There is something absolutely beautiful about seeing a building being built out of the same materials that compose the landscape. Sure, marble and mahogany island kitchenettes are fun, but have you ever picked up rocks from the ground and made a wall out of it?
That is the olden way, when people would use what was right there and available in their region, that nature gave them. Here in Serra da Estrela, there is a LOT of stone. The mountains consist mainly of granite, millions of years old, and it is such a striking feature of the landscape. It gives this place an aura of mystery, of age, of wisdom, of stone giants and epic tales. So when it came (and comes) time to build a house or any other building or structure in these hills, if you need(ed) a stable, strong material for your walls or floor, granite was the solution withing reach.
What happens nowadays is that, from so many ages of building and buildings, there are a lot of readily available stones in old ruins, which are already picked and shaped. Many times, the joints between the stones are gone, and they are just balancing on time, practically begging to be saved or used. This piece gives you two stories: one of rescue, one of repurposing.
Higher up from the Vale das Lobas headquarters is the future Nature Spa – an almost-recovered 17th-century manor house, later a seminary (Seminário), with a magical chapel and stunning sights of the valley, which you can take a tour of by clicking the button below.
As it gains a new life, some walls are coming down, some roofs are being replaced, some timbers are being restored. The stone walls that are staying up are in dire need of a facelift, after years of exposure to the elements and erosion. Sr. Jorge is the man in charge of this makeover. He is a cheerful presence, who moves through the construction site with the ease of one walking on a flat floor with faultless shoes. He is often seen with another Jorge, and the pair are always extremely welcoming. Not to show indications of bribery, but they did offer me tea. Sr. Jorge senior has been in the construction business “for 42 years… Maybe 45 years, around that. Yes, 45. Around 45. More even!, ‘cause when I was a boy, during vacations I also earned a little money on some constructions sites.” At how old? “Maybe 16-years-old”.
I ask if he would still like to work for many years. “I don’t know, we’ll see. I’ve been given retirement recently” So you’re already retired! “Yes.” But you’re still working here. “Yes.” It must be very hard anyway, if you would just stop working from one day to the other. “Ah, I wouldn’t do that! I won’t stay at home, I always have stuff to do, here and there…”
“At home I cannot stay. I don’t have the temperament for that… While I’m able, I won’t stop. God knows how difficult it is to get through Saturday and Sunday sometimes. Not when the weather is good, I go to the fields, I have things to do. But when it’s a rainy day… At home? Doing what? Watching TV all day? The other day I think I watched some 5 or 6 football games. 5 or 6 games, almost two hours each, that’s some 10 hours watching!”
He took me on a tour of the old Seminário-future Nature Spa, which he has been working on for a year and a half, and he shows a fondness for the naked stone walls, some with gorgeous light-coloured joints made from lime. Right now, Jorge and Jorge are working on re-jointing the stone walls on the adjacent building (future apothecary, therapy rooms and office) to make them strong and stable again. First, they must remove all the naughty vines that nestled there, contributing to the dilapidation of the walls, and then they are filling in the gaps between stones with more small stones and lime mortar. They do it bottom-up, so that the lower levels become steady to eventually support the upper ones, and they do it with patience and diligence.
“This one [the wall they are working on], when it’s ready, you can come take a picture. You could take one now as it is for a before picture… and then come see how it looks when it’s ready, for an after picture… See how it was recovered.”
When you go up the steep street leading to this magical spot, there are 3 magnificently ancient wooden doors. One leads to the chapel, one to the scenic pathway (please refer back to the tour on the button above), and one to the future auditorium. This is a wide area with ornamental forged iron windows and naked stone walls. The floor has been removed for replacement, it used to have enormous squared stone blocks covered by a wood-planked floor. And like I mentioned before, these stones are very precious material. So where did they end up?
Down the mountain. Lifted individually with chain and crane onto a truck. Transported. Carefully loaded down. Shaped to new measures. And made into steps. Beautiful, granite, comfortably-sized steps in a staircase between the two rows of Hobbit Houses. Two stones per step. They are half finished and already looking so very inviting. And they have neighbours. On top of the hill of these houses there is a ruin, and its stones are also being repurposed. Taken down, picked up and used to create a cobblestone connection between the sections of the staircase, as well as (seemingly disarranged) little rock gardens.
There is something fascinating in seeing this process. It pays homage to the ruins of old buildings, which are dismantled and give their own skeleton to create new walls. And it allows for the recycling of available material as an alternative to further remove rock from the soil. The stones are heavy, it takes heavy machinery and strong arms to lift them to their new homes, but it is done with evident gentleness. And so, there is rebirth through human hands.
Vale das Lobas is leading towards sustainable life on Earth.
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