All posts by Currently Away

Completing the circle around Iberia

Squeezed into a narrow cove, reminiscent of Cornwall’s seaside villages, Cudillero’s seafaring houses tumble into and onto each other down the rocky cliffsides.

A maze of steep winding lanes and worn stone steps serve to baffle the newcomer and force you to explore tucked away corners and backyard dead ends.

Cudillero

From the steep cliffside path above we saw that some of the houses rooves had caved in. We wondered if it was weather damage.

Once down below and able to ask in a local grocery we were told that ‘older people are dying, and younger people don’t want to live here. Family homes are abandoned. The new mayor wants to invest to bring in more tourism and second homeowners, as so many people visit and love the village.”

Cudillero harbour restaurants

Expensive seafood restaurants filled the tiny square at the head of the small harbour of crashing blue waves. On Sunday afternoon a Porsche was amongst the flashy cars driven endlessly around the small port.

We wanted a glass of cool wine to sit with and soak up the atmosphere but were turned away from three places as we did not want to eat a full meal. It had an odd feeling that neither of us could quite place. It was like being somewhere familiar, but it not being quite there.

Collapsed rooves from above

We wondered what regular life was like so returned the next day to find out. The steep road down to the port was busy with village life alongside fewer visitors. Schoolchildren returned noisily home, flashing past us on skateboards then shrieking as they came to an abrupt halt at crossroads.

The tapas bars were packed at 3pm, and elderly women were out in force shopping at fish and vegetable shops. It seemed a busy place and not devoid of the hope that we had been led to believe. We wished it well!

A coastal project

Santillana del Mar is considered to be one of Spain’s prettiest villages. It is Medieval and has retained its 15th century timbered-framed and stone houses, with just a few 18 century additions, along its cobbled streets.

The winding streets, impossibly driven along by bouncing locals in small cars, are peppered with drinking troughs, fountains, churches, convents, fortified mansions and municipal buildings.

Santillana del Mar

Paradors and boutique hotels now occupy former houses of importance. It is touristy. Overpriced glasses of wine, cider and lemonade were being guzzled in wooden-columned courtyards.

We parked outside the village and walked the couple of miles there and back through lush green fields being grazed on by shiny cattle and horses. Enormous coaches of international visitors from cruisers docked at the nearby ports at Santander and Bilbao were unloading en masse at the roadside.

Santillana del Mar Collegiate Church

Like Cudillero, it didn’t feel quite right. It was historic but seemed to lack the lived-in authenticity that we’ve felt in bucket loads across our journeys in Spain, at places such as Tordesillas, Baeza, Toledo, Chipiona, Cadiz and Valladolid.

We had planned to stay the night at the town’s free aire, but instead chose to continue along the A8 coastal road, around Santander, to an old favourite campsite.

Santillana del Mar Town Hall

After almost 2,900 miles, our final nights in Spain were spent at beautiful Zarautz, a coastal town that we first discovered several years ago. Smarter and flashier, its clearly been well invested in by both the municipality and private homeowners.

We enjoyed the steep stroll down from the cliffside campsite to meander along a newly installed boardwalk crossing the long beach to the cavernous Old Town, hidden away in little squares under stone arcades where old boys leaned heavily over old oak beer barrels and nibbled at tiny pinxtos treats with small glasses of Manzanilla.

Local’s bar

Our encounters with the Spanish have been very heart-warming and we’ve appreciated both their courtesy and inherent enjoyment of life. We could all learn from that! Yet the remainder of 2019 is replete with uncertainties for Spain.

Since we entered the country almost three months ago, economic and political confidence has declined and there is the serious threat of another recession…. but you wouldn’t know it. The country’s transport infrastructure is mind-bogglingly efficient and superbly maintained. Its historic centres and cities seem to be in a state of constant and sensitive restoration and are lovingly cared for.

Zarautz view from the campsite

The people are proud and keen to tell you of their culture and local as well as national history. We experienced no aggression, no covert jealousy, no suspicion or watchful dislike which we know often accompanies seemingly better-heeled travellers in more depressed communities.

Travelling in Iberia has been a privilege and joy and one we hope to be able to repeat. However, work and home life sound their siren call across the Bay of Biscay.

So, ducking under the low wooden beams of a bodega doorway to join the old boys, we look forward to being – for a final few days – currently away….

Our rough loop of Iberia 2019

 

 

Oviedo

From Leon, we drove north into Asturias along the impressively engineered AP66. The motorway passes through steep valleys across a series of enormous bridges and through hillsides in tunnels.

At times it winds out along the curving landscape on a massively supported and pillared platform, giving you the feeling of a ‘sky drive’.

Lake at 1200m on Autopista de la Plata

Some sections are toll road, but we didn’t begrudge paying the small fees for the fast journey on an incredibly engineered highway. We both thought ruefully of the sink-hole suffering M25 and the myriad of pot-holed local roads along the South Coast.

We’ve commented many times to each other on the visible maintenance of Spain’s free motorway network and seen many workers along the verges and central reservations, mowing and cutting back vegetation and even planting and pruning pretty banks of Oleander bushes.

Our overgrown and weedy West Sussex roads get an annual mowing of the verges whilst in Spain they are not only maintained but gardened by a seeming army of workers on sit-on mowers with strimmers and hedge-trimmers. It is inspiring to see.

Asturias is a lush, green pastoral county with pine-forested topped mountains and green hillsides that roll all the way down to the sea. It calls itself ‘Vuelve al Paraiso’ and its unspoilt countryside and gorgeous coastal villages, as well as its beautiful pre-Romanesque civic and religious architecture made it feel indeed like paradise for two travellers coming to the end of a trip.

Plaza de la Constitucion

Asturias is proud that it resisted invasion by the Moors. Its Christian kingdom was founded in the eighth century and it has the greatest concentration of pre-Romanesque churches in Spain, many in its capital, Oviedo.

We weren’t the only ones in town on a warm Saturday night. A society wedding was being held at the Baroque church of San Isidoro in the town’s main Plaza de Constitucion.

