The Western Algarve and the Alentejo Coast

It’s taken an age to write this blog up, what with my fledgling fiction career kicking off and planning my wedding (this September!). But here we are. It was late February. A late Carneval this year and it couldn’t come soon enough. As ever, we had a precious long weekend, and so we decided to make the best of it. The plan was a road trip to Sagres, in the Algarve, and then to drive back up the Alentejo coast, with a stopover in Vila Nova de Milfontes.

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Despite being the end of winter, we were lucky enough to wake up to a bright, sunny day and so we jumped into my girlfriend’s car and hit the highway. It being a holiday weekend, there was a fair amount of traffic, but nothing too drastic and, some hour or so after crossing the 25th April bridge, we were a little peckish, stopping off in a tiny place in the Alentejo for a bite to eat. We rolled into a tiny village called Castro Verde and walked in what was by then quite blazing sun, to the top of the village and a restaurant called, simply, Castro.

Inside was a wonderfully experience, huge portions of outstanding food, with decent wine to accompany it and very reasonable prices. How I love Alentejo. I ate Carne a Alentejana, a pork steak dish, served with razor clams and, in this restaurant, a huge king prawn. Ana had a steak which was, happily for her, cooked rare. Both were delicious. We finished up with a toucinho do ceu (a heavy egg-based cake, that was a bit too much for me) on the part of my partner and a petit gateau with red fruits and ice cream for me. With wine and coffee, we paid a little under forty euros in total.

There was very little else to see in the town, besides an old building with a particularly interesting wooden tower as part of the architecture. After looking at this, we were back on the road and it was a full two and a half hour slog down to Sagres.

When we arrived in Sagres, it was late afternoon and, at the end of winter, in a place that is so far south, the sun was already setting. Luckily, that meant a spectacular sunset out over the ocean. Sagres’ location, at the southwestern most point of the country means that there is only perhaps 75 kilometres between you and the northern tip of Africa. Too far to see, but the water rolls away, seemingly forever, from the horizon. The Pousada (a traditional hotel network from the early twentieth century) is wonderfully located, right on the rocky cliffs. They’ve also made an effort to keep artificial light to a minimum, making for spectacular sunsets and starlight. The pousada itself is the long, low, white building, featured in many of the photographs.

After freshening up and a bit of a walk on the cliffs, it was time to go and find dinner. The only problem with visiting Sagres – really a small town, relative to its Algarvian neighbours, Lagos, Faro, etc – in the winter, is that many restaurants were closed. We hunted down a few which came recommended, only to find the lights out. Eventually, we stopped at a place called Restaurant Carlos, where we had a really excellent seafood rice to share, packed with crab, lobster prawns, clams and muscles and a refreshing bottle of white wine to wash it down with. This place was a little more expensive, but food and service were both excellent. After the meal we were given a complimentary shot of local acorn liqueur. I’m not sure I’d try it again, but it was an experience!

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Breakfast in the morning, at the Pousada was excellent, with homemade jams, cakes and more alongside the usual variety of international hot food, pastries, cereals and fruit. The coffee was also good, graças a Deus. I have no pictures, though. After breakfast it was a quick shower and then quite the agenda for the day. First was to explore Sagres and, specifically, the old fortress (fortaleza). We walked through the small town for about twenty five minutes to find the fort and the facade is highly impressive the moment you arrive. There is a huge space out the back with a lighthouse, rocky outcrops here and there which are dominated by local fishermen trying their luck and a small chapel, dedicated to ‘our lady of the sea.’

The fort is very cheap to enter and I hugely recommend it. There’s one more interesting thing to be found inside, which is a musical instrument, played by the sea. There are porous caves underneath the peninsula on which the fort and its territory stands so, using the force with which the tide pushes air through the rock, a channel was made a and huge wind instrument was built. You walk inside via a maze like path and then stand over a grate, where a low pitched, thunderous tone blasts you from below. The wind, as well as the sound, is quite something. Take a look at the video, below.

From here, it was back in the car to visit Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape St Vincent). It is the westernmost point of continental Europe and was a place where the Romans once thought you could sail off the edge of the flat earth and into oblivion. There isn’t much there other than a lighthouse, but the views up the coast into the Alentejo – our next destination – were more than worth it.

