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Faia Brava – Discovering Cork and Watching Vultures:
In addition to prehistoric rock carvings covered elsewhere on London-Unattached, the Foz Côa valley is home to a large private natural park, Faia Brava. It was our destination for ‘hiking and bird-watching’ guided by two of the biologists working at the park. Bereft of my stilettos, wearing jeans and a warm sweater and carrying a waterproof jacket, I have to admit to feeling a little apprehensive as our hosts arrived wearing heavy duty walking boots, waterproof protectors over their jeans and carrying an assortment of binoculars, encyclopedias and tripods.
We set off up into the hills, through very damp flower-filled meadowy undergrowth. It was grey and cloudy, Eduardo told us that the birds were unlikely to fly if heavy rain was imminent. We stopped to look at a zebra butterfly, making its way out of the thick greenery into the improbably wet valley
We found a wonderful unstripped cork oak tree. Until that point I knew nothing of where cork came from, only that it was something used to seal my favourite drinks! I’ve found out since that for Portugal, cork has a particular significance.
This tree, around 400 years old, has not been stripped, but as you wander around Central Portugal, there are many cork oak trees adorned with numbers painted in white paint. There is a purpose to this strange rural graffiti though as normally cork is harvested once every nine years, so, the trees are painted with the year they were last harvested. An environmentally friendly way to cultivate the land, Portugal produces over 60% of the world’s cork.
Throughout the park we came across shelters, originally built by the shepherds who spent much of the year tending sheep and goats in the hills, but now restored and used by visitors to the park. The park vegetation is now controlled by horses and cattle rather than sheep and goats – the remote nature of the area makes it less attractive to the declining local shepherd community.
And, quaint buildings which turned out not to be holiday cottages or minature windmills but pigeon houses – with somewhat less than attractive interiors.
Pigeon droppings are still used as a natural fertiliser and the pigeon houses were built both to provide a safe place for the birds and, more significantly, to facilitate collection of the droppings.
When we reached the top of the hills, we could see across the gorge to where the birds of prey made their homes. Egyptian vultures, flying and perching on the crags. A griffon vulture guarding its chick, an unexpectedly large ball of fluff, with yet more griffons flying over the gorge taking advantage of the air currents. Black kites, short-toed eagles and one of the nests of a Golden Eagle pair (apparently they have a nest on both sides of the gorge and alternate homes each year!).
OK I’m sold. Bird watching when it involves these elegant creatures is fascinating. There’s a stately magnificence as they glide freely across the gorge. Although I’ve seen birds of prey before, for the most part it has been within sanctuaries, with the birds firmly tethered or caged. The dolorous beauty of the captive birds is nothing compared to seeing them in their natural habitat.
Across to the vulture feeding table, where the biologists take visitors to watch the scavenger birds (although I did wonder if they were offering themselves in sacrifice on this occasion). The ‘table’ is loaded with 400kg or so of carcasses while visitors stay in the hide. And, after an hour or so the birds descend, tornado like, to clear out the meat. Only the bones, picked clean to a pristine white, remained for our visit, though Eduardo told us he had put out a full load of meat just the previous day.
On to our picnic spot where we attempted to dry out socks, shoes and in most cases feet, while feasting on more of Ana’s fabulous food. Including the sardine escabeche I’ve already bastardised into my own dish.
Faia Brava is somewhere you can visit for a day or even longer if you are prepared to camp. It’s a haven of natural and unspoilt countryside, full of wildlife, flowers and birds. And yet again, somewhere inspired by a desire to preserve the beauty of Portugal. And, for the most part, I’m told the weather is sunny although on this occasion it was the passion and enthusiasm of our hosts that kept us warm!
- Casa das Penhas Douradas offers double rooms including breakfast from €88
- Herdade da Poupa offers double rooms including breakfast from €110
- Casa dos Poços offers double rooms including breakfast from €88
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies from London Gatwick to Porto from £126 return including all taxes and charges
- For more information on Centro de Portugal visit: www.visitcentro.com/en/
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com
I travelled as a guest of Centro de Portugal