Fittingly in the old civic centre dating back to the 17 century, there were also celebrations for the investiture of a new mayor. Two separate crowds gathered outside the church and the Ayuntamiento, the council building. It was a perfect storm.

Society bride arrives at San Isidoro

The bride arrived with a multi-coloured brigade of bridesmaids who looked as if they had chosen their own dress in disregard of each other. A couple of guests muscled in to help unravel the bride’s wedding train at her apparent disgust. If looks could kill! Meanwhile the new mayor descended the old stone steps to cheering applause from locals.

The bride looked furious as cameras flashed in the opposite direction. We chuckled. The town drunk informed us that the groom is a millionaire author who lives locally. We weren’t sure but the interest of local media in the wedding meant something. For that reason, we were told not to take a picture of “el rostro de la dama“, the face of the lady.

Catedral de San Salvador

Oviedo’s Gothic cathedral, San Salvador, squats in the stately Plaza Alfonso II and is bordered by handsome Medieval palaces.

Around the corner I inched open the gigantic wooden door of La Rua Palace, the oldest house in Oviedo and dating back to the 1200s. In the interior and cobbled courtyard, a line of welcoming glass storm lanterns held burning candles and tall displays of lilies and white roses scented the air. A smartly dressed porter shooed me out. It was the venue of the wedding reception.

The guests would be quaffing champagne, but the local tipple is sidre or cider. Not fans, we dutifully tramped outside the old city walls to the street of bars and bodegas.

At El Ferroviario we encountered a barman who could only be described as a hobbit with a skill of pouring – and not quite missing – cider from above his head into a lower held glass. What we failed to understand upon our first tasting was that we had to knock back the gassy drink quickly.

The idea behind the high pour being to get as much air into it the cider as possible. Having been told off for sipping slowly we understood what to do second time around. Gosh it hit hard!

Having bought a €3 bottle we had to knock back two more (comical) servings each before being allowed to unstick ourselves from the tacky floor where others had presumably left – or tried to pour – theirs.

Safely back via the swish and smart commuter train to La Corredoria we were welcomed at the locals bar by an affable and unhurried bar owner, who poured us a glass of Mahou Spanish lager and gifted us a bowl of olives and patatas fritas.

Although our visit to Oviedo was short, we felt that we’d had a true taste of the town’s life on a late Saturday afternoon in June. Salut!

 

Leon

The kingdom of Leon was created when the Asturian King, Alfonso the Great, divided his realm amongst his three sons.

Leon was inherited by Garcia I in 910AD and so began several hundred years of fighting amongst competing feudal families to claim and hold onto the throne of the Kings of Leon. It was a city we were looking forward to exploring.

Leon Cathedral

To reach it, we left Portugal on a toll road and commented that we were being charged escalating fees every three miles to the border with Spain. The road was a long climb up and out of the country at times reaching more than 1,300 meters.

Bertha bowled along empty stretches of road separated by high moorland of boulders and gorse bushes and with just the lonely company of towering wind turbines.

Road improves at Spanish border

Across the Spanish plateau, we arrived in late afternoon sunshine at the River Bernesga encircling the legendary city of the Kings of Leon. We were waved into the final space at the excellent city parking for motorhomes by smiling Spanish families. It felt good to be back in the country we had spent so much time exploring at the beginning of this trip.

The Kings of Leon fought civil wars, wars against neighbouring kingdoms as well campaigns to repel invasions by both the Moors and the Vikings, to protect their kingdom’s changing fortunes.

Old Council House

Ferdinand I, called the Great, was the Count of Castille from his uncle’s death in 1029 and the King of Leon after defeating his brother in law in 1037. He was the first to be crowned Emperor of Spain.

The city of Leon became its capital in the Middle Ages and a massive programme of building work was carried out on the foundations on the site of the earlier military camp and civil town of the Roman’s Seventh Legion.

The fascinating Centre of Roman Interpretation museum displayed black and white images from the city’s past and showed how the old Imperial walls were re-fortified and embellished with watchtowers. Inside their lee, homes and palaces were built, including the Colegiata de San Isodoro.

This beautiful and resonant complex is three interlinked buildings; a basilica, a monastery and the Royal Pantheon, the last resting place of more than 20 monarchs.

Colegiata de San Isodoro

We waited patiently for the strictly limited and guided tour to see inside the Pantheon.

The exquisite vaulted stone hallway was created in the 11 century and beautifully decorated with carved capitals of beasts and flowers. Its domed ceiling, columns and arches are decorated in hand-painted frescoes that depict scenes from the New Testament.

No restoration work has been carried out and the paintings are as they were first unveiled nearly 1000 years ago, when commissioned by the Princess Urruca.

San Isidoro Basilica Royal Pantheon

Biblical scenes tell of the life of Jesus, and an interesting detail is the inclusion of a wine-bearer at the Last Supper called Marcielis Pincerna. His name is written next to his image (see below).

Our Spanish guide, Arantxa, explained that he is only recorded in the Apocryphal Gospels know at the time of painting by the French monasteries in Limousin, leading to the assumption that the painter of the frescoes was indeed French.

There is also a colourful pictorial depiction of the months of the Medieval year. Pruning, planting and harvesting scenes depict the Spring and Summer months. A tunic-wearing farmer feeds nuts to his little black pig in October but roasts him on a spit in November. It was amusing and beguiling at the same time as a glimpse into the rhythms of rural life in the kingdom of Leon.

San Isidoro Art

Craning our necks to admire the paintings we jumped at sharp barking from Arantxa. A hapless German chap had sat down heavily upon the tomb of the Christian King Ferdinand I of Leon, Urruca’s father and who had ordered the building of the pantheon!

At one time 33 members of the Leonese Court were interred here, but during the Peninsular War against France in the 1800s, Napoleon’s army used the hall for stabling and removed or demolished many of its tombs. The French it seemed were responsible for both glorifying and destroying the pantheon.

We were led up to the second floor of the monastery passing dusty reconstruction works and across unswept wooden floorboards. A beautiful stone Madonna and child were caked in an inch of greasy grey dust. Arantxa apologised, “sorry for the grubbiness”.

