Land of cork trees, land of owls. Named by the first King of Portugal, Alfonso 1, on passing through the region and seeing the many night hunters, Coruche derives from the Portuguese name for an owl.

Man has lived here for more than 7,500 years, evidenced by a megalithic cluster of standing stones in the south east of the area. Today, half of the municipality is forested with a mix of cork and pine trees. Forest farming produces wood, cork and pine nuts of highest quality and price.

Old city aqueduct

Cork is a natural product of high environmental and ecological value. In the week that Trump visited the UK, the effects of climate change were being highlighted in the British media and were at the top of our minds.

We set out on our bikes, alongside the old city aqueduct, to discover more about the harvesting of cork and its benefits.

Cork bark mountains

Cork trees live to an astonishing age. Their average life cycle is 270 years and a tree can be harvested for its cork every nine years, once it reaches maturity. The cork is removed by hand by carefully axing the outer layer of bark from the tree. This does not harm it, and the tree grows a new cork bark. The year of harvest is marked on the trunk, so each tree isn’t harvested at the wrong time.

Whilst the trees grow new bark, they continue to eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere – in Portugal the total amount eliminated equals nearly 5 million tonnes every year, therefore cork is one of the most sustainable and non-impactful products on the planet.

Cork bark drying

Coruche supplies 5 million cork stoppers to the world every day. Stop, think about that. 5 million? Yet bizarrely the cork industry is under threat.

Imported Aussie and Californian wines with their screw tops and cheap European varietals with their rubber or plastic corks are reducing demand from wine makers for the world’s most sustainable resource.

My response? By all means drive your hybrid cars, eat meat-free diets, and protest against a second runway – but drink more wine from cork-bottled vintages!

We headed into the Cork Observatory, itself a building entirely covered in cork, to learn about the technologies being applied to finding new use for cork in modern life.

A little strangely, we were allowed to wander about the place without any guide or information and poke our noses into labs where engineers in overalls worked at microscopes and computers.

Dotted around were examples of wearable clothing, flooring and furniture, all of which were eye grabbing but not enough to stop the mass use of plastic and synthetic fabrics.

Harvested cork bark

However, in a corner, we spotted an ‘IKImobile’, a smartphone encased in cork. It just might be enough to change consumer behaviour as it is a product of mass appeal without requiring the tonnes of plastic casing. Nearby to the Observatory we cycled past the IKImobile development centre calling ‘good luck folks!’ to the erstwhile developers.

Coruche’s Lerizia (lowlands) are fertilized by the Sorraia River, a tributary of Portugal’s giant Rio Tagus. The southern road to the town criss-crosses the river and includes seven bridges in just three kilometres. The bridges are single track girder, or truss, bridges painted in dark reds, oranges and yellow.

Paddy fields alongside River Sorraia

Priority systems were wildly ignored by motorists and it seemed each bridge crossing was more a case of ‘chicken’ – who blinks first at 50 miles an hour?

As cyclists we stuck to the narrow pedestrian walkways on the outside of each bridge to avoid being barged by the traffic. On the narrow main road, we were not overtaken rather pushed onto the edge of the tarmac and twice a wing mirror grazed one of us as we struggled to stay out of green, watery ditches.

Truss Bridge

Surprisingly the Sorraia provides the base for rice, grown in paddy fields bordered along the roadside with gigantic bamboo canes. It was a taste of the Orient.

Returning to the pretty town, we saw clouds of smoke billowing above the hillside. Commenting that it was ironic if caused by industrial pollutant we quickly realised it was a wildfire.

Coruche from above

Two helicopters worked in tandem to dip and scoop water from the river (which was at low tide) and dowse it onto the raging flames just a mile from the boundary of the town.

Everyone seemed to be out on the streets watching their brave and urgent work. We learned later that homes had been evacuated. Fire engines raced around but couldn’t get close to the forest flames.

After two hours of sustained dippings and dowsings, the fire was out and just a little smoke remained in the air. People happily dispersed and at our free aire we heard the celebratory sound of corks being opened from bottles.

It was churlish not to join them in a suitable toast ‘Let’s save the planet! Drink more wine from cork-bottled vintages!’