I was surprised to learn when preparing this post that the numerous agricultural terraces are mostly a 20th century development. According to our fount of all knowledge when it comes to Algarvian agricultural history – Dr Dan Stanislawski’s Portugal’s Other Kingdom – there is only one record from the 18th and 19th centuries mentioning walls and it is very brief. More detailed records of agricultural life apparently make no mention of them indicating that they didn’t exist. It seems it was a dramatic failure of the main local crop (chestnut) that encouraged local landowners to find new economic and sustainable ways of working the slopes. The terraces were identified as the solution.
The quality of the walls is outstanding when you see them up close, and because of their size they dominate the landscape even from a distance. The larger ones are 10ft or more in width and depth in places, their exact size, like the walls which hold them, determined by gradient of the slope. Dr Stanislawski learnt from a Portuguese ethnographer that it was masons from Minho in northern Portugal who built them, as terrace building has been a part of their life for centuries. The first step is to create a dry-stone wall at the lower edge of the proposed terrace. Then using shovels and baskets the earth from higher up the slopes is dumped until there is a level section up to the height of the new wall. You then move up to create the next one, and so on!
As you may recall from Sunday’s post the rainfall in this area is significant and therefore there are many springs and streams to irrigate the terraces. Where there is no spring or stream adjacent to the terrace arrangements are made either through tenure or written contracts for rights to a certain amount of water each week. Consequently at the peak of their cultivation most terraces on the lower slopes yielded two or even three crops each year. Extraordinary!
Crops included maize, wheat, rye, peas, beans, cabbages, cauliflowers, tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes and potatoes, and on many terraces would have been grown under citrus or olive trees. These days however it is evident that most terraces are no longer worked, and even those plots of lands still under cultivation only part seem to be utilised. Nature is fast overtaking this early to mid 20th century agricultural development, I wonder what Dan would say!
It was the discovery of his photographs from the 1960s that made me think this would be a fascinating #PastmeetsPresent blogging challenge. If you enjoy looking at photographs comparing today with yesteryear why not join in this monthly challenge of matching modern-day views with those of the past.
All you need are two pictures – one old and one recent of the same or similar view. They don’t need to be of Portugal. To find out more click here. Or if you are ready to share your post, simply leave a link back to your post to this one and don’t forget to use the tag #PastmeetsPresent. Do hope you will also take part this month.