“Grubby” San Isodoro courtyard

Securely tucked away in a dark room deep within the monastery and only dimly lit, we peered at the gorgeous and jewel-encrusted ‘Chalice of Dona Urruca’.

Slightly wonky, it is two onyx goblets joined together, one turned up, and the other down. Both are worked together in a gold casing which is decorated with priceless jewels and a tiny Roman glass-paste sculptured face.

It has been in the Saint Isodoro basilica since the 11th century when it was gifted to the church by Urruca. It’s a fascinating object to gaze upon, and it came back to international attention five years’ ago with the publication of new research by historians.

The Chalice of Doña Urruca

The discovery of two Medieval Egyptian parchments in the basilica shed light on what is now understood to be the chalice’s journey to Leon.

The documents recorded that Muslims took the piece from an early Christian community in Jerusalem. They sent it to Cairo, from where it was later given as a gift of thanks to an Emir (a Moorish dignitary) living on Spain’s Andalusian coast, in return for help that he gave to Egyptians who were suffering from famine. Along the way, the Sultan Sulieman removed a little piece of the rim of the chalice as it was believed to have healing properties which he wished for his unwell daughter.

The chalice came into the possession of the Christian King Ferdinand I as a peace offering during the time of Muslim rule in Spain. He gave it to his daughter Urruca, who donated her jewels for its decoration before offering it to the church.

Carbon dating in 2014 confirmed it was made between 200BC and 100AD, and a missing piece under its rim identifies it as the chalice referred to in the Egyptian documents.

Arantxa barked again at the same hapless chap who crashed his forehead against the glass case housing the chalice.

Our visit was swiftly ended and it wasn’t until researching later online that we discovered historians now argue that the onyx cup which sits on top and underneath the fabulous decoration is that which early Christians venerated as being the one from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, the legendary ‘Holy Grail’. Much dispute rages over this in the academic world, but it was thrilling to consider what we may have seen!

Roman columns

In 1513 another King Ferdinand funded the building of a church and headquarters for the Military Order of Saint James, on the site of an earlier hostel for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

The 16th century complex looks like a palace and is one of the country’s most important works in the Renaissance and Plateresque styles.

Its history since the days of the crusading knights has been chequered. Schools for vets, children and the ‘correction of ecclesiastics’ have been founded within it; army offices, a military prison and cavalry barracks have all been based within it, and most grimly, it served as the site of a concentration camp during the Spanish Civil War.

Hostal de San Marcos

Imprisoning as many as 20,000 republicans who were tortured and executed by Franco’s troops, it served as a symbol of repression in Leon. Fittingly today it has returned to its original purpose and is a high-end hotel, one of Spain’s many Paradors, offering exclusive accommodation in historic monuments.

The gorgeous and slightly off-camber Plaza Mayor in the Old Town and its surrounding alleyways hummed with early evening drinkers.

We joined them at two different but tiny bodegas, both tucked deep into the winding lanes, down stone stairs and under darkly wooden-beamed ceilings.

Plaza Mayor

Platters of fresh bread, chorizo, Iberian jamon and olives were being handed around as tapas and liberally washed down with chilled white Albarino wine. We were made to feel immediately welcome and part of the crowd.

Leon is a charming place with a fascinating history and we greatly enjoyed our two days spent exploring and researching it.

 

Douro Valley

The Douro is one of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula, flowing from its source in northern-central Spain to the Atlantic Ocean at Porto in Portugal.

We joined it at Peso de Regua, in wine country. The Douro Valley wine region is internationally famous for its vintages that are produced on the steeply terraced hillsides which tower above the wide waters of the green river.

It’s possible to drive along the Douro on a narrow road that hugs its twisting north side, but we didn’t want to do that in Bertha. Instead we bought a return ticket for the local train service to Pocinho, at the end of the line.

We were blessed with the arrival of a striking blue vintage locomotive pulling four dapper cream and yellow carriages. We were doubly blessed as at the time we were sat onboard a train about to head in the other direction!

This is not uncommon and is symptomatic of Portuguese railway stations which offer the hapless traveller no information about departing trains, or at which platform to wait.

Having dashed off the fast service to Porto and raced across the rail tracks (in front of) and onto the local stopping service that we wanted, we were lucky to meet Tom, a fellow travelling Englishman with valuable knowledge of the rail network!

Being both a regular visitor to Portugal and a working rail guard at home, Tom explained that rolling rail stock in the north of the country is low due to demand along the southern Linha de Algarve.

As such, vintage locomotives and carriages are being put back into use elsewhere. The result for us was a wonderful afternoon spent travelling in the high style of the 1960s along an incomparable riverside route and being pulled by a 1400 locomotive, which Tom advised us had been partly built in Britain.

The Douro Valley railway is on a wide gauge, which meant the carriages were large with comfortable lounge seating, pull down windows and chrome fixtures. The train was super clean and stylish.

We were able to stand at the windows and peer out, but not to far as we quickly discovered the line travelled through a series of tunnels which appeared suddenly at rocky corners, and could claim a loose limb or head poked outside…

Rolling vine-covered hillsides ended abruptly at a flat horizon under blazing blue skies. Severely terraced slopes had our eyes watering at their engineering which presumably was dug out by hand in the earliest days. The Douro region of wine is the world’s oldest regulated region dating from 1756.

Reds and whites are produced at both large commercial and small family concerns. Reduced demand for old school Port has seen new varieties of fortified wine being produced in the valley. We were keen to try some, but the high end and swanky boutique wineries were all further up the hillsides and required driving out to.

We saw a range of properties from uber modern ‘grand designs’ to dilapidated former workers’ cottages with their rooves caved in and now homes to nesting storks.

We passed small railway stations, endearingly lined with white-painted picket fencing along short platforms. There was very little housing nearby and Tom explained that a couple of the stations had been built solely for the purpose of transporting barrels of wine, not people, along the tracks.

