Agueda – Bright Colours & Portuguese Cemeteries
The rain is spattering against Iggy’s protective walls, and the early morning light is grey and chill outside the shutters. We are up bright and early to leave the unbecoming free Aire in Agueda behind us and head further north. It is Sunday, the first of March, and I am beginning to count down the last twenty days till we need to catch a ferry home.
Yesterday was the day the first fingers of the forecast “bad” weather reached us. Waking me in the night at our parking spot in Costa de Lavos, as the strong arms of the wind reached across the sheltering dunes and gave Iggy a few good shoves. A good few more, and many blatters of cold sounding rain later, and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to drive safely in the morning.
I needn’t have worried though. The wind and rain, as so often happens, blew itself out over night. By the time we were up and getting Iggy ready to travel it was once more dry and calm. The blue skies and sunshine stayed shrouded in thick cloud. Shorts had given way to jeans, and a jacket or jumper was definitely needed over our t-shirts. But it was a tad chilly rather than full on cold.
As we set off I hoped that Agueda – our chosen destination for the day – would turn out to be a good one. Our last few stops before the beach hadn’t had a lot going for them, and it would be nice to stay somewhere pretty and interesting for a day or two.
I wasn’t too sure that Agueda was actually going to fit that bill however. My usual technique of picking our spot by a quick google image search hadn’t turned up much. A street hung with bright coloured umbrellas, and a nice looking bridge over a river.
A comment on park4night for the free motorhome stopover mentioned that the umbrellas had been taken down. So I was left with a nice looking bridge and the memory of some umbrellas. As a way to choose a destination for the day it wasn’t really jumping out as being a place we’d be raving about ten years down the line.
But I was curious about this place that had chosen to hang the umbrellas in the first place. A bit of a cheesy copycat thing in the first place. Not really a reason to visit a place that we wouldn’t have visited anyway. But the local council obviously at least had the gumption to try and do something with their town. And, as I always say, travel is not just about running around tourist zones. Tat shops and long, clumped up groups on coach tours, can get a bit tedious after a while too. No matter how good the view being so beautifully obscured by selfie sticks and complaining Instagram “stars”.
And so I set my mind firmly to “documentary mode” as Iggy bumped his way out of the Aire and onto the road for Agueda. I tried to remember to photograph the ordinary and not just the extraordinary. To tell it like it is – or like I see it at least – and not just some fairytale perfect story.
Because while fairytales have their purpose they are not true. Once-upon-a-time they were cautionary tales where children where eaten were eaten by wolves, and ugly things abounded. Today they are too often full of sparkles and magical everlasting happiness.
Life is not really like that. Happiness, like unhappiness, is a fleeting thing – not a permanent state of mind. The rubbish we pride ourselves on putting tidily in the bin in idyllic, middle class villages, ends up in massive, stinking heaps, somewhere in the world. For one man to be wealthy, another hundred must be poor. Life is balance and the other side of nice is bland. The other side of beautiful is ugly. The other side of sun is rain.
As we drove then, I grabbed a few snaps of our journey. It was only an hour’s drive today and mostly a pretty one. The traffic was starting to get busier as we moved closer and closer to Porto’s suburban areas. Villages tended more towards basic, boring poor. Broken windowed deriliction is common in Portugal, and often affect what were once stunningly beautiful buildings. But sometimes there is not even this elegant pathos to see. Just dirty, peeling, off coloured concrete blocks. Grass and weeds sprouting from pavements. Huge blocks of ugly flats. Vast industrial estates.
In between the pallour of modern poverty that blights every country we pass through Portugal’s other main sights flicker. A child’s toy of images staccato switching. Here an enormous Templar style castle covers an entire hillside in breathtaking splendour. There huge stray dogs race along the road after raiding bins. Massive shaggy male equivalents of our Marley dog.
Giant storks pace Iggy in flight as we pass through a couple of fields length of wooded area. I try and snap a good photo of the stork covered branches of the trees. We have never seen so many in such close quarters before. We are going too fast, and they are just a blur in the trees. I cannot capture the moment, but take a blurry shot anyway.
