich forests inspired them to build a stone road into the valley. We can surmise that the Wolf Valley provided a staging post and resting place for traders, soldiers and their horses. But such a settlement would have had houses, farm buildings. What did the place look like in those times? They would have planted crops, fruit trees, olives, figs, oranges. Did the Romans excavate the water mines, and landscape the terraces? Such a work of engineering, done with only hand tools and pack mules, is almost unimaginable today. Or did they arrive to find the wells and springs already here, a remnant of a more ancient engineering?
The Romans were here for five centuries or more and they clearly left their mark on the landscape. But when they left, and for centuries to come, the subsistence lifestyle prevailed once again. The next great era was the period of the Moors, who also excelled in agriculture, engineering and practical science. They would have brought new crops, new techniques, and new ideas. This was a period of great change, a revolution both in lifestyle and in spiritual practice. What was life like in these times? Did they make their cloth from flax, or from hemp? Was there much trade with the great cities of Sevilla and Granada? By the eleventh century, castles were being erected from hewn stone, kingdoms were merging and waging wars, the period of the Kings was sweeping away the order that had prevailed since the end of Roman domination. The Church of Santo Cristo was built in Wolf Valley, to firmly mark the arrival of Christendom. For almost one millennium the valley has been managed under Christian law, with a feudal politic. But all the while, whether under the Romans, the Moors or the Christian kings, the water mines have continued to flow, and subsistence farming has been the perennial lifestyle, in an unbroken link to the ancient past. The crops and the tools may have changed a little, but the ways of the land, with its cycles of planting and harvest, have remained the same.
During the 20th century, with its world wars and great upheavals, people began to leave this lifestyle behind. The heavy burden of labouring to provide wealth for others was taking its toll, and when the opportunities arose, the sons and daughters of this soil felt emboldened to try their luck in the industrial world. Many moved away to America, or to Brazil, and in the 1970s, a great surge of migration into Northern Europe emptied the region of almost all the population of working age, leaving only the elderly to tend the ancestral lands. In the period since the 2nd world war, the Diocese of Viseu found themselves presiding over an increasingly forgotten world, and it gradually slid into disrepair and abandonment. It was as if a spell had been cast, and a once noble and beautiful land, capable of providing for a multitude of inhabitants, was falling into invisibility. For decades nobody could see the beauty and richness of the landscape. Conditioned as we all had become to value efficiency, ease and convenience, we were blind to what this valley, and countless others like it, had to offer.
In magic tales, there is often a simple way to break the spell, but only by the one who is destined for it. When we happened upon the Solar de Girões, the windows had been smashed, the roof was caved in and doors were swinging open. The vines had been untended for a decade, and the chestnut trees had been engulfed in a forest of brambles.
Lizzie and I had been searching throughout Iberia for more than two years. We were looking for an old Solar at 500m altitude, in a wide river valley, with water mines, and a village of elders nearby. When we found the Solar de Girões, it was like an answer to a prayer, and as soon as we entered the terraced gardens, we knew that we had finally found what we were looking for. That was in 2009, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Seminário will be restored to become a Nature Spa with botanical medicine gardens, conference facilities, a restaurant and 23 bedrooms. Vale das Lobas is a company and an association, with a mission statement of: Reconnecting Humanity with Nature. This is not impersonal; transformation of the world occurs by transforming ourselves. In our current paradigm, medicine, farming and construction are major sources of toxicity. Yet the poison can indeed become the medicine. Instead of poisoning ourselves and our planet with concrete production, we can build homes from natural materials, and therefore live in healthy environments that don’t cost the Earth; instead of poisoning the water and soil with petrochemical based fertilisers and super toxic pesticides, we can plant forests to provide nutritious foods whilst at the same time restoring biodiversity; instead of using search and destroy drugs to eliminate the symptoms of disease, often at the cost of the patients life, we can develop a holistic understanding, to provide health care that truly cares about health!
Vale das Lobas is a regeneration project. Our focus is the ecological and economic regeneration of the Vale de Mondego region. We will create sustainable employment through a web of business initiatives focusing on health, education, construction, farming and tourism. To this end we are working in partnership with the local and national authorities, with agricultural co-operatives, and with local subsistence farmers. We are not an intentional community or eco-village.
The restoration will take approximately 18 months, and the site will be open to visitors from 2019.