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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.