Transformative Travel: Following the Sheep

Transformative Travel: Following the Sheep


It is odd for someone who is city bred and lactose intolerant to be fascinated by a pastoral tradition that involves mountains, animals, milk, yogurt, and cheese, but there you have it: for decades I have been obsessed by what is called “transhumance.” It’s the seasonal movement of livestock from lowlands, where they’re fed in the winter, to high mountain areas, where they graze in the summer. When harvest time comes, shepherds in Europe, India, the Middle East, and Africa lead the animals down to their villages in the valleys again. The main by-product of transhumance is fresh, natural dairy products from cows, goats, and sheep, but equally significant is a nature-based, communal way of life that is now teetering on the edge of extinction.

For decades, transhumance had been part of my dreams — richly textured reveries filled with mountain huts, rustic peasant clothes, robust animals, and joyous, wine-laced festivities when the animals came back to the villages. Last autumn, when I heard about a small transhumance event in the Covada Beira plains beneath the Gardunha and Serra da Estrela mountain ranges in central Portugal, I hopped on a plane and entered my dreams.

Early in the morning, shepherds led about 100 sheep, which had been brought down from the mountains, through the cobblestone streets of a small, ancient city. Accompanying them was group of chocalheros, a chorus of men who played the tinny, clanging chocalhos — sheep bells that were strung over their bodies from shoulder to hip on a leather sash. The rhythm of the bells pulled me outside of myself, into a world redolent of flocks and folklore, sunshine, storms, communal rejoicing and mourning, the sweet scents of sheep and the seasons, and human submission to the cycles of life.

A Taste of the Trek

Along with a group of Portuguese city folks — many with walking sticks and some with backpacks — we joined in the last leg of the transhumance, a walk of about seven kilometers across a small mountain. One shepherd brought his horse with him, and another led a sheepdog with a spiked collar (to keep mountain wolves at bay). As I trekked with the latter-day pastoralists, the twenty-first century grew dim and then faded away; frankly, I was happy to let it go.

The shepherds baa’d and whistled to their sheep to herd them. At first the animals all looked alike to me, but as we walked, and I was able to observe them, I saw that some had black faces, others had black legs, and a number had curled horns. I also noticed that there were regularly placed rocks beneath our feet; we were trekking on an old road that had been built by Roman hands. Around us were cherry trees and wild mint that had a lively, peppery smell. A few of us stopped and picked ripe, yellow figs from a tree that sagged with the weight of the fruit. We chatted as we walked. People shared their dreams. One young man was building a retreat and healing center. Another was learning about permaculture. A third had just gone through a divorce and was looking for companionship and love.

When we arrived in a town at the end of our walk, we were greeted by musicians playing traditional tunes on their accordions and guitars. To my surprise, almost every house in the village had been decorated and turned into a little restaurant, boutique, or food shop. Some women sold filhos (local corn delicacies that were fried and doused in cinnamon and sugar), sausages, cheeses, jams, and drinks. Others proffered little sheep that were fashioned from pieces of logs and branches. An elderly man named José Mendes Martins sold baskets made from esparto, a plant from the Gardunha Mountains. He was the last person alive who knew this ancient skill, and he reminisced about his childhood, when sheep, goats, and cows were sold in the local market.

The mayor of the town came to greet us. He said the area has been inhabited since the Stone Age, and many of the houses along the main street dated from the eighteenth century. He pointed out a few of them with incised crosses; they were the homes of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Inquisition. Many kept up their Jewish practices in secret; they could be imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake if they were discovered.

The Welcoming Feast

I walked into an improvised tasca — a garage that had been transformed into a typical local eatery. Sitting at a long, communal table, I met a group of young people who had come from Lisbon. They said they heard about the festivities from a local friend. They were sorry they hadn’t done the walk with us, but they had arrived the evening before and were too drunk from raucous partying all night in the streets. That, too, was part of the transhumance experience. I was glad I had missed it. We dined on spiced black-hued sausages and pork chunks served on toothpicks. At the back of the tasca, men played a card game called Sueca, which means “Swedish woman.” In the old days, the trophy for winning was said to be a beautiful blonde from northern climes.

At a nearby square, musicians played palhetas (double-reed flutes) and a huge drum that was covered in goatskin. To delight their audience, the musicians handed out flutes made from PVC pipe that people could play.

As I strolled through the streets, I asked a few of the Portuguese people who had walked with me what they thought of the transhumance event. One man said he hardly spoke because he was so moved by the experience. A couple with two children said they were proud to introduce their progeny to such an unusual country event. One woman said she was weeping because of the connection she felt to her ancestors, the land, and a tradition that was lost in the mists of time. “I loathe the idea of going back to the modern world, with all the noise, chaos, and buzz of electronics.”

“Me, too,” I said to her quietly. “Me, too.”

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