After a quick stop to look at some hand crafts, it was back on the coastal road, up to Vila Nova de Milfontes. There were no stops on the way, besides one to allow a farmer to march his cattle across the road. An hour and a bit later we were rolling into Vila Nova de Milfontes where we would stay for the night. We decided to explore the town a little, before dinner. The town is situated on the banks of the river Mira, immediately before it washes out into the Atlantic. The result is that there are beautiful river beaches, as well as a dramatic ocean beach, where the freshwater meets the ocean, sometimes violently. We stayed at the hotel Mil Reis, a small but immaculately kept town house B&B, right in the heart of the town. Our room was one of the smaller ones, but we didn’t plan to spend too much time indoors, so it was fine. We stopped in another local restaurant, where we ordered fresh seafood. In my case, fried monkfish and for Ana a seafood açorda, a dish with old bread, mashed up with vinegar, coriander and seafood. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

The next morning, with better light, we decided to drive around the to headland you can see in the dark photo, to take a look at the beach. The tide was coming in as we strolled along, the speed of it nearly catching us out, so we had to dash back across and climb back to the cliffs. The force of the ocean coming in to the beach was really something to behold.

After our little beach trip, it was time to head home, but on the way, we had decided to stop at two places, the first of which was Ilha do Pessegueiro (Peach tree island). This is a place with great views, a lovely beach and the island itself, facing another, smaller sandstone fort. It’s a place so famous that there was even a song written about it. When we arrived though, a storm was brewing and seemed to have stationed itself directly over the island. It made for quite a dramatic effect. On the shore, next to the fortress, there are great slabs of volcanic rock from a time long ago in the past, with trenches carved into them. Whether these are man made or natural, I have no idea, but they certainly added to the impression the place made on me.

After a short time walking here, we were back in the car and up to our last stop before heading home to Lisbon – Porto Covo. I’d heard it was a beautiful place but I wasn’t prepared for the dramatic ocean that we would find there. We arrived some twenty minutes after leaving peach tree island and decided the first priority was lunch. We passed a few restaurants and decided to opt for Restaurante Zé Inácio. We were not disappointed.

We started off with some razor clams ‘à Bulhão Pato’ – it literally means quarrelsom duck, but that has nothing to do with it. They are served in a sauce of olive oil, garlic and coriander and, when they’re fresh like these were, it just works. For main courses we had some really outstanding steak, with excellent side dishes. As Ana was driving, she drank a coke, while I had a half carafe of local red wine (which was delicious). We both had dessert and coffee and the total cost was a measly forty-five euros, all included. We left the restaurant very happy.

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After lunch, it was time to go down to the sea. And what a sight it was. The town of Porto Covo itself is typical of its seaside location. There are the white and blue buildings, the wide, sea facing streets and the cafés, restaurants and boat hire places you’d expect. But the cliffs and the rushing ocean you see when you reach the seafront, you don’t expect. I’ll let the pictures and video speak for themselves.

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Can you find me in the picture?

After watching the ocean for half an hour, with the sun almost down, it was time to hit the motorway and head home.

This is a trip that comes highly recommended from me. It took us three days, but you could probably relax a little more, if you had a bit more time.

If you are interested in exploring Portugal or specifically the Algarve or Alentejo regions, I heartily recommend the guide books linked below. Any purchases made here will kick back a few cents to me for my next trip. Thanks in advance and happy travelling!

 

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 3 – Évora Monte

Hardly settled back in to Lisbon life after a relatively traumatic, but necessary, work stint in not-so-jolly old England, we found ourselves presented with a public holiday. This meant that both I and my lady would be free, together on a day that wasn’t a Sunday. Not wishing to look this near miraculous gift horse in the mouth, I was delighted when she suggested we go to see the castle at Évora Monte.This was proof positive that, if you go on about something often enough for long enough, someone will eventually listen to you. So we hopped in the car and hit the road.

En route, I decided to have a look for restaurant recommendations in the town. We soon discovered there were pretty well none at all – it’s just that small – so we decided to eat in Arraiolos. This time though, with my lady in charge, she selected a restaurant on the edge of town, called ‘O Alpendre’ – The Porch, in English. We arrived starving, a state in which we would not be permitted to leave. We waited for a few moments for our table to be readied and then sat, immediately presented with boiled quails eggs in oil and vinegar with onions and herbs, a delicious molten local with a cloth bag full of freshly baked, warm bread, some presunto ham and some olives. Looking back, this might well have sufficed, but still feeling famished, we ordered a steak and a portion of lamb, each served with various ‘migas’ – bread softened and mashed into a sort of terrine, with herbs, vegetables and seasoning.

