Portugal: Real Fábrica de Gelo

Real Fábrica do Gelo.

Real Fábrica de Gelo.

High up in the Serra de Montejunto mountain range is a building that looks a lot like a church. But it is actually an old ice factory, now a national monument. The ice produced here was used for consumption and – in the pre-refrigerator age – for cooling things. In August 2015, we went to this Real Fábrica de Gelo and took a guided tour. Unfortunately, the guide spoke neither English, nor French, only Portuguese (she was a master at blowing bubbles with her bubble gum though). So we had to make do with the few signs and information panels that were also in English. It was enough to learn a lot about this curious location.

The ice factory worked like this. First, there was the water elevation and distribution area. Here, there were two wells for bringing the water inside the mountain to the surface. An animal-powered water wheel was used for this. The water was stored in a reservoir tank and then distributed into shallow freezing tanks. The water would subsequently freeze during the night. We could easily imagine how that worked: although it was during the day and midsummer, it was chilly so high up in the mountains. We were at least 500 metres above sea level and it would have been much, much colder during the night. It seemed to us that production must have been possible throughout the year.

Freezing tanks.

Freezing tanks.

The ice was brought to the church-like structure. The ice factory was built in the middle of the eighteenth century; the date above the door reads 1782, but it seems there was an older factory at this site since 1741. It served until the end of the nineteenth century, 1885 to be exact, when it had become obsolete. It was operated by the Royal Snowmaker. Ice was apparently called ‘snow’ in those days.

Inside the building, the visitor can still see the rooms where the ice was stored, the room where it was cut and packed and the compartment where the packs were stored, ready to be transported downhill. The blocks of ice were wrapped and isolated in straw and linen cloth, to prevent them from melting. They were then loaded onto donkeys and brought down the southern slope of the Serra de Montejunto to the river Tejo, some 25 kilometres to the east. The ice was shipped to Lisbon by river boat, where it was used in cafes, and to the Royal House of Portugal.

Nossa Senhora das Neves

Nossa Senhora das Neves.

The Serra de Montejunto is a so-called ‘protected landscape’. This means there is only room for ecological tourism. There is a camping site near the ice factory and one or two trails the visitor can take to explore the area. If you take the car and go higher up the mountain, you will be treated to wonderful panoramic views.

Near the top, at an altitude of some 650 metres, is a small church, the Nossa Senhora das Neves (“Our Lady of Snows”). Next to the church are the ruins of a Dominican monastery. The first monastery was built here in 1218, but it was abandoned just seven years later because of the harsh climate and difficult living conditions. The Dominican monks returned to this location in the eighteenth century and rebuilt the monastery. It is the ruins of this building that we can see today.

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