Cabo Sardao and north towards Sesimbra

Our route pointed north from this point onwards, meaning only one thing: our trip around Portugal was coming to an end. We debated whether we should spend our last day or two in Lisbon, but decided we were enjoying Portugal’s wild western coast too much to swap it for a city. Instead we decided to drive up the coast and stop in Sesimbra for a night or two – close enough to Lisbon airport for a quick getaway, but still on the coast.

Nossa Senhora do Mar, Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Nossa Senhora do Mar, Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

We left Odeceixe early and crossed from the Algarve back into the Alentejo region and headed to the small picturesque town of Zambujeira do Mar for breakfast. The town sits precariously on top of towering cliffs, and on one of the beaches there was evidence of a recent collapse with large chunks of the former cliff laying on the sand. Standing on the cliff edge is the lovely little chapel of Nossa Senhora do Mar (Our Lady of the Sea), which I suspect might be in the sea soon.

It’s hard to imagine on a quiet weekday out of season, but this tiny place is home to a massive music festival in the summer, the Festival do Sudoeste, when the whole town is overrun by festival goers. We had a stroll around town, stopped into a small cafe for coffee and fresh juice before heading back out of town just as a tour bus pulled up in the centre – we made good our escape.

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Zambujeira do Mar, Alentejo, Portugal

Following a small road that took us through tiny villages towards Cabo Sardao we got lost several times thanks again to a woeful lack of sign posts, but eventually found ourselves standing on top of high cliffs looking out over Cabo Sardao, a red and white lighthouse behind us. This whole section of coastline provides some of the most dramatic coastal scenery I’ve ever seen, and this was underlined at Cabo Sardao. It is magnificent.

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

We had a short stroll along the cliff tops and then hopped back into the car and set off north again for Vila Nova de Milfontes. Our guidebook told us that there was a really good restaurant in the town and lunchtime was approaching. When we reached Vila Nova de Milfontes we drove into town and immediately got lost. Eventually a parking spot was found and we strolled through near empty streets in an attempt to find the restaurant.

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Cabo Sardao, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes is a bigger place than most we’d seen over the last couple of weeks, but out of the main tourist season it felt very sleepy. As did I after wolfing down yet another plate of the Alentejo classic of pork and clams at the Tasca do Celso restaurant. Lunch was accompanied by a lot of people watching as local families gathered to eat together, the restaurant was filled with the noisy hubbub of friends and family having fun.

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

Vila Nova de Milfontes, Alentejo, Portugal

After a little rest down by the beach we were back on the road and heading for Troia at the tip of a long thin strip of land from where we caught a ferry to Setabul, a short distance from Sesimbra. Looking at a map we seemed to be covering half the country in one journey but Portugal is relatively small and you can cover a lot of ground in a day; that said we arrived, tired but happy, in Sesimbra as the sun was setting.

Beachcombing around Praia do Carvalhal

There really is no shortage of dramatically located beaches on the west coast of Portugal. Drive off the main road down dusty tracks towards the ocean and you’ll inevitably find yourself stood looking at a pristine beach nestling in a cove between towering cliffs, and sheltered from the ocean by monumental headlands.

Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

We’d been told that the Praia do Carvalhal, a few kilometres from where we were staying, was one of the finest beaches in the area – which, given the competition, is quite an achievement. More importantly for those of us who find sitting on a beach a bit tiresome, there is an absolutely tremendous walking trail that heads south from Praia do Carvalhal across the cliff tops.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

First though, lunch. You’d never know it, but the tiny (blink and you’ll miss it) village of Brejao harbours one of the finest restaurants in the area; combining a trip that featured good seafood and a spectacular beach seemed too good to pass up. One delicious fish stew later we plonked ourselves down on the beach amidst a scattering of Portuguese families enjoying themselves. After a little relaxation I decided to leave the beach bum in our party to enjoy the beach while I explored the walking trail.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

The route is wonderful. I set off from the beach and climbed up to the cliff top overlooking it and then headed south. Without a map or a clear idea of where exactly I was going, I stuck to the small sandy trails and passed through some beautiful coastal scenery. On the cliff tops small succulents were growing, many of them in flower, and out to sea small coves and inlets appeared amidst a landscape of jagged, crumbling rocks.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

After an hour of wandering around I found myself overlooking another, smaller but no less dramatic beach with no obvious way of getting to it other than the rough track I’d followed to get there. This whole area is tremendously beautiful, rolling sand dunes, jagged cliffs and vast panoramas over the Atlantic…and you can enjoy all of this without bumping into another human being, for a couple of hours at least.

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

Coastline near Praia do Carvalhal, Alentejo, Portugal

The wild coastal beauty of Praia de Odeceixe

In a country renowned for its beautiful and dramatic scenery, the wild Atlantic Coast along Portugal’s western edge is perhaps the most superlative landscape of all. We would see a lot of this coast over several days filled with beach combing and punctuated by delicious seafood lunches; but the stretch of coast that will linger longest in the memory is around the village of Odeceixe, and its eponymous beach four kilometres west of the village’s whitewashed houses.

