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‘A Agua Velada’

Last Monday was the third Monday of July and it is tradition for at least the last 100 years that all the inhabitants(or at least those who wish to take advantage of the pristine mountain spring water) go up into the mountains above Linhares da Beira to clean the sources of seven springs and the levadas(waterways), all the way down to the village itself.

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This year, I along with about 40 other villagers, met at the barragem(dam) early, on yet another crystal clear and beautiful morning. The atmosphere had a tinge of excitement as it really is a community event, one fuelled by much laughter and of course vinho tinto!
This tradition originally started many many years ago so that in case of fire, the villagers of Linhares da Beira had a lot of water which was accessible from a communal fonte, to put out any fire in the vicinity.
(see Pure Portugal’s latest newsletter about fire – http://www.pureportugal.co.uk/blog/latest-newsletter-fire/)

Now, even though somedays I do wonder living in a medieval village, many things have changed. For example, there are now the bombeiros(firemen) who deal with fire, so the villagers don’t have to bucket the water themselves and of course most of the 100 or so houses now have indoor plumbing, a sad loss to the communal meeting place of the village fonte.

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During Autumn, Winter and Spring there can be a huge amount of rainfall up here which of course means that there is a torrent of water rushing down the mountains mostly in the levadas if they are maintained. At these times, the water is accessible to anyone at anytime, so not ‘velada’. The water is controlled by a series of ‘porteiras’ – little doors – which are opened and closed by whoever needs the water and to direct it wherever needed.

As we were learning the system last Winter, which was particularly dry, myself or my partner, Neil, would trek up the steep track to Linhares when we wanted water. There is a grate in the ‘largo’ square, which when lifted reveals three ‘porteiras’. (Our porteira was missing so after many months of asking at the Junta we got our porteira replaced.) It’s much easier to have a porteira to either open or close the water as opposed to clumps of earth/grass or stones which can easily block the levadas, which sometimes go underground!
We soon realised that we had stiff competition for water because no sooner had we opened the porteira, and the water started to flow down towards our quinta(it takes half an hour to reach the quinta) that the water would stop! It turned out that due to the dry Winter there were some villagers who had decided that they wanted all the water for themselves, so here began a kind of game where we would be up and down the mountainside opening the porteira! I soon began to feel like a mountain goat! After talking to a villager I soon started to hear stories about feuds never resolved over the subject of water, really a bizarre concept for someone like me having spent years in one of the wettest country in Europe, Ireland!

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Imagine the opposite scenario….a torrential rainstorm which usually occur here between January-March. One of us would rush up to the village to close our porteira to prevent flooding, of course finding the other porteiras closed and ours wide open, one quick snap shut of the door, a run down the hill back home, to realise that someone must have quickly, within moments, reopened our porteira!
The outcome being we have become very fit and slowly starting to understand this very unusual way of doing things!

Finally on one dry day towards the end of May, there was the prolonged sound of the church bells. Was there a wedding or perhaps a festa? No, this time it was to signify ‘Agua Velada’ the literal translation being veiled water or controlled water.
From this point we soon understood that we were now entitled to three hours of water a week and everyone had their own slot which everyone had to respect or…..??
Again after many hours spent talking to the villagers, hence happily further improving my portuguese, and many Sunday morning visits to the Junta to speak to the President, I found out from looking at very old, hand written documents, the name of the people who used to live in my house and hence my ‘vela’ -slot(literal translation candle – ‘as oito dias'(every week) was Thursday between 3-6pm.

Success!? For us yes, as Neil had spent many weeks reinstating the last section of the levada from the village to our quinta. You may at this point be thinking, that’s not a lot of water? It wouldn’t be had we not also a river at the bottom of our land, which Neil has also reinstated an old levada off it to water our lower terraces, and we also have a pristine spring for drinking water, which we always take from the source. We have no plastic pipe on the land at all as we strongly believe the old levada system is very valuable and sustainable.

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The story continues and get’s even more interesting…
Since the sound of the church bells back in May till the levada cleaning day last Monday, the water as explained was ‘as oito dias’. However, last Monday morning, we were woken very early by more church bells. This was to signify again another change. That the ‘agua velada’ had now changed to ‘as quinze dias’ every 2 weeks! My slot is now every other Tuesday 12.30pm-2pm and 9-10pm!! More extreme fitness training to come then, going up the hill in 35 degree heat at 12.30pm!

Back to the actual event of cleaning the levada. What fun we had and plenty of rest in between the actual hard work of cleaning all the channels with the local digging tool, ‘enxada’. I really got the feeling all the people young and old, youngest probably 16 oldest 70+, were all enjoying themselves, especially the young men, a great opportunity to show the rest who was the fastest and most skilled with their enxada! It was great to see that at the beginning of the day, where there was no water, after a little work and perseverance, soon the water began to flow and as the day wore on the trickle became a riberinho(little river) and so on.

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At the end of a hard and rewarding day, where community spirit was abound, what better way to end the day than with a great Sardinhada.

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