Can travel do any good aside from the great time we have doing it? Well, yes. Many travelers in these uncertain times look for ways they can do good along the way. Here are four ideas on visiting Portugal with an eye toward supporting our planet, saving endangered species and just doing the right thing.
How can spending time in Portugal make our world a better place? Portugal has made some important choices in its economic development. They include deciding not to build a dam, but rather to take a huge loss and save important cave paintings in a remote valley; Ripping down modern beach hotels to rebuild with an environmental resort that is smaller and more balanced; Visiting a place where the delicate balance of nature and humanity is vital to those who live there.
And, supporting the largest forest in southern Europe that might help stop the effects of climate change.
STOPPING THE DAM IN FOZ CÔA
A decade ago, a wild, mountainous area of northeastern Portugal, along the valley of the River Côa, was going to be turned into a man-made lake with the construction of a dam that would bring electrical power and irrigation to the remote region. However, the construction process revealed a vast amount of prehistoric cave paintings that needed to be saved, at the recommendation of archeologists. The Portuguese government then made a difficult and expensive decision. The dam project was abandoned and, in its place, a heritage park was created. The park is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today it’s quite a drive to get to the park, but many do it to see the cave paintings of mountain goats, horses, aurochs (wild bulls) and deer. These species are all typical of the large herbivores that were part of the ecosystem in the region during the Upper Paleolithic Age. Engravings of fish are also among the collection, along with one image of a human form. The engravings were etched using quartz or flint, the images being scratched into the rock walls using straight lines or zigzags. The Quinta da Ervamoira museum stands at the center of the heritage park, offering interpretations of the region and its customs. The museum shows the art of bread-making and wine production through the ages. Throughout the area surrounding the park, new inns are opening to cater to guests. Visiting Foz Côa is a vote for preserving our shared human past and recognizing it as more important than a dam.
ALENTEJO: DRINK WINE AND SAVE THE IBERIAN LYNX
Next time you open a bottle of wine that has a cork in it, think of the Iberian lynx. The Alentejo region of Portugal is home to the largest cork forests in the world, and those cork forests have served to protect all the species of plants, birds and animals that dwell within them. In more remote parts of these protected lands, the rare Iberian lynx can still be found.
Cork forests are protected by law. Cork is a totally natural product. It is environmentally friendly, renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable. Portugal has enough cork forests to last more than 100 years and, under a reforestation program, they’re growing by four percent a year on average. The forests produce more than half the world’s total cork supply. The cork industry also sustains more than 15,000 employees in remote areas.
To produce cork, a cork oak (Quercus Suber, or Sobreiro in Portuguese) must be at least 25 years old. To harvest the cork, the outer bark is stripped from a cork oak once every nine years. The tree is protected by an inner bark, which is always left on the tree. The harvested bark is boiled and purified A cork oak tree can live as long as two centuries.
According to a recent study by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the use of natural corks by the world’s wine industry sustains a variety of rare wildlife in the cork forests of southern Europe.
Forty-two bird species depend on the cork forests, including the endangered Spanish imperial eagle (with a global population down to 130 pairs), as well as rare species such as the black vulture and black stork. Smaller birds, such as robins, finches and song thrushes, migrate to the Iberian Peninsula’s cork forests from northern Europe, along with blackcaps from the United Kingdom. In spring and summer, the cork forests are home to a rich variety of butterflies and plants, with more than 60 plant species recorded in just one square meter.
One particular tree in these protected lands is known as the “Whistler Tree” because of the many singing birds attracted to it. It is said to be 212 years old. This tree alone may have produced 1 million corks.
So, skip that petroleum-sourced “plork” or aluminum twist top for your own bottle of wine. By choosing a wine with a cork, you’re supporting these forests, which are supporting the planet.
AUTHENTIC, UNSPOILED, AND LIKELY TO REMAIN SO
A century ago, the Azorean islands were overpopulated and desperately poor. Today, they are sparsely populated and relatively well off. Faced with economic and environmental disaster, some 400,000 residents left the Azores over the course of 100 years, all of them searching for a better life. The ones who remained behind embraced the importance of being stewards of the planet. The National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations has named the Azores islands as the world’s second most appealing islands destination in its fourth annual Destination Scorecard survey. A panel of 522 experts, aided by George Washington University, reviewed conditions on 111 islands and archipelagos. The Azores were out-scored only by Faroe Islands, and the Azores were described as “Authentic, unspoiled, and likely to remain so.”
Judges in the Destination survey noted that the Azores are not exactly a “beach destination” and therefore are not likely to attract the tourist masses. The mountainous and green islands seem “set to remain unspoiled,” they wrote. Also noted was the infrastructure, the sophistication of the locals who have often lived overseas. The main visitor type, the judges said, would be the independent traveler staying in B & Bs.
The ecosystem˜from the beautiful hydrangea-covered hills of Flores to the rock-bottomed bays of Terceira˜is in great shape. Whales are still a frequent sight off shore. The local culture is strong and vibrant. They noted that it is not uncommon to be invited to a person’s house for dinner or welcomed into a communal meal during a festival.”
Natural Reserve Parks are being created on four of the Azores islands–Santa Maria, Graciosa, Faial and Corvo. These parks, along with existing ones on the islands of Miguel and Pico, will help to maintain the natural beauty of the islands. Tourism to the region will help sustain those efforts to preserve that natural beauty.
ERASING THE MISTAKES OF THE PAST
Ever see a beach lined with ugly high-rises and say “I wish they would just tear it all down and start over”?
Well, they did that on the Tróia Peninsula, in the northern tip of Portugal’s Alentejo region, 30 miles south of Lisbon. The new Tróia Resort project involved destroying several ugly 1970s and 1980s high-rises. In their place is now a new, “green” low-rise resort, built to complement the landscape of this delicate place. The peninsula is an excellent location for golf and water sports. The narrow sand-strip lies 47 km south of Lisbon and boasts 18 km of beaches and some of the cleanest water in the region.
The TróiaResort offers two five-star hotels, two four-star hotels, a 184-berth marina, a casino, a conference centre, a beach club, a country club, a tennis centre and an equestrian centre. In the planning stages, the resort was assessed by the Maritime Research Institute, which carried out environmental impact studies, which are ongoing. The Eco Resort will provide a tennis centre, an equestrian center, a roman ruins archaeological center and an environmental center. The first phase, which includes three hotels, a marina, casino, conference centre, commercial facilities, restructuring of the golf course and delivery of the Marina and Beach apartments, just opened in September 2008.
Source: Portuguese National Tourism Office