Finding a dolmen in Portugal is like standing at a portal to the history of the country.
F or most people who come from Asia, Portugal is most likely not the first country of choice to travel in Europe. You could blame it on the tourism sector, but at least some data could tell us that it is just the case. The European Union’s statistics from 2016 show which among the 28 European countries tourists from China spent most of their nights. Portugal did not make it to the top 10.
Talking about history and civilization though, the World Factbook says it ranks top 9 among the oldest countries in Europe. This reason alone makes us feel proud for choosing this country as our new home. My husband Benjamin grew up in the United Kingdom, a country that has a long-existing trading alliance with Portugal. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. He was killed in 1521 during a battle in my native land, while serving a Spanish king.
Portugal is a beautiful country with its own quiet confidence. The weather is a middle ground between us who grew up from extremely opposite climates (temperate and tropical). It’s not too hot in summer, and not too cold in winter. It has longer summer days, which we consider suitable conditions for growing vegetables.
I’m not ashamed to say I was almost entirely ignorant of Portuguese history and politics before moving here. Aside from the parts that pertain to my own country’s historical narrative, I knew very little about Portugal’s affairs.
Our first days
When we first arrived here in February, we stayed for a month near the northern town of Cabeceiras de Basto. We rented an old country house in a beautiful and scenic valley. It was at the very end of a narrow road with a steep drop that was terrifying to drive along. In fact, after a long drive from Lisbon on our first night, we managed to ground our rental car in a deep pothole. However, our helpful host Cristina managed to rustle up some local help to lift us out. We finally arrived at the house and we were very glad to see the smoke rising from the chimney and Cristina’s elderly mother’s cheerful greetings.
We got our first taste of everyday life in Portugal and met some friendly people here. We witnessed the town’s Festa da Orelheira e do Fumeiro, which is a festival of smoked meats and produce. We’re both vegan so it wasn’t really for us, but it’s a local tradition and it was good to see. February is also the month for Carnival in Portugal and we watched the coverage on TV, which was fascinating for us “outsiders”.
Finding the dolmen
The Portuguese landscape has proven to be inspirational to me. I chose the name of this website from a chance encounter while exploring in the region near the Rio Douro.
We were driving through just one of many small and beautiful villages when my husband spotted a sign for some nearby standing stones. It was small enough to be easily missed and we had to reverse about 20 meters up the road to be sure. We parked the car and began the search for these stones. We found a map nearby that gave no clear indication whatsoever, so we just walked in the most likely direction. We could see the village was to the right of us and to the left were a collection of fields with seemingly random boundaries.
We set off down a narrow farm track and followed it to the gates of a house. There was a small old tractor with an elderly farmer coming towards us. We stood aside so he could pass by, but he stopped the tractor and spoke to us in Portuguese. We looked at him blankly and tried to explain that we didn’t speak Portuguese too well.
Thinking about it now I understand he was saying “Pedras” or stones in English. He patiently repeated it a few times and then changed tactics. “Dolmen,” he said. Yes, we smiled and nodded enthusiastically, we were looking for the dolmen. This was a word we understood.
What is a dolmen?
A dolmen, for those who have yet to encounter one, is a stone structure thought to be used as a burial chamber by neolithic people. Many of which were built about 3000-4000 years ago. They seem to follow a similar design and can be found in many different parts of the world from the UK all the way to Korea.
Part of the allure of dolmens, and standing stones (like stonehenge in England and Carnac in France), is that we just don’t know the purpose of them. They are a true mystery inherited from our ancient ancestors. A big part of that mystery is how they were able to construct such huge monuments without the aid of modern machinery.
The farmer gestured for us to follow him and we walked on at a tortoise’s pace behind his tractor. We rounded a corner surrounded by short stone walls and he stopped the tractor and pointed us in the direction of a field. We thanked him and walked on, grateful that he had persevered in speaking to us even though it was hard for us to understand.
Without fanfare, in the field in front of us was the dolmen. The grass around it was newly cut and there was a small informative sign in Portuguese. When I am in these situations, I like to take a moment to travel back in time. I like to mentally delete all the nearby houses and telegraph poles, and envision the landscape how it would have been at the time the structure was built. It was February and the sun was shining but there was a chilly breeze. The winter trees were still bare and the rocky landscape that surrounded us was green, but somewhat bleak.
I touched the stone and, for a moment, I tried to imagine a mid-winter burial in this spot. What an alien though familiar world it might have been. When these stones were placed here a few thousand years ago, our modern cultures were in their infancy. The languages that record our history and convey the great works of our times didn’t even exist. I thought about the barriers in understanding if I tried to communicate with the people of that time. I tried to think what similarities we would also share. It’s impossible to know the customs and civilizations of that time.
Humans are creative creatures and, no doubt, the neolithic builders of this monument had their own great art and craftwork, and told stories just like we do. Unfortunately, everything else is not made to last and all we have left are the stones.
Though archeological evidence, if it existed, could teach us more about the lives of these people, we can take solace in the fact that there is excitement in the mystery. The not knowing. The wonder surrounding such ancient structures feeds our imagination and makes them special. It makes them able to inspire awe in even the most cynical of us. It may even make them a little bit magical.
These specially selected stones are some of the oldest man-made structures on Earth. They are also, in the absence of other artifacts, possibly the only form of language between our neolithic ancestors and ourselves. This is the reason I chose Dolmen as the name for my web project because language in all forms is fascinating.