The Journey through Spain and Portugal

Over one month, no blog posts. I have a good reason... kind of. I’ve been moving around Spain and Portugal. Living life, experiencing things and well, resting. I think without realizing it, I was on the verge of burning out after my Himalayan adventure.

While the motorcycle ride through the Indian Himalayas was nothing short of incredible, I guess it was pretty taxing, mentally and physically. Perhaps as a way of my body telling me that I was struck with some mysterious flue-like bug in Delhi, laid in bed with a fever, half-dead for two days and barely made it onto my flight to Madrid, Spain. Thankfully in Spain, Fermin, a kind friend of mine got me back to normal within just a couple of days.

And so, over the past month I’ve been traveling around Spain and Portugal, without Tanya (who went to visit family in Belarus) something of a rarity for us over the past few years, but a good way for me to see who I am and where my head is at. Why did I visit these places? Well, I’d always had a fascination with Spain. I learned Spanish in university and the teachers instilled a very romantic vision of Spain in my mind. Portugal entered into the plan after I started seriously considering the Spain trip. Fermin (the same one who cured my flue) told me that Portugal was like Spain 30-40 years ago. Sounded interesting - Spain of now and Spain of yesterday, though, I did find out that Portugal and the Portuguese were distinct enough from Spain and the Spanish.

In any case, I fell in love with both countries, the incredibly tasty food, the ridiculously beautiful and at times painfully romantic cities, the wonderfully hospitable, intelligent, warm and fun people who live there. I loved the region so much, that I want to move there. I don’t know when or whether I can actually live in any one place on earth, but if you were to ask me where I’d like to theoretically make a home, I’d say - Portugal or Spain. Don’t ask me which, it’s too tough to decide. :) I have probably mentioned at different times that I could see myself living in a few places, but I think this is really the closest area to idyllic for me.

About Spain and Portugal, I mentioned the food and the people. These people, well, they like to get the visitors to drink... a lot. Since the drinks are not of the atomic/poisonous kind as they are in my motherland Belarus or some other Eastern European countries, I had to oblige. I ate, drank, made friendships, had fun and had very little time or ambition to take photos. I guess in the back of my mind, I was already thinking “research” more than photo taking, because I really would love to be back and to dedicate some time to shoot certain subjects there.

The tapas and the Sangria made me almost useless as a photographer for most of the Spanish journey, but I did manage to shoot a bit here and there. The first group of images is from the Portuguese countryside. The rest of are a mixed bag, a bit of a diary record of what I saw and what I might like to photograph more in the future.

The person who “introduced” me to the Portuguese countryside is an awesome photographer and an even more awesome person by the name of Rui Pires (check out his images HERE). There are a lot of goats in Rui’s photos and before long, Rui took me to one of the villages where he shoots. I was surrounded by those goats, feeling déjà vu from my Himalayan journey, where I too was “chasing” goats (along with other animals). Same kinds of stone houses, same smells of dust and animals, same ringing of bells (on the goats). A little like India, but in Europe.

Before getting to the goats I took a little walk to get myself acquainted with the village and ended up in a corn field. Thankfully, I made a friend and she volunteered to assist me in my photographic pursuits. This was important, as the lovely elderly lady (in the images below) would have possibly been a little uneasy with the sight of a man (who is obviously foreign because he doesn’t understand what the heck she’s saying) with a camera so early in the morning.

In the first image, the lady is channeling a stream of water to different parts of her field. The villagers use ancient techniques of water sharing and watering of their fields. The water stream is “closed off” with a chunk of soil and is hence channeled in a specific direction or towards a specific field. In the old times, access to water was one of the main reason for serious conflicts between villagers. Seemed like in this village at least, that’s been left in the past.

The elderly folk work as long as they are capable. It never seizes to amaze me, whether in Belarus, Romania, India, Portugal or wherever else what people are still capable of in the latter stages of their lives. This lady (above) was carrying what appeared to be a damn heavy load up a pretty steep cobble stone path. We offered to help, but she just laughed it off.

And then came the goats... lots of them. Rui joked with me a couple of days before “Do you want to meet the goats?” knowing that I am familiar with his work and know that the traditional village where he photographs is full of them, at least judging by his photos. I think the images (above) are pretty self explanatory.

The way it works with the goat herding is - all the village folk get them out of the sheds and push them along the village’s main “street”, in the direction of the mountain path, then a designated herder takes them up the mountain to graze. The herder is different every few days.

Most of the more traditional Portuguese villages are inhabited predominantly by people in their 60s and above. Hence the rhythm of life is even more relaxed than elsewhere in the country. These two gentlemen sat on the bench, watched life go by and occasionally napped over the four days that I spent there. The dog, named Bolinhos seemed to be the only animal allowed on the bench with them.

Animals are of utmost importance in the Portuguese countryside. Above, the village head “Ze” is feeding his gigantic bull. I photographed Ze for about an hour and even helped him a little to gather hay for his cattle. After our little photo session the man invited me to his house for lunch. That’s what you see in the image below, the appetizer of one grand lunch. :)

One of the awesome things about Portugal is that somewhere deep in the mountains, down some shitty road you can come across something pretty fascinating, like this abandoned village (below) and a small waterfall near it (not pictured).

Branca, the friend I made in the first village was curious and kind enough to join me on my little exploration trip around the North of Portugal, we visited a few more villages, chatted to some of the elderly folk and I, of course took a few more shots.

Etelvina (above) is 92 years old. She obviously had seen a lot in her life, but when we asked her how things were in her time and what had changed, she mentioned a rather strange ritual. Etelvina worked in the morgue with her mother and said that back in the day, they used to grease up the cadavers and put a cork up their backside before burrying them. “I don’t know, perhaps that’s changed now” she told us. Very weird.