The river narrowed at a steep rocky canyon and peering down from the rail line up above, we were amazed to see a wide tourist cruiser just about nosing through between tall boulders that seemed to act as sentinels on either of the waters.

Having just 20 minutes at our turnaround point we chatted with Tom at Pocinho’s only bar and he advised us to ride with him in the front pink-painted compartment on our return journey. It was first class!

We sprawled in seats that we could move on a central swivel to face either forward or backward and luxuriated in the views that opened under the bright, lowering early evening sunlight.

It was a sensational rail journey and one that will always be remembered.

Waving farewell to Tom, who was heading back to the end of the line at Porto, we acted on his last recommendation – a visit to a locals’ bar near to Regua railway station, Xanoca. Here we had possibly the best and most eccentric meal out of our trip!

Under the watchful gaze of interested old boys and the blaring of two televisions showing an impossibly sexist game show, we ordered a portion of grilled squid and requested a tasting of Port to go along with it.

We were served a mountain of fresh crusty bread with a whole creamy white cheese, two hugely pink and grilled squids with fried potatoes and pickled cabbage… and, hesitantly, a jug containing half a litre of ruby red port.

€20 later and with much conviviality and bemusement from our fellow diners we left chuckling, to research our meal. It turns out the Portuguese drink Port at every occasion and at any hour but never, ever with seafood. It was a fine misdemeanour on which to end a wonderful day!

 

Aveiro & Viseu

Calling itself the ‘Venice of Portugal’ is always going to get expectations racing wildly!

Aveiro, on the coastline, midway up the country is a bustling waterfront town alongside a saltwater lagoon. As we discovered, it’s a town of two markedly different halves.

A prosperous seaport in the 1500s, Aveiro was linked by the Rio Vouga to the Atlantic until a storm blocked its mouth. For two hundred years, the formerly wealthy town languished in obscurity with its population falling victim to fevers spread by the newly formed marshlands.

Barrio de Beira-Mar houses

In 1808 the opening of the man-made Barra Canal provided a passage back to the sea and Aveiro boomed back to economic life, evidenced by the gloriously sculptured and tiled art noveau houses that still line the little network of three main canals and short extensions.

At that time, the canals were kept clear of clogging seaweed by workers in ‘mocileiros’ – gondola shaped boats. Seaweed was collected and dried on threshing floors to be used as a fertiliser on the poor soil farmed around the town.

Moliceiros on Canal Central

As the 20th century introduced the era of chemical fertilisers, demand for the sustainable and natural alternative dried up and the boat owners transformed their business into one of leisure.

We watched the mocileiros scoot along the canals, crossed by small footbridges. A tour of the network takes just 45 minutes, which gives you an idea of the small and compact scale of the waterfront side of town.

Tiled seafood restaurant

Just behind the canals, open-air squares full of parasols over tables and chairs were filling up with hungry diners, eager to try the local seafood dishes. Prices seemed high after the meals we had enjoyed at the southern fishing village of Fuseta.

Noticeably, just a street away from the busy tourist hub, the houses lining the small lanes are much smaller but are still brightly coloured and tiled. In the oldest neighbourhood, the Barrio de Beira-Mar we enjoyed spotting the different patterns of tiles and paintings depicting the sea-faring town’s patron saint, San Goncalinho.

Purportedly good natured, the saint is still prayed to by couples anxious for a child and by singles anxious for a partner. The blue and white tiled roof of his church tops a balcony from which tonnes of sweet, white cavacas cakes are thrown down upon gathered crowds for the celebration of the saint’s day on January 10 every year.

However, venturing further into the old quarter, we were surprised by its evident poverty as the small properties became more dilapidated. This was a very different experience to admiring the mansions and merchants’ houses lining the canals.

Portuguese flag on balcony

The cottages of former boatmen, fishermen and salt pickers seemed to prop themselves up on each other and several looked to be in a state of dereliction.

We spotted a striking house decorated with art deco floral tiling and with ruined shutters that looked abandoned, then were surprised to see a hand open a broken window frame on the top floor. Someone was clearly living in it. It felt very sobering.

Turning another dilapidated corner, we saw an old chap in the front window of his battered-looking and tiny terraced house. Giving him a cheery wave and smile, he flagged two fingers back to us, albeit a little uncertainly. It seems there are winners and losers in today’s leisure driven Aveiro and we wondered if livelihoods were generally better in the old days of farming, fishing and salt picking.

After driving along the salt lagoon and being buffeted by strong gusts, we decided against staying at the coast and instead headed back inland to spend the night at Viseu. This was a treat!

Viseu Old Town view

A brooding hillside town, Viseu was settled by the Celts and then aggrandised under the Romans, being at the intersection of a series of roads linking Merida, Lisbon and Galicia.

During the Middle Ages it frequently switched hands between the Christians and the Moors, who called it Bazu. In peace times it had mixed religious communities of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Its notable sons included Alfonso Henriques, the First King of Portugal and Duarte I King of Portugal and Algarve, whose phenomenal mausoleum we had seen at Batalha.

We managed to miss the free funicular ride up to the crest of the town, so hiked up the steep hill to emerge at the grand courtyard square formed by the cathedral, the old Bishop’s Palace and the baroque Misericordia Church.

The cathedral was begun in the 12th century on the site of an earlier basilica. During the Middle Ages it was extended, but it was in the 1500s that its most important work, the construction of a new stone roof and new façade were completed. It’s an appealing mix of Gothic, Manuelline and Rennaisance styles and entry is through a columned courtyard of blue and white tiles depicting scenes from Viseu’s episcopal history.

Columns and mosaics courtyard

It was very pleasant to wander down around in the early evening warmth amongst tall and shuttered terraced houses in the old town. A beautifully dressed lady in silk was improbably gardening on her balcony and planting up pretty pots of begonias.

Today’s economy is largely wine-driven, and the winding streets that spill down the hillsides teem with vinoteks as well as handicraft shops of embroidery and copper and wrought iron articles.

Balcony gardening in window boxes

We found an interesting corner bar and sat amongst locals, managing not to get served until the bar tender had explained to a friend the various intricacies of his motorised scooter.

