Just like in the song De Braços Abertos (With Arms Wide Open), Roberta Sá embraces the people of Alto Alentejo in her own inimitable way. Keenly aware of how the two cultures are fraternal, Roberta is thinking of starting a movement where the exchange between Portugal and Brazil is done in a more conscious form.
It’s only half-past nine on a Sunday morning and we can already feel we’ve sucked the marrow out of life a la Henry Thoreau. Up at six, we saw the sun rise over the Alentejo village of Avis, we’ve flown over the Maranhão dam, we’ve seen the dam at Montargil, and we’ve discovered the fauna among the chaparros (the local term for cork oaks). Ensconced in the hot air balloon guided by Aníbal Soares and Bruno Santos speechless, the landscape leaves the passengers speechless. For Roberta Sá, her first balloon ride is a surprise, both in terms of feelings and discoveries. “You say the Amazon is exotic, the Alentejo is much more!” The flight reveals much more than the profusion of blues, yellows and green that make up the countryside. Aníbal Soares, founder of Publibalão, recalls that in the 18th century, Father Bartolomeu de Gusmão made an aerostat fly before the amazed court of D. João V, becoming known as the “flying father”. It is said that he flew in a balloon between the castle and Terreiro do Paço, but there is no proof of this.
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We’ve got plenty of proof of Roberta Sá’s visit to the Alentejo; whether it’s photographs, declarations of love from the singer during the two days in which the natural beauty of the region was the subject of much conversation and many encounters. The first occurred on Saturday at lunchtime in the O Poço restaurant, in Brotas, a land of pilgrimages of a bygone age. José and Vitória Vinagre and their daughter Carina offer us true Alentejo hospitality, surrounding us with a host of dishes, the most popular of which was the batatas de borrifo. The singer goes even further, declaring that one can feel “the divine glory of the Lord” at this table, personified in the eggs with farinheira (sausage) or in the orelha de vinagreta.
In her birthplace of Natal, Roberta was used to heavily-laden tables from an early age, especially at her grandparents’ farm in Ceará Miram. We discover that the singer has endless ties to Portugal. With her surnames Varella de Sá, it’s obvious that she is “descended from Portuguese family” and the mother of her husband, musician Pedro Luís, was from Vila Real in Trás-os-Montes. With such pedigree, it’s no surprise to hear the compliments following the hare with rice, roast kid, partridge stew and carne do alguidar, all washed down with Herdade dos Grous red wine. João Mário Linhares, her agent, says: “This Babette’s feast is marvellous”. If the repast exceed expectations, the conversation was better still. Roberta announces that she’s going to start a movement in which “Portugal and Brazil are presented as fraternal peoples”, saying that “all Brazilians should know Portugal. We see ourselves here. I arrive in Lisbon and I understand my country better”. It’s easy to agree with Roberta as, on this side of the pond, we feel that returning to Brazil allows us to rediscover our culture, whether it’s via the twelve prophets sculpted by Aleijadinho in the Congonhas Sanctuary or in the Baroque churches of Ouro Preto. Or in the samba that is connected to fado and choro, two music genres deriving from the African lundu.
The arrival of José Pinto, alderman from the town council and president of the Fluviário de Mora (freshwater aquarium), brings us firmly back to the Alentejo. This enthusiast of the region tells us that Europe’s largest freshwater aquarium was the result of an initiative from the local council. Having been a radio presenter in France after emigrating meant that José Pinto was over the moon when the composer José Peixoto suggested that the fluviarium host the Músicas no Rio festival, the first of which took place for the first time in July of last year. This year’s event (the festival runs from 15th to 23rd July) boasts performances by the Sinfonietta de Lisboa, Camané, Rão Kyao and Júlio Pereira, among others.
After calorie-fest of the pijaminha, which is made of squash jam, pudim rançoso and toucinho-do-céu, it’s time to hit the road and visit what’s left of the old village of Águias. Before we get there, the impressive fortified tower points the way to the dirt roads that take us there. With about 60 rooms, this Manueline-style military monument is thought to date back to the 16th century.
