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ALDEIAS DO XISTO: PART ONE SCHIST, SHALE & CERAMICS

Between the earth, the water, the fire and the air, pottery invokes the magic
or transformation. Do we have the humility to learn from it?
–from the RTP television series “Histórias da Cerámica” featuring
Renato Silva and Kerstin Thomas

Potter and wood carver Kerstin Thomas was hiking through the mountains with friends in 1988 when they stumbled upon the abandoned village of Cerdeira hanging on a mountainside, high above the town of Lousã in central Portugal.

Kerstin thought it would be a charming and affordable place to open an art studio. Little did she know her wish would become a decades-long love affair, culminating in the village’s restoration and the creation of a world-renowned artistic retreat. But with no electricity, running water or good access road, it would be more than 20 years before the dream began to really take shape.

In 2001, ADXTUR (Agency for the Tourist Development of the Schist Villages) joined with 21 municipalities in central Portugal to restore some of the schist villages, spur growth of a tourist industry, promote local products, and encourage youth not to move away to the cities.

Cerdeira is emblematic of the dedication needed to gain crucial local support in order to move forward with this ambitious undertaking. As Kerstin discovered, the most difficult part of the restoration project was locating absentee owners of houses abandoned in the 1970s, then negotiating their sale, often with disagreeing heirs. Some owners refused to sell, though others saw merit in the project and came back to the village. Several restored houses remain in private hands.

Next came finding skilled trades to do the rebuilding work, house by house, in a nearly vertical environment.

By 2012, the village had been reborn, offering courses in traditional arts and crafts such as woodworking, pottery, basket making, drawing, building scale-model schist houses, and an annual arts festival. Kerstin, a woodworker and potter originally from Germany, and her partner, ceramicist Renato Costa e Silva, born
on the island of Terceira, divide their time between Cerdeira and the Azores.

Another long-time resident, Antonio Carlos Andrade, established a plant business in Cerdeira in 2001. His greenhouse can be seen in the valley, where he cultivates artisanal herbs, and creates herbal medicines and tasty condiments through his on- site shop (sadly, open only sporadically).

While Cerdeira focuses on creative arts, other villages in the schist villages network offer a range of attractions, such as canyoning, swimming, biking, traditional restaurants, local crafts shops, guided hikes, accommodation and other activities. While at Cerdeira, I participated in a five-day ceramics workshop for
beginners with participants from all over the world. Working with clay at the potter’s wheel, hand-building, then glazing and firing my lopsided pieces was intensely satisfying. Time stopped as I gave up all other thoughts. Each day felt like a long meditation as the potter’s wheel spun and cleared the gunk from my
brain. I left tired yet refreshed.

Ceramics is a natural fit for this area. The word lousa means schist, which is a kind of layered rock similar to slate or shale. Shale is created from clay subjected to heat and pressure over millennia, and eventually hardens into schist, a perfect building material. The schist houses themselves mimic the vertiginous structure of the earth, flat slates mixed with chopped or round stones, mortared into the hillsides. Examine the edges of a logging road slashed through a ridge and you’ll see what I mean.

The narrow, steeply winding road to Cerdeira was eventually paved and girded with protective guardrails, plumbing, electricity and, most importantly in the 21st century, received high-speed wireless internet, allowing the village to bring its message to the world — and the world to it. Global nomads and those on working holidays are welcomed, as are the steady stream of participants in courses ranging from ceramics to basketmaking and beyond. Several schist houses are available for rent, with all mod-cons. Breakfast is served in the small café with fresh eggs contributed the local chickens, and occasional produce from Antonio’s greenhouse. A series of trails connect the village to Candal, about 2.5 kms away and Silveira, at
about 1.5 kms. Lousã is 10 twisting kms. down below. Candal, a larger village, is directly on a national highway and more accessible. Never totally abandoned, the village attracts hikers, weekenders to its numerous houses available for rent, and curious day-trippers looking to relax in its café or restaurant.

Many thanks to Leslie Smith as always for these fabulous insights!

Photo credit: Leslie Smith

1. Entering Cerdeira from the picnic grounds

2. Cerdeira welcome signs

3. Candal

4. Outdoor patio in Candal

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