Life seemed unhurried as people ambled about and greeted each other cheerfully. It had a good feel to it and we spent a comfortable night in the town’s free aire, far down below.

 

Coimbra

Conimbriga bears spectacular witness to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, told over a domestic scale in a prosperous rural town. One of the best-preserved Roman sites on the Iberian Peninsula, the excavations cover a large site in rolling countryside southwest of Coimbra.

A wealthy town, it boasted several public baths, an enormous Forum, an aqueduct, amphitheatre, commercial district and large, privately owned mansions.

Conimbriga

Secure for centuries, its richest residents built palatial style houses adorned with fountains, interior courtyards and exquisite mosaic flooring.

Wandering around the complex in morning sunshine we both commented that it was an astonishing privilege to be able to walk along the very streets that its Roman citizens had, and to step across the thresholds of their homes and tiptoe along their floors.

Dining rooms and peristyle

Unlike other archaeological sites where you can see the foundations of a place but must imagine its dimensions, Conimbriga is still largely intact with buildings of varying heights.

So much so that you can stand in the small two roomed homes of the city’s workers as well as the palatial dining rooms and high-ceilinged reception halls of the wealthy patricians.

Brick columned ‘peristyles’ which are interior courtyards usually containing a shallow square pool of water, or a fountain, hint of the comfortable lives of the sophisticated and cultured town’s residents.

House of Cantaber doorways and peristyles

The mosaics are a highlight. Laid out on a grand scale in private houses they are still fully coloured and feature weaving patterns of rope and knot motifs as well as flowers and fauna and strikingly, swastikas.

The symbol had a positive meaning in the Classical world of good health and prosperity, before becoming appropriated by one of the twentieth century’s great evils.

Knotted mosaic

Dolphins swim, lovers kiss, men hunt deer on horseback, family members gaze up and a beheaded mermaid is rather gruesomely offered in sacrifice from the floors of the ‘House of Fountains’ and ‘House of Cantaber’.

Both are impressive monuments to the wealth of their owners and they also tell the sad tale of the town’s demise. The ‘House of Fountains’ is split in two by a large defensive wall that was hastily built as Conimbriga became the focus of attacks from northern tribes.

House of Cantaber inside defensive wall

Other smaller homes along the periphery of the new wall were also sacrificed in a wilful act of public demolition that still resonates with desperation, even all these centuries later.

As the Roman Empire collapsed in a series of invasions, Conimbriga – the peaceful and prosperous town of rural Lusitania – was abandoned by 468AD. Some of its inhabitants are thought to have been forced into slavery.

Hypercaust heating system at public baths

It was both exciting and deeply moving to spend time wandering amongst the town’s ancient history. For such a small entrance fee, €4.50, we had been gifted the chance to walk in the steps of citizens of Rome, and to marvel at their daily lives.

We could see where they swam and bathed in the public baths, where they met and gossiped at the Forum, where they bought food and drinks from at little shops and bars, where they enjoyed theatre and public debates and most touchingly, where they lived together in tiny terraced houses or wealthy luxury. What a place!

Mosiac of deer hunters

Riverside Coimbra was the medieval capital of Portugal for over a hundred years. It fairly tumbles down a steep hill, a riot of twisting lanes and alleyways lined with tall terraces of shuttered and balconied apartments, as well as churches, monasteries and palaces to land at the wide banks of the Rio Mondego.

It is topped with the gorgeous complex of the former Royal Palace. Since the 1537 the beautiful stone buildings have been home to Portugal’s oldest university, established in Lisbon in 1290.

Coimbra

Largely upgraded in the 1700s and 1800s with Baroque features, including a sensational library, the oldest part remains the Academic Prison. It’s the only Medieval prison that still exists in Portugal, a country where a person could get a punishment for destroying a book ‘the maximum expression of wisdom’.

Away from lofty thinking and dignified studies, the Old Town is flavoured with a healthy dash of intrigue and skulduggery. Shadowy corners, narrow passageways and deep stone doorways offer a myriad of cloak and dagger opportunities and we both felt that there was something of a Toledo-like aura to it.

University Plaza

Coimbra has two cathedrals, but it was the Old Se that charmed us most with its fortress-type feel. Romanesque in style it was begun in 1164 and was built on the site of a previous church destroyed in an attack by Muslim forces. Its austere faced is topped with battlements and a crenellated roofline in golden sandstone.

In the 16th century it was enlivened with a gorgeous stone sculpted door in the Renaissance style, the Porto Especiosa. This masterful work by the French sculptor Jean de Rouen uses triumphal arches and a tympanum decorated with saints, angels and Virgin and Child.

Intriguingly at head height on either side of the stone portico the figures of what appear to be Jesus with a lamb and Mohammed with the Koran gaze out in unity. We couldn’t establish this as nothing we could discover online or in the guide book explained why such imagery would sit together. It was reminiscent of the Mesquita at Cordoba where both Christianity and Islam blend in harmony.

Less harmonious were the tempers of drivers squeezing their cars through impossibly narrow corners and across cobblestones. We assumed them to be visitors in hire cars, caught up in a set of hapless circumstances but no! they all were locals heading towards tiny parking spaces marked in paint on the cobblestones in the lee of the town’s walls.

Back across the river, everyone was partying as the national holiday weekend brought out an evening crowd of beer drinkers and bocadillo munchers. Again, like Toledo, the local snack was a dangerously crusty looking roll of thick bread filled with wafer thin and fatty slices of Iberico Ham.

We eschewed that chewy challenge and instead had a tasty morsel of a light sweet scone, purportedly baked by a hustling nun but in showing us her jazzy leggings under her habit we understood her to be a good-natured fraud!

 

Fatima & Batalha

In 1917 whilst the world raged in war and Portuguese soldiers died in their thousands at the Western Front, the little village of Fatima was typically impoverished and destitute of hope. Then something happened that changed the fortunes of Fatima, and indeed those of the Catholic church around the world. Three young children claimed to have been visited on several occasions by both an Angel and Mary, Mother of God.