And then we pass a sign saying Agueda. There is a stunning mural wrapped round a giant industrial looking cylindrical. I’m too busy gaping at it to take a picture. It wouldn’t have worked from the van anyway. The van moves on towards the free Aire. Everything is rain grey. Concrete grey. A giant parking place with the last two stalls packing up from the morning market. It looks ugly. Decrepit. I want to tell Jay I’ll find another place for today. Keep going. I don’t want to stay here.
There are three other vans parked around the small, simple Aire. Jay offers to just stop in an ordinary space while I check the maps for someplace else. I hesitate for a moment…
“Nah. Let’s give it a chance at least. Put my money where my mouth is. I said it’s not just about the pretty places.”
I shrug. We park. We’re right next to the services terminal, and the guy in the van next door shoots us what looks like a filthy look as he walks round us to the bin. We guess he’s probably a bit annoyed that the space has been filled. It’s always good to have a bit of room around you, and he was boxed in between us and the other van now.
Marley cared not a jot for the grey surroundings or the frowning neighbour. Iggy had stopped moving and that meant walk time. And walk time is always good – no matter where we are. Her bright eyes and waggy tail are great motivators, and coupled with my insatiable curiosity for new places we were soon outside and on the move.
My first impression of a grey, ugly, “nothing place” persisted. But Agueda had a few challenges in store for my negative attitude. Most of them colourful and involving lots of paint. Lots, and lots, and lots of paint.
As we wandered the streets of the town we found out that the umbrellas were, indeed, gone. And the pretty bridge and river walk picture I had seen was clearly not of Agueda at all. But there was a river, there were still paintings of umbrellas, little umbrellas on shop walls, umbrella street lights. And most of all there was street art. Agueda may not be the town of umbrellas right now. But it is surely the town of pretty paintings.
There’s no castle here. No stunning architecture or “places of interest”. It’s just an ordinary little town on the banks of a river in Portugal. Some of the buildings are pretty, some are not. Some are in good repair and some are the dejected, dilapidated shells of former beauty that we see everywhere in Portugal. But at some point some clever people decided to invest in art. And in so doing they turned Agueda into a place that grows on the heart. Even on a chilly, rain grey spring day.
In the center streets even the lampposts are painted. Flower painted benches, copious amounts of cafes, giant swimming polar bears on walls, and a beautifully muralled, stepped lane that zig zags it’s way up to the church.
We found some huge painted domes out along the riverside. Google drew a blank on them so far, and we can only think they were kilns of some kind. Tattered remains of carnaval decorations perfectly illustrated the slight tinge of poverty and decay that provided life’s balance to the bright, cheerful works of art.
At the top of the hill I paused for a brief look in the old Agueda graveyard. Marvelling again at the “sights” we humans tramp around and visit for “fun”. Religious buildings, buildings made for war, and the memorials to our dead. In Portugal the families wealthy enough to have tombs lay their dead behind glass doors. There are no stone coffins in these tombs. Rather there are ordinary looking coffins, covered in blankets and laid on shelves.
Jay and I both agree that we find it a little unnerving. I take a couple of quick shots with the camera. A mixture of emotions and thoughts jumbling up in my head together. Normally to photograph a grave feels fine to me. But this doesn’t feel like photographing a grave – it feels like photographing the dead. I feel as though I may somehow take their ghosts with me. A tomb robber’s penance for my disrespect.
I cannot help but wonder what state of decomposition the bodies inside are in. Do the coffins rot? Is the old custom practised here of removing the bones after the requisite number of years? Are they placed in a drawer somewhere in the tomb? The old coffins disposed of to make way for the new? I didn’t know. Perhaps they are just left to return to dust. No hiding of death and the dead here. No fear or shame of living in knowledge that we shall die.
We wander our way back home. Surprisingly happy after our hours in Agueda. We want to stop for a drink or a coffee at one of the cafes, but the air is growing chilly and the first spats of rain hit our faces. In Iggy we have warmth, wine, food. We have photos to look at. Not of Castles – memorials to war. Not of Cathedrals and great houses of the rich.
Instead we have storks nesting in trees. An old, abandoned finca house; stray dogs, grey buildings, bright artworks and dust filled coffins under lace blankets. We have each other. We have life.
We have enough.