Monthly Archives: June 2016

To the Manor Born: The Parque da Mina

We spend a lot of our time as travelers imagining.  Imagining what it might be like to live as a modern day Bedouin in Jordan, a Berber in Morocco, a farmer or fisherman eking out a living in Nicaragua, Vietnam or Russia.  We have no problems at all imagining where we would go if money were no object or the style in which we would travel.  And, since we both have a passion for history, we imagine what it would have been like to live at the height of the Mayan or Incan civilizations, travel along the Silk Road or learn about wondrous new places during the time when the New World was being mapped in the Age of Discovery.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of castles and fortresses that are located in Portugal and ruins dating all the way back to the Romans and even earlier. So it’s easy to for us to close our eyes and imagine the lives of the nobility and history’s “social influencers” – what it would be like to stride our way through one of the great halls, feast at a grand banquet in one of the dining halls or sleep in one of the bed chambers of these vast estates.  It is, however, harder to frame a picture of the day-to-day lives of the common folk who tended the sheep, brought in the crops or sold their wares at the markets.  And there’s surprisingly little written on the lifestyles of those wealthy merchants or the “middle class” of Portugal just a few centuries ago.Parque de Mina

Our chance to find out more about how the common folk and upper-middle class lived came when we took a detour on a recent day trip to Monchique, located in the mountain range of the Serra de Monchique of the Western Algarve.   A winding mountain road took us through forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees, past small farms and the occasional groupings of homes.  A sign for Parque da Mina at the edge of the road invited us to take a right-hand turn and piqued our curiosity so we turned and followed the paved road a few meters to a small parking lot. Upon further reading of another sign we found the tempting promise that we could travel back in time and see how one, land-owning family lived in this area of Portugal.  We ponied up the price of 10€ each (which seemed a bit high but goes towards maintaining the property) and set off down the path as it began to lightly rain, towards the family home turned museum and a glimpse of how life was lived many years ago.

Parque de Mina

Our first sight of the 18th century home made it very clear that this was a property lovingly and carefully maintained.  In typical Portuguese fashion, the home has been passed down by the original family through the generations and the current guardians of the estate have generously shared their family history and opened the home as a living museum to the public. And what a treasure!  We were welcomed at the door by a smiling woman who gave us an informative tour through the old home that was packed full of practical artifacts used in daily life, some extensive and eclectic collections that reflected the family’s interests and some more modern curiosities like the old Victrola we found in one room. Parque de Mina - 18th century Portuguese farmhouse

The tour began with the heart of the house, the kitchen, furnished with a lovely old table and chairs, earthen bowls and a collection of plates decorating the whitewashed walls. Here the meals would have been prepared by those in the employ of the family and the large fireplace in the background serves as the focal point.  Look closely and you can see the keepers-of-the-hearth sitting and enjoying a bit of a rest. Parque de Mina, near Monchique, PortugalNext was the dining room with a rich Oriental rug and intricately carved furniture.  (A maid stands ready to serve some traditional Portuguese dishes.)  Parque de Mina

We passed by the sitting room where the family may have sipped some tea and learned of the news of the day from (what seemed to us to be so quaint mixed in with the formal antiques) a vintage radio perched upon the side table. The bedrooms were tastefully decorated and, since Portugal is a traditional Catholic country, the saints protected and watched over the family while they slumbered.Parque de Mina

 

Parque de Mina,

And then came our favorite room, obviously where the family must have spent their time together playing music and maybe cards, listening to the Victrola, reading and enjoying the warmth of the fire.  Here was their collection of musical instruments and, a sure sign of how times have changed, several species taxidermied and displayed.  A large sea turtle shell stood upon the floor next to the backbone of some huge, unknown mammal.  Viewed by today’s cultural norms the display might be a bit macabre but the home would have reflected the tastes of a well-traveled and sophisticated family who enjoyed and celebrated a good life. Parque de Mina

 

Parque de MinaHere and there were nooks with a favorite collection of the patriarch’s pipes, displays of fine china and a whole little room devoted to an enormous assortment of finely carved and embellished, antique wall and table clocks. We peeked into a room where the sewing machines and flat irons stood at the ready and learned that all families of means employed their own personal seamstresses.Parque de Mina - sewing room

Passing by the office we noticed a colorful painting that, upon closer inspection turned out to be a grisly little scene of hunting dogs bringing down a wild boar and the master with his knife at the ready, lunging in for the kill. A bit removed from the more genteel side of life but another glimpse into times past and the country life of long ago.  Parque de MinaThe last part of the tour took us down a winding staircase to the immense cellar with doors giving access to the courtyard and grounds which, again, had several informal exhibits showcasing the different industries that would have been necessary to support the household. As one of the wealthiest and largest properties in the Monchique region, Parque da Mina had agricultural fields, forests and a working mine that produced iron-ore and copper.