The whole meal was delicious but, as I really ought to have learned by now, the Alentejan portions were enough to cause even a particularly hungry lion to need a power nap. This was perhaps, not the best fuel for a hike to a castle mount!

Leaving the restaurant, it was little more than a ten minute drive onward to Évora Monte. This I knew, having been somewhat amazed by the completeness of the structure, as I headed back from Estremoz on my previous castle trip. On the way, we did run in to one surprise though, in the form of Azaruja, a train station which had been abandoned and borded up, probably on the old Évora to Estremoz line. It seemed remarkably well preserved, compared with the tired, rusted looking rails in the road. The platforms were totally overgrown with the dry long grasses of the area and we saw no examples of any civilization in the immediate vicinity.

But it wasn’t long before we were pulling up at the bottom of the castle mount. I reassured Ana that it’d be much more fun if we climbed the whole castle hill from the bottom. She would come to regret listening to me on this matter, but never mind. As you arrive in Évora Monte there is a café, a bus stop and a mini roundabout with an old mill stone fastened to it. That really is about it. It’s a tiny village, which serves to make the grandiose nature of the castle all the more imposing as it looks down on you.

There was nothing left to do but to climb to the top. We walked past the handful of residential properties which cling to the hillside, stopping occasionally to take in the browns and golds of the Alentejo countryside from the many viewpoints on the way to the top. When we arrived at the level of the castle itself, we noted that there were adverts for both an adega, selling local wine, and a store with locals handcrafts. We didn’t stop off in either though and instead strode on up to the castle gates.

Then we walked inside. What I was immediately struck by was that this castle, much like Estremoz, a few weeks earlier, was still very much home to a living, even thriving community. But, unlike Estremoz, which was really quite a large city and had a lot of the main municpal functions of a city nestled around the castle walls, there was almost nothing here. People must actually live in quite extreme isolation – the roads out of Évora Monte’s castle certainly aren’t anything to shout about. As a place to visit, it was great. We walked half the length of the city walls, from the front gate to the rear, stepping down next to the city’s clearly active cemetery. Walking back across to the exit of the castle, we saw livestock, a local society of some kind and then simply houses. Even the castle keep seems still to be occupied as a residence. I’d certainly recommend Évora Monte as a place to visit, but cannot imagine how odd it must be to live there!

If you want to plan your own trip to the Alentejo, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, below:

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 2 – Estremoz

Fresh from a long and well earned sleep, after our previous day’s exertions, wandering around the high, hill top castle of Arraiolos, we wandered over to the other side of the road, where our hostel had its breakfast laid out. Hostel breakfasts can range from out-of-this-world to get-out-of-my-life, so it was good to arrive and find a range of fruit juice, a coffee capsule mahine for REAL cofffee, breads, cheeses, ham, sausage, jam, butter, cereal and more besides. We sat in the little courtyard outside and thoroughly stuffed our faces, preparing as we were for a much heavier day, in terms of walking, that day. Faces filled, it was time for a quick shower and then off to the bus station and, in fact, the same stop even, to wait for the bus to Estremoz.

The city is a fair bit further from Évora than Arraiolos, sitting some 51 kilometres away and is a mere twenty from the Spanish border. While all of the castles in the region had a role in protecting Portugal from the Spanish at various points in time, we had a feeling that this one might have been more significant. The bus rolled out of the station more or less exactly on time and we were again amongst a huge group of about six total passengers on board. The route followed the Arraiolos route and then veered off, following signs, mainly, for Espanha.

A fairly rapid fifty-five minutes later, we were hopping off the bus and in Estremoz. Rather than the castle dominating the skyline where we disembarked, instead was a towering cement factory. Luckily, that seemed to be nowhere near where we were going, so we jumped off the bus and crossed the road to find an interesting and unusual looking square building, adorned with beautiful azulejos and the name of the city. It took us a few minutes to realise that this was an old train station. A cursory look at Portuguese wikipedia told us that the station had been built in 1902, and had been in use until 2011, when it was decommissioned. It was pleasing, though, to see that they’ve kept it in such great condition since.

