Mertola, reflections on the Alentejo’s past and present

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Walking around the wonderful old town of Mertola, the thing that struck me (literally) was just how hot it was, even in autumn the heat is fierce. I can’t imagine what it must be like during the summer months when temperatures are often in the mid-30s celsius or higher. The narrow lanes don’t allow much breeze in and the constant walking up and down the steep streets soon had me fantasising about air conditioning. The heat certainly explains the generally laid back approach to life that you find in this region.

Mertola at night, reflected in the Rio Guadiana, Portugal

Mertola at night, reflected in the Rio Guadiana, Portugal

Mertola at night, reflected in the Rio Guadiana, Portugal

Mertola at night, reflected in the Rio Guadiana, Portugal

Modern Mertola is a place that belies its history. Walking the narrow cobbled streets, weaving between beautiful whitewashed houses as you pass down tiny alleys and constricted lanes, it’s hard to imagine the successive waves of history that have washed over the town: Phoenician, Roman and Moor, just some of the cultures which established themselves in Mertola.

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

It is even harder today to imagine that the equally sleepy Rio Guadiana was a major international trade route connecting Mertola to the whole of the Mediterranean, encompassing southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

The town was well established by the period of Classical Antiquity. The Roman-era Torre do Rio, the fortified tower built to guard Mertola’s vital port during Roman times, is still visible on the banks of the river, the medieval walls towering overhead. Known as the Flumen Anas to the Romans, the river’s modern name ‘Guadiana’ is derived from the Arabic ‘Wadi Ana’ dating from the 500-year period of Moorish control over this region.

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

The sleepy streets and the slow pace of life lend themselves to quiet contemplation. Standing on the banks of the river, day or night, Mertola’s rich history is reflected in the deep, dark waters of the river. We left the town on a circuitous route towards the coast, but not before one last look at Mertola’s watery reflection from the opposing bank of the river.

Mertola reflected in the Rio Guadiana, Portugal

Mertola reflected in the Rio Guadiana, Portugal

Glorious Mertola, an unlikely global trading hub

Sitting majestically on a wedge-shaped rocky hillock, its whitewashed houses and fortified walls reflected in the still waters of the Rio Guardiana, Mertola is a dramatic sight. The town is squeezed into a narrow space between the jagged ravine of the Rio Oeiras on one side and the Rio Guardiana on the other; these natural defences made Mertola a near impregnable fortress and it became a wealthy trading centre.

Mertola and the Rio Guardiana, Portugal

Mertola and the Rio Guardiana, Portugal

While trade and wealth grew, these physical boundaries prevented Mertola expanding in size. Today it has around 3000 inhabitants, the old town inside the medieval walls has far fewer. The economic and demographic decline of this region has not left Mertola untouched; despite this, the town crammed behind the walls feels more prosperous than many we’d visited, there was more life on the streets (although beware, arriving on a Monday you’ll find very little is open).

Mertola and the Rio Guardiana, Portugal

Mertola and the Rio Guardiana, Portugal

Mertola and the Rio Guardiana, Portugal

Mertola and the Rio Guardiana, Portugal

Mertola’s history is similar to the rest this region: Phoenicians and Carthaginians established bases here thanks to the Rio Guardiana; the Romans followed and, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths. Mertola was captured by the Moors around the year 711, and remained a Moorish stronghold until the Reconquista. Portuguese armies reclaimed the town in 1238, after which it became a garrison for the Knights of the Order of Santiago, another medieval military-religious order.

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

More than 500 years of Moorish rule have left an indelible mark on Mertola; the town is famed for being the ‘most Arabic’ in Portugal. To prove the point they hold an Islamic festival here every two years. You can feel the medina-like Moorish influence walking the narrow streets, but climb up the hill towards the castle and you will arrive at the Igreja Matriz, the Church of Mary.

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

On the outside it looks similar to any other church in this part of the world, step through the doorway though and you find yourself inside a medieval mosque. The zealotry which followed the Christian Reconquista saw most mosques destroyed, but in Mertola the mosque was reconsecrated as a church and largely preserved. It is a small building but has beautiful vaulted ceilings. In the ferocity of the anti-Islamic fervour of the time it is remarkable, and wonderful, that the mosque survived almost intact.

