It's half past eight in the morning. For some time now, the summer dawn has been impinging on the mountains that surround Castro Laboreiro and incites the castrejos to resume their toil.
A distinct morning mission was imposed on us: to conquer the fort overlooking the town which, after centuries of Visigothic, Leonese, Muslim, Portocalense and, finally, Portuguese rule, resists the dictatorship of weather, rain, snow and of the wind.
We take the trail that starts at the southern end of the village. Between rocks, gorse, broom, ferns and brambles that bind us with blackberries, we ascend the hill that welcomed the old, worn castle. A staircase carved into the granite takes us through one of the pointed doors and up to the heights of the walled redoubt.
A Castle between Portuguese origins and the Minho of today
There we give ourselves to a fierce dispute between vision and imagination. To the north, in the stone and tiled valley below, stretched the reddish-grey houses of Castro Laboreiro now.
In our imaginations, the adventures and misadventures of Count Hermenegildo (Mendo) Guterres and a Dux Vitiza who rebelled against Afonso III of Asturias took place.
At the behest of the monarch, the Butler Dom Mendo united the nobility, put an end to the seven-year-old revolt that had sabotaged the solidity of the kingdom of Galicia and imprisoned the renegade. As a reward, during the first half of the XNUMXth century, he was gifted with domains still full of medieval charm that, at great cost, we failed to contemplate.
Years later, Muslims from North Africa took over.
It was only in 1141 that Afonso Henriques was able to reconquer them to the Christian side, reinforcing the old castle of Mendo Guterres and turning it into a key fortress in the line of defense of the increasingly less embryonic Portuguese nation.
The Entrepreneurial Life of a Castrejo of Our Times
In this enchantment, nine in the morning had passed us. We return to the foot of the fort and let ourselves flow in the history and stories of Castro Laboreiro.
We meet host and guide Paulo Azevedo at the restaurant “Miradouro do Castelo” that his parents built, after fifteen years of prolific emigration, in another of the ancient territories of the mountainous top of Iberia: Andorra.
Paulo was born and lived until he was eight years old in the deepest lands of Ribeiro de Baixo, in the middle of the canyon at the foot of the Serra da Peneda and Serra da Laboreiro, with the border and the Spanish village of Olelas in sight.
From one side to the other of that streak, embarrassing only for the less industrious, like so many others, his family found sustenance: “My grandfather took many cows to Spain. And from there he brought coffee and chocolate so rare and valuable in those parts. Back then, getting out of here was an adventure.
We dreamed of going even if it was only to Melgaço. In 4th grade I remembered to invent a pain so I had to go to the doctor, but the game got out of control.
When I noticed her, the doctor was sending me to Viana do Castelo. At school, those who went to Melgaço were almost heroes. Without quite knowing how, I was the only one who had arrived in Viana do Castelo.”
From an early age, Paulo and his industrious family learned to build bridges. With him we wind down the road and, once again, in time. Until we find one of the many on the rivers and streams that furrow the hills and valleys of Peneda and Laboreiro.
Castro Laboreiro Bridges: From One Side of Time to the Other
The one at Varziela appears on the homonymous stream, surrounded by one of those small river lakes in which you immediately feel like diving. It is believed to have been reformulated between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, from a base erected long before by the Romans, part of the network of roads that connected Augusta Bracara (Braga) to Asturica Augusta (Astorga) and many others.
To Rómulo, who took us and accompanied us since the first of the cities, a break for bathing there seemed to make as much sense as the mythological origin of its name.
In the long Latin era in which we were dazzled by the successive idyllic and crystalline settings of Castro Laboreiro, the bridge of Varziela stood as rounded and firm as it had been sketched.
Lacking the comitans e limited that once crisscrossed the gold-rich region, a small Spanish detachment of canyoners led by Portuguese guide João Barroso paraded through the immaculate stream in contemporary neoprene uniforms and gaudy helmets. We envy them for a moment.
The Ponte Nova, and Back to the Miradouro do Castelo
After which we resumed our much leaner journey in search of some neighbors, the Ponte Nova. And, nearby, the Cava da Velha bridge, or the Cavada Velha bridge, built with a surprising anti-gravity ingenuity over the Castro Laboreiro river, which, higher up, the Varziela stream supplied, in the XNUMXst century, by the Romans.
Despite the solidity of the facts, it is also called by the people Ponte Nova.
We stopped the tour for a refreshing lunch at the “Castle Viewpoint” where Paulo captivates us with new stories and delicious fortified gastronomic specialties. As we leave the restaurant, we pass our eyes over the castle and the massive cliff that crowns the surrounding mountain range.
We noticed that, from the distant thickets, animal figures stand out. Paul tells us they are goats. Let's get our most powerful lens and examine the specimens. In fact, they were goats.
