Portugal part 3: Mountains, wool and the sheep blessing

Portugal travel guide: Serra da Estrela wool factory, sheep blessing

With our too-brief Porto visit behind us, we loaded up the cars again the next morning and drove a few hours southeast — up, up, up into the Serra da Estrela, the highest peaks in Portugal, and down, down into the village of Manteigas, nestled into the center of the range. As you may have noticed by now, pretty much every inch of Portugal is astonishingly beautiful, which explains why — despite spending hours in the car each day — I got almost no knitting done; I didn’t want to take my eyes off the scenery. Climbing up the winding roads through these rocky vistas, I was reminded of California (again), and as soon as we headed down into the valley between the peaks, I suddenly felt like we were in the Alps! We did stop for a few photo ops along the way, but that morning we were on a schedule: We had an appointment for a tour of the Burel wool factory.

Portugal guide: Burel wool factory tour, blankets

We’d pressed our noses against the glass of the Burel stores in Lisbon and Porto, and had petted some of Burel’s goods at A Vida Portuguesa, but we were holding out for the factory/mill experience, which didn’t disappoint. Burel mills their own wool yarn and makes two categories of goods, basically: exceptionally beautiful woven blankets, scarves and shawls in intricate and colorful patterns; and “burel” (burr-EL) a wool cloth comparable to boiled wool, only even more dense and refined, so much so that it’s waterproof. They make finished goods from the burel — ranging from throw pillows to rain boots to my aforementioned vest. And they also cut and fold and pleat and stitch it in all sorts of wonderful ways for a wide variety of unexpected uses. The women in the photo below are smocking a large piece that’s to become a restaurant ceiling. The blue surface under the Field Bag below is a rug at the hotel (more on that in a second).

After the tour, we browsed the little factory store and then found out there’s a seconds area back in the sewing room (which we had seen without knowing that’s what it was — namely the mixed shelves of blankets above) so we got to go back in and paw through all of that. Honestly, it was overwhelming — too much beauty! — and I’m the only one who left empty-handed. (I acquired the vest at the Lisbon store when were back in the big city on our final afternoon.) Saying goodbye to our guide, we — and Rosa and family — drove back up up up to our moutain lodging: Casa das Penhas Douradas, which has the same owner as Burel. It’s a plywood wonderland — which, if you know anything about me, you can imagine my delight — full of Danish-modern funiture upholstered in burel, with burel throw pillows and rugs, and Burel’s gorgeous woven blankets stacked behind the reception desk and draped over every lounge chair. It was incredible.

Portugal guide: Burel wool factory tour

It was also the “fanciest” place we stayed. Being at the tippy-top of a mountain, the hotel restaurant is really your only food option, which is fine because it’s amazing: elaborate breakfast spreads, lunch made to order, cocktail hour before the three-course dinners. (And again, because we were sharing rooms and because Portugal is so affordable, it was a mere fraction of what a comparable experience in the US would have been.) The evening we arrived, after our Burel tour, we were  a bit done in from all the driving and made a pact to stay out of the cars the following day. So the next morning after breakfast, we split into two groups: the hikers and knitters. I was super torn (I love a good long hike) but also super tired (I think I had a sort of cumulative heat exhaustion at that point) and opted to stay behind.

Portugal travel guide: Casa das Penhas Douradas

Let me tell you, I felt most pleased with that decision as soon as Amber and Malia realized the giant window-walls of the common room were actually sliding glass doors. Five of us (including Rosa) spent the entire day sitting in this exquisite indoor-outdoor room, knitting in the brisk mountain breeze, just barely chilly enough that Allison actually used one of the Burel blankets at one point. It was the perfect kind of down day, followed by another lovely dinner in the hotel dining room.

AND THEN CAME THE MAIN EVENT—

That Sunday evening, we all piled back in the cars for the biggest draw of the entire trip. Now, let’s go back for a second to last September, when I was sitting in Amber’s backyard one night and she and Jaime and Allison started talking about how they were planning a trip to Portugal. All I heard were the words “Portugal” and “Rosa” and “sheep blessing in the mountains” and without having any idea what that even meant, I was like I’M IN. And now here we were, driving through those mountains to a tiny village, with Rosa as our guide, none of us really knowing what to expect, and about to witness something we couldn’t have prepared ourselves for.

Portugal part 3: Mountains, wool and the sheep blessing

As I understand it, the blessing of the flocks is a longstanding Portuguese tradition, an annual ceremony that varies from village to village and has changed over time. In some villages, the local priest will still come out and bless the sheep, but in the village we went to it was not that literal. What happens is shepherds from miles around walk their flocks of sheep and/or goats into town on the appointed afternoon, and flock by flock they take their turn. There’s a sort of staging area, a few blocks away from the church, and the church essentially is the town square: it’s right in the middle of town with a cobblestone path all around it. When it’s their turn, each group proceeds through the crowded streets to the church, and they run circles around it, their bells clanging wildly — three times one direction, then three times the other. The goal is to form an unbroken circle — to get going fast enough, and have the flock stretched out enough, that the shepherd in front runs into the last sheep or goat. Three times around, then everyone stops, gets turned around the other direction, and starts again. Rosa said it’s very embarrassing if you aren’t able to close up the circle, or if your animals misbehave at any point. The streets are full — the whole village is there — and all along the front row are men with staffs, just like the shepherds’, which they use to help keep the animals in line — or to sabotage, in some cases! And of course, it’s harder for some shepherds than others. If your flock is small, you have to work a lot harder and run a lot faster to get everyone into a continuous loop, whereas some of the flocks were so large that they formed a closed loop before they even began to run.

