Travel Photo Feature – Portugal Up Close

My second trip to Portugal was of a different nature than all the other trips I have made in my life. For the first time I didn’t go studying or on holiday, but to do some serious work. Or so I thought.

I live in Ljubljana, a capital of Slovenia, which is a small country of 2 million people, tucked between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. Looking for something to do for the summer, I found out about volunteer work camps through a local volunteer SCI organization (Service Civil International, After some browsing, my friend and I chose one camp among numerous others all around the world and all we had left to do was get our plane tickets. Before we knew it, we were off to a two-week adventure!

The work camp was set South of Lisbon in a small village called Canha; to get there we first had to take a ferry boat from Lisbon to Montijo, where we were picked up by the organizers of the camp and, after a surprisingly warm welcoming ceremony, then taken to another bus to reach our final destination. We only found out what our work would be once we arrived at the house where we shared bedrooms, bathrooms and breakfasts with ten other volunteers from all around Europe (France, Austria, Turkey, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia), three coordinators and many assistants (I was never quite sure about their role in the camp, and I not certain even they really knew!).

We worked in three groups, taking turns gardening around the kindergarten and “Casa de povo” (people’s house), painting walls at the elderly home and biking around the region, trying to find some interesting paths for a biking trail which would be later described in a tourist booklet. We also renovated some fountains by the main road where people still stop for fresh, drinkable water.

In Canha, there are not many places for sightseeing besides the church and the old fountain, which is regarded with a respect so deep that no one dares to touch it, not even for repair. However, there are surprisingly many little cafeterias where you can find the young and the old, but always mostly men. Most of them speak only Portuguese, so learning at least some phrases was a must. Those who speak little English or French (many had or still have family members in France where they are known as excellent builders) are very eager to communicate. If they were not able to make a decent conversation with us they definitely talked a lot about us! Of course, we were one of the few things “going on” in the village, at least until the Festival of St. Oliveira, the village patron, took place on the first weekend in September.

In contrast to not so serious work, we were seriously petted in our free time. We were taken to the beautiful sandy Arrabida beach and the nearby cities of Setubal and Montijo. The young local bands performed a jam session especially for us.

We did a 40 kilometer bike race around the vineyards and woods (and, despite the heat, survived). We visited farms and the wine production center (Portugal is well known for its wine named Porto, but in the Montijo region the sweet and strong Muscatel is more popular). We did canoeing and a boat trip with a fisherman on Tejo River. We jumped off the fire department tower, secured by a rope (the activity was called “radical sport”). But the most exciting was the village festival where we had the chance not only to see a bullfight in the arena, but also to look deeply into the bull’s eyes by ourselves (luckily, no one got hurt). Even if not everybody was eager to do that, nobody’s spirit was strong enough to refrain from dancing with the villagers through the streets of Canha at five in the morning.

I couldn’t imagine a better way of being so close to the local people, of getting to know their culture and way of living. We were not merely some tourists passing through. We were made a part of their community, although only for a short time, which was possibly thanks to the camp and even more so to the Portuguese openness.

Photo 1: (left) The group of volunteers, with Pedro (organizer) and Daniel (assistant) in the middle. We climbed on one of the many fountains, decorated with well-known painted ceramic tiles. (Middle) One of the streets, decorated for the festival. The decoration was mostly made by the elderly people staying the Elderly home and at “Casa de povo”. (Right) Taken on the Arribida beach. On the hills just above the beach a terrible fire spread earlier this year.

Photo 2: Canha by night. Impressive in its own way.

Photo 3: Small farms are scattered all around Canha and the easiest way to reach them is by bike through the woods of eucalyptus. It’s good to be accompanied by a Portuguese-speaking guide though, as we were when making a plan for a tourist bike trail; Pedro, our camp coordinator, asked this couple for permission to take a photo.

Photo 4: A typical guest of a typical café where everybody soon knew our names.

Photo 5: Cabo da Roca, the most western point of Europe, where different currents meet and, in the softness of the afternoon summer sun, take your breath away.

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