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Clambering further up the hill – like every other town in the Alentejo region the streets are steep – we arrived at the imposing castle. Excavations have unearthed Moorish and Roman parts to the castle, but what you see today is predominantly medieval Christian. There is an interesting historical display inside the castle’s keep, but that is overshadowed by the tremendous views.

The keep offers 360º views over the surrounding countryside, over the red tiled roofs of the town and along the serene looking Rio Guardiana. It is breathtaking. From this vantage point you can see why Mertola rose to such prominence. Follow the river south and you soon find yourself at the Spanish border. For another 50km the river forms the boundary between Portugal and Spain before finally arriving in the Gulf of Cadiz – the open sea.

The castle, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

The castle, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

View over Mertola and the Rio Guardiana from the castle, Mertola, Portugal

View over Mertola and the Rio Guardiana from the castle, Mertola, Portugal

This ocean access was the key to connecting trade routes from the interior of Portugal to the Mediterranean and North-West Africa, and made the Rio Guardiana a vital strategic route. Standing on top of Mertola’s castle, you can imagine Phoenician, Roman, Moorish and Christian ships sailing into the small harbour at the base of the town. Goods from across the Mediterranean were traded for minerals and metals mined nearby, connecting this isolated region to the known world.

View over the Rio Guardiana from the castle, Mertola, Portugal

View over the Rio Guardiana from the castle, Mertola, Portugal

The end of Moorish rule was a body blow to Mertola. Trade routes shifted to Lisbon and the Rio Tejo, starting a long process of decline. Once a thriving commercial centre within the Moorish empire, with Christian rule this international trade route became less-and-less important. That said, the port remained active until the 1960s thanks to mining in the region. When the last copper mine closed in 1965, the last steamboat route which called at Mertola also came to an end.

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

Igreja Matriz, Mertola, Alentejo, Portugal

From the top of the castle you can almost sniff the ocean, and that was where we were headed…well once we’d had a walk through the town and a well deserved pastel de nata. I don’t recall the name of the cafe where we had breakfast, but the pastel de nata was the most delicious we had during the whole journey.

Serpa, a town without a pulse

Finally, we decided to turn south and head for the coast and the wild Atlantic waves that crash into Cabo de Sao Vicente. Realising we wouldn’t make it in a day we headed towards Mertola, where we planned to spend the night. After a few hours driving we suddenly came across the wonderful sight of a large fortified town with massive defensive walls. We’d arrived at Serpa.

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

We decided it looked too tempting to bypass and headed into the centre to explore. After driving down some of the narrowest streets in Portugal, and doubling back upon ourselves three or four times, we eventually passed through an ancient arched entrance in the town walls and parked in a square just a few minutes walk from the castle.

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Clock tower and Igreja de Santa Maria, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Clock tower and Igreja de Santa Maria, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

If most towns in this region of Portugal are pretty sleepy, Serpa barely has a pulse. Although it was late afternoon when we arrived, the sun was still fierce and we barely saw a single living thing on the streets. Even when we found our way into the town’s central square, Serpa’s beating heart, there was only a handful of people sitting at shady tables outside the pleasant cafes.

Praca de Republica, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Praca de Republica, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

We ordered some iced tea and relaxed in the shade of an umbrella while nothing much happened in the Praca de Republica. I think it would be fair to say that if you wanted to get away from it all and have a traditional Alentejo experience, without ever bumping into another tourist, Serpa should be high on your list of places to visit.

Refreshed and in the mood to explore we walked through the atmospheric cobbled streets before arriving at the castle. The picturesque church was closed – much like the rest of the town – but the newly renovated castle was proudly open. Someone has spent quite a bit of money turning the castle into more of a tourist attraction, but I suspect Serpa isn’t going to be on the beaten track any time soon.

Entrance into the castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Entrance into the castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

The castle has Moorish origins but the building you see today owes its existence to the proximity of the Spanish border – this was a frontier town. Entrance into the castle is through a dramatic piece of ancient wall that has collapsed and now forms a rather unstable-looking arch. This is proof that things weren’t always so sleepy in Serpa – the damage was caused by a Spanish assault on the town in 1707. The views from the castle are lovely, red roofs glowing in the sun.