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After taking in the building, it was down the road towards the town and a quick stop off to get more coffee and a cake. While in Alentejo it’s always a good idea to get a queijada. Though it literally means cheesecake, it’s nothing like a cheesecake, at all. It’s simply a cake, heavily egg based (naturally, in Portugal!), with the quark from cheese added. It’s light, sits in a firm pastry case and is quite delicious.

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Turning the corner from the street with the bus station at the end, you come to a large square. There’s a section in the middle with a water feature, a small garden and a café with terraces. To the left though is an historic building which has been converted into a science centre, with sections for astronomy, natural history and more. We decided to take a look. The brilliant thing is that it’s been preserved so well, so the old features are really present and a part of the experience of visiting the place, including a lush courtyard in the interior of the museum and really cool medieval gargoyles. Almost superimposed on top of it, there are star charts, dinosaur skeletons and lots of other exciting science and nature-based elements. It must be a fantastic place to take kids, as there are lots of interactive exhibits, too. We didn’t have time to see the museum, so we decided not to go into the main exhibit, but I’ve definitely mde a mental note to return. You can find out about it here (in Portuguese).

Walking across the street, we saw a small food market, selling locally grown produce. I didn’t want to take any photos, as I wasn’t buying, but all of it looked terrific. Across the road was the town hall and now also town museum. In keeping with the spirit of the interior part of the Alentejo in mid summer, the sign on the door, in Portuguese and English, advised that in summer afternoon opening would be “erratic”. The building itself was quite attractive and had a fabulous coat of arms on the wall and more azulejos on the portal to the building next door.

After this, we only had to walk across one more square before we were standing at the edge of the castle walls. Where Arraiolos had been a town that had developed twenty metres or so below the old castle, Estremoz was something entirely different, in fact being a city that still lived and breathed within the castle and then nestling right up against the towering castle walls, too. As we approached the city walls, passing another local produce market, we came out alongside the defences, with a drop down to the farmland stretching out from the edge of the city and running all the way to the horizon. We stopped for a few photos and then went in to the castle through one of the arched gates.

Once inside the castle walls, we walked up the narrow street past the 700-year-old buildings – including the old prison, which has been turned in to a bar restuarant with a roof terrace – and then arrived at a huge, imposing tower, connected to a courtyard, with a wall facing out towards the countryside. In the middle of the square is a statue to the saint, queen isabel. In the tower there is now a pousada, one of the traditional hotels, originally set up for coachmen crossing the country in the middle ages. The pousada hotel looked wonderful and has rooms in the main tower which have what must be quite staggering views over the city. I made a note to stay there some time in the future. The castle keep is in remarkable condition and the surrounding buildings, too, look incredible for their age. There is even an adega with a huge collection of wines within the inner walls. Opposite is one part of the castle which has been allowed to decay, but it looks dramatic, nonetheless.

We decided to walk out of the inner gate and go to the viewpoint at the other extremity of the outer walls. When we got there there we found a beautiful church and stopped to take in the views. Walking back from here, we discovered a group of men and women sitting at a snack bar, drinking beer and sheltering from the sun in the shade. We decided it wasn’t a bad idea and went inside to join them.

The castle is quite amazing, largely because so many people actually still live their lives within the city walls. This is not unique in Portugal and, of course, Obidos is the most famous other example of such a place, but the big difference here is that this really doesn’t feel so much like a touristy place. It’s strange when you consider that the fortress had an important role in Portuguese history, with Vasco Da Gama himself once stationed here as a general in the defence against the Spanish.

After visiting all areas of the castle and having our beers to cool off, we decided it was about time for lunch. We took a walk around and found a sign, just outside the main gate, for a traditional restaurant offering local specialties. We decided to give it a try and were very glad that we did. My friend ate a bean soup, which came with what looked like a whole loaf of bread, while I had an açorda alentejana, with cod and egg. It’s a kind of thin soup with lots of herbs, a huge slab of bacalhau floating in it and a poached egg to keep it company. Again, there was abundant bread, olives and we picked up a half litre of local white wine. With coffees to follow, we managed to spend 16 euros, which was phenomenal value. Afterwards, as I paid the lady in charge, I asked if we was the chef and she replied that she was in fact the owner and had been running the place for more than 30 years. If you find yourself in Estremoz and needing something to eat, I would strongly recommend the Casa do Pixanegra.

