Cork. It’s one of those words I love. Short, sweet and to the point, stirring up memories of emerald isles, springy toughness between finger and thumb and wine-flowing evenings with friends.
But it’s never been a word that’s settled for long inside my mind. Flitting in and flying away like a whispery breeze on a soft summer’s day.
Well, that was before Portugal where I walked the Alentejo Coast, a path filled with crumbling rock and melodious breezes on soft summer days.
And cork. An abundance – and a scarcity of cork.
Recommended reading: What is Sustainable Tourism Anyway? And Is It Any Fun?
The Alentejo coast stretches along a short, sturdy part of the coast of Western Europe in Portugal. It’s north of the more famous Algarve, with its sand and parasol beaches, white-washed towns and high rise, popular tourist resorts.
The Alentejo more closely resembles Wales, at first glance, substituting its sheep for sunshine but maintaining its rocky, rugged coast.
Like Wales, it’s less well known, leaving it blissfully free from the hordes and havoc that descend each summer.
And like Wales, the threat to its principal industry leaves fingerprints of ghosts in derelict buildings among the towns.
For this part of Portugal was once the capital of Cork production. These mighty oaks, which can live for 500 years, provided not only work but protection to the small communities who called these parts home.A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in – Greek proverb
A cork oak takes 40 years for its bark to become suitable for stripping. The forests we walk through show rusty-red trunks emblazoned with white painted numbers: that’s to guide farmers so that they know when to come back. It takes ten years for the springy cork bark to regrow.
What’s more noticeable instead, are the elegant silver-leafed eucalyptus that stretch up, up, up into the sky.
After the fall in the cork business, in part due to the “cork taint” scandal in the wine industry, many on the land either went bust or turned to faster-growing species instead. Eucalyptus forests turn a profit after only a decade, but as with everything in life, it seems there’s a price to pay.
Eucalyptus forests burn faster than cork, and already Portugal has suffered the wrath of several forest fires.
And while the cork scandal blazed, customers grew accustomed to screw-top bottles of wine. Once considered a crime against good taste, they’re now part of everyday life, for all their more questionable eco credentials.
Local cork enthusiasts, like Frank McClintock who runs the Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, are fighting the battle on two fronts.
First, they want the story to be told. And, second, and perhaps more practically, they’re looking for ways to teach an old cork new tricks.
Cork mats, cork frames, cork utensils.
There’s even now a fashion line of cork designer bags.
But pack on the path that threads between pine trees, the soft sand, springy grass and fields and fields of flowers, it is the cork trees that linger in my mind the most: with the thought that many of them have stood here for hundreds and hundreds of years.
I walked the Alentejo coast as a guest of Headwater Holidays, who organise independent walking and activity tours in Portugal and beyond. I’ve travelled with them a number of times as I love the ethos and the authentic, under the skin experience you can get when you follow hand made maps and get “off the beaten track!” It also helps that someone else moves your luggage on to the next hotel…
However, as always, as ever, I keep the right to write what I like. Otherwise what’s the point?
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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