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Castle, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Serpa is renowned for the quality of its sheep milk cheeses and I’d hoped to sample some; unfortunately we drew a blank finding any shops that were either open or sold cheese and decided we should get going to Mertola. It was only on the way out of town that we stumbled upon one of Serpa’s wonders, an 11th Century aqueduct.

Aqueduct, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Aqueduct, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Aqueduct, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Aqueduct, Serpa, Alentejo, Portugal

Found on the west side of town just outside the walls are the truly impressive remains of the aqueduct. They come complete with a 17th Century wheel pump which was used for pumping water to the Palacio dos Condes de Fichalo. The grand arches of the aqueduct are beautiful, which makes it all the more surprising that the town doesn’t make any fuss about it. More evidence of the laid back approach to life.

A village with views, medieval Monsaraz

Perched high on a hilltop, Monsaraz has spectacular sweeping views over the surrounding plain of cork and olive trees; the watery blue expanse of Lago Alqueva, the largest artificial lake in Europe, providing drinking water and electricity to the rest of the region and to Lisbon, stretches into the distance. This is a place to put the modern world behind you, somewhere to find a shady place to sit and watch the world stand still – preferably out of the searing heat.

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Monsaraz is the sort of place that you read about or see in movies, a fantasy place not somewhere that actually exists. The picturesque streets are full of history and atmosphere – many of the whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs are over 300 years old. At midday there’s barely a person to be found or a noise to be heard. That’s tradition for you.

Views from the hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Views from the hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Views from the hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Views from the hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

The village is home to only a few hundred people, it has two roads and (a luxury in modern Europe) it’s car-free. We walked the streets, occasionally grabbing views from between the houses, and finally found a small restaurant serving Carne de Porco à Alentejana. This regional speciality of braised pork and clams is a must if you’re in the area, wash it down with a glass of chilled local white wine for the full effect. Delicious.

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Traditional Alentejo cuisine, Porco à Alentejana, Monsaraz, Portugal

Traditional Alentejo cuisine, Porco à Alentejana, Monsaraz, Portugal

The hilltop where Monsaraz now sits, and where I sat digesting a hearty lunch, has been occupied since prehistoric times. There is plenty of evidence of Neolithic peoples around this area. It became a Roman garrison, later captured by the Visigoths. The Moors occupied the village more-or-less continuously until 1167, when it fell into the hands of the Knights Templar, who would go on to fortify the village further and control the surrounding area until being disbanded in 1312.

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

The village retains a medieval atmosphere, with steep, narrow cobbled streets weaving between the whitewashed houses. From the walls of the 13th Century castle there are panoramic views over the beautiful countryside towards the Spanish border; the views over the red roofs of the village are no less dramatic. It’s all a bit picture postcard perfect; I suspect in the tourist season there may be roving packs of bus tours making things less pleasant.

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

In autumn, strolling around, eating and having the occasional glass of local wine seem to be the main activities in Monsaraz. Let’s just say people don’t come here for the nightlife – unless it’s star gazing. Monsaraz claims to have the darkest, clearest nights in Western Europe. Somehow that seems entirely plausible.

Sleepiness is a large part of Monsaraz’s charm and it has a powerful allure. Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian songwriter who wrote the Girl from Ipanema lyrics, recorded his feelings about the village with a back-handed compliment, “Monsaraz, a place I do not want to see again. For if I return, I will stay forever inside your white walls amongst men and women whose eyes are filled with honesty.”

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Hill top village of Monsaraz, Portugal

Sitting in the shade while watching the world not pass by, I think I understood exactly what he meant.

A journey into pre-historic Portugal

Getting back on the road after a couple of days exploration of historic Evora, we headed further inland towards Monsaraz and the Spanish border, travelling several millennia into pre-history as we went. Surrounding Evora, and throughout this region of Portugal, are numerous wonderful Megalithic sites dating back 7,000 years or more to the Neolithic period of human history.