Their claims were initially disputed by the local authorities and shunned by the church but as word got out, thousands of people began to gather in Fatima every month hopeful of sharing the visionary experiences of the ‘three little shepherds’. Matters reached a climax on 13 October 1917 when, across an area of 600 square miles, thousands of people witnessed a cosmic event now known as ‘the Dance of the Sun’.

Fatima Basilica

Lucia Santos and her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marta repeated messages that they had been given emphasising the need to pray, and especially to say the Rosary, to secure personal and world peace.

Interestingly a complex message was given to Lucia prophesying the future role of Russia and communism in ‘annihilating nations’ and persecuting the Catholic Church.

A ‘secret message’ has since been interpreted by Church authorities as prophesying the assignation attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 who believed his life was saved by the direct intervention of Mary, and who gave the bullet that was fired into his body as a gift to Fatima.

Of the three, Jacinta and Francisco died soon after the visitations, having caught a fever. Lucia became a nun and lived until her nineties. On hearing of her terminal illness, Pope John Paul II sent a message by fax and her family have said that on her deathbed, and blind, Lucia asked to hold the sheeny paper that contained his words of comfort to her.

Fatima today is unrecognisable from how it must have been more than 100 years ago. The scrubby pasture lands outside the village, where the children claimed to have been visited several times by Mary, is now a sea of concrete. The original rustic shrine marking the spot is now a stone column topped with a small statue of Mary set in a glass case within an open air and uber-modern chapel of stone pews and glass walls.

Pyre of burning candles

A flaming furnace flanked with iron racks for burning candles is a veritable pyre nearby. Black clouds of billowing smoke poured out from it, as well a procession of coughing and watery-eyed pilgrims. I hoped for a quiet Lady Chapel elsewhere in which to light a candle, but sadly none was evident which seemed a little odd and a bit disappointing.

We walked out of the massive complex and along the main road of roundabouts and towering hotels punctuated with gigantic stone statues of the ‘three little shepherds’.

A pathway took us up and into the olive groves which at least gave a sense of the village’s original rural setting.

Walking through olive groves

In a small rocky grotto, we found where the children claimed to have first been visited by an Angel who described himself as being ‘the national guardian angel, the Angel of Portugal’. It was not hard to imagine their little flock of sheep and goats nibbling nearby.

It was a national holiday weekend, with the Monday being celebrated as Portugal Day. Before then, Fatima was hosting a Festival of Children and families were already arriving in their thousands at the complex ahead of the next day’s celebrations and special masses.

Site of Angel’s first and third visit

Portugal has a problem with its children – there aren’t enough of them. Its population crisis has been described as a ‘perfect storm’ of increasing numbers of elderly, the migration of working-age people to major towns and cities, and lower-than-average fertility levels.

Packed in amongst a hundred or more motorhomes we chatted to a ‘long termer’ chap who stunned us by announcing that he’d been staying in the complex’s car park for two and half years. Apparently, someone else had already clocked up three years! Whilst we appreciated the friendliness and free drinking water, we couldn’t face a night in the never-ending traffic chaos of new arrivals, so moved on to spend the evening at Batalha.

A quiet night at Batalha

Its impressive monastery, dating from the Middle Ages, is a fantasy in limestone and writhing with twisted columns, seashells, exotic flowers, saints, angels and apostles.

It fairly bristles with pinnacles and parapets, and sports gigantic flying buttresses and Gothic carved windows. In the early evening sunshine, it shone a warm palate of ambers and creams, with one single minaret sandblasted a pure ivory white.

In stark contrast, its vast and vaulted interior is plain but would have originally been painted. Its sheer size is overpowering, and the excited exclamations of other visitors bounced up and around its massive stone-pillared heights in an acoustic chorus of wonder.

This incredible abbey was built to commemorate the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. Against the odds, an army of 6,500 Portuguese repelled the 30,000 strong force of Juan I of Castille on a mission to claim the throne of Joao d’Avis. Joao prayed to Mary for help and vowed to build an abbey if victorious.

Another war, the First World War, is commemorated with an iron work ‘the Unknown Soldier’ gifted from Neuve Chapelle in France in thanks for the effort by Portuguese soldiers on the Western Front.

Two very different cloisters separate the interior. The Clausto Real (Royal Cloister) is a riot of writing stonework created in the Maueline fashion.  This high art sculpture work reflected a rampantly glorious Portugal in her sea-faring days and uses nautical motifs of rope, knots and seashells intertwined with flowers and vegetation to decorate arches, windows and columns.

Claustro de Dom Afonso V

Alongside it the simple Claustro de Dom Afonso V is refreshingly plain and like a glass of clear, cold water after a heady night on red wine. We both enjoyed strolling through it on our way to the ‘unfinished chapels’ of 1437.

Designed as a mausoleum for Duarte I, King of Portugal and Algarve (1433-1438) the whimsically named Capelas Imperfeitas are perhaps the most perfect thing about the abbey. Featuring seven chapels which complete an octagonal building roofless under an open sky, the Manueline work by the renowned architect Mateus Fernandes is sumptuous and life-affirming even as a reflection upon death.

Roofless Unfinished Chapels

In a charming twist, a pair of rather gorgeous purply-grey sheened Palomas (pigeons) were busy making their nest under the protection of a gable of saints and seashells.

One of them clearly wanted a stray twig that was near to my feet. I bent down and tossed it gently across to the bird who chirruped and bore it hastily aloft. A small moment, but a happy one in a magical place!

 

Coruche

Land of cork trees, land of owls. Named by the first King of Portugal, Alfonso 1, on passing through the region and seeing the many night hunters, Coruche derives from the Portuguese name for an owl.

Man has lived here for more than 7,500 years, evidenced by a megalithic cluster of standing stones in the south east of the area. Today, half of the municipality is forested with a mix of cork and pine trees. Forest farming produces wood, cork and pine nuts of highest quality and price.

Old city aqueduct

Cork is a natural product of high environmental and ecological value. In the week that Trump visited the UK, the effects of climate change were being highlighted in the British media and were at the top of our minds.

