A Window back out on the old Village. The story of the Aldeia da Luz


The Aldeia da Luz is a small Portuguese village deep in the heart of the agricultural farmlands and vineyards of rural Alentejo. I should be clear and say that I am talking about the new Aldeia da Luz and not the original village. The old aldeia (village) met its fate when it was demolished, flooded and submerged under water—the culmination of a-half-a-century-old public works drama over the building of the Alqueva dam creating a regional water reservoir.

The old village was settled in the midst of the fertile basin about the Rio Guadiana an historically important trade and agricultural river traversed and traveled for millennia.

Plans to dam the Guadiana were hatched in the 1950s by the Portuguese fascist Estado Novo Dictatorship, with political and business interests in hydroelectric power and agriculture keeping the project alive before and after Portugal’s 1974 revolution. The plan would provide electricity and for the growing agricultural needs of the region, increasing the water available for farming. Complicating the plan however was a small aldeia, the Aldeia da Luz, which was located inside the perimeter of the flood basin that engineers had determined would be created once the dam closed off the Guadiana’s waters. The villagers would have to leave their homes and allow them to be flooded if the project were to move forward.

Political and legal pressure was mounted over generations, with proponents of the dam making their pitch to the residents of the aldeia by casting them as regional and national heroes, celebrated in popular narratives as martyrs for the public good. The decision was of course not easy. The aldeia was a home and the focal point of the social lives of the inhabitants, with connections among the community of relatives and neighbors extending back for multiple generations. The geographic area to be flooded around the Aldeia da Luz, had itself been inhabited for thousands of years, with further archaeological evidence dating habitation as far back as the Neolithic period, possibly as far back as the Paleolithic. The necessity of archaeology projects to recover artifacts in the region to be flooded over was another consideration.

As the legal maneuverings by the key power players in industry and those representing them in Parliament played out against the sentiments, mythologies and arguments over the material and spiritual well-being of the local villagers, the Aldeia da Luz was placed at the complex center of competing narratives and interests. Arguments and emotions eventually exhausted themselves over decades, bringing the villagers to consensus through a series of community votes. I suppose that inevitability can make a true-believer out of anyone. Whatever their individual rationales, the villagers accepted the deal. Whether it was cemented by altruism, appeals to nationalism, victimization to hegemonic power processes, or the long negotiation of a good-enough deal from the government and political interests, the denizens accepted the plan to build the dam. This meant that they would have to abandon living in the aldeia and let their ancestral homes be raised to the ground and flooded over with water.

As part of the agreement, the villagers refused any kind of direct cash payment to leave. Deciding that a pure monetary settlement would force the residents to buy homes elsewhere in an exodus that would send families who had lived side-by-side for centuries to re-settle in far flung locations. Such an outcome would have resulted not only in the physical destruction of their homes but also in the disintegration of the social connections that had molded the village as well. For the villagers of the Aldeia da Luz, their idea of community was not only a physical space, but also a place of both practical and spiritual connections to family and friends that had extended through centuries.

With this in mind, they only agreed to abandon the village if their homes and their properties could be rebuilt in a new spot, respecting the basic proxemic scheme of the old village as a general model to create something new. The new aldeia was designed prior to the flooding and constructed after input and negotiations with and among the villagers. It wasn’t an exact copy, the houses were certainly newer and were outfitted with modernized appliances and utility technologies. The internal space and flow of the village was also more open and linear than it had been. By relocating the village in this way, however, it was hoped the connections among the inhabitants in the aldeia would remain, even as the buildings of the old village were dismantled.

Once built and ready for habitation, the villagers packed up their belongings and moved to their new settlement about two kilometers away situated at what would be the lip of the planned reservoir basin. They removed important objects and artifacts from their homes to take to the new aldeia, old iron work and stones, doors and roof tiles. The sixteenth century church in the old aldeia, was brought down stone by stone and then its tower was rebuilt in the middle of the new settlement; they moved the cemetery in tact, carrying with them the bones of their dead ancestors. They made a copy of a fountain that was built over a sacred and miraculous spring and put up the replica in the new village.

By the time I had first even heard about the place, the old Aldeia da Luz was already underwater and the only images I was ever able to see of the original village were from a film by Catarina Mourão documenting the move. Affecting cinematography captured the villagers preparations to leave, with one image in the film staying with me over the years.

In it, an old woman is alone in her house, preparing to leave for the last time before the flooding. All of her belongings had already been removed to the new village and she is dressed in long skirts while she jerks a broom through the rooms and the kitchen of her house. In what was a decades old daily ritual, she swept, now clearing dust from the empty floors of an empty house that was about to get torn down anyway. Undeterred by her awareness of her home's soon-to-be-met fate, the velhota dug into corners and under the moldings and around door jams, pacing her feet down the hall until she eventually swept her way out the front door.

Once she and the other villagers had finished relocating their belongings, said goodbye to their old homes, and settled into their new village, workers came and tore the Aldeia da Luz down. They razed the buildings, the cafés and clubs, the public praça, and reducing the village to rubble on the ground. As the dwellings came down, the town was encircled with an enormous steel fence—symbolically and physically sealed away the aldeia. Then they closed the flood gates on the dam and let the waters slowly rise. What was left of the original Aldeia da Luz was buried in a corral shaped, sub-aquatic tomb.