With lunch eaten, there was little more than an hour to wander around the city before our bus back to Évora. So we wandered the narrow streets, my friend looked for a souvenir and, finally, we whiled away some time in a café in the town square, where I found a most disturbing looking statue of what looked like a young boy.

All in all, Estremoz had been a really worthwhile place to visit, packed with history and, more importantly perhaps, living history, as so many people were still living out their daily lives within the castle walls. I think, because of the isolation, it’s not somewhere I’d want to live, but it’s a really exciting and beautiful place to visit. Finally, on the way home, we spotted something we’d not seen too clearly on the way out on the bus, that being another castle, this time at a place called Évoramonte. So that one is on the list for the next time, along with Marvão and more besides. Watch this space for when I make it to them. For those readers who have made it over to Portugal but haven’t been to Alentejo, I implore you to take a look. It’s my absolute favourite and the slightly lower levels of tourism to the Lisboa region and the Algarve make such a difference.

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If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 1 – Arraiolos

Imagine my situation. I’m on holiday from school but my girlfriend isn’t. My friend visits from Poland and she is more or less fanatical about Portugal in general, but especially about seeing new places and castles in particular. So I did the only thing I could do. I went castle hunting.

The question now was where to go, particularly as Portugal has more castles that most people have hot dinners in a six month period. A quick bit of scouting on the internet turned up this article. The trick then was to pick two castles that were sufficiently close together to make a 2 night, 2 castle trip possible. To make things more complicated, I’m not a driver, and we weren’t on the kind of budget to be able to hire a car. So we searched and scoured google maps and various local bus service websites and eventually decided upon Arraiolos and Estremoz. We booked accommodation in Évora, sandwiched between the two, booked return trains there and we were off.

The train ride to Évora is just over an hour and a quarter out of Lisbon. As you head south first, into Setúbal, it has the added bonus of the train cruising over the Tejo river inside the 25th April bridge, providing wonderful views over the river, the wider city and across to the Cristo Rei monument. Booking online with Portuguese railways anything more than a week in advance ensures some crazy prices, in this case, we paid 15 euros return, including a reserved seat (which you can select) in an air conditioned 2nd class carriage. It’s really a bargain.

We jumped on the train early on Tuesday morning and found ourselves in Évora at just before 10:30. We took the short walk in to the old town and our hostel, the Old Évora Hostel. Based within the old city walls, it’s a good place to stay. We’d chosen a twin room with a shared bathroom and, conveniently, the private rooms are located across the road from the dormitories, ensuring peace and quiet when you want to sleep. Breakfast is served in the main hostel building between 8 and 10:30 every day and is decent. The beds were cosy enough, there were abundant bathrooms and a fan is provided in each room – necessary with the Alentejo summer heat. The brother and sister team who run the place are extremely friendly and helpful and, though our room was still being cleaned at such an early hour, we were still able to drop our bags in our room and head back out.

From there we decided to head straight to the bus station, a mere 15 minute walk, just outside the walls of the old city. We arrived and found the ticket office, with the time now around 11:15. We asked about our bus and the assistant confirmed that it was leaving at 12:20 and that we should pay on the bus. So we decided we’d take this opportunity to grab a bite to eat, having not really had much of a breakfast. Opposite the bus station is a classic little Portuguese snack bar. Far from fancy, the owner was a kind enough fellow and he quickly made us a couple of bifanas, which we washed down with a cold coke, with the mercury already rising to over 35 degrees centigrade.

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With the snack demolished along with a coffee chaser, we were at the bus stand, with just 10 minutes to go before our bus left. We jumped on board as it arrived, paying a remarkably small EUR 3.05 for what ended up being a 25km journey. The route took us out of Évora, along the line of the city’s ancient aquaduct and between fields of alternating furry Alentejan cows and cork trees, with their distinctive bright under bark and the number emblazoned on the trunk, denoting when they were last harvested. The journey was pretty uneventful, aside from one particularly tight turn in a small village where I was made to feel decidedly glad not to be an Alentejo bus driver. After what seemed like miles of the same countryside, we suddenly spotted the walls of the castle and the keep at the top of a hill. We got ever closer until we pulled off the main road and the bus driver let us off in the middle of the small town. After a short stop at a Mini Preco market to buy extra water, we set off through the town, and finally between two beds of brightly flowering cacti up towards the castle on the hill top.

