LOCATED NEAR the northern Portuguese-Spanish border, Vilarinho das Furnas was probably founded by Romans in the 1st century. For years, the town developed and grew as important Roman tracks passed by.
According to some beliefs, the people who lived there created a strong community. The first written reference to the village was in a book of baptisms in 1623.
The village was ruled by a small group. According to beliefs, the local Junta dates back to Visigoth times, when a member of each family would have had their say in the most important decisions. Topics such as building new roads, managing cattle, irrigating the fields, hunting, and harvesting were discussed by the Junta.
As Vilarinho das Furnas was a self-sustaining community, there was no place for mistakes or leaving things undone. The Junta was also protecting people from various kinds of injustice. The communal meeting was so important that unjustified absence was punished by community work. For the biggest crime, a villager could be excluded from the community. As no one would help an excluded villager with harvesting or herding their cattle, they were basically exiled. But while the Junta was able to sustain itself for centuries, protecting its citizens from hunger, fire, and different armies, it couldn’t protect itself from the flood that resulted not from the angry power of nature, but because of supposed progress.
As Vilarinho das Furnas was a self-sustaining village and unwelcome to outsiders, villagers led a hard, yet calm life. But everything started to change in the 1950s. The bad news reached the ears of the over 300 villagers who lived in the region at that time: the Portuguese Electricity Company decided to build a dam on the nearby Homem River to create hydroelectricity.
In 1967, when construction started despite the protests of the inhabitants, the villagers knew that there was no longer a place for their community lifestyle, and that they would have to leave their homeland. Fifty-seven families left in 1969 after receiving indemnity from the electricity company.
The price they received for leaving their family homes seemed like a joke. For each square metre, they were paid 0.5 escudos for just the land: the price of half a sardine. Land with a building was evaluated at five escudos per square metre: ten sardines for a piece of long-lasting heritage.
Most of the roads near the village were constructed by the community of Vilarinho da Furna. Despite the promises of the dam construction company, the villagers were pressured to build a new road on their own. That way, they could be evacuated, and take their belongings from their houses.
The desperation of those people can be seen now in the destroyed houses. The last person left Vilarinho da Furna in 1971, and the village was covered with water the next year. More than 344 hectares were submerged.
Just ten years after the village disappeared under the water, a museum was created in the nearby municipality of Terras de Bouro. Its goal is to commemorate the history of the community of Vilarinho da Furna. Agricultural tools, old clothes, and paintings are artefacts that show us the previous lives of the villagers. The museum building was created with stones from the original houses from the submerged village.
The memory of the village didn’t disappear, and lives on in the hearts of the people who were the last ones to leave.
The project Valorização do Espaço Natural da Serra da Amarela (Serra da Amarela Natural Space Appreciation), created in 2008, allows people to appreciate the wildlife of this area, and also learn about the culture and history of the area. There is no doubt that former citizens of Vilarinho das Furnas inspired this move.
In 1985, they came together and created the Association of Former Inhabitants of Vilarinho das Furnas. Even though their heritage is covered with water, they decided to keep it alive in the consciousness of the people. They not only want to share the idea of the collective lifestyle, but also to take care of nature, by reforestation, creating animal reserves and more.
When the story reappears
For most of the year, the village is invisible from the surface. Local guides offer trips on glass bottoms boats so you can see the old houses from above. However, sometimes, when the reservoir’s water drops, Vilarinho das Furnas appears before the eyes of the visitors. Even though some houses date back to Roman times, there is not much splendour here. Ruined buildings remind one of the sad story of the people who had to leave their homeland.
Words: Anna Zielazny