Portugal – Evora, Elvas and surrounds

Once again an apology for the tardiness of this post – just when we start to take wi-fi for granted, we hit several black holes in the internet world!  It’s certainly been quite a week spent exploring the inland regions of the central Alentejo region: a magical area of dry golden wheat fields, scattered with cork trees and broken up by bright green vineyards.  The whitewashed villages were sleepy in the summer heat (it’s been in the high 30s and low 40s here), filled with old men sitting on benches watching the world go by.  Driving through these villages with Bambi in tow certainly caused heads to turn and we knew we would be the talking point for some time!  Sadly Brenda has now left us, so it’s back to life on the road alone, but at least her return to SA was cheered up by the excitement of the Grahamstown festival.

We stayed initially in Evora, a beautifully preserved medieval town which is a UNESCO world heritage site.  Unlike other medieval towns and villages we’ve visited, Evora has a wonderful sense of space; winding cobbled streets opening on to large tree filled squares, beautiful public gardens and magnificent gothic churches and cathedrals.  My best moment was wondering past a 17th century palace and turning the corner to be confronted unexpectedly by the best preserved Roman temple on the Iberian peninsular.  Another must see in Evora is the Capela dos Ossos, the Bones Chapel, constructed in the 17th century as a memento mori.  The inscription over the entrance reads “Nos ossos qui aqui estomos pelos vossos esperamos” – which roughly translates as “our bones are here, for yours we wait” and is lined with the skeletons of some 5,000 people (whose bodies were dug up from the local graveyard in the early 1600s).  We were also amused by the setting of some well preserved Roman baths, located in an abandoned room within the town hall complex.

We were also lucky enough to organise a morning in nearby Alvito, learning how to make traditional Portuguese bread.  We were hosted in a local rural guesthouse, Horta do Padre (a beautifully restored traditional farm house, formerly owned by the local priest), by Fernanda and Lino and were taught how to make gorgeous loaves as well as rolls stuffed with chorizo and with walnuts by a local Portuguese equivalent of Granny Lisk, Dona Luisa, who had been making bread since she was a young girl.  Sadly Dona Luisa and her husband (who was a real chatterbox) didn’t speak any English, but we got on fine with hand signals and translations by Fernanda.  After nearly half an hour of kneading (Dona Luisa was rather unimpressed by our efforts and frequently took over from us!) and having used no recipe but merely added flour and water until the right consistency was reached, we left the dough to rise and walked out to the nearby Hermitage de Santa Luzia.  The bread was baked in the farm’s outdoor wood fired bread oven, which was enormously hot and cooled down by Dona Luisa sweeping it with a wet brush of denim strands, known as a “beard”.  At the end of the morning we all sat down to a delicious meal of local olives, cheeses, olive oil and of course the amazing hot bread and were sent on our way with loaves of bread and bottles of the local olive oil.  What a wonderful experience!  Alvito itself is charming, with fresco-filled churches and a large castle which is now a beautiful hotel.

We spent another day in Lisbon (and yes, we did return to Belem to have more of those amazing pasteis de nata!) before dropping Brenda at the airport and returning to Evora.  Prior to saying our goodbyes at the airport we got lost in the streets around the cathedral, took a clattering tram ride and soaked up the atmosphere of the most laid back capital city we’ve yet visited.

The following day we explored the surrounds of Evora in the early morning on the bikes (the heat is a very good reason to get up and out early!), visiting a series of Neolithic megaliths, erected between 5000 and 6000 years ago, that are scattered in the countryside around Evora.  We also drove out to the delightful hilltop village Monsaraz – inhabited now by just 50 people, it is quite magical: surrounded by thick walls with a castle on one end, the few cobbled streets contain tumbledown whitewashed houses and two beautiful churches, as well as magnificent views over the surrounding olive groves and vineyards.  We really fell in love with it and, after going down to a nearby dam to swim and cool off, returned to Monsaraz for dinner at a tiny local restaurant to watch the sun set over the vines and olive groves.

From Evora we headed eastwards to Elvas, another hilltop town and the most fortified we’ve visited so far, owing to its proximity to Spain.  The town walls are incredible, comprising forts on several sides, a moat (now disused) and incredibly thick walls.  Unsurprisingly, given the immense fortifications, in the 1600s Elvas was able to hold out against the Spanish and in one battle just 1,000 Portuguese soldiers withstood attack by Spain’s 15,000 strong army.  WIthin the town walls, the residential areas seem little changed since Moorish times, the winding narrow alleyways and myriad of dead ends and tiny passageways reminding us of the medinas we had explored in Morocco.  Also impressive is the huge multi-tiered aqueduct built in the 1600s brings water to the town squares.

We also explored Marvao, a small village nestled in craggy mountains close to the Spanish border, so also heavily fortified with a huge castle.  The most unusual feature of the castle is a giant cistern, built to store water, which could hold enough water for 6 months if required if the village were under siege.  We spent a leisurely afternoon, strolling the village streets, dipping our feet in the water features to keep cool and enjoying the laid back vibe.