Once at the castle itself, we first took a look around the keep, which is largely ruined. Still, it remains mighty impressive, and has helpful plaques telling you when the different parts were constructed and by whom. The city was founded at the very beginning of the 13th century and gained some renown for its tapestries and carpet weaving (more on that later). The castle was constructed in its current shape and size around a hundred years later, and extended throughout the 14th century.

The real reason people come to see the castle at Arraiolos though, is not for the keep. The real reason is the wall and the church. The wall is more or less 100% intact, including an impressive gate tower. Walking around the perimeter and looking out over what I’m not ashamed to admit is my favourite area of Portugal is quite magical. Standing between the battlements and getting an idea of just how far you can see and just how far down the surrounding lands are, you get a real sense of the imposing defensive position this must once have been. It also helps you to understand how it remains in such good condition so much later. The second item of interest is the church. A classic whitewashed building, it’s quite large, despite its dwarfed look in the middle of the sprawling castle walls. It’s still in use and kept in very good condition. The vaulted ceilings are beautifully kept, in particular. Some children who were doing some work in the church, manning the souvenir stalls in their school holidays were very helpful and keen to show off their English to us obvious foreigners. They sold me yet more cold water and my friend picked upa  fridge magnet of locally produced, handmade Arraiolos carpet work. Quite a unique souvenir.

We spent a full hour wandering around the walls, taking in the views and occasionally diving for the cover of the one tree, when the sun got too hot for us. After that it was back down through the town. As on the way up, the streets were more or less silent, locals far too smart to be out wandering around in such bright, hot midday sun. But our stomachs were rumbling, lunch was needed. I noticed on the way down that their bottle banks are all individually painted with colourful flower patterns. A lovely touch.

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As we were heading back in to the town, we recalled that we had passed a café that looked intriguing. It turned out to be a good bet as, even though the kitchen was all but closed, we were able to order the traveller’s friend in the form of the tosta mista. They also had some delightful, chilled local white wine. As we were ordering, I also noticed that they sold homemade jams, made of local fruit and helped myself to a jar of fig jam. All that, with 2 coffees added came to all of about 20 euros, and was delivered with genuinely great service from the staff. If you find yourself in Arraiolos and in need of a snack, you really should take yourself off to Teresa Alves.

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With lunch sating our appetites (my friend actually had to take two chunks of her sandwich for the road), we decided that, with more than an hour to go until our bus, we’d have a bit of an explore. We wandered through the old town and saw that some of it is a little run down, outside of the centre. Even that, though, lent the place a kind of rustic beauty. I’m not sure the occupants of the buildings would agree on winter nights, but it made for some interesting scenery. After we ran out of town (quite quickly, in fact!) we decided to keep walking along the country road. Without any pavement we made sure to make ourselves visible to the oncoming traffic and, just as I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea, we came across one of the many drinking fountains for travellers installed by the Portuguese royal family. Still with running water (I have to say I didn’t drink any), these things really are magnificent and you will find them all over Portugal, particularly on roads between historically important cities. They were installed to make traversing the country in the searing heat of summer a little more bearable for travellers and their horses.

We followed the meandering road back around to the town centre and stopped for a cold drink under the shade of some trees in the park, near the bus station until time to travel. The journey back, with tired legs and a different route, had a real glow about it. The afternoon sun setting behind the trees, birds of prey gliding over the fields and, at one point, a field of sunflowers that seemed to go on forever.

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Arriving back to Évora in the late afternoon allowed us a little time to relax in our hostel room before heading back out for a walk around the city and a bite to eat. I’ve already covered much of what there is to do in Évora in a different post, but here are a few pics.

Once dinner was done with though, we decided that it was time for bed. We anticipated (quite rightly) that the next day in Estremoz would involve a lot more walking. So it was back to the hostel and alarms were set for 8am. Then it was off to sleep.

