Saturday 29 August 2015

Alentejo towns: marble and miracles

Scenes from towns in the Alentejo in a boiling summer heatwave ...

Estremoz, perched on a hillside and topped by a castle, has gorgeous views over Alentejo farmland.

Gateway to the town

Estremoz is famous for the marble that's mined, cut and exported here

Marble is everywhere in this town - in doorways and gates, even the pavements and cobblestones are made of beautiful pale marble  ...

The castle, converted to a pousada, was the palace in the early 14th century of King Dinis, whose main claim to fame was his wife, Isabel of Aragon.

Isabel was canonised after her death, making her not only Rainha but Santa Isabel, for devoting her life to the poor and miraculously turning bread (hidden in her voluminous skirts) into roses when confronted by the angry king (not so keen on feeding the poor).

She stands here (in white marble of course) watching over the Alentejo plains.

At A Cadeia, the town's old jail turned into a restaurant, we had drinks on the roof terrace and watched the sun set over the plains, glad of an end to the intense heat of the day.

But in Évora the next day there was no escape from 45 degrees heat, so there was no lingering at the Roman temple whose columns, topped with Estremoz marble, have survived 1800 years.

There were narrow streets with whitewashed buildings and a cathedral where the flags of Vasco da Gama's ships were blessed

and good Alentejo food, even if snails are not your thing ...
'We have snails'

Alentejo, Portugal June 2015
Day 10 Iberian road trip

Monday 24 August 2015

Alentejo Blues

When I was a child and teenager, the Alentejo was a hot, dry, dusty bit-in-the-middle you had to drive through (preferably as fast as possible) to get from Lisbon to the beaches of the south in summer.

How one's perceptions can change.

Although I love the green mountainous north of the country, there's something captivating about this landscape of golden wheat fields, cork and olive trees, and clean blue-and-white villages.

The small town of Arraiolos, where handmade rugs have been produced since the Middle Ages.

Celebrating 40 years since the Carnation Revolution that ended almost 50 years of dictatorship

Arraiolos with its castle from afar

If you want to get away from it all, this is the place to come: the Alentejo makes up over one third of Portugal's land mass but contains only 7% of its population!

Not really surprisingly, we got quite lost among the olive groves trying to find Vila Extramuros, but oh what a find. 

Owned and run by lovely French couple François and Jean-Christophe, whose home this is too, it's a fabulous surprise for being totally unexpected in style, in a region of traditional pousadas.

Designed by a Lisbon architect, the structure is all contemporary, clean, clear white lines, with rooms surrounding a cool central courtyard. 

The interiors, however, are all the doing of this talented pair, whose tastes are eclectic indeed: local objects and references mixed with Parisian touches and iconic 20th century designs.

It all works brilliantly with their eye for detail and design.

Not to mention their love of good food. Perfect summer supper in the courtyard was salad, grilled bread with local cheese and herbs, chouriço and patanegro.
Breakfast (below, with view to Arraiolos): delicious queijadas, Alentejo bread, cherries

François and Jean-Christophe, who moved here from Paris and have never looked back, fell in love with this landscape, saying they were attracted to the Alentejo as 'one of the last wild regions of Europe, where you have kilometres and kilometres of nature and wilderness.'
A neighbouring farmer's sheep graze on their land, providing free control of the vegetation.

The heat was intense, in the low 40s, and we were enormously happy to trail down this path ...

to wallow in the cool clear swimming pool ...

and stretch out under olive trees with the cicadas for company.

I just wished I could have stayed for weeks doing little else.

Alentejo, Portugal June 2015
Day 9 Iberian road trip

Friday 21 August 2015


Oh Lisbon, did I compare you unfavourably with Porto the other day?
I take it all back.

Late summer afternoon, Avenida de Liberdade

Cherubs in the pink, Restauradores

Quiet moment on the benches, Largo de São Carlos

Book-head: Pessoa lived here

Dinner in the opera square: Teatro São Carlos

Icons of the city: Pessoa in a tram
Café Lisboa

Sunset views from Skybar, Tivoli

The Old Pharmacy, Rua do Diário de Notícias, Bairro Alto

Lisbon, Portugal June 2015
Day 8 Iberian road trip

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Monks and battles: Buçaco forests

Roughly halfway between Porto and Lisbon, a short detour off the national road into green wooded countryside leads to Buçaco Palace, an extravagant architectural fantasy in romantic Manueline style.

It's set in a hilly forested region not far from the Serra de Estrela, Portugal's highest mountain range, in the midst of forests filled with trees brought back to Europe by Portuguese explorers from Africa and the New World.

The Palacio (now a luxury hotel) itself is not very old, built at the turn of the 1900s, but there's a much older Carmelite convent right next to it, where monks long ago established elaborate gardens complete with fountains, mazes, waterfalls and secret grottoes (still there today).

Two papal bulls from the 1600s are handily displayed at the entrance to the gardens - one banning women from entering this garden of Eden (to keep the monks free of temptation?) and another threatening any person harming the trees with excommunication. At least one of those had some lasting value.

The palace's interiors are all elaborate ornate stucco ...

... and grand marble staircases guarded by knights in armour and massive tiled murals depicting gory battle scenes.

Over the top? Absolutely. But the dining room is elegant and cool with views to the 'garden of Eden' and forests beyond.

There's masses of history here. In 1810 one of the great battles of the Peninsular Wars was fought in these woods, and the Duke of Wellington tied his horse to an olive tree and spent a contented night in the Convent after helping the Portuguese defeat Napoleon's troops in a battle in these woods.

Later (in a kind of Portuguese-French reconciliation?) Portugal's last king, the young Manuel II, used the Palacio as a discreet venue for trysts with his girlfriend, French actress Gaby Deslys.

We did not linger for lunch but pressed on south to Lisbon.

Buçaco, Portugal June 2015
Day 7 Iberian road trip

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