Happy to follow a flock, or dream of old renegades

By Judith Fein
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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FUNDÃO, Portugal - For many years, I wondered about transhumance and saw remnants of it across Europe. In Switzerland, there was a stone hut in the mountains, and in Austria someone pointed out part of an old trail that had probably been used for a thousand years. But little did I suspect that a small town in Portugal had maintained the ancient tradition, and that visitors could go there in September to be part of it.

Transhumance - which occurred annually in Asia, Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as Europe - is the seasonal movement of livestock from lowlands, where they are fed in winter, to high mountain areas where they graze in summer. When harvest time comes, shepherds lead the animals back down to their villages.

The main byproduct of transhumance is fresh, natural dairy products from cows, goats, and sheep, but equally significant is a nature-based, communal way of life that today is rare. In the Cova da Beira plains beneath the Gardunha and Serra de Estrela mountain ranges in central Portugal, a transhumance festival has taken place for the past eight years in the small city of Fundão. Few people know about it, and the event remains local, authentic, and provides a rare opportunity to experience a vanishing tradition.

Early in the morning, shepherds lead about 100 sheep, which have been brought down from the mountains, through the cobblestone streets. Accompanying them is the only registered and authenticated group of chocalheiros in the world: a chorus of men who play the tinny, clanging chocalhos, large sheep bells that are strung over their bodies from shoulder to hip on a leather sash, and sometimes hang from their suspenders. The hypnotic and evocative ringing of the bells is redolent of flocks and folklore, and human submission to the cycles of life.

A small group of Portuguese city folks - many with walking sticks and some with backpacks - come each year to join their relatives in the last leg of the transhumance: a seven-kilometer trek over a small mountain. It includes stops at tiny conglomerations of white houses with red tiled roofs where shepherds and participants greet the locals and take a short rest.

As you walk you find that there are regularly-placed rocks beneath your feet: Part of the trek is on an old road that was built by Romans. Cherry trees surround the road and wild mint fills the air with its lively aroma. Participants chat as they walk.

Coming down from the mountain, the parade ends in the town of Alpedrinha, where musicians play traditional tunes on their accordions and guitars. Farther on, another group plays “palhetas,’’ double-reed flutes, and huge drums that are covered in goat skins. Many of the houses on the main street date to the 18th century and most of the abodes are decorated and transformed into little restaurants, boutiques, or food shops. Here and there, a garage becomes an improvised “tasca,’’ or local eatery, which serves such specialties as spiced black-hued sausages and pork chunks served on toothpicks.

In other houses, women sell “filhós,’’ local corn delicacies that are fried and doused in cinnamon and sugar, home-made sausages, cheeses, jams, and drinks. Others proffer little sheep that are fashioned from pieces of logs and branches. Street stalls and houses offer hand-crafted embroideries, jewelry, walking sticks, shepherds’ flutes, woolen bags, and magnificent knitted sweaters.

It is not unusual to meet urban Portuguese who are moved by the experience. Last year, one woman found herself weeping. “I feel such a connection to my ancestors, the land, and a tradition that was lost in the mists of time,’’ she said. “I loathe the idea of going back to the modern world, with all the noise, chaos, and buzz of electronics.’’

If you, too, loathe the idea of going back to civilization, another unusual historical walk awaits you in the Alentejo region, about 2 1/2 hours from Lisbon and a few miles from Spain. Instead of chocalheiros, you will encounter “contrabandistas,’’ or smugglers. The trail is so new to tourists that markers have not yet been put up, but if you visit the Marvão tourism office (located at the top of the winding route into medieval Marvão and about a hundred meters from the castle), they will be happy to provide you with information about the route, including where to start the moderate three-to-four-hour trek in the nearby village of Galegos.

The word “smugglers’’ conjures up images of rum-swilling pirates with black eye patches, but the reality was much more homey and intimate.

For many years, before the European Union dissolved the borders in 1991, Portuguese villagers who lived in close proximity to Spain survived by smuggling goods across the mountains. They transported linens, wine, coffee, cigarettes, ceramics and food - whatever was less expensive on their side of the border. And they carried back whatever was cheaper in Spain - shoes, Pyrex, ham, nuts, and salted cod. The best part of it was that there were no taxes to be paid.

The smuggling was done by men, women, and children in the villages of Galegos and Pitaranha. In the dark of night, they hoisted anywhere between 80 and 200 pounds of goods onto their backs and set off for the mountains on one of about 50 rugged trails they used to elude ever-vigilant police. These improvised paths, which hikers follow today, were often muddy and covered with branches and stones. Sometimes the contrabandistas were caught, thrown in jail, and their goods confiscated. Other times they just got a warning because the police were their neighbors.

Today, the borders are overgrown with weeds and strewn with rocks and the smugglers are all grown up. In some cases, they are in their 80s and are tickled that others are interested in the intrigues of their daring youth. As visitors pass through their villages en route to the mountain trails, the ex-smugglers stop sweeping their patios or watering their flowers to engage in conversation, sometimes telling stories of the contraband days. “My back still hurts from carrying contraband,’’ Teresa Maria Pires, a charming octogenarian in a straw hat, said. “If I had kept a nickel for each trip I made, I would be a millionaire.’’

“There was a camaraderie among the smugglers and we warned each other about dangers up ahead,’’ an older man said. “Sometimes we gave beers to the cops or played cards with them to divert them from the activities of other smugglers. No one on the trails smoked, because the light would be a giveaway to police. Sometimes we used the ‘ant style’ - forming a bucket brigade system that allowed goods to be passed over stone walls. We had our ways,’’ he concluded with a smile.

Because paths that lead from the villages and snake across the mountains are left in their original state, it is easy for walkers today to imagine what it was like to do the nightly haul. The trails are uneven, and there is sometimes thick underbrush. There are seemingly endless fields, expanses of countryside, and stands of cork trees. It was clearly difficult for the small, local police force to monitor the smugglers’ activities. And when visitors stop at local shops as they pass through the two little villages, they are likely to see the same kinds of linens and ceramics that once constituted the smugglers’ booty.

Just as the contrabandistas did, trail walkers end up in the village of La Fontanera, in Spain. There, on the main street, or in a house that has been transformed into a makeshift cafe, they are likely to meet one-time Spanish smugglers. They, too, have colorful stories to tell. They agree with their Portuguese counterparts that although smuggling may have stopped a few decades ago, the signs, sites, and atmosphere are everywhere for those who are willing to walk in the footsteps of the outlaws.

Judith Fein can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
The 2011 transhumance festival will take place Sept. 17-19.
To experience the smugglers’ route, you can take a self-guided tour or hire a local guide:
Ms. Felicidade Tavares
Her fee starts at 100 euros for 4 hours, and may be higher if you want to meet ex-smugglers and have a more in-depth local experience.
Where to stay
Hotel Principe da Beira
Estrada Nacional 18-km 63.5
Sitio da Maria Negra-Donas
Doubles from $65 with breakfast.
Hotel Resort O Alambique de Ouro
Estrada Nacional 18
Doubles from $68 with breakfast.
Pousada de Marvão - Santa Maria Hotel Marvão
011-351- 245-993-201/ 245-993-202
Doubles from $108 with breakfast.
Casa D. Dinis
Rua Doutor Matos
Magalhaes 7, Marvão
Doubles from $65 with breakfast
Boutique Hotel O Poejo
Av. 25 de Abril No.20
7330-251 Santo Antonio das Areias
The hotel is 4 kilometers from Marvão and it can provide you with maps of the smugglers’ trail and provide a picnic lunch for $14-$20. Doubles from $100with breakfast. Discounts for more than one night.