Megaliths, literally ‘giant stones’, can be seen all over the world, everywhere from Stonehenge to the Maoi of Easter Island. Europe is littered with them and this region of Portugal has more than its fair share. Time travel may not be possible, but visiting these atmospheric ancient sites built by our distant relatives is as close as it comes.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

The Neolithic era could be considered the final hurrah of the Stone Age. It culminated in the Neolithic Revolution, when humanity developed agriculture, cultivated crops, domesticated farm animals and moved away from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to one of permanent settlement and increased population growth.

An improved diet and more settled communities presumably gave people more time and inclination to build things, rather than chasing wild animals around for lunch…and build things they did. The Neolithic Revolution saw incredible cultural change and led to the Bronze Age, the first time humanity developed and used metal tools.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

The great flourishing of human enterprise throughout the Neolithic Revolution has bequeathed the world some of its most dramatic and extraordinary ancient monuments. The stones of Almendres, or the Cromeleque dos Almendres, remain enigmatically silent but this collection of standing stones make a powerful statement.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

The Cromeleque dos Almendres wasn’t ‘discovered’ until the 1960s, possibly because it is located in a wooded cork tree landscape in the middle of the countryside. You reach it by driving off the paved road and down a dirt track. The last part of the journey is on foot between the trees and with only birdsong for company. There was a time when people could drive right to the stones, thankfully the authorities have changed that.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Early morning, with soft sunlight illuminating the stones, this is a magical place. The site was 3,000 years in the making – between 6,000BC and 3,000BC – and is one of the largest in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. Despite our best efforts we know precious little of the people who built the Cromeleque dos Almendres or what it was used for, but there is likely a connection with the sun and fertility – both critical to these emerging farming communities.

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Circular stone carving, Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Circular stone carving, Cromeleque dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Some of the stones have shapes carved into them – time and weather have taken their toll, but you can still see them. Some shapes appear to be crook shaped, like a primitive agricultural tool and is repeated on Megaliths across the region.

Just down the road from the Cromeleque dos Almendres is another, entirely different, Megalithic site. Instead of dozens of stones crowded together, the Menhir Dos Almendres is a solitary giant stone standing three metres high amidst more cork trees. It dates from the same period as the Cromeleque dos Almendres, give or take a 1000 years. Aligned along the sunrise of the winter solstice it had a role in the functioning of the Cromeleque.

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Menhir Dos Almendres, Evora, Portugal

Leaving the Menhir Dos Almendres behind we decided to take the scenic route towards Monsaraz, and spent the next hour driving around country roads completely lost. We spotted a brown ‘tourism’ sign pointing down a bumpy dirt road and decided to see where it took us. After we’d driven through a large puddle, that went over the top of the wheels of our hire car, I began to doubt the wisdom of this decision.

Finally, we arrived in the middle of nowhere. A small bridge led over a stream and a path weaved its way across a field. After a few minutes walk we discovered the answer to the mystery, the Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro. Dating from 3,000 – 4,000BC it is a dramatic sight in the middle of a field, although the horrible protective tin roof over the top takes away some of the glamour.

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

This was a Neolithic, Megalithic burial site of some grandeur, the largest of its kind on the Iberian Peninsula. Excavations – which were probably a bit more like tomb raiding – in the 1960s discovered stone, ceramic and metal ceremonial objects. Today little remains beyond the the huge stones but it is set in a wonderfully atmospheric place - surrounded by open countryside and cork trees, cow bells ringing in the distance.

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

Great Dolmen of Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, Portugal

I hadn’t realised, but there are Dolmen structures all over the world that have similar characteristics: from Ireland to India to Korea. Standing in a field in the middle of Portugal we’d found a structure that, 7,000 years ago, would have been recognised and understood by cultures as diverse as those.

A walk through ancient Evora

Évora is a city filled with atmosphere, and has the low-key grandeur of a former royal city once home to the Portuguese court. Walking the maze-like streets you never quite know what you might find as you turn the next corner or pass through a narrow archway. If the streets sometimes reminded me of the medina in Fez or Tunis, it’s probably because these three cities once fell under the control of the same Moorish rulers.