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

The scenery of this area isn’t the only thing I’ll remember. We managed to find ourselves staying in a truly wonderful rural retreat of small houses scattered around a peaceful estate dotted with cacti and oak trees. The Monte West Coast is one of the most delightful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying. Tucked away down a dirt track a few kilometres from the main road, it exudes a relaxed and easy charm.

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Monte West Coast, Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

There is hardly any noise beyond the chirruping of birds; butterflies waft past and the hilltop pool has views down the valley. At night a canopy of stars unfurls across the sky. If we’d stopped here at the start of our trip I doubt we’d have seen anything of the rest of Portugal. The owner, Catarina, is an expert on the best beaches and restaurants to visit along the coast. Thanks to her advice we had some of the tastiest food anywhere in this region. Truly wonderful.

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Driving from the Monte West Coast you find yourself alongside the Rio de Seixe, which marks the boundary between the Portuguese regions of Algarve and Alentejo. Follow the river west and you find yourself overlooking the magnificent Praia de Odeceixe. This broad sweep of golden sand is situated dramatically between two craggy headlands and overlooked by vertiginous cliffs.

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

The large Atlantic waves that crash into the rocks also make this a prime surfing beach, and it has a bit of a reputation as surfer/hippy hangout. When we were there there were mainly families and a scattering of surfers, all very low key but I’m told that in summer things can get pretty crowded.

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

Praia de Odeceixe, Algarve, Portugal

We’d driven up from Cabo de Sao Vicente making a few stops along the way, and by the time we had unpacked at Monte West Coast and found our way to the beach the sun had started its long descent into the ocean on the horizon. Standing on the cliff tops watching the reds, oranges and pinks of the light play over the water, cliffs and beach was mesmerising. We’d be back in the morning to explore further…

Castro Verde, the beginnings of a nation

Taking a detour on our southerly journey towards Sagres and Cabo do Sao Vicente, we headed north-west from Mertola towards the small town of Castro Verde. The drive to reach Castro Verde was wonderful, rural back roads that twisted and turned through a near empty landscape of cork and olive trees with a scattering of sheep farms. We hardly saw any other signs of life, or cars on the road.

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On the surface Castro Verde looks and feels like most other towns in this part of Portugal: narrow streets, whitewashed houses and an absence of any discernible life. A few outdoor cafes with umbrellas, a couple of ordinary looking churches and small leafy plazas sheltering a few of the towns older inhabitants. It’s hard to get an impression of a place on such a fleeting visit, but the exterior life of Castro Verde hides something extraordinary.

Castro Verde, Portugal

Castro Verde, Portugal

Castro Verde, Portugal

Castro Verde, Portugal

Windmill, Castro Verde, Portugal

Windmill, Castro Verde, Portugal

Pig roundabout, Castro Verde, Portugal Verde, Portugal

Pig roundabout, Castro Verde, Portugal

The history of Castro Verde is pretty much identical to everywhere else in the Alentejo: early human settlement, Roman occupation, centuries of Moorish control. Like anywhere else in the Alentejo except that, at this point, the town’s history sets it apart from everywhere else in Portugal. It was near here in 1139, during the Reconquista, that Portugal became an independent country.

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Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Portuguese and Spanish armies had been variously fighting each other and the Moorish forces occupying much of the Iberian Peninsula when, in 1139 the Portuguese Prince Afonso Henriques, marched his army south and met Moorish forces of the Almoravid caliphate. It was near Castro Verde, at the Battle of Ourique, that a crushing defeat was inflicted on the Almoravids.

The Moors defeated, Prince Afonso Henriques claimed the title of Afonso I, King of Portugal, paving the way for the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143. It was here that the dream of an independent Portugal became reality, and it is here that later Portuguese monarchs built a church suitably grand to commemorate the victory.

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

The Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, known as the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, was constructed by King Joao V in the 18th Century to commemorate the victory. It incorporated an earlier church built by King Sebastian I in the 16th Century. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the interior is absolutely, breathtakingly glorious – although the bloody battle scenes depicted on the walls are a bit gruesome.

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, the Royal Basilica of Castro Verde, Portugal

Although very little is known of the battle that was fought near here, the legend is that the Christian forces were vastly outnumbered and that they were only successful due to the intervention of St. James. Over time the tale changed to incorporate St. George and Jesus. One thing is certain, this myth was used as a political tool to defend Portuguese sovereignty as Divinely inspired.

One 19th Century investigator referred to this tale as a “pious fraud”. Something to bear in mind when gazing admiringly at the delicate tile work in the Basilica’s interior.

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

We had arrived with just enough time to visit the Basilica before they closed for a long lunch. Wandering back down the road we chanced upon another church and, because it was still open, popped inside for a look. The Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios was built in the seventeenth century by King Philip II on the site of a small chapel originally constructed by Prince Afonso Henriques.

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

Church of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, Castro Verde, Portugal

It is similarly and beautifully decorated in blue and white tiles, with a fair bit of gold leaf on display. Gruesome scenes of the Battle of Ourique are all over the interior, with plenty of severed heads and limbs on display. I’m not sure all the slaughter is conducive to the quiet contemplation of faith, but it is at least realistic. The battle is said to have raged for two days and was so vicious that a nearby river ran red with the blood of the dead.

With that revelation the church closed for lunch and we were on our way south again…

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

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

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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.