We set out on our bikes, alongside the old city aqueduct, to discover more about the harvesting of cork and its benefits.

Cork bark mountains

Cork trees live to an astonishing age. Their average life cycle is 270 years and a tree can be harvested for its cork every nine years, once it reaches maturity. The cork is removed by hand by carefully axing the outer layer of bark from the tree. This does not harm it, and the tree grows a new cork bark. The year of harvest is marked on the trunk, so each tree isn’t harvested at the wrong time.

Whilst the trees grow new bark, they continue to eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere – in Portugal the total amount eliminated equals nearly 5 million tonnes every year, therefore cork is one of the most sustainable and non-impactful products on the planet.

Cork bark drying

Coruche supplies 5 million cork stoppers to the world every day. Stop, think about that. 5 million? Yet bizarrely the cork industry is under threat.

Imported Aussie and Californian wines with their screw tops and cheap European varietals with their rubber or plastic corks are reducing demand from wine makers for the world’s most sustainable resource.

My response? By all means drive your hybrid cars, eat meat-free diets, and protest against a second runway – but drink more wine from cork-bottled vintages!

We headed into the Cork Observatory, itself a building entirely covered in cork, to learn about the technologies being applied to finding new use for cork in modern life.

A little strangely, we were allowed to wander about the place without any guide or information and poke our noses into labs where engineers in overalls worked at microscopes and computers.

Dotted around were examples of wearable clothing, flooring and furniture, all of which were eye grabbing but not enough to stop the mass use of plastic and synthetic fabrics.

Harvested cork bark

However, in a corner, we spotted an ‘IKImobile’, a smartphone encased in cork. It just might be enough to change consumer behaviour as it is a product of mass appeal without requiring the tonnes of plastic casing. Nearby to the Observatory we cycled past the IKImobile development centre calling ‘good luck folks!’ to the erstwhile developers.

Coruche’s Lerizia (lowlands) are fertilized by the Sorraia River, a tributary of Portugal’s giant Rio Tagus. The southern road to the town criss-crosses the river and includes seven bridges in just three kilometres. The bridges are single track girder, or truss, bridges painted in dark reds, oranges and yellow.

Paddy fields alongside River Sorraia

Priority systems were wildly ignored by motorists and it seemed each bridge crossing was more a case of ‘chicken’ – who blinks first at 50 miles an hour?

As cyclists we stuck to the narrow pedestrian walkways on the outside of each bridge to avoid being barged by the traffic. On the narrow main road, we were not overtaken rather pushed onto the edge of the tarmac and twice a wing mirror grazed one of us as we struggled to stay out of green, watery ditches.

Truss Bridge

Surprisingly the Sorraia provides the base for rice, grown in paddy fields bordered along the roadside with gigantic bamboo canes. It was a taste of the Orient.

Returning to the pretty town, we saw clouds of smoke billowing above the hillside. Commenting that it was ironic if caused by industrial pollutant we quickly realised it was a wildfire.

Coruche from above

Two helicopters worked in tandem to dip and scoop water from the river (which was at low tide) and dowse it onto the raging flames just a mile from the boundary of the town.

Everyone seemed to be out on the streets watching their brave and urgent work. We learned later that homes had been evacuated. Fire engines raced around but couldn’t get close to the forest flames.

After two hours of sustained dippings and dowsings, the fire was out and just a little smoke remained in the air. People happily dispersed and at our free aire we heard the celebratory sound of corks being opened from bottles.

It was churlish not to join them in a suitable toast ‘Let’s save the planet! Drink more wine from cork-bottled vintages!’

Evora

Evora has an ancient heritage dating back to Neolithic times but it was the Romans who transformed it into a bustling commercial centre and an Imperial town.

Their mark is still felt. Called Ebora Liberalitus Julia it still contains a temple of worship to the cult of Julius Caesar and an ashlar-built aqueduct.

Ducking into the city walls and winding our way through the narrow old Medieval quarter we enjoyed the washing lines strung outside upper windows packed with oversized pants and pinnies!

Washing strung outside windows

The historic centre of ancient and medieval architecture is now classified as a UNESCO world heritage site. We began our explorations at the Plaza De Giraldo, a grandly arcaded central square of boutique and coffee shops centred around a fountain and the 16th century church of Saint Antony.

It was a cool and cloudy day which we appreciated after the blistering heat of 35 degrees at the coast on the Algarve.

Plaza De Giraldo

Climbing up the cobbled streets to the massive Cathedral, built over 200 years from the 13th – 15th centuries we passed shops selling ceramic tiles. Particularly appealing were those of fish and seafood. Their prices were eyewatering. Here, clearly is a tourist trap!

Up on the Cathedral rooftops we had the treat of panoramic views across the rural countryside. The town was briefly in the hands of the Moorish Al-Andalus empire but claimed by the ‘reconquista’ in 1165.

During the 1300s the ruling monarchs established their court here, to the detriment of Lisbon and Coimbra.

Atop the cathedral roof

The rooftops were bustling with international tourists which we found interesting, and later discovered were on a day trip from Lisbon in coaches. Thankfully, we had realised the bells were about to chime, so we were prepared for the earsplitting gongs. Not so the tour group, several of whom lost a few years of their lives at 11 o clock in Evora.

Seeking some peace, we headed down to the ornate cloisters, created in elaborate stonework and bounding a simple green garden of lawns.

Above the cloisters

From here it was a short walk uphill to the standing remains of a Roman temple, columned on two sides and set above road height.

Archaeologists disagree over its provenance. Initially thought to be dedicated to Diana, Goddess of the Hunt it is now thought to have been dedicated to the cult of the first emperor, Julius Caesar.

Whatever, it was stunning to stand in the shadow of the elegantly fluted columns and see the scale of the power of a message, still resonant today. Everyone who passed by stopped to gaze and take photographs. Hail, Caesar!

Roman temple

The massive and towering aqueduct that stands today was built during the 1500s but probably on the site of the old Roman feat of engineering.