Evora Cathedral, Evora, Portugal

Evora Cathedral, Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

During the medieval period Évora was one of Portugal’s most important towns, politically, religiously and economically. The wealth of beautiful churches and imposing buildings are testimony to the central role the town played in Portuguese life. Yet with changing political fortunes from the late 16th Century onwards, Évora underwent a long, slow and graceful decline.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Tucked away inside its 14th Century city walls the decline was barely noticed by the outside world, and only occasionally did the forces of history impose themselves upon the town. One devastating event happened in 1808 when the city was put to the sword by French Napoleonic troops. A combination of defending Portuguese troops and townspeople were no match for the French who, once inside the city, slaughtered and looted without mercy.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Other than this the city went about its business and sank into relative obscurity. This, it turns out, was fortuitous for the modern visitor. There has been little redevelopment of the old city, and many of the original medieval buildings have survived intact into the 21st Century. The town is an historic and cultural treasure trove that deserves a day of two of exploration.

Caged birds, Evora, Portugal

Caged birds, Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Amidst the glories of magnificent churches, the town has some exceptional sights to offer, including the Templo Romano. Dating from the 2nd or 3rd Century – that is, 1,800 years old – this extraordinary Roman temple is one of the best preserved Roman buildings on the Iberian Peninsula. The remarkable condition of the temple is thanks to the fact that, instead of being knocked down, it was incorporated into a medieval building. Later used as a slaughter house, it was only rediscovered in the 19th Century.

Templo Romano, Evora, Portugal

Templo Romano, Evora, Portugal

IMG_2854

The same sense of the magical wonder exists with the Aqueduto da Agua Prata, or Aqueduct of Silver Water. This 16th Century engineering marvel brought clean water from miles away into the city and, where it arrives in the neighbourhood around Rua do Cano, it towers high above the surrounding streets. The aqueduct no longer carries water but it is far from obsolete: houses and shops have been built into the arches.

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Aqueduto da Agua Prata, Aqueduct of Silver Water, Evora, Portugal

Évora’s many historic wonders are definitely worth the trip alone, but this is also a city with an exciting culinary past and present. We had some of the best food of our trip in Évora, and there are plenty of expert chefs experimenting with traditional Alentejo ingredients and modern recipes. Combined with a variety of excellent local wines, it makes the town a proper foodie destination.

A city where histories collide, glorious Évora

Remerging after several days of immersion in Portugal’s rural Alentejo region, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Évora came as a bit of a shock. It’s all about perspective, but this sleepy provincial town of around 60,000 inhabitants suddenly seemed like a big, bustling city. There were cars, people and noise; finding a parking place was one of the more stressful things we did during our three weeks in Portugal.

Evora's main square, Praça do Giraldo, Portugal

Evora’s main square, Praça do Giraldo, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Évora is a town that wears its history on its sleeve. Centuries of cultural heritage are crammed inside its 14th Century walls; it’s impossible to walk around the labyrinthine streets without bumping into Roman ruins, Moorish architecture, medieval churches or the town’s 16th Century aqueduct. The Celts settled this area, the Romans enlarged the town; under Moorish rule Évora thrived, following the Christian conquest in 1165 it became a royal city.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Évora’s capture from the Moors is the stuff of legend. The story goes that a Christian knight, Gerald the Fearless (one suspects Gerald had influence with the local press to get that nickname), tricked the defenders and captured the town without bloodshed. Gerald’s feats included climbing a ‘ladder’ made from spears driven into the city walls, singlehandedly subduing the guards and opening the city gates to allow his accomplices to capture the town.

I might be going out on a limb here, but this is almost certainly fiction.

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

A rare surviving image of a pregnant Virgin Mary, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

A rare surviving image of a pregnant Virgin Mary, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Under the Avis dynasty (1385-1580), the Portuguese Court was based here. This long royal association explains the fabulous collection of churches and palaces; by the time a university was founded in 1559 Évora was one of the most important cities in the country.

The death of the Avis dynasty’s last male heir, King Henrique, in 1580 changed everything: the Spanish seized the Portuguese crown and moved the court to Lisbon, and with it went Évora’s political and economic power.

View from the roof of Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

View from the roof of Évora Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, Portugal

Cloisters, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

Cloisters, Évora Cathedral, Portugal

When the university closed in the 18th Century the decline was absolute. It would be 200 years before Évora regained its university. This long hiatus hasn’t prevented modern students from enjoying themselves. There was much rowdiness when we were there during Freshers Week. Then again, I ordered a glass of wine over lunch one day and it arrived in a half pint glass filled to the brim…I may have discovered the cause the rowdiness.

