Its cluster of stone houses seems to have been gently placed at the foot of the hills of the Serra do Açor with no other purpose but to provide visitors with a picturesque view of an enchanted village. This is how Piódão appeared to us, one of the ten Historic Villages of Portugal.
Piódão at dusk looks like the village in the nativity scene – it is also known in Portugal as the nativity village – or something out of one of Hans Christian Andersen‘s tales. It seems to be cascading gently down one of the hills that form the Serra do Açor and, even in the twilight, it is still possible to perceive the harmony of its simple layout. Small slivers of light pour forth from the tiny windows, without giving away the charm of its houses, its extremely narrow lanes, its old inhabitants clad in black … And the silence, even denser than the night, merely intensifies the mystery of such a magical vision, which the arrival of dawn will dissipate, yet not disappoint.
A suggestion: before making your way down you should visit the serra with its breath-taking colours, which seem improbable to those leaving the concrete-grey world behind. The white of the snow and the transparency of the waterfalls that cascade down the steep terraced fields in winter, give way to the lilac of the heather and the yellow of the broom shrubs in spring. Summertime sees the cherry trees draped in red, and autumn brings out the same tone in the strawberry trees, while the chestnut trees go for golden-honey hues.
Life in the mountains
The village of Piódão, which was listed as a National Heritage Site in 1978 and included in the Historic Villages of Portugal Recovery Programme in 1994, is the only thing that seems not to change with time. The layout of its houses on a sheltered hillside is typical of an irregular medieval mountain settlement, which certainly grew with the increase of its population and spread out like an amphitheatre, with its cobblestone streets. In the middle of the village runs an irrigation channel, with its water drawn by the pull of gravity.
An exploration of this place is nothing less than a lesson in the ways of life of yore, since the majority of the houses retain their old structure. These consist of two stories, with the ground floor used as a storage room for agricultural implements and tools, cereal bins and salting-tubs where pork was kept and conserved. On the first floor is the residence itself, with little light and sparse furniture (you can see the models at the museum). The interior is built in dark chestnut wood, and the roof is supported by beams covered in schist (the region’s prevailing material).
The homogeneity of the colour with which the doors and window frames have been painted, North-African blue, is more a consequence of the isolation to which Piódão was subjected than an aesthetic choice – it seems to have been the only colour available in the local shop. Above many of the door frames there are still small crosses which are believed to keep the storms at bay. On Palm Sunday the faithful carry an olive branch to bless and, on stormy nights, they make a cross out of it which is placed above the fireplace or the main door, thus invoking the protection of Saint Barbara.
Return to the past
The first inhabitants of Piódão were descended from the Lusitanians, the most ancient settlers of which there is knowledge of what the Romans termed the Mountains of Hermes (Herminius Mons). This was a people which resulted from the miscegenation that took place between settlers who had come from northern Africa, with features similar to the Berbers, and the Celts, who had migrated from the areas to the north of the Alps, from whom the activities related to animal husbandry and the cultivation of cereal crops, namely of barley, were inherited.
With the passage of time they created the conditions to subsist, conquering from the mountains with their sweat and labour each plot of land, cultivated in terraces. And thus they lived for centuries, producing honey, olive oil, cheese, rye and corn, to which more recently they added the extraction of coal and the mining of tungsten. They cured their ailments with recourse to murmured prayers and traditional remedies, and they broke their isolation with long walks (the local lore is delightful, with stories such as those of the women who walked the mountainous trails all the way to Covilhã balancing a basket on their heads, in the winter snow or the summer heat, gathering eggs along the way which were then sold in the city).
Yet the hardships of the place ceased to make sense one day, in face of the lifestyle that could be found in the great cities and, from the mid-20th century on, the majority of the population started migrating to other countries or to the coast. The road to Piódão was only built in 1972 and electricity only reached the village a few years later. It proved too late to stop the people of Piódão from leaving their birthplace. It has only been recently that the village has been resurrected, thanks to the increasing flow of tourists who flock here to experience a journey back in time, through the history of an almost forgotten era.
The main church
It is safe to say that the biggest monument in Piódão is the whole village itself, but the main church (dating back to the 17th century), devoted to Our Lady of the Conception, is a most interesting building which testifies to the religiosity of the local inhabitants. It is thought to have been built on the site of an earlier chapel, of which nothing remains but a limestone image of Our Lady of the Conception, which has been placed in the exterior of the current church. The place underwent several improvements, since the altarpieces date from the 18th century and the gilded woodcarving is from the transition between the 19th and the 20th centuries, when the church was enlarged and refurbished. It was threatening to collapse and the restoration was undertaken with a neo-baroque touch, eclectic and romantic, which was quite common at the time.