Parque de Mina

The old trades of the region were showcased in several displays of many fine, old agricultural tools and machines whose uses we couldn’t begin to guess at.Parque de Mina

In one corner an animatronic wine maker greeted us in Portuguese and we admired the nearby wine making apparatus and learned about the local liqueur, medronho, made from the fermented berries of the arbutus tree which grows on the property. Parque de Mina

And, in a country where wine flows as abundantly as water, we saw many old barrels and casks used to store vintages of years gone by, some marked branco (white) and tinto (red).Parque de Mina

One of our favorite displays was of a general store and its contents that dated (our best guess only) from the 19th and 20th century.Parque de Mina

And finally, despite the threat of more rain showers we ventured outside to explore some of the outdoor exhibits and especially liked the old vintage vehicles scattered about the grounds.Parque de Mina

 

IMG_7734 (800x477)

Sometimes it’s more fun to take a detour to explore a place you’ve never heard of rather than stick to the original plan and, for us, this turned out to be one of those times.  It’s rare to see a historic home so meticulously maintained and to find so many authentic and vintage collections displayed in each room. We arrived at our original destination, Monchique, a few hours later than we had planned but very pleased to have taken a trip on the “Way Back” machine and imagine what it might have been like to live in this rural area of Portugal long ago.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Put a Cork in it – The Cork Trees of Portugal

Homemade Liqueurs - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netEver think about where that cork came from that you just pulled (maybe in pieces) from your wine bottle?  If you’re like us, the answer would be a resounding “Never” and maybe a suggestion to “Get a life.”  Sometimes an item that we see daily, handle and casually toss away when we’re through with it takes on a whole new significance when we learn more about it.  Until we moved to the Algarve Region of Portugal, all we knew about cork was that it was handy to pin notes on, provided a cushioning footbed in our favorite sandals, served as a convenient little coaster to prevent those unsightly rings on our table and lent a festive “Pop!” when pulled from a bottle of quality champagne.  However, in the souvenir shops and vendor stalls found in Lagos and other towns up and down the coast of Portugal, cork products are a big business and you might wonder just what all the fuss is about.

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Our curiosity was piqued and, when we mentioned our newly found interest in cork (who would have thought?) a friend of ours told us about a tour given by the family owned company, Novacortiça Cork Factory.  We booked a visit online and set off one morning on a pleasant one-hour drive to nearby São Brás de Alportel, a village in the foothills of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains, regarded by those in the know as one of the best regions of cork in the world.  It wasn’t hard to find the place (and yeah, there was a big sign too!) as there were huge piles of tree bark, almost all neatly stacked and baled in the front and along the sides of the building.  And the smell?  A bit hard to describe but an aromatic combination of sweet and earthy that took us back several years to stacking freshly cut wood for our fireplace.  Only better.

harvested cork

harvested cork

It all starts with Portugal’s national tree, protected by a strict law that makes it illegal to cut down any cork tree in Portugal without permission from the government.  It takes twenty-five years for the cork oak to grow large enough for the first stripping of the bark in the hot summer months by a highly skilled cutter, a tirador, who peels away door-sized cuttings using a specifically purposed hand-axe.  The virgin cork has an irregular structure and is very rough and brittle, hence its main use is as wall and flooring insulation.  The second cutting, after a period of 9 years or more, in which the outer bark regenerates, yields a denser bark but it isn’t until the third cutting, that occurs any time after the tree is 43 years old, that a high quality cork, compressed and pliable and suitable for wine stoppers, is finally harvested.  Which makes the Portuguese saying, “Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren” easy to understand.  And, since the trees can live up to 250 years old and yield a harvest every nine years (the year of the stripping is painted on the bark) they can be a valuable heritage for many future generations.

Cork oak before stripping

Cork oak before stripping

cork oak after stripping

cork oak after stripping

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

We sat through a well-presented lecture about how cork is processed and wine stoppers are made before our tour of the plant and asked so many questions that the German couple next to us started giving us dirty looks that perfectly conveyed the meaning, “Let’s get a move-on, you nerds!” as well as “Get a life.”  Once the actual tour started we still asked questions but tried not to embarrass ourselves further while we racked up “most fascinated tourist” points with our guide.

There are several steps that go into making the heretofore underappreciated wine stopper:

  • The pieces of harvested cork are boiled to remove dirt and insects which also softens it and makes it easier to work with.
  • The rough outer layer of bark is removed by hand.
trimming the cork

trimming the cork

  • The planks are sorted by quality and thickness and cut into pieces that make them easier to work with.
Squeezing water from cleaned cork

Squeezing water from cleaned cork

  • Whole bottle stoppers or the discs that comprise the “technical corks” can be hand or machine punched .
  • The majority of Novacortica Cork Factory’s end product are the discs for the more economical “technical corks” or “one-plus-one corks.”  A cylinder of agglomerate cork comprises the center of the bottle stopper with a disc of natural cork at each end.  The disc portion of the cork is what comes into contact with the wine so that the taste is not tainted.
cork discs - Novacortica

cork discs – Novacortica

The beauty of any product made with cork is that there is no waste.  Any cork scrap can be ground up, molded into large blocks or pressed into sheets to make fabrics and upholstery, handbags, shoes, hats, flooring, fishing floats and even surfboards.  It can be textured, dyed and burned.  It’s completely natural, completely renewable and completely recyclable.

We can honestly say we’ll never look at a “cork” the same way again!

A few factoids:

  • Cork stoppers for different qualities of wine range from 5 cents to 3 euros (about $3.36) for the finest of champagnes.
A variety of corks for different libations-Novacortica

A variety of corks for different libations

  • Portugal produces 50% of the world’s cork.  Cork oaks also grow in the Mediterranean climates of Spain, Algeria, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
  • Cork has a honeycomb cell structure which gives it remarkable insulating properties.  It’s flexible, compressible and elastic as well as lightweight, impermeable, durable and hypoallergenic.
  • The cork oak forests have been called “Europe’s Amazon forests” and are amazingly biodiverse regions that conserve water and soil as well as provide wildlife habitat.  Cork oak trees store carbon (and reduce greenhouse gases) in order to regenerate their bark.
  •  And lastly, here’s a link about Wine Corks that has even more fascinating information.  Thanks Dyanne at TravelnLass.com for sharing the heads-up with us!

By Anita and Richard

cork upholstered couch - Novacortica

cork upholstered couch – Novacortica

Quality handbags - high cork products

Quality handbags – high end cork products