Preserving traditions and the eco-system
After, we head for the church of Nossa Senhora de Brotas, a place of pilgrimage from the 15th century. According to the legend, it was built at the request of Our Lady, who is credited with the miracle of having resuscitated a herder’s cow.
Today, in the sanctuary, we find a miniscule image of the virgin carved out of ivory that popular belief says is the cow’s ankle bone. This cult has travelled beyond the country’s borders, as far as India and Brazil. The sanctuary, whose peak occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries, became less important in the 20th century and the houses, which once accommodated confraternities from all over the country, have become tourist accommodation – the Casas de Romaria. Roberta listens carefully to the words of Célia Matos, vice-president of the Associação Abrottea and owner of the Casa dos Mordomos de Évora, which sells reproductions of church tiles and various ceramic objects they produce.
Next stop is the Mora Fluviarium. Roberta is enchanted by the landscape of the Gameiro ecological park, which is covered with flowers and herbs, and softly sings “Espada de São Jorge”, a song by Roque Ferreira that boasts the words “that all medicinal herbs are good for cooking and spells” and one she was sad not to see fit on her latest album Quando o Canto é Reza. It’s time for us to “navigate” the exhibition that takes us down the Iberian river, from its source to its mouth, guided by the explications of José Pinto, who is just like “a fish in water”. On discovering the aquatic and land habitats that exists on the river, it’s important to remember “the urgent need to protect the eco-system.”
Here at the fluviarium, where we can see fish like the bordalo (Squalius alburnoides), spined loach or gambusia (introduced in Portugal in the 20th century to combat malaria), the main attraction are the otters Mariza and Cristiano Ronaldo who, perhaps because of this, don’t bother to show their face. “They making a baby that will be named after me”, Roberta jokes, after a promise made by the councillor at lunchtime. The frog also deserves the singer’s attention. “Some turn into princes, but there are princes that we kiss that turn into frogs.”
The journey continues over the South American and African continents, where the animals are remarkable for their ferocity, like the yellow anaconda, or for their surprising appearance, like the catfish. Currently being extended, the building, which was designed by Promontório Arquitectos, has received a number of national and international awards.
The sun begins to go down and a magnificent late afternoon awaits us at Herdade da Cortesia, which plays host for this perfect weekend. From the pool, we have a unique view of the Maranhão dam, the place where international rowing teams train. Pedro da Veiga welcomes us with “arms wide open”. Coincidentally, the hotel’s motto is: “Nature with arms wide open”, like TAP’s new slogan, which is sung by Roberta de Sá, Portuguese fado singer Mariza and Angolan artist Paulo Flores, demonstrating the proximity between the peoples who speak Portuguese. As for this weekend’s soundtrack, it’s quite unique, particularly the sound of the cuckoo in the silence of the countryside.
On the trail of local handicraft
At dinner time, we gather around the table again, this time in the restaurant 180º. The delicious tomato soup takes Roberta back to her childhood and when there’s a lull in the conversation she tucks into the prawn curry made by Gustavo Martins. Other faves include the lime ice-cream with strawberries. The conversation is interesting, but bed beckons as we take flight early tomorrow morning.
If the balloon ride was calm, the landing and rescue were a bit of an adventure. A couple of hours lost in the woods, with no survival kit, meant missing the Pavia dolmen that has been transformed into a chapel, as well as the Casa Museu de Manuel de Pavia, whose art reproduced rural life in the Alentejo. The landscape of Cabeção is also rural and where our trip around these parts comes to an end. After a few hitches, we arrive at the “oasis” of Cabeção at around four in the afternoon. The restaurant is called Palmeira and it had its 28th birthday in May. If Bruno Cravidão and Fernanda Nunes’ friendliness calms the impatience of those who have been up a long time, the cooking of Ana Maria Pinto offers us diners a feeling of comfort that can be heard in the silence during the meal. An exception is made for the sopa da panela. “It’s delicious. I’ve never dreamt of eating pigeon soup”, whilst other popular choices include the wild asparagus migas, which Roberta describes as “marvellous”. Passionate about Alentejo culture and food, which is very similar to that of home (in the north-east of Brazil), the singer says that the next time she comes to Portugal she will “take a journey to explore Portuguese handicraft. From the south to the north of the country”.
by Maria João Veloso