But domestics, not the mountainous ones that abound in the Peneda-Gerês National Park. "When we go to the Planalto, it's likely that we'll see the others."
The Apicultural Blessing of Our Lady of (A) Numão
We climb the slope of the Serra de Laboreiro towards other huge cliffs, territory of golden eagles that we see hovering in an unexpected flock of seven or eight. Farther down the dirt road, at the base of one of these cliffs, we come to a granite chapel.
A swarm of wild bees was taking up arms and baggage in a crack above the closed door. The chapel had been erected to celebrate a miracle. Not even a miracle saved Paul from a fateful blow.
Even though the most atheists and unbelievers claim that it was the believers themselves who placed the figures there, legend has it that, when drilling a boulder, an image of Our Lady was found, then taken to the Igreja Matriz in Castro Laboreiro.
The Mystical Stubbornness of Our Lady of (A) Numão
She also prayed that she escaped from there and returned to where she had been found or to the surroundings, even after being returned to the mother church. Such was the persistence of this Our Lady who deserved her own sanctuary of Our Lady of (A) Numão.
It remains surrounded by granite boulders and a peculiar pulpit added to the face of one of them. And adorned with an Asturian water flower, probably of Celtic root.
A rose window with six petals symbolizing purity and beauty associated with janas (Asturian fairies) and the rest of the mythology that, coming from the near north, arrived in these parts.
Several masses were said in the chapel. Some in freezing weather when, according to the book Santuário Mariano, from 1712, by Friar Agostinho de Santa Maria “…to prove the coldness of the land, all that is needed is for the wine to freeze in winter, so that for Mass it is necessary warm it up”.
As Paulo describes us from the popular imagination of Castro Laboreiro, the pulpit was also used to seal unions in which the groom from other places proposed to local maidens.
In such cases, the maiden went up to the pulpit. And from there he heard the words that the groom spoke from the ground.
From Barreiro to the Raiano Plateau of Serra de Laboreiro
From Anumão we return to populated areas of the Laboreiro slope. We pass through the village of Barreiro. And by two old women in traditional black dress who work there in semi-detached fields separated by modern fences that prevent their cattle from straying.
In one of them, 85-year-old Dona Maria da Conceição picks potatoes for the only one of several unfilled sacks. "Good afternoon, was it you who already got all these?" that's how we got into conversation. “No, they think so. At my age I can't handle all that. It was my daughter who took care of most of them.”
We continued to talk and soon asked him for permission to photograph her, which we do alternately and quite persistently. “Alas, these gentlemen from Lisbon are really rogues”, complains Dª Maria da Conceição, without ever giving up her patience, sympathy and kindness.
Alzira de Fátima, her daughter enters the field in front of a herd. Sheep waste no time. They are thrown to the vines and also to the potatoes.
Paulo had joined us and assured the lady who was from the land. “Ah! I can see it!”, Maria da Conceição tells him, you are the son of Maria dos Prazeres, from the restaurant. You married a Brazilian, didn't you?” The old woman and her daughter alternate efforts.
Sometimes they interrogate Paul to catch up on their gossip, sometimes they turn around and stone the sheep that insisted on devouring the potatoes. As is said with increased logic in the field, someone has to work. We didn't want to disturb the ladies' work anymore.
We told them that we were going up to the Planalto and said goodbye. "Highland? And where is this?" questions Maria da Conceição, intrigued, who had never heard the flatter lands above her village and Castro Laboreiro referred to by that name.
The Plateau: between the cachenas and the garronos of Castro Laboreiro
We return to the jeep. We cross Curral do Gonçalo which, at almost 1200 m, is the highest village in the parish of Castro Laboreiro and Lamas de Mouro, one of the highest in Portugal. We conquered the steep slope of the Serra de Laboreiro.
We enter an uninhabited and wild world that stands out above the reality we were living in, but it has been traversed by the peoples who have succeeded there for a long time.
We stop at the small Ponte dos Portos, which is believed to have been built by the Celts as part of the road network that connected these stops to the imminent north of Galicia.
A few hundred meters later, the green gives way to a vast multicolored meadow of yellow-green gorse, fern and purple heather.
In the eastern areas, herds of Cachaña and Barrosã cows share the tender pastures with others of semi-wild and aristocratic groves. Some are so averse to human incursions that, to avoid us, they gallop heartlessly, mane in the wind.
The fauna does not stop there. In another meander of the trail, with Galicia in sight, we come across a family of wild boars, also in a hurry. After some discussion, we agreed that, at least until they disappeared into the tall fetuses, a juvenile wolf was chasing them.
We continue along the plateau streak with Spain. We take a peek at one of the tapirs that endow the prolific megalithic field.
We are satisfied with the absence of mountain goats.
And we enjoy the sunset of a border promontory overlooking the armada of wind turbines that now rotate over the summits of the Serra da Peneda and Laboreiro.
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