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