This might be the first of a series of descriptive pieces about places I like going to, or it might be a one-off. Apologies for any factual errors.
The area known as the Lezirias is a cultivated flood-plain bordering the Tagus river, about thirty kilometres north of Lisbon. It is a kind of irregular peninsula, bounded on two sides by rivers – to the west by the Tagus, to the east by the much smaller Sorraia – and to the south by the north-eastern shore of the enormous Tagus estuary, into which the Sorraia also flows. At low tide the southern and western sides are fringed by acres of oozy black mud.
The Lezirias are easy to get to from Lisbon. Take the A1 motorway, turn off at Vila Franca de Xira and follow signs for the N10 and Evora, taking the old iron bridge across the Tagus. Half a kilometre east of the bridge there is a wide gateway on the right and you are there. Just drive in.
Today is a good day for a visit. By mid-morning, the sky has cleared, and there is warmth in the low mid-January sunlight. I am in my nineteen-year-old Citroen Berlingo van, and I take it slowly on the pot-holed dirt road. On each side are deep ditches, lined by rough verges of the rich leafy ground-cover which goes wild in the Portuguese winter. The view of the rice-paddies beyond is partially obscured by tall, faintly rustling reeds, feathery heads nodding and swinging. On a cloudless day like this morning, the rain-flooded fields are sky-blue, dotted and striated with dark bristly rice stubble. They will remain flooded until they are drained for replanting in April. Feeding there are storks, scores of purple ibis, and slim, high-stepping black-winged stilts, scanning for frogs and crayfish. To the left is pasture.
A vast quiet presides over this broad level place. In the haze to the west, far beyond the fields and the unseen river, there is rising ground on which are visible tiny soundless factories and red-roofed housing blocks the size of cigarette packets. Beyond rise the dim hills behind Vila Franca de Xira. To the east and south, the view is clear to the horizon, where the spindly electricity pylons dwindle, faint and minute. Three or four miles away is the church of Nossa Senhora de Alcamé, boxy in the surrounding levelness.
Today I take a right-hand turn early on, down a road I haven’t explored before. After a couple of miles and a turn or two, I am following a wide, reed-edged channel. There is a low, scruffy white house ahead, where the dirt road rises to the top of an embankment and stops at a broad gate. Well before I park, a rabble of dogs are barking their heads off behind the house’s makeshift fence, and the racket reaches fever pitch as I walk past and up to the gate. Down to the left, the embankment is pierced by a cement sluice-gate, above which runs the path. Beyond it, the much-reduced channel trickles out between soft banks of dark, glistening mud to join the Tagus.
I turn left above the sluice-gate, bearing water-bottle and sandwich, camera, binoculars and a rolled-up lightweight groundsheet. The sun is now very warm, and I remove my scarf and open my jacket. As I walk along the dyke, the yelping gradually fades behind me, finally disappearing entirely into the enormous, drenching quietness. There are avocets picking about on the estuary mud, and pied wagtails scurrying and fluttering across the rice-paddy. After a few minutes I unroll the groundsheet, spread it out billowing over the knee-high ground cover, and settle down for elevenses. Around me the sunlight strikes the colours into life: the bottle-green of prickle-weeds veined with bright white, the luminous translucence of the broader leaves nodding above them. My sandwich consumed, I sink back for a snooze.
The flood-plain is farmed by the Companhia das Lezirias, who also contribute to EVOA, the organisation which runs the birdwatching centre near the southernmost point of the flood-plain. I drop in there later for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The centre is recent, a pleasant well-run space with a café, lecture rooms and three big artificial ponds occupying the reedy space which runs south towards the estuary. There are three or four hides for those who don’t mind sitting on a bench in a wooden box for hours, but a visit is not cheap, and in fact there is just as much to see on the way to the centre – far more birds than the ones I have mentioned here, and I glimpsed and filmed a sizeable wild boar a few years ago, before the centre was built.
The café has a plate-glass observation window running its width, through which the nearest of the ponds can be observed with the telescope provided, though I prefer my Polaris Optics binoculars (highly recommended). The cake today is orange and cinnamon flavour, home-made, sweet, and soggy in the middle. The lady who serves me is quick to forestall comment by pointing out that it is a cake that is intended to be moist. Moist is moist and soggy is soggy, I think, but I say nothing and eat most of it. At the reception desk I ask about a tourist bus I had seen in the distance an hour or two ago, heading north towards the main gate. Sure enough, there had been a visit from a large group. I have mixed feelings about that, as I do in my grudging way every time a favourite place is discovered and developed.
I ask if there are many visits and if they pay for the maintenance of the centre. There aren’t, and they don’t, but my attention flags as the receptionist explains how the place is subsidised, and I am soon wishing I hadn’t asked. In a little while I head back to the N10.