This one’s a long post-of-two-halves, to play catch-up and to help reflect the pace of this leg of the trip, covering more than a week’s travelling across two countries and a huge swathe of Iberia.
Leaving Lisbon and starting to cross the Alentejo plains towards Evora was a total contrast to the rest of Portugal. Not only in the short term, since crossing the Vasco da Gama bridge had almost immediately replaced the low, damp cloud with bright blue skies and a scorching sun, but overall – we’d not seen such flat landscapes, with the earth’s curvature almost visible across sparse parched fields dotted with cork trees. Speaking of which… Think of a stereotypical gnarled tree, with dark steely-grey bark. Now peel the trunk of bark, leaving the trunk and lower branches bright orange. That’s a cork tree. Over time, the bark grows back, ready to be peeled again. Now load an articulated wagon high with the peeled bark. One thing’s for sure – we’ll be trying to buy wine using proper cork-corks in the future, not these plastic or screwcap abominations. There’s not just a traditional industry at risk, but an entire landscape.
When we got to Evora, we were initially a little disappointed – we’d got it mentally flagged as a “Roman city”. It’s not, not really. There’s a fairly well preserved Roman temple in the middle, right next to the Cathedral, (and baths, in a basement under the town hall…) but that’s about your lot – the rest is the usual medieval mix. Having said that, though, there was something about Evora that was very pleasant. It’s not that there’s a lot to see or do – we felt we’d “done it” after a long sleepy Sunday afternoon – but there’s just a really nice atmosphere. There’s a couple of sights that do stick in the mind, though – the cathedral allows access to wander freely around on the roof, giving a great panoramic view over the whole city and surrounding countryside.
We’d cycled into town from the campsite, so the aerial view of the aqueduct (no, not Roman – medieval again) inspired us to follow it on two wheels. As it leaves the old city, the arches provide frontages for houses and vehicular access to car parks; before the ground drops away, leaving it to spear across a dip towards the ruins of a fort. However, the prize for wierdness goes to the chapel on the side of the church of San Francisco. The walls of the Capela dos Ossos are decorated entirely in human bones. Even the ceiling arches are trimmed with skulls instead of carved stone. Apparently, it was done to help the Franciscan friars reflect upon human mortality.
Evora was our last planned stop in Portugal, so the route from here on in was a question of expediency to get us across Spain to the French border. We’d planned to swing south of Madrid, seeing Toledo and Cuenca, but decided north of Madrid made more sense. Poring over the atlas and guide-book saw us head through a swathe of small towns towards the border. Arraloios – best known for hand-crafted carpets, the town’s consistent white-and-blue colour scheme gave it the feel of somewhere you could easily spend a few days doing nothing. Estremoz – one of the “marble towns”, with local marble ubiquitous for prosaic duties – windowsills, doorframes, even pavements. Portalegre – larger, but handy for stocking up on Vinho Verde before the border. All – and more – with walled hilltop citadels intact, surrounding sleepy old towns with nothing moving save for the occasional elderly man or dog.
Then we came to Marvaõ. A small (~1,000 inhabitants) hilltop fortified village on the Portuguese-Spanish border, the entire place is within the walls. Just arriving is spectacular, with the walls appearing to grow out of the hill itself, visible for miles. After a very pleasant long meander around, we reached the castle itself – and that’s when Marvaõ changed gear to become a real gem. The castle’s extensive and intact, complete with the huge water cistern (Siege, for the withstanding of) – which still contains water.
I don’t think it’s actually used for drinking water storage (at least, I hope not, since there were slightly more flying-biting things in there than the Ferrol campsite) but the echo as you stood on the platform at one end was truly incredible. The views, though, from the castle walls… Standing, staring across foothills and plains – you could see exactly why this particular hill was used for border defences. Portugal must have been saving that up as a grand finale to say goodbye to us…
And so we crossed the border into Spain again, with heavy hearts to leave our first “completed” country behind. There’s more we want to see and do there, so we’ll definitely be back. I think that might become a regular recurrence on the trip.
Interested to read about the cork oak tree. My sister and I had one planted in Kew Gardens in memory of our parents: we chose cork because Dad was very keen on his wine.
We enjoyed accidentally finding Marvaõ several years ago – when we arrived, it was shrouded in fog.
You’ll have to have a softly softly approach to your stance on cork, or you’ll never again be able to enjoy our fine Kiwi wines ;-). I can’t remember the last time I saw a cork in a local wine.