A glass of wine with lunch in Evora, Portugal

A glass of wine with lunch in Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Igreja da Misericórdia, Evora, Portugal

Despite the youthful influx, the town has fewer inhabitants now than it did in the medieval period: Évora is subject to the same forces pushing young Portuguese towards Lisbon or overseas. The medieval period has, however, bequeathed the town a wonderful selection of churches: this is a town of churches.

Whether Évora’s imposing Cathedral, the Sé de Évora, with tremendous views from the roof; the intimate and exquisite Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista; the touristy yet gruesome Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones, within the Igreja de São Francisco; or the beautiful Igreja da Misericórdia, the artistry of Évora’s churches makes it an obligatory stop on any itinerary - although the food and wine scene are contenders for best reason to visit.

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Igreja de Sao Joao Evangelista, Evora, Portugal

Wandering the tangle of narrow medieval streets inevitably brings you to a church, the important thing is to time it so that day-tripping coach parties have either just left or are yet to arrive. Évora is no stranger to tourism, but most of it leaves on a coach in the afternoon. I wanted to visit the Igreja de São Francisco after seeing photos of the artistically displayed bones of over 5000 monks in the Capela dos Ossos – me and every other tourist in Portugal it turned out.

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Capela dos Ossos, Chapel of Bones, Igreja de São Francisco, Evora, Portugal

Sadly the church itself was closed for refurbishment. The Capela dos Ossos was open, although was also being refurbished with several people restoring sections of the walls. It was fascinating but a bit disappointing that there was so much noise and activity.

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

Evora, Portugal

We’d planned to spend three days in Évora but decided to leave a day early and head back into the countryside, before making a dash for the wild Atlantic coast and Portugal’s western beaches. In all honesty, after reading several gushing travel guide reviews we were a little underwhelmed by Évora, although it is home to the most delicious octopus stew I have ever tasted. It was worth the trip alone.

Marvão, a dreamlike mirage in the sky

If they ever hand out prizes for most improbable village built on top of an implausible rocky outcrop nearly 3000 feet up and surrounded by a vast plain, I’m pretty sure Marvão would be the Bookmakers favourite. Seen from a distance against a bright blue sky Marvão takes on dreamlike qualities. The drive up the steep zig-zag road to the medieval walls which surround the village provides sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It’s a dramatic location.

Marvão seen from the plain below, Portugal

Marvão seen from the plain below, Portugal

Walking through the imposing double walls at the entrance to the village is like being transported into a different world: tightly knit, narrow cobbled streets ooze atmosphere, the history of this border town is palpable. The frontier with Spain is only a few kilometres from here, which goes some way to explaining the paranoia that resulted in the building of a fortified village in such an extraordinary place.

The castle of Marvão, Portugal

The castle of Marvão, Portugal

The view over Marvão from the castle, Portugal

The view over Marvão from the castle, Portugal

The view from Marvão, Portugal

The view from Marvão, Portugal

Tourism, particularly the day-tripping variety, has begun to make its mark on Marvão, but the scattering of gift shops and accommodations doesn’t seem to have changed the ancient village dynamic. It retains a low-key atmosphere, as yet resisting tourist hoards in much the same way it has resisted invading armies. How long that lasts is debatable. Approximately 20,000 people visited last year; that doesn’t sound many but the village is home to only 150 people.

The view over Marvão from the castle, Portugal

The view over Marvão from the castle, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Five centuries of Islamic rule established Marvão as a near impregnable fortress. Giving a strong hint of its Moorish connections, the village gets its name from Ibn Marwán, a Berber clan leader who established his own statelet during a period of political instability in the 9th Century. It retained its independence for 46 years before being absorbed back into the Emirate of Córdoba around 930AD, at which time it was a frontier outpost of an empire that stretched south to Senegal and east to Libya.