The Alentejo region has very hot summers and mild dry winters, with minimal rain throughout the year. The scant supply of ground water extracted via wells limited Evora’s early growth, and there was the constant fear of drought.

This changed under the reign of King John III who decreed that Evora should have a constant supply of fresh water, which was only possible by the construction of the aqueduct to connect with the Ribeira do Divor, some 9kms away.

Aqueduct homes

The aqueduct was started in 1531 and took 6 years to construct, with the majority of the time spent building the final few kilometers into the town centre.

Today, tiny houses and shops are built into its arches, barely one up one down. It was bijou living on an extreme scale. Presumably the homes of the impoverished are now Air bnb rentals.

Inside the building of the town council we meandered past a queue of local taxpayers (or petitioners?) to gaze upon a Roman circular bath or Laconicum.

Discovered in the 1980s, when a floor needed replacing, the perfect stone circle is intact and spacious enough to accommodate a dozen steaming water worshippers.

Roman circular bath

Up above a Regency-style decoration, numbered panels and seemingly suspended doorway tell the story of countless later municipal gatherings unaware of what lay below them. It was terrific!

The Capela dos Ossos is a chilling sight of the remains of more than 5,000 people racked and stacked by Franciscan monks when the town’s graveyards were overflowing during the 1700s. We left the Japanese tourists to it, having had our fill at the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic some years before.

 

Silves

From the earliest of times, the green River Arcade was the route into the interior of the Algarve via the sea. Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians were drawn to and prospered upon the riches of copper and iron mined in the west of the region.

Silves owes its existence to its strategic point on the top of a hill dominating a broad plain and bordered by the navigable river. Romans may have established it and finds from a deep sunken well within the old city are an evocative testimony to a Classical civilisation, but it was the Moors who brought long years of prosperity and development.

As newcomers to Portuguese history we learned with fascination that Silves was the first capital city of the Moorish Algarve, part of the wider Al-Andalus.

By the 11th century it had surpassed Lisbon for size and splendour and was a cultural centre of poets, chroniclers and lawmakers. Moorish irrigation and agricultural systems brought sustenance, and science and medicine enriched local life.

However, as the Muslim world of the 12th century rocked internally and politically, factions fought each other for control of the city and the Portuguese catholic King Sancho 1 took advantage. He besieged Silves in 1189 and won it from the Moors in a long and cruel act of starvation and the slaughter of its citizens.

Pink tiled townhouse

Sancho’s army was assisted by crusaders from the north of Europe heading onwards to Jerusalem and in declaring victory over a decimated population he first used the title of ‘King of Silves’.

Sancho’s rule was shortlived. In 1191 a devastated population was reclaimed by the Almohad dynasty in a military campaign run by the Caliph himself.

Silves remained Muslim until the Christian occupation of the lands of the Algarve from 1242 – 1249 which ended the ‘reconquista’ in Portugal. Modern-day Andalusia in Spain would continue to flourish under Moorish rule for another 250 years.

Fortress sandstone walls

Silves fortress is still intact in outline, as are some of its Moorish defence walls. Built in red sandstone and cemented with ‘taipa’ – mud mixed with lime and small stones – the fortress covers an area of 12,000 meters squared.

Polygonal in shape it has eight flanking towers, two detached towers and two enormous gates. Their names are romantic: ‘tower of secrets’, ‘tower of women’, ‘gate of betrayal’.

The foundation walls of Almohad palatial houses are still clearly visible and show central courtyards and wells, bases of columns and flights of steps to upper living accommodation.

Beneath ground a huge vaulted hall is the old water cistern which had the capacity to hold up to 12 million litres – enough fresh water for more than 1,000 people to use and drink every year. It was functioning for the modern city until 1990.

After the reconquest, Silves’ fortunes fell fast. With the loss of trading links to the Moorish kingdoms in Africa and a silting up of the River Arcade it lost its economic power and importance. As its influence waned, the coastal towns of Faro, Lagos and Portimao rose in ascendancy. Nature played her part in Silves’s decline too.

Old bridge over River Arcade

Earthquakes and a devastating fever caused by the swamp that had formed where the river once flowed almost finished the city. The coup de grace was the decision by the Catholic church to transfer its Episcopal See to Faro, with the result that Silves shrank from history for three hundred long years.

However, the 19th century brought an economic boom in dried fruit and cork processing. Silves resurged as an inland Algarve town with a rich historical heritage.

Even today, walking around the winding street pattern of its old Medina, we saw Moorish carved decorations on one storey houses and admired Moorish-inspired graffiti.

As the sun set, we joined the locals at a festival of ‘corn and folk music’, known locally as Mostra de Papas de Milho.

Women stirred large bubbling hot pots of polenta and water, flavoured with chorizo or clam meat while men prodded at barbecues of pork and chicken.

Sucking on snails

A lot of people were eating a lot of caracoles, small snails boiled and served in plastic dishes with wooden picks to hook out the slippery meat. Frankly, we needed a small glass of Super Bock beer to get over the sight of it.

As we parked up the bikes, a rather bizarre ‘ethnographic dance group’ from coastal Quelfes began to entertain the crowds and snail eaters, whilst dressed as elderly peasants. Where on earth were we?

The young-ish dancers shook, limped and cavorted their way through a series of songs played by an accompanying band on guitars, accordions and tambourines.

It was boisterous, if a little uncomfortable, watching the imitation shaking and tottering which went on for at least half an hour. One particular chap, who appeared to be the leader, repeatedly grabbed his crotch – you can see him in the image above. He held that position throughout.

We did enjoy their finale which was a hand-clapping and rousing melody from Fuseta!

Fado singer on stage

As the mournful tones of the night’s main act, a Fado singer from Lisbon, held sorrowfully in the air, we cycled along the riverbank back to Bertha with views of the floodlit and party-hosting fortress above us.

It was to be a very long night waiting for some peace in which to sleep. At 4am on a Monday morning, silence fell in Silves…. just for a few brief and precious minutes before the noisy bill-clattering of nesting storks heralded a new day.