Portugal guide: The sheep blessing

To try to describe it makes it sound a bit rote, but it was pure magic. What we didn’t realize, as it got started and we marveled and took a million pictures, is that they would keep coming! Flock after flock after flock. At one point, I was standing on a little curb pressed up against the church, with a sea of white sheep racing past me at top speed, inches from my toes. I knelt down often to get a different angle, once almost being gored in the face when a flock starting getting a little unruly, but it was all I could do not to reach out and pet them all as they ran by. We were the only outsiders there, and we were conspicuous as such, but everyone seemed perfectly content to have us, if a bit curious about how on earth we got there. And then came Rosa’s friends’ flock, the grand finale: The huge flock of dark brown goats, among which were a handful of large castrated males with their horns wrapped entirely in ribbon and laden with colorful pompoms as big as my fist. (Go watch it in action in my Instagram Portugal Story, please!)

We were there when they entered the staging area, followed them down the lane by which they got to the church (taking photos all the way), and watched as they came around and around its walls, feeling completely transported. Writing about it now, I feel bereft, honestly, but I am so eternally grateful to Rosa for trusting us with that experience, for taking us there with her. I’ll never forget that evening.

Portugal travel guide: Serra da Estrela

So that was the crescendo, after which, of course, the denouement. We packed up the following morning and wistfully headed back for Lisbon (with the aforementioned overnight in Nazaré) and one last twirl through the city.

. . .

I’ve been home for two weeks today, and I’m still not over it. I’m indebted to the amazing women who put this trip together, let me tag along, and made it such a blast. It was the most amazing experience of my life, and after having put off international travel for too many decades, I’m hungry for more. It was while we were in the mountains that the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide broke (I knew him only a tiny bit, having met him at the book trade show and hosted him for a week in Readerville back when he first started publishing) and on my first day back at work, I went to pick up lunch from a neighborhood place. On the scroll of kraft paper behind the bar, they had written this quote in tribute:

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
—Anthony Bourdain

On my honor, I will.

. . .

S E R R A   D A   E S T R E L A   T R A V E L   D E T A I L S

Lodging / Dining

Casa das Penhas Douradas
Danish-modern furnishings in a sleek modern hotel with all the amenities. Their Instagram does it more justice than the website.

Sites / Shopping

Burel Mountain Originals
If you can’t make it to Manteigas to visit the factory, make sure you get to one of their stores, either in Lisbon or Porto. Barring that, there’s always the website.

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PREVIOUSLY in Portugal guide: Part 2, Douro, Porto and Teresa the spinner

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23 thoughts on “Portugal part 3: Mountains, wool and the sheep blessing

  1. In Cape Town we have a portuguese community. They have an annual blessing of the fleet ceremony in the harbour – ships not sheeps!

  2. Anthony Bourdain’s death was such a huge loss for all of us. Sorry you lost a friend, but thanks for sharing that quote.
    One question about the blessing of the flocks. Is there any rationale behind which flock goes first? It appears that the two men kneeling with the flock of browns may be the lead group, or does each flock enter the square, be blessed, and then start the journey around the church? Is the flock of browns ‘Rosa’s flock’?

    • That’s a very good question — I don’t know how the order is determined. The kneeling shepherd was the very first flock of the night, and Rosa’s friends (the first and last photos, with the pompoms) were the last. And there was so much variety in between, in terms of sheep vs goats vs a mix, and how big the flocks, how many shepherds, etc. There must be a pecking order, but I don’t know.

  3. I joined Instagram just so I could see your video. Oh my goodness. What an amazing trip, and the blessing of the sheep is unforgettable! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Oh Karen! This just seems like such a dream. Truly a trip of a lifetime! Thank you for sharing it with us here.

  5. Karen–
    My husband and I visited the Burel Factory last year. He loved driving around the hairpin turns in the mountains.

    What an amazing place! Their library of weaving patterns is extensive. I loved watching the women check the woven material for flaws.

    Happy knitting, Heidi – Heidi Cohen aka Knitted Yarns

  6. What a wonderful way to wind up the perfect vacation! I have loved traveling along with you. Here on the coast of Maine, we bless the fleet (fishing) in the spring, but not the sheep! We should bless both, I think! You have me wanting to go to Portugal, which never was on my radar…

  7. Really does sound and look magical! And the Burel wovens are stunning! Thank you for sharing with all of us!

  8. Gosh I am not sure I can take any more installations-I am so jealous:)
    What an amazing itinerary and having awesome freinds to share it with. I hope you have fond memories pop in an out forever.

  9. Such a lovely trip, which we you have brought to us so beautifully. You are such a fine writer, Karen. Whether it be knitting or traveling, you do it all justice with your pen. And I am SO going to use all these notes and recommendations on some future trip that includes Portugal. Thanks for sharing it!

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  11. Amazing. The whole trip looks fantastic, but this piece is really incredible. And the quote at the end just made me tear up. Definitely keep moving and doing what you do. xo

  12. Karen what a fabulous experience! I spent some quiet time this morning with my coffee and caught up on all your trip reports – I can’t even pick anything to highlight as it all sounds amazing – although meeting Rosa and her team would be up there! I so admire what she is doing. I’ve been to Portugal twice when my sister lived there but it was before I was wool obsessed so now I am dying to go back. Although I would be hard presssed to find room for the wine and wool/textiles I would want to take back home. Looking forward to seeing your Beiroa project – I just finished a cardigan in it and absolutely loved knitting with it. Thanks so much for taking us on your journey! I too lost it just a little when I read that Bourdain quote 🙁

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