A long weekend in the Alentejo

17 to 21 February 2022

Our four month temporary visas were fast running out and with no certainty that we would get our residence to enable us to stay in Portugal with Pintail we decided to take a road trip to see some of the country’s interior.

But first we took the opportunity of having a car to take our liferaft to be serviced. We gratefully watched it inflate ready to be packed away, hopefully never to be seen again until its next service in another three years time!

And we had time to stop in for lunch with Ursula on the Guardiana so Stefan could see their beautiful little oasis.

Whilst Alex was at work, she introduced us to their growing brood which now includes four chickens and a rooster and a gorgeous black puppy, Stella, that she had rescued from under a car in Sanlucar.

Notwithstanding the imminent birth of their human baby, the seed pots, vegetable patches and fruit trees showed evidence that they had not been slowing down in cultivating their hidden patch of land.

We left Ursula again promising to return to the river with Pintail and headed a little further north to spend the night in the fortified town of Mertola.

As dusk fell we walked up through the walls of the ancient town, first inhabited in the Iron Age and then wrestled between the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Knights of King James and finally the Portuguese. It was like a revision lesson in Mediterranean history!

The Muslims left a castle that dominates the town from every angle.

We stopped in Beja for Stefan to get his first professional haircut in years and to see another impressive castle. We’d hoped to visit the museum of sculptor Jorge Vieira within its walls but that was shut

so instead we stopped in at the Nucleo Museologico da Rua do Sembrano where we could walk over 2200 year old streets and the Iron Age finds discovered amongst them.

But it was Medieval Evora that was the focus of our trip and after driving through the endless vineyards and almond groves for which the Alentejo is famous we found ourselves inside the protective walls of this ancient university town.

The town’s 14th century walls hide evidence of much older settlers and we found our first Roman temple since Carthage. It had been long enough for Stefan not to roll his eyes with familiarity.

However, the narrow lanes, grand houses and squares were of Evora’s heyday in the 14th to 16th century.

The Gothic Igreja de Sao Francisco hides a very gothic secret indeed. Tucked in the back is the Capela dos Ossos – the Chapel of Bones. Built in the 16th century by Franciscan monks with the bones of an estimated 5,000 bodies exhumed from Evora’s overcrowded cemeteries, it is intended as a meditation on the temporary and fragile nature of life. We’ve been to some pretty dark and spooky places on our travels but this was exceptionally macabre. The inscription above the door reads “We bones that are here, for yours we wait”!

We were grateful for the light relief offered by the Church’s very extensive collection of nativity scenes from around the world.

As well as its thick walls Evora is dominated in the northeast by an impressive aqueduct designed by Francisco de Arruda of Lisbon’s Tower of Belem fame. A practical solution to bringing safe drinking water into the town, its arches have found their own practical use for houses, shops and cafes.

The countryside around Evora is peppered with evidence of yet more ancient settlements. Amongst the farm land and cork oaks we went in search of Neolithic standing stones and tombs. It was hard to fathom how this four metre high piece of granite was transported across the landscape to symbolise no one really knows what.

It was even harder to work out the how and why of the Cromeleque dos Almendres – 95 round, often inscribed stones in a seemingly random field. We sat and pondered its social and/or spiritual significance to its makers for a while.

A little further away we found the even more improbable structure of giant flat slabs that was once a tomb. It was not dissimilar to the dolmens we visited in Antequerra in Spain just much bigger. The idea of transporting these huge rocks was even more improbable.

The Alentejo is cork country and it is impossible to avoid the half bare trunks of the oak forests. An interpretation board taught us a little about this great national export. Portugal is the world’s biggest producer of cork and they take it very seriously indeed. It takes 25 years before the cork is ready to harvest from new trees and it is illegal to cut down a cork oak. Portuguese wine will never be found with a plastic cork or screw cap but since the decline in demand for corks elsewhere, producers have had to diversify. The construction industry now accounts for 26% of the cork market where its acoustic and thermal efficiency make it perfect insulation. So perfect in fact that cork is the material of choice when it comes to the thermal insulation in space craft.

After a couple of days inland it was time to return south so we headed out of Evora and under the aqueduct, twice!

But before we turned south we drove west to visit friends, Jenny and Robert, who we had randomly bumped into again in Portimão, five years after meeting them in Agios Nikolaos on Crete. We had already enjoyed their legendary hospitality on the Algarve and so rather too eagerly accepted their invitation to lunch!

After another wonderful feast, we could just about drag ourselves for a walk out to Cabo Espichel. We have passed it three times now on our way to and from Lisbon by sea but never by land. In the distance we could see the mouth of the Rio Tejo. We walked through the abandoned Sanctuario de Nossa Senhora that perches high on the cliffs.

And then after only a short but sweet time in the company of Jenny and Robert we had to return south to start preparing in earnest for our immigration interviews…

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