We’ve now moved north west, into the heartland of Portugal and are at a small rural campsite, which came highly recommended by several people we’ve met along the way, just outside Tomar.

Portugal – from the Algarve into Alentejo province

Apologies for the delay in posting a blog this week – we’ve been in the internet wilderness of the northern Algarve.  We’ve had a fantastic time with Brenda, exploring the many beautiful beaches of the Algarve (and seeking protection from the wind in amongst the sea coves).  We’ve been SUPing, kayaking and hit the surf (although the wind was a bit too strong for me, Leigh is turning into quite the SUP-surfer) and have also explored the coast along to the south-eastern most point at Sagres.  The coastline gets more and more dramatic as you approach the point, which houses a wind-swept fort and lighthouse complex.  It was here that Henry the Navigator built his school of navigation and just down the road from Luz, where we were staying,  Lagos saw the departures of many of Henry’s expeditions.

We then headed north from Luz up along the wild Atlantic, where we stayed near the charming Vila Nova de Milfontes, a beautiful whitewashed town on the edge of an estuary fronted by wild Atlantic beaches.

We also wandered slightly inland, meandering along the Mira river to the charming medieval town Odemira, where we indulged in handmade chocolates and spent about 30 minutes trying to navigate our way out of the narrow cobbled streets with the main street closed due to road works.  We spent time exploring the beaches from Sagres north to the moorish village Aljezur, topped by a ruined castle set on a tiny river.  The whole area is a large natural park filled with wonderful wild flowers, gorse and cork trees.  Sadly we didn’t manage to find the much celebrated (and protected) local chameleon, Portugal being the only country in Western Europe where chameleons are found.

We’ve now headed even further inland, to Evora, and look forward to exploring the large, empty Alentejo region, the largest of the Portuguese provinces, but home to only 7% of the population.

Portugal – around Lisbon and back to the Algarve

Our detour up to Lisbon was filled with celebrations – birthday celebrations as well as celebrating our first visitors: Brenda, who is with us for a few weeks, and Sharron and Fraser, who flew over for the weekend to be part of Lucy’s 40th birthday celebrations.  Unfortunately the weather did not play its part, so the plans for a sun-filled weekend at the 30km long beaches of the Costa de Caparica had to be turned into a weekend of eating, drinking and taking in galleries in Belem (that of the pasteis de nata fame: yes, we had many more of those!) and the Costa de Caparica area.  The 40th was brought in in style, with an Aquaforno cooked meal in the campsite, followed by Portuguese cake (thanks Fraser!) and a long evening around the fire (the Aquaforno conveniently turns into a fire pit!).  We had stashed enough bottles of Cava from Spain to see us through the weekend.  We were sad to say goodbye to Sharron and Fraser on Sunday evening and, spent the Monday getting organised before heading back down south with Brenda.

We’re now just outside Praia de Luz on the Algarve coast, picking up where we left off before our Lisbon detour.  The sea here is beautiful and the weather hotting up, so we’ve spent days on the SUPs and in kayaks and today drove up into the only mountains in the Algarve, the Serra de Monchique, through beautiful eucalyptus, cork and pine trees taking in the small towns and hamlets of the area, including Monchique and a nearby spa hamlet and stopping en route to the highest point in the mountain range for Portugal’s famous chicken piri piri.

Portugal – up to the Costa de Caparica

We were sad to say our goodbyes at the camp in Alvor and know we will miss the baby donkey (who was due to be named the day we left following a camp vote) and Olivia the obese pet pig who lived in camp and always brightened up our mornings as she went foraging for food from all her neighbours.

From here we headed straight up to Lisbon area, through forests of cork trees eventually opening out into rolling wheat fields, to south of the river Tejo, across which lies Lisbon, where we are camping in the beach resort of Costa de Caparica.   Costa de Caparica is the start of a 30km stretch of beach with white sand and lots of beach shack cafes and bars.  Today the surf was up, but in the last few days it’s been calm and we’ve done some flat water SUPing, including an evening SUP to watch the sun go down.  Over the next few days we aim to catch some waves again.

We explored some of the Setubal peninsular, driving to the windswept cape and lighthouse, Cabo Espichel, with stunningly beautiful clear water visible from the tall cliffs of the cape.  The tip of the cape is dominated by a huge church flanked by empty pilgrims‘ lodges – windswept and atmospheric.  We also stopped off in the gorgeous seaside village Sesimbra, perched on a cliff with steep narrow roads down to a pretty harbour and overlooked by a Moorish castle.

We’ve had a taster of Lisbon itself, cycling from camp to the nearby ferry over the Tejo, across to Belem, a suburb about 6kms from the centre of Lisbon and the starting point for the Portuguese voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Belem is full of grand architecture and palaces, built from the wealth of those times, but the highlight for us was a visit to the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, a patisserie that has been selling piping hot pasteis de nata to the masses since 1837 – they are heavenly!  From Belem central Lisbon is a flat cycle ride along the river; in central Lisbon we decided to ditch the bikes however and take the tram to tackle the many hills of the city!