Elizabeth and I spent last night in Marvão, an ancient walled town set on a mountain top in Alto Alentejo, Portugal. We left Quarteira in the morning, driving away from the beaches and scrappy hills of the Algarve and emerging onto the wide savannas of Alentejo. We took a newly built highway that was empty and unpatrolled. Mercedes and BMWs occasionally zipped by me at top speed while I stuck to a comparatively modest 140 kph. Upon leaving the highway, we realized why no one else was on it: the toll came out to a staggering 20 cents per mile.
We skirted Portalegre, a city of only 15,000, but still the largest in the area. Past the city, we were in Serra de São Mamede Natural Park. A sign next to the road was the only indication that we’d entered it. It was not a pristine wilderness like an American national park. Rather, it was just a rural area that received the designation a few decades ago, as is. Elizabeth and I enjoyed the scenery thoroughly as we drove through the park and climbed from 1,300 feet in Portalegre to 2,800 feet in Marvão: a pleasant landscape of orchards, fields, and scattered red-roofed homes. A few trees were even beginning to turn their yellow and gold fall colors.
Before we’d entered the mountains of São Mamede, I’d noticed that the grasslands and woodlands on the plains of Alentejo looked just like the grasslands and woodlands on the Mount Diablo foothills near our home. But when we started climbing toward Marvão, the landscape became more forested and the vegetation was so similar to Mount Diablo‘s that I couldn’t help pointing it out to Elizabeth. The valley oaks and blue oaks of California became the holm oaks and cork oaks of Portugal. Buckeyes became sweet chestnuts. Gray pines became maritime pines. How could the wildlands of these two places, separated by over 5,000 miles and 100 million years of evolution, look so similar?
The answer is climate. Lying on the western edges of their continents and near the same line of latitude, both Serra de São Mamede and Mount Diablo experience a Mediterranean climate. Portalegre, at the base of Serra de São Mamede, has a climate that’s nearly identical to Santa Rosa’s, just north of Walnut Creek.
Thus, and this is just speculation on my part, the structure of the vegetation has been determined by climate: the size and distribution of grasslands, shrubs, and trees; the form of the trees’ trunks, branches, and boles; even the form of the trees’ leaves. After millions of years, in a case of convergent evolution, the vegetation has taken on the same form and distribution, from the largest to the smallest scales.
The forests thinned away as we approached Marvão. The town’s wall was surrounded by rocky slopes covered in windswept grasses and shrubs. Heeding my guidebook‘s advice to avoid driving the ‘narrow, cobbled, and unnerving’ lanes inside, we parked our car, got out our luggage, and walked toward the town gate.
Marvão’s wall was incredibly well-kept: no crumbling edges, no litter, no plants growing from cracks. The lanes were also perfectly maintained. They were narrow and cobbled, made for humans rather than cars. They turned into staircases on steep inclines. The houses were all neatly painted in white and blue, and the doorsteps and windows all had flowerpots overflowing with blooms. It was a bit surreal, like going back in time.
A walkway followed the top of the perimeter wall. We climbed up to it and walked toward the castle, enjoying the views. To our right were the town’s packed, charming houses with their red terra cotta roofs. To our left, 2,000 feet below, was the Alentejo countryside with endless pasture and oak groves. The castle stood on the highest point in town, rising from sheer cliffs as if it had crystallized from the rock, as if it were part of the landscape.
We watched the sun set from one of the castle’s turrets. Swallows soared up the cliffs and dove back into the forest. The sun neared the horizon, peeking through a break in the clouds and setting the village and the surrounding mountains aglow with orange light.
We strolled through the town’s streets until nightfall, then returned to our hotel, the Albergaria El-Rei Dom Manuel. We had a cozy room with wood-paneled walls. Through the open window we could see a few lights that had come on in the plains below. But it was getting cold outside, so we closed it and turned on the heat.
We ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, where I had an excellent plate of migas, a traditional meal of bread mixed with garlic, olive oil, and asparagus, all served with a side of pork ribs. Elizabeth had an açorda.
During the night, with no cars moving about, the town became utterly quiet. Clouds formed at summit level and fog filled the valleys. As the clouds built up, they enveloped the town’s dark, silent streets in a fine mist.
In the morning, we enjoyed a fine breakfast at our hotel then set off on a road trip through the Alentejo countryside. Our first stop was nearby Castelo de Vide, built on a hilltop like Marvão, but not so charismatic.
From there, we drove south and west on lonely two-lane roads from one little town to the next. The long miles between towns went through faint hills covered in pasture and grazed by meandering sheep and cattle. Cork oaks and holm oaks were everywhere.
Cork oaks grow throughout the Mediterranean, as do holm oaks, but it is here, in Portugal’s Alentejo, that they grow best. All the cork oaks we saw had trunks that were deep maroon from having their bark recently peeled. A white number—9, 8, 7, etc.—painted on each tree indicated the year when its bark was last removed. A cork tree can have its bark safely removed throughout its life, and Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork.
I couldn’t help but notice that there wasn’t a shred of wild land to be found anywhere we went. Thousands of years of human habitation punctuated by wars, poverty, desperation, and greed wiped it out long ago. But to say that the landscape isn’t wild is not to say that its native ecosystems are terribly damaged. Rather, the natural systems have been manipulated for centuries in a way that has left them intact.
The unpopulated landscapes we drove through today were montados: savannas and woodlands of cork oak and holm oak that cover vast areas of Portugal and Spain (where they are called dehesas). They are immensely productive, and almost every part of the landscape can be used: their bark provides cork, their inner bark is a tanning agent, their wood can be used for firewood and charcoal, and their acorns feed livestock. The understory is sometimes pasture that sustains pigs, cattle, sheep, horses, and game. In more productive areas, the understory is cultivated cereal that sustains people. Despite this manipulation, the floristic composition of the montados hasn’t changed in millenia. In fact, they are a world-renowned bird-watching area, rife with birds endangered in other parts of western Europe. The montados were sustainable agriculture long before it became fashionable.
The importance of cork and holm oaks has been recognized for centuries. In 1320, King Dom Dinis, as part of his program to strengthen Portugal and secure its independence, demanded of his subjects (in old Portuguese), “nom estraguem esses meus soveraes e azinhaes maliciosamente” (do not damage my cork oaks and holm oaks maliciously.) Oaks were held in high regard for centuries until the 1940s, when a national wheat campaign began replacing them with cultivated fields. In the 1960s, African swine fever destroyed Portugal’s population of domestic pigs, eliminating the main reason property owners had for keeping holm oaks on their land. Many holm oaks were summarily logged for firewood and not replaced. Also in the 60s, under the Salazar dictatorship, a program of afforestation resulted in huge tracts of oaks, as well as other native plants, being replaced with eucalyptus plantations. These plantations have since grown to blot out some 700,000 hectares of Portugal’s landscapes, an area nearly as large as Yellowstone National Park. Along parts of our road trip, as much as a quarter of the montados had been replaced by eucalyptus.
Today, montados are deteriorating as old landowners die and their children, having found prosperity far from home, abandon the land. The fields below the oaks, left either unplowed or ungrazed, get invaded by shrubs that prevent the oaks from regenerating. At the same time, the increasing popularity of synthetic stoppers on wine bottles has reduced the demand for cork, making cork oak trees less valuable, and encouraging landowners to cut them for wood and replace them with intensive agriculture or plantations of pine and eucalyptus.
One of our last stops today was the tiny town of Alter Pedroso. We navigated its web of zigzagging cobblestone streets up to a hill where the ruins of a thirteenth-century castle looked out over the countryside. Oak groves stretched to the horizon in every direction. Cowpaths radiated out from ponds. I believe the landscape looked much as it had for hundreds of years, and I wondered how much longer it would stay that way.