If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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Évora – History, Bones and Gastronomy

The end of my first full month in Portugal had arrived and with it, my first pay cheque. Time then, for an adventure. One of the great things about living in the heart of Lisbon, is that it’s so very easy to get out of the city, via one of its many transport hubs. Thanks to some of the spending that went on in the 2000’s, the Portuguese rail network is a fast, clean and broadly efficient one, meaning that the 100 or so kilometres to Évora is quickly and easily traversed in no small degree of comfort and, all importantly, at very little cost.

Something terribly exciting about that is that this presented me with my first opportunity to cross the Tejo on the mighty 25th April bridge. Sadly, many of the photos didn’t come out as well as they might have, due to the huge girders that make up the bridge, but you can still get a sense of the scale of the Tejo estuary and the spectacular views of it from the bridge, here. Not to mention the great figure of Jesus, overlooking the city from Almada.

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Leaving at 5pm after the clocks had changed for daylight saving to Western European Time meant that, as the train rolled in to Évora at 6:30 or so, it was quite dark. The first thing we noticed after Lisbon was the quiet. Évora is a small city and, compared to the nation’s capital, there was an almost eerie silence as we edged away from the train station. We followed my google map to our hotel and dumped our stuff, before heading out for a look at the city by night. As I’m told is often the case here, there was a throng of students in the centre, chanting and generally having fun. We walked down a side street to a sprawling, vaulted bar in one of the old buildings called Bar Amoeda. It’s a really nice place, with interesting, locally carved furniture in the shape of livestock. Odd, but it had a really nice atmosphere and was playing decent music. They also sold Sagres preta – the South of Portugal’s only black beer and a very good one.

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After a drink here and a walk around the old town, we stopped in a café for a quick bite to eat and, as the city seemed to be winding down, we headed back to the hotel for a sleep. In the morning, we woke up to this view:

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The Hotel Dom Fernando is a 1970s-built hotel which, at the time, was probably a very grand place indeed. Before booking it, I noted a lot of guests complaining on Trip Advisor about its style, harking back as it does to former days of splendour, while seeming a little bit run down in modern terms. This was absolutely what appealed to me and you really had this sense of the hotel in its heyday and, at the same time, far less “sterility” than you might have in one of today’s foremost hotels. The pool looked lovely, but it was far too cold to go in. Breakfast was also top notch – a very important feature of any lodging. Do look it up if you’re in Évora.

With breakfast demolished, it was time to get a look at this historic city by day. As it was opposite, the Parque de Liberdade seemed like a good place to start. Essentially a palatial garden on the edge of the medieval city wall, it was still alive with flowers, even on the first weekend in November. How spectacular it must be in summer. But the thing that really strikes you is the style of the architecture. Évora had been a stronghold during the period of Moorish occupation in Portugal and it was in evidence right from the off in the obvious influence the Arabs had on the architecture here. The band stand, the park office, both bearing classic Arabic style.

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But for the crosses etched into the balcony facade, this would be equally at home in Tunis.

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Walking round from here towards the northern edge of the park, you come to a partially collapsed fortification from the times when the city walls were more about defence than tourism. While looking at this crumbling structure though, I was taken aback to find at least 4 pairs of peacocks just going about their business in the park and, beside their play area, a full-to-busting lemon tree. This was one of those moments where the difference in the climate in my new home country really makes itself abundantly clear.

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Out of the park and across an entirely unspectacular car park, I found myself under the archess of the quite incredible church of St Sebastiao. Disappointingly it was undergoing intensive renovation (which will likely take some years) but from this one side, you could get a decent glimpse of the splendour underneath the covers.

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From here we wound our way through the maze of narrow streets, through the sprawling town square – formerly the place where more people were publicly executed than anywhere else in all of Portugal in the middle ages (yuk!) – and on to the Temple of Diana, as it’s called.

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Al fresco dining: more appealing than hangings.
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Very bright, old, quaint post boxes.

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Before the temple though, the imposing sandstone structure of the cathedral greets you. It’s a curious sensation wandering out of one of a sequence of narrow residential streets, with their small town white-with-yellow-trim colour scheme and suddenly being met by a small square and a 100m+ tall edifice, battlements creeping away to one side. In front of it stands a testament to the medieval past of the city in the form of a well, complete with an original bronze seal.