A pretty common sight (above) around the countryside villages - elderly folk sitting outside, watching life go by.

In some of the villages there are still communal laundry places (above) where the village folk wash their clothes. This lady was doing just that. She invited us for lunch, though unfortunately we had to decline because we were in a hurry.

While visiting one of the villages, Branca and I spotted an elderly man with three huge cows walking along the road. The sight was impressive enough for us to run after him. We started to chat and ended up following the man, who’s known as Senhor Orlinhos all the way to the grazing ground of his cows, about 2 km up the road. In the image above he’s turning towards the grazing ground off the road with one of his cows.

In a typical display Portuguese hospitality Senhor Orlinhos invited us to his house for lunch after our little journey. Here he is in the cow shed, showing a new calf that was born to one of his cows.

Ana (above) is Senhor Orlinhos’ wife. When we arrived at the house she was already cooking lunch, which consisted of potatoes and pig liver. In this image I caught her during the moment she said “É a vida” a phrase which I commonly heard around the Portuguese countryside. The phrase translates to something like “That’s life” and it’s used when someone might be resigned to the hard fate that life has dealt them or simply at the end of a factual statement about life in general. For example “We all get old. É a vida” or “You have to work to eat. É a vida”.

Senhor Orlinhos was a pretty photogenic fellow and he didn’t seem to mind a bit that I was photographing him quite a lot. As a result, I was able to get a few pretty relaxed shots in a casual setting.

And now to some of the shots I made in the cities/towns of Spain and Portugal. As I said, these are more of “diary” kinds of shots than anything else, but I thought I’d share them anyway.

One of the first places we visited was Granada (above), a beautiful city with amazing food. The latter was the culprit for my lack of photo-taking. Though here are two images I did manage to take between meals with the second having been taken, during tea. :)

On our way towards Portugal we visited Arcos de La Frontera, a charming, little, old town, which just happened to be holding a Flamenco festival. I hadn’t actually seen Flamenco live before and Fermin, my Spanish friend was “guarding” me from seeing shitty Flamenco without soul, the one he said was held for the tourists. He approved of the stuff we saw at Arcos. :)

The music and singing were quite something, but the slightly cheesy setting was not amazing for photo taking (not a big fan of colored lights on ancient buildings). Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist shooting at least some of this spectacle. I think the emotion and passion of the performers are pretty clear in the second of the three images.

Eventually we made it to Lisbon (images above), a city I instantly fell in love with. Ok, if I had to make a choice of a city where I wanted to live, Lisbon would be at the top of the list.

Porto appeared to me as a little depressing at first, but as I explored, it was became poetically melancholic and romantic, in a sad Portuguese kind of way. The photo above and the one at the top of the post were shot from the first bridge of the city.

Back to Lisbon. Above are a couple of shots of the famous Lisbon trams, outside and inside. I had to explain to the French couple in the frame that I was shooting a little piece on Lisbon trams so that they wouldn’t think I’m a psychopathic maniac, as I snapped them quite a lot during the trip. Thankfully they were lovely and understanding.

One great thing about Lisbon is that there’s so much to photograph and there’s probably just as much stuff indoors, in the churches and the restaurants or Tascas (local restaurants) as there is outside. The second shot above was taken in one such Tasca. The woman is the place’s owner. There isn’t a menu in her Tasca, rather every day there’s a set meal. I was told that whatever it is, it’s great and that proved to be true.

Sun setting over a residential neighborhood in Lisbon. I have no idea where the heck this is. Part of the fun in Lisbon is in simply getting lost.

This woman (above) might look like a regular kitchen worker, but she is in fact a pretty talented Fado singer. Google Fado if you haven’t heard of it. In short, Fado is Portugal’s traditional music/song, usually sad, always emotional. I heard this lady from some distance around the corner of the restaurant in which she was performing and nor she nor the guitarist were using microphones. Powerful stuff.

Alfama, the neighborhood where we stayed is believed to be the birthplace of Fado and as a result there are still a lot of places, usually restaurants where you can hear it performed. Perhaps the whole thing has become a little touristy and they charge you somewhat silly prices for meals in drinks in some places, but hey, it’s still a bargain, if you consider that you’re getting to listen to some talented folks for that money.

After Portugal I visited Santiago de Compostela, a charming town where I had a lot of fun eating awesome seafood (the region is known for it) and having atomic Sangria with three fun loving Spanish girls who just finished their “camino de Santiago” a pilgrimage walk which I doubt I will ever take. It was their idea to go to the church to see this flying ball of fumes called "Botafumeiro".

The tired tourists/pilgrims are treated to nightly performances by folks wearing traditional old Galician attire. They also claim that they’re brewing a magic potion, that’s the fiery thing. I had to abstain this time. :)

I was afraid that this was the last shot with my Canon 5d mkII. The kiddies were standing at the edge of the wall, waiting for the wave to spray them. I was standing quite a distance away, with a 70-200mm lens, hoping that it doesn’t spray me. Wrong. I got wet from head to toe, as did the camera. Seems to still be functioning though.

Tapas or Pintxos as they are known in San Sebastian, a city often considered the culinary capital of Spain. My mouth waters when I think of the food in that place.

San Sebastian is beautiful. If I wasn’t so obsessed with eating and drinking I probably could have shown its beauty more effectively, but as I said, there’s likely to be a next time.

Well, that's all for now. I'm hanging out with some of my family for the next few weeks, so things might again be a little quite here. Though I do have some posts in mind.