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Portugal Pits Yield Exquisite Marble

Geology: The southern Alentejo region, one of Europe's poorest, is rich in the expensive rock. It's even used to make public benches and sidewalks.


VILA VICOSA, Portugal — An earth mover slowly sinks into the gloom of the marble quarry, lowered by a crane until its driver looks barely bigger than a pinprick, 360 feet below.

Floodlights on the pit floor glow through a cloud of marble dust, lighting up an elevator that hums as it glides up the side of the 150-foot-wide hole in the earth. The bottom is a pool of fine, white mud.

Looking up from the floor, it's almost like being in a cathedral. Massive blocks of marble half cut out of the walls rise above, framing the blue sky.

The earth mover easily pushes over an 18-ton block, which a diamond-toothed steel cable has cut away.

"We don't need earmuffs or dust masks. This is enough protection," says supervisor Antonio Zebo, tapping his cloth cap. "But we do use steel toe-capped boots," he adds, noting that falling rocks have killed eight workers over the last 15 years.

Such quarries are a common sight in Portugal's southern Alentejo region. Cranes poke into the sky all around, hanging over marble pits like gigantic herons.

At dusk, church bells cut through the mechanical noise while a shepherd and his flock make their way past the centuries-old St. Mark's Church, which now stands on the edge of this gash in the green hills.

A few miles away at a marble export company, the rough marble blocks are shaped into tiles.

Company boss Jorge Placido says polishing is the most difficult process.

"It has to be cut by diamonds, but it's extremely delicate," polisher Paulo Magarreiro says, banging a steel tape measure on his marble workbench to show how easy it is to scratch the rock.

Magarreiro uses a blowtorch on the marble. Heating it allows the resin he spreads on the rock to react better, smoothing the surface. The veins of the marble are just visible beneath the creamy film.

He cuts the slabs into tiles measuring about nine square feet. Each one is sold for $26.

Marble is an expensive commodity most places. But in Alentejo, one of Europe's poorest regions, even sidewalks, butcher's lintels and public benches are made of marble, which is the area's cheapest building material.

Placido says all Portuguese marble is quarried in the 12-square-mile region. It has unique features and has been sought after since Roman times, he says.

"One of our buyers in Japan, Italy or an Arab country could look at our marble and know it's from the Alentejo, by the color and veins," he says.

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