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Around the corner and you come to another square, with a magnificent walled garden, looking over the Alentejan countryside. In front of it stands the temple of Diana. It’s called this because the city was indeed home to a small cult of Diana during the roman period. The origins of the temple are murky though and rumours abound about it actually being dedicated to the emperor at the time or Jupiter, or both. Regardless, it is quite a building and the pillars, in particular are in remarkable condition.

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Just peeking out from behind the temple, as you look here, is the top of a very ornate church. While we chose not to enter, we did climb the tower of the neighbouring Palacio and the view was quite remarkable. The position is at the very edge of the city wall and, at the tower’s summit, you are stationed around 40 metres above the ground beyond the city walls. Thus you end up with vistas like this:

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All this walking, looking and photographing was making me hungry, so it was time for a snack. In Portugal, a snack almost always means cake. This time was to be no different, and we decided we ought to try a few Alentejan specialties. When in Rome and all that. So, walking down one of the many narrow streets, we happened upon a little café with some outside tables, ordering a curd cheese cake, an almond and egg bite (with what seemed to be near-raw egg inside) and a slice of caramel(ish) tart, with layered orchard fruits inside. Washed down with a couple of galaos (milky long coffees), they were all quite delicious.

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After our short break, it was time for more strolling, but this time with a little more purpose, we were off to the bone chapel. So we meandered through the streets in the general direction of the cathedral, where our day had more or less started.

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No trip is complete without meeting a cat

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The Chapel of Bones is a very different kind of place to anywhere I’ve been before. Constructed in the 16th century by the monks who used the church of Sao Sebastiao as their place of worship, the idea of the room is as a commentary on the human condition, mortality and more. The plaque as you enter, in Latin, advises you that “We, the bones that lie here, await yours.” It seems like grim reading, but you can in a sense appreciate what they were trying to say about human existence. It’s a very powerful and, in a way, even a beautiful structure. The morbidity is contrasted with the golden altar at the heart of the chapel and the ornate tiling of the perimeters. I won’t say more about it, but this place is really worth visiting if you’re in the area.

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Perversely, perhaps, I left the chapel feeling intensely hungry. So it was off to my first of two quite excellent meals on my full day in Évora. Having eaten really well far too much the previous day, we didn’t want anything too heavy and so, opposite the café where we’d enjoyed our cake earlier, we remember a small, boutique tapas – or petiscos – restaurant.

Disappointingly, I can’t remember the name and nor can I find it on google maps, but it had the most wonderfully unpushy staff and, despite being really nothing more than a small room with a few tables outside, the menu was super. The waiter made some recommendations based on our need for something not too filling and we ended up with roasted sheep’s cheese with fresh oregano leaves, cod (not bacalhau!) sliced thinly, battered and fried and a mixture of scrambled egg and thistle, which was very accurately described as tasting like a more intense asparagus. He brought out two white wines for us to try and the birthday girl selected a quite stunning Chardonnay. The wine and food, we were reliably informed, all came from within a 30 km radius. And it was all excellent. And it cost less than 40 euros in total. A bargain.

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After a quick trip back to the Dom Fernando to freshen up, all that was left was a dusk/night time walk around the city before dinner.

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The city wall is really quite imposing at night and you can easily see why it’s ranked as a UNESCO heritage site. After our walk, it was time for one more meal at Momentos restaurant. This was one I’d read about before we began our visit, where the chef is famous for his use of all local, all organic ingredients and working with blending flavours. First he brought out a trial plate for each of us, of a shot glass of his special recipe tomato soup, accompanied by a poached quail egg on mini toast. It was all terribly indulgent. We once again were presented with a couple of white wines to try and settled on a great one (though not as fabulous as the afternoon’s Chardonnay) and my main course, which exemplified perfectly the owner’s philosophy – a fresh anchovy and grilled pear salad, with strawberries, spinach and rocket. It was stunning.

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After our meal, it was a gentle walk back to the hotel, accompanied by a friendly stray dog. I felt terrible leaving him outside the hotel, but there was nothing we could do for him. With an early start beckoning, we retired for the night. In the morning, after an early breakfast, we made the short walk back to the train station and wove our way through the countryside back to Lisbon.

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Finally, Évora is a charming place, with history in abundance and an immense amount of delightful gastronomy. We wondered whether it might be a lot busier in the summer months, as it did seem there was not too much going on in the evenings, besides for students. Nevertheless, it was an appetising first taste of the Alentejo and it is certainly a region we will return to.