The castle in Marvão, Portugal

The castle in Marvão, Portugal

The castle in Marvão, Portugal

The castle in Marvão, Portugal

The failure of Moorish rulers to subdue and subjugate the Christian kingdoms to the north, combined with internal conflicts, led to the slow reconquest of Spain and Portugal. Marvão found itself on the front line between Christian and Muslim Portugal, and Christian Portugal and Spain. Not an enviable place to be. It was King Alfonso I who finally captured this stronghold from the Moors and secure it for Portugal in 1160.

The political and military situation remained precarious. In 1190, a Moorish military offensive recaptured Marvão. The main target of the campaign was the Templar stronghold of Tomar, this failed but Marvão was once again under Moorish control, at least briefly.

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

The view from Marvão, Portugal

The view from Marvão, Portugal

Several turbulent decades of fighting between the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal followed, and Marvão’s magnificent castle and defensive walls were heavily fortified during this period by Portugal’s Sancho I and Alfonso II. It was Alfonso II, in 1232, who gave much of the area around Marvão to the Knights Hospitaller (a military-religious order to rival the Knights Templar).

The view from Marvão, Portugal

The view from Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

The Knights Hospitaller would dominate this region for over 200 years, and they further fortified the castle and village at the end of the 13th Century. The Knights Hospitaller were heavily involved in the Crusades and Marvão’s castle has many of the same features found in Crusader castles in the Middle East.

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal

Walking around the castle and the enchanting streets there is a tangible sense of the history that has swept over this region, in which this tiny village played a major role. Close your eyes and you can almost feel the Hospitaller’s presence. Standing on top of the castle’s keep provides breathtaking views over the town and the vast plain below, all the way to the Serra de Ossa and Serra de São Mamede mountains. It is an experience not to be missed.

The view over Marvão from the castle, Portugal

The view over Marvão from the castle, Portugal

The magical Castelo de Vide

Leaving the otherworldly charms of Constância behind we headed east towards the border with Spain. Our destination was the equally otherworldly fortified town of Castelo de Vide. On the map it looked a straight forward journey. The N118 from Constância would take us almost all the way there; I estimated that within a couple of hours we’d be enjoying a leisurely lunch inside Castelo de Vide’s medieval walls.

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Portugal’s road builders had other ideas. How difficult can it be to put road signs by the side of an actual road? The sort of road signs that give you at least a vague idea of the direction in which to point the car? Portugal now ranks #2 on my all-time ‘most frustrating country to drive in’ list, just behind California. Not a country I know, but the world’s eighth largest economy is very frugal with road signs (and road repairs).

I gave up counting the number of times we had to turn around and retrace our steps after getting lost. At one point the road was simply closed for repair. I dutifully followed the diversion signs only to end up exactly where we’d started the whole wild goose chase.

Countryside surrounding Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Countryside surrounding Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Countryside surrounding Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Countryside surrounding Castelo de Vide, Portugal

We finally made it to Castelo de Vide, but in twice the time expected and with several dozen increasingly explicit oaths muttered under my breath. The whole ‘missing road sign’ game would plague our entire journey, but it did mean we got to see some ‘off the beaten track’ places.

Town square, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Town square, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Castelo de Vide is a beautiful, extraordinarily well preserved medieval town; picturesque whitewashed buildings are topped off with a towering castle overshadowing everything. Surrounded by lovely rolling countryside you can see the town from miles away. We found a parking spot and headed to the town’s main plaza for some well deserved lunch. When you’re eating delicious food while gazing out over a 14th Century castle inside a medieval town, you know you’re on holiday.

View over Castelo de Vide, Portugal

View over Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Rooftops, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Rooftops, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

View over Castelo de Vide, Portugal

View over Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Fortified with strong coffee we walked up the steep hill towards the castle and the atmospheric medieval section of the town within the original castle walls. Inside this area is the old Jewish Quarter, which flourished prior to the forced conversion and expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. The oldest synagogue in Portugal is located here, but was closed when we were there.

While the castle is little more than walls and a tower – providing spectacular views over the town and surrounding countryside of the Serro de São Paulo - the area around the castle is truly wondrous. The narrow cobbled streets, worn smooth by the passage of so many feet over the years, is as full of history and atmosphere as any I’ve ever walked down.