***

A short time after the flooding of the old Aldeia da Luz, and a short time after I moved to Lisbon, I received an invitation to come to the new aldeia to celebrate the launching of Luz é Agua [Luz (Light) and Water] a book that formed part of a multi-media project chronicling the lives of the villagers as they were displaced and then re-settled by the building of the dam.

My host was the book’s author, Clara Saraiva, who was from Lisbon, but who I had known for many years when we were friends back in Providence. An anthropologist, Clara had been working with the villagers for almost a decade and with the book’s publication, friends of hers and others working on the project came together at the museum in the new aldeia to unveil it to the residents who had participated in its writing. The Lisbon crowd out in the country, partying down with about 100 villagers to celebrate the book that told their story. These kinds of public university events are often marked by a measure of posturing bonhomie; the weird Lisbon corner of European academia is no different. But there was something genuine and sincere about this event and one couldn’t help but be caught up in the villagers' displays of emotion as they relived the experience of their relocation.

The book launching served as a memorial service of sorts, not only for the Aldeia da Luz residents who had died since the move, but also as a memorial for the village itself—a historical document of the trauma, that captured stories of emotional rupture, physical loss and rebuilding. The party celebrating the book’s launch was an aldeia-wide social gathering as the residents were still re-configuring their new community.

At the museum, we all broke bread in a classic alto Alentejo spread put out for our serious consumption, including local Alentejo wines and liquors, gooey and nutty soft cheeses, heavy sour-dough baked pão alentejano, pastries, pies, sweets, and locally cultivated honey. It was all a fine appetizer before everyone went out for dinner afterwards.

That night, the modern architecture museum where the book launching took place felt as much like a church as it was a public exhibition gallery, with the collections concept designed to help the villagers recover their past. Filled with personal artifacts from the old village and archaeological findings from the surveys conducted in the broader region flooded by the dam, there was a trove of fetishistic objects on display in wood, iron and clay; a bell, an awl, a basket, a chair, etc. A shrine to an ancestral home, the venerated objects from lost worlds.

Among all of the displays though, was a popular exhibition that drew a long line of people stretching along a wall of the gallery toward the direction of a small window. Looking at all the people, and not understanding the attraction, I did what everyone does when they see a line in Portugal and I stood in it.

The front of the queue was tucked into an interior cleft corner of the museum building, people pressing forward one at a time, stepping into a concrete frame to look out of a small pane of glass positioned at an uncomfortable angle in the museum's wall. One at a time, the line moved forward as each new person ducked under the cowl of the frame, like climbing inside a Victoria era camera obscura, minus the hot exploding pop flash of a pan of powder.

When it was my turn at the front of the line I poked my head forward. One's view out the window sloped down a hill over an expanse of the reservoir basin, a small stand of trees in the foreground, and in the distance an empty patch of water. It was all lovely enough but I still couldn’t figure out the attraction of that particular window, especially as the whole reservoir was on dramatic display just outside the museum's door.

Pulling my head from the box, however, is when the flash went off. I noticed a landscape photo of the old Aldeia da Luz that hung next to the window. The photo had been taken before the building of the dam and subsequent flood. Given the slope of the hill and the position of the trees in both the picture and the actual terrain, it was clear that the photo of the old village had been taken from the exact same spot where one now looked out the window of the museum.

Your head inside the concrete frame, taking in the bucolic scene, the surface of the water, at nothing and everything and what lay beneath. Sticking your head in here, it comes out over there, gazing out a window back onto the old village through a portal of the inescapable present. One could see the distance across the meters separating their homes in the old Aldeia da Luz from where the new one was built; but for those who lived there and left, this was not a journey easily reckoned with a tape.

***

The celebration that night carried out of the museum toward a restaurant located on the other side of the new village. Walking from the museum, the wide streets of the aldeia in the early evening were mostly empty—although some gathered in cafés and a couple of kids were hanging around in a park smoking cigarettes and riding a bicycle. I wondered if the village was empty because most everyone had maybe gone to the museum, but was told that one reason for the lack of many people on the streets was that certain kinds of socializing had suffered in the new village as a result of the move.

A resident of the aldeia said that the layout of the old village, with gardens abutting homes that were built closely together, neighbors would peer over fences and traipse across back yards to have conversations over walls and flowers. The admittedly dilapidated, tiny and musty homes that had once encouraged the residents to go outside to talk to one another in the old Aldeia had been replaced with bigger houses apportioned with modern fixtures. Content with roomier, pristine living quarters, the residents, apparently, were often much happier just staying alone inside their new comfortable homes.

On that night, though, the celebration at the museum continued when we arrived for dinner. We sat in a new restaurant with an old cook. Sopa de alentejana was ladled out of big kettles into your bowl right at your seat, grilled meats were served up on table-sized platters, and red country house wines from adjacent vineyards were poured into cups. I don’t remember what we had for dessert, but who would doubt if it wasn't flan and arroz doce among its assortment of choices. I do remember that by the time we had gotten to drinking the aguardentes, we had been joined by a group of local musicians. The folião—as one might have called them in some other time, maybe they even did that night—was a small conjunto of a guitarra, an acordeão, and singers, who played some songs and roughed out quadras telling stories in rhymes. Passing time with friends and family over food, wine and song, an analog of the old aldeia in the new one. A night spent like so many other nights. Maybe in a different place but with all the same people.

As we all sat there drinking and laughing, I wondered how far away it is you can be from home in those moments where it seems like you never even left.

The window back out on the old village is visible on the concrete wall (between the trees) in the photo.

#alentejo #portugal #aldeiadaluz #travelwriting #museu