Men at work - for now

See the artisans of Algarve before this rich culture disappears, writes Kate Armstrong.

Sydney Airport: an Australian customs official holds up a small, clay figure, raises an eyebrow and gives me a look that says, "Is this what I really think it is?" I've just arrived direct from Portugal, with a backpack full of Portuguese craftware.

Red-faced, I mumble my reasons for my pointy purchase: my personal crusade to support the declining handicrafts industry of Portugal. Not to mention the fun. Poking around alleyways, markets and artisans' workshops for traditional crafts is a not-to-be-missed experience for any traveller. The questionable item is a phallus stickpin, as in a kind of brooch.

I was drawn to the busy town of Loule, in the inland Algarve region of southern Portugal, once renowned for its artisans. On the narrow street, Rua da Barbaca, stands a line of wooden doors; entrances to artisans' workshops. They used to resonate with the sounds of hammers and saws of coppersmiths, tinsmiths and carpenters. These days, only one set of doors is open. Inside, surrounded by copper pots of all sizes and strange spherical objects sits Ilidio Antonio Marques, the town's last surviving coppersmith. He works alone, with not even an apprentice to help him.

As with many artisan traditions, the art of the coppersmith is dying in Portugal, at least in the southern Algarve and Alentejo regions where I'm travelling. As I discover, artisans are shutting down like falling dominoes.

The closures are sad for the traveller but tragic for Portugal, whose centuries-old traditions are fast disappearing.

Portugal's entry into the European Union (EU) in the mid-'80s has had a great impact on the country. The EU's strict regulations, along with increased mechanisation and droughts - specifically in the remote Alentejo region - as well as unemployment have forced young people to leave their towns and villages to seek work in the tourist meccas of Algarve and Lisbon (about 80 per cent of the country's GDP is attributed to tourism).

The elderly folk who remain in the villages have no-one to pass on their skills to and few opportunities to subsist through farming or selling their wares - from cheese to honey (production of particular food items, too, are subject to rigid EU guidelines). Remote agricultural regions are faltering.

For the past 50 years, since he was 10, Marques has worked as a coppersmith. He learned his skills from a maestro and he later took over the workshop.


Marques beats a copper pot. Each thump becomes more urgent. He gives it one last clank and declares gruffly in Portuguese: "This is an art!"

His speciality is the cataplana dish, a Portuguese pan used for preparing cuisine of the same name, a rich stew of rice with seafood or meats, similar to the Spanish paella.

The shiny, pink dish consists of two half-spheres of copper, hinged to open like a bivalve. Hand-made cataplanas take up to four days to produce. These days, most cataplanas are factory-made but, it's said, a cataplana recipe prepared in the factory version just doesn't make the grade.

So why doesn't Marques train a younger person to take over his craft? He snorts. "Young ones don't want to ..." he says. "It's too much work for them. I feel sad that it's going to finish."

Elsewhere in the south of Portugal, it's a similar story. In the small, slightly faded village of Reguengos de Monsaraz, Fabrica Alentejana de Lanificios produces the unique "mantas Alentejanas" - Alentejan coverings. Some designs date to the 16th century, while the more contemporary shawls, rugs and carpets are brightly coloured.

The cavernous workshop, a converted olive factory, was set up many years ago by a passionate Dutchwoman, Mizette Nielsen. For years, the mantas were exported or sold to tourists. These days, Dona Fatima is one of only two remaining weavers.

She sits at a loom - the remaining 20 or so are dormant, their strings begging to be plucked - and admits her craft is dying.

My first effort to "save the craft" when I first arrived in the country is dubious: my tiny phallic ceramic from a second-hand market (actually, I liked its neat, cardboard box).

But according to the seller, these come from the village of Caldas da Raihna, north of Lisbon, which has been famous for its ceramics for centuries.

The media has reported that in the 1800s (although locals can't substantiate the story), Portuguese Regent Dom Luis wanted local potters to depart from their usual ornamental ceramics. So an enterprising person came up with a novelty - bottles in the shape of a phallus. For decades, these - and other phallocentric objects - have delighted buyers around the world. Unfortunately, I didn't visit the workshop in Caldas de Rainha. Apparently, the owners, now in their 60s, are hanging in there but with trade shrinking, they say theirs is a dying art.

In a tourist shop in Lisbon, I'm delighted to discover - among kitsch, mass-produced magnets - a miniature house, no more than three centimetres high, exquisitely carved out of cork. I learn the craftsman no longer makes these; they are too detailed and it's not worth his while.

But it's not all bad news. Artisans in the 13th-century city of Estremoz in Alentejo have taken the matter in hand. Each year, an international fair promotes the town's ceramicists (famous for their intricately painted figurines known as bonecos), carpenters (hand-carved furniture), painters (folkloric paintings), tinsmiths (watering cans and household items) and others who work with willow, leather, cork and glass. Buyers can visit the artisans - there are about 30 in all, aged between 20 and 80 - in their workshops. There's Mrs Maldonado whose home-cum-workshop is crammed with glass boxes, each comprising scenes featuring colourful, hand-made figurines.

Nearby, Mr Sim Sim bangs out bells of all sizes from metal - the largest for oxen, the smallest for budgerigars.

In the medieval town of Arraiolos, about 20 kilometres north of Evora, ladies sit on their doorsteps sewing cross-stitch-style tapetes (carpets) that have been in production since the 12th century. Nearby, an elderly man sits hunched on his wooden seat, carving elaborate chains, acorns and miniature chairs. Each item is created from a single piece of wood - no hinges or adhesives are used. He's been doing this for "years and years" he tells me. His unique art survives, it seems, while he does.

Then there's the honey man, in a tiny Alentejan coastal village. He doffs his traditional flat-topped cap as I approach. His makeshift stall is a table on which sit jars of "mel", honey. For decades he has sold his honey from this spot during the summer season. Given the strict EU regulations of how foodstuffs are prepared and stored, his stall's days may be numbered.

But back to the copper man. His final words to me are: "I feel proud. I've worked here for 50 [years] and I'll work here another 50."

I'd love to believe him. (Dare I admit, due to its weight and bulk, I came home minus a cataplana.) My campaigner's plea? When on a buying spree in Portugal, support the humble artisan. Everybody will be richer for it.

Besides, it's fun explaining a quirky purchase. Even if it's to a customs official.

Stop Press: While adding the final touches to this article, I came across a blog. It announces the closure on Christmas Eve 2008 of Marques's copper workshop.

A small group of despairing locals declare: "Prince of artisans 'dead'."

They are not the only ones mourning.


Getting there

Qantas and British Airways fly to Lisbon (via London).

Shopping There

For traditional Alentejan shawls and rugs, try Fabrica Alentejana de Lanificios (phone +351 266 502 179; Rua dos Mendes, 79, Reguengos de Monsaraz) and Loja da Mizette (phone +351 266 557 159; Rua do Celeiro, Monsaraz). For ceramic figures try Bonecos de Estremoz (Rua do Arco de Santarem 4, Estremoz); for a list of artisans in Estremoz, see (in Portuguese); Caldas da Rainha tourist office (phone +351 262 839 700; Praca 25 de Abril) has a list of workshops. The phallus-shaped pieces are available from the workshop of O Senhor and A Senhora Francisco and Casilda Figueiredo.