Many of them were born in Alta Mora or in the surrounding hills 70 or more years ago, others moved there and there are those who are children of the land, have left and later returned home. All of them have benefited for two decades – and more and more – from the work that is done by Friends of Alta Mora Recreational, Cultural and Sports Association (ARCDAA), whose 20th anniversary was celebrated on Sunday, August 13th.
Since it was created, this association has recovered ancient traditions, promoted social interaction and placed Alta Mora and the natural beauty that surrounds it on the map, thanks to the walks of the almond trees in blossom, that in 2020 inspired a festival that had immediate success.
But, more than that, this association and the activities it promotes have been an asset against the desertification of this town in the interior of Castro Marim and a way of giving encouragement to an increasingly aging population.
On Friday, the 11th of August, the bustle in the courtyard of the former primary school in Alta Mora, currently the headquarters of the ARCDAA, left no doubt: a party was being prepared. And it wasn't just any party, it was the birthday party of an association that is very cherished by the increasingly small local community.
While António Mestre, one of the members of the association, climbs a ladder to release the sun-bleached wreaths that have been there since the Santos Populares festival, a dozen locals, all over 70 years old and some close to 90, sit in the shade. They came there on purpose to talk to the Sul Informação.
Casimiro Afonso Gomes, who was born in Alta Mora and returned there after spending 15 years working in Germany, recalls that «before there were a lot of people there», but that lately, many «have been shaken». Now, «there are places where there are almost no people».
«Now there's no one there, it's just old people. Here in Alta Mora there must be 40 or 50. In the past, there were more than a thousand people living here», reinforces Gualdino Lourenço, who also lives in the village.
If it weren't for a conversation around a coffee table, 20 years ago, everything lined up so that Alta Mora's fate would be the same as that of so many other small towns in the Barrocal or Serra do Algarve: dying slowly and falling into oblivion , until it is empty.
«This came up in the cafe of Alta Mora. 20 years ago, we were there drinking a few beers and the guys said: “hey man, we have to make an association here that is to keep this alive. And we did. We immediately spoke with the Council, who also thought it was a good idea, we went to the registry office in Loulé and did the deed there», says Valter Matias, president of the association that he helped found two decades ago and the one that everyone points to as its main driving force.
Son of the locals, born «on a hill three kilometers from Alta Mora, called Fernão Gil», Valter Matias used to get together with his friends at the café, «in the afternoons, talking and socializing».
«It was in the middle of this that the idea of creating the association came up, because we were seeing that the dynamic was losing. In my time, there were still a few young people here, currently there is none. Today there is only one girl there, aged 12 or 13. Besides, we don't have youth anymore », she illustrates.
The first task that the then newly created association dedicated itself to was «to recover and maintain traditions».
«We recovered the issue of the mast, which was a typical thing that was done here in the old days. People danced around the mast, made bonfires, celebrated the Popular Saints. Afterwards, we started to promote the dancers to give this place some dynamics », he recalled.
Meanwhile, parties with a dancer and brightened up by a pole decorated with flowers have become a habit in Alta Mora.
«The association changed a lot of things, it gave a lot of life. Now, we entertain ourselves here», assured Casimiro Afonso Gomes, while, at his side, António Mestre was busy wrapping the wreath of paper flowers on the pole that stands in the courtyard of the former primary school.
«We are the ones who make the [paper] flowers and all that stuff. It's all done by the people here. It took us more than two months to do all of this», tell the village ladies, who, despite being a little more shy at first, soon begin to contribute to the conversation.
«The association has brought us benefits. We are all old people and, therefore, we live together and have a lot of fun here: we come to make flowers, we go for walks and other events. In this way, we leave the house and spend time here. When there is no socializing, we go months without seeing each other », said D. Maria Antónia, who insisted on giving her testimony.
«We came here to teach what we know and learn things we didn't know. We are happy with these hobbies », she adds.
When we talk about walks and the Almond Blossom Festival, the smiles widen and the eyes even sparkle: «Ahh! This is what brings people there!”.
«There have never been so many people together in Alta Mora, as when it was the Almond Festival. There were cars up to my hill», recalls Jacinto Parreira, who lives in nearby Magoito.
«Alta Mora was an unknown place, now it's already on the map», he reinforces.
«The Almond Blossom Festival really brought a lot of people [7 thousand people in 2023, according to Valter Matias]. The first was in 2020, but we had to take a break because of the pandemic. This year, we did it again and twice as many people came», said Gualdino Lourenço.
«Now, there are many countries that know Alta Mora, at European level. Spaniards then, it's too much, they all come here, to walk, walk».
All of this, the inhabitant of Alta Mora also said, is thanks “to Mr. Valter Matias, who launched all of this in 2003. the tradition of Carnival dolls and Janeiras».
«If it wasn't for Mr. Matias, we wouldn't have these big events. He has shown himself to be a person capable of tearing down walls, of building bridges and each one of us helps in what we can. We all work here and give what we can, with no intention of making any profit», points out, for his part, Jacinto Parreira.
Despite the praise that everyone pays him, Valter Matias never individualizes and always talks about «us».
«There were three main objectives here when we created the association. The first was trying to maintain traditions and recover others, like Janeiras and Carnival here in the mountains, which is a different kind of Carnival. In the past, we called it “ferranchões”, because people screwed each other up with what they had at home and then they would go around the various hills and collect sausages, dried figs, eggs and things like that. Each one gave a little something and they made some jokes. We got that back too."
Another tradition that was observed again was the Burial of Shrovetide, «which was something that was no longer done. A doll is made, the doll accompanies the parade and then, on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after Carnival, the funeral is held here, everyone is invited and a table is set up with the collected products'.
Another objective was “to bring new people, open Alta Mora to the world, because the villages in the interior are increasingly depopulated, there is no one left. You are missing the inside! And we thought: “What do we have to offer? Landscape! We want to bring nature tourism!”».
This is how the walks began, «to make Alta Mora known, but also to make people feel that this is worthwhile».
These walks, launched in 2005, grew and brought more and more people. It got to the point that there were so many requests that the association decided to launch a festival, whose organization involves the entire community.
All of this gives great encouragement to the people who live in that territory who, otherwise, “would be lost there, isolated and not living with each other”.
«For example, around the mast there are two months of work, every day. Then there are the summer dancers. Soon comes the Almond Tree Festival, which is three months of flower development, to decorate. Then there's Carnival. I usually say that we have a very busy schedule and it's true. But they like it. This takes a lot of work, but also when it's over, there's this emptiness: “Hey man, what about tomorrow? Have we not seen tomorrow?”».
This work is already bearing some fruit, either because people have gained a renewed interest in continuing to take care of their land and producing sausages and handicrafts, or because there is a tourist potential that is already beginning to be exploited, namely by Valter Matias , which opted for Rural Tourism – «another madness (laughs)» -, the Almond Nature, where it is already «receiving people from everywhere».
«And there is space here for other things. If there is one more restaurant, if there is a café with tapas, which is also needed, a caravan park, for example… », he said.
If new businesses and young people emerge, the third major objective of the ARCDAA will be fulfilled, that of combating desertification, preventing «this from being completely lost».
«We want to work with people, because they are the ones who make the difference. Even if we have many ideas, without people we do nothing. We need youth, for there to be a renewal here, even at the level of the association», concludes Valter Matias.
Photos: Hugo Rodrigues | Sul Informação