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Viewed from up here it’s possible to see the enormous size of the town’s main church, Santa Maria da Devesa. There was probably a time when the town could support such a large church, but today it only seems to emphasise the decline that this relaxed place is experiencing. The town has less than half the population it had in 1801, and with numbers declining further you have to fear for this community and others like it. Sadly, there is little to keep young people here.

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Medieval Quarter, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Given how hot it was when we were there (and it gets really hot here), one of the town’s many surprises is that crystal clear mineral water springs can be found dotted around. The water is supposed to have medicinal qualities: problems with your kidneys, diabetes or bones? This is the place for you. Whether the waters have supernatural power I couldn’t say, but they go some way to explaining why the town is full of greenery and flowers – just another reason to spend time in beautiful Castelo de Vide.

View over Castelo de Vide, Portugal

View over Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Water fountain, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

Water fountain, Castelo de Vide, Portugal

At the confluence of Zêzere and Tejo rivers, poetic Constância

Seen from the hilltop cemetery on the opposite bank of the Zêzere river, the picturesque town of Constância tumbles down a hillside to the banks of the two rivers that converge here. To reach Constância we’d driven on some wonderfully narrow country roads through heavily wooded hills from our rural hideaway near Santa Cita; we decided to bypass the town for the time being to explore the truly spectacular Castelo de Almourol.

Castelo de Almourol, Constancia, Portugal

Castelo de Almourol, Constancia, Portugal

Castelo de Almourol, Constancia, Portugal

Castelo de Almourol, Constancia, Portugal

The Castle of Almourol is one of the most picture-postcard-perfect castles I’ve ever seen. It sits on a small island in the middle of the Tejo River and in the early morning sunlight, reflected in the still waters, it is an extraordinary sight. The current castle stands on the site of a Moorish castle which was captured in 1129, although there is evidence that a fort has existed here since pre-Roman times.

Castelo de Almourol, Constancia, Portugal

Castelo de Almourol, Constancia, Portugal

The current castle dates from around 1171 and is the inspitation of Gualdim Pais, Master of the Knights Templar, who controlled the castle following the Reconquista. Legend has it that, when under Moorish control, the daughter of the Emir fell in love with a Christian knight whom she used to sneak into the the castle at night. Sadly, she was being deceived and one night her lover opened the gates and the castle was captured. Not, however, before the heart-broken girl threw herself to her death in the river below.

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Tejo River, Constancia, Portugal

Tejo River, Constancia, Portugal

We’d arrived early on a Monday morning and, unsurprisingly, the castle wasn’t open. Nothing is open in Europe on a Monday, but when you’re on holiday it is easy to lose track of the days. Defeated by these insurmountable odds we retreated to Constância for coffee and pastel de nata (a recurring theme of the holiday). Constância seemed like it was closed for business as well.

To suggest that Constância lives life in the slow lane is to do a disservice to the slow lane. Our arrival seemed to take the town’s small tourist office by surprise, although just the fact that there is a tourist office must mean there are tourists. The helpful woman behind the desk seemed genuinely puzzled by my request for directions to the town centre – reaching the centre less than 100 metres later I understood why.

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Walking around the sleepy, deserted streets it would be easy to imagine that the last time the town saw any real excitement was in the 16th Century, when a royal scandal followed Portugal’s most famous poet to the town.

Luís de Camões, often referred to as Portugal’s Shakespeare, is considered the greatest poet to have ever written in Portuguese. His most famous poem, Os Lusíadas, was written towards the end of his life, long after his expulsion from the court of King John III. His disgrace came after inappropriate liaisons with the King’s sister and the Queen’s lady-in-waiting – a woman the King had his own eye on.

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Camões landed in Constância in 1547 and stayed here for three years, which is apparently long enough to earn the town the name, “Town of Poetry”.

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Strolling the streets I did start to wonder where the town’s one thousand or so inhabitants could be. We eventually unearthed a couple of people in a cafe, but everyone else remained steadfastly quiet and hidden away. Regardless, it is a very beautiful place which lends itself to cliché. I hate to say it but it is ‘charming’. It is also quite hilly to walk around on a day when the temperature was 10 degrees hotter than the seasonal average.

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

Constancia, Portugal

On reflection, maybe that was why no one was on the streets…mad dogs, Englishmen, etc.