The Middle Ages in Alentejo province
Fortified towns along the Spanish border
On almost every hill top along the Spanish border in the Alentejo sits a fortified town, where time has stood still since the Middle Ages. The larger towns, Evora, Elvas, Estremoz and Castelo de Vide, each have their own particular charm. Bicycle trip through the Alentejo province of Portugal.
Travelogue & photos: Piet de Geus
Countless crates with chicklets, ducklings and goslings. Bunches of fresh herbs hang on market stalls. Large baskets are filled with chestnuts, almonds, beans and grain. Fresh goat cheese, dried sausages and smoked hams change hands over the counter. There is no lack of songbirds, rabbits, violets, citrus trees, vegetables, fruit and fresh fish either.
On Saturday mornings there is a farmers market in the streets around the Moorish looking mercado municipal in Loulé. Merchants have been arriving in town from all corners of the Algarve since yesterday, by truck or with a few boxes of merchandise on the backseats of their mopeds, or even by bus. Tonight their - somewhat loud - weekly reunion took place in B & B Cavaco, where we spent our first night in southern Portugal. There was a lot of visiting and knocking on doors going on, our door was not spared.
From Loulé we bicycle north on narrow roads that wind over the wooded slopes of mountains which separate the Algarve from the Alentejo. Frequently we rush down into gorgeous river valleys, only to climb out of them on the other side.
For hours we don't see anyone while we bicycle along steep ravines from one gorgeous mountain village to the next. Via Barranco Velho, Cachopo and Martim Longo we arrive in the border area where King Dom Dinis (1279-1325) fortified around forty villages and towns with walls and fortresses to protect his country from Castile. In the coming weeks we will visit a lot of these towns in the eastern part of the Alentejo.
A fortified town on a rock overgrown with agave
When we cross the high stone bridge with five arches which spans the Ribeira de Oeiras, Mertola appears above us, on a rock overgrown with agave.
Inside its thick walls lie medieval alleys with small white houses. Scattered between those are here and there somewhat larger town houses, and there's a diminutive square with orange trees and a tower with a stork's nest.
The Igreja Matriz is a former mosque; between the marble columns one can still see where the mihrab used to be, but the church isn't very interesting. Neither are the remains of the Roman wharf on the bank of the Rio Guadiana. But the view of the river canyon is great. Truely spectacular is the view from the castle walls of the village and the two rivers that frame it. The castle itself isn't much more than a ruin with a keep.
In front of a small restaurent a horse is tied to a street lantern. The old owner of restaurant Alengarve does everything within his power to make his guests comfortable. He has a justified preference for regional dishes.
There is even a Dutch menu, translated by his son, who lives in The Hague, The Netherlands. The fresh fish, caught today before our eyes in the Guadiana, is excellent, as is the goat stew. The house wine is a Terras d'el Rei from Reguengos de Monsaraz, a delicious red wine, which we will drink often.
On our balcony, high above the banks of the Guadiana, we enjoy a cigaret and the wonderful view of the illuminated walls of the fortress above us, which look even more impressive now.
Above the heavy towers runs the aquaduct
Via a huge bridge over the Rio Guadiana we leave Mertola. In the scorching sun we bicycle via a steep, mountainous route to Mina de São Domingos.
Just before this village, between woods, lies a calm water reservoir. The village has long streets with low houses around a big church. It was the home of the 6,000 miners who worked in the mines from 1858 to 1965.
We continue northward through a typical Alentejan landscape: as far as the eye can see, rolling hills with grain and sheep. To our right the hills go down all the way into Spain. Rain begins to poop (or, more accurately: pee) on our party. We wait it out in a bus shelter.
When we leave the Serra de Mertola and bicycle into the Serra de Serpa, the hills are wooded. In Santa Iria we take shelter again, this time in a tiny bar. We learn a new Portuguese word: chuva, rain. I have a hot chocolate: Holland in Portugal.
A little later we arrive in Serpa, and continue to the gates of the old city. Above the high walls and the gate, which is flanked by two heavy towers, runs the 11th century aquaduct, with at its end a wooden paddle wheel. The white houses with their cast-iron balconies and huge Moorish chimneys are painted grey around the windows and doors. In other towns it's often yellow ochre or light blue, while in other towns the inhabitants clearly can't agree on which color to use.
The castle tower offers a great view of the sometimes stately streets of Serpa, the squares with orange trees, churches and palm trees.
It's always fun to see how your point of view changes a town: when walking around, everything looks white, but from a high-lying vantage point the red tiled roofs dominate the view.
Of course we have some famous Serpa cheese as appetizer: a creamy cheese which is spooned from its crust onto a piece of bread. Our main course is the typical Porco à Alentejana, a stew with pork and shellfish.
A park with palm trees on the city walls
We bicycle along grainfields and olive groves, for long stretches up and then again down, accompanied by the bells of rummaging cows and sheep. We pass Pias, a typical Alentejan farmers village with long streets and little white houses with gardens behind them, fenced in by white walls. It's time for coffee. And to take shelter from the rain once more. The farmers stare at us, curious about our bicycle wear. The bravest one eventually asks us where we come from. And yes, indeed, 'muito chuva'.
Via a dead straight road we eventually arrive in Moura. More than these thirty kilometers isn't in the books today, the showers follow one another increasingly fast. And it's not really a punishment to have to spend half an afternoon in Moura. The yellow-ochre church has a beautiful Manueline portal and a balcony with marble columns. Opposite the church are the remains of the fortres, a gorgeous marble fountain and on top of the city walls sits a park with palm trees and ponds.
Many buildings in Moura are tiled with azulejos (Portuguese blue tiles) and there remain a few picturesque street of the mouraria, the former Moorish quarter. The only downside is that when we turn off the lights at night, it is a sign for the local brass band to start rehearsing on the other side of the alley.
Two streets with bumpy cobblestones
We leave Moura, descending along the city walls. Bicycling through a panoramic landscape with every now and then a lone farmhouse, we reach Povóa, another sleepy Alentejan village. From there, a terrible road leads through cork oak woods and olive groves, alternating with grainfields and vineyards, to Mourão.
Mourão is dominated by a high-lying castle. A church was built in the castle walls. From the castle hill we get our first look at the eagle nest of Monsaraz, in the distance on a high mountain.
We descend to the bridge over the Guadiana and then immediately turn right to climb again. Soon it gets too much, both the incline and the potholes in the road.
With a breathtaking view of the fortress Monsaraz we push our bikes up. Hundreds of rabbits flee. We pass a dolmen and the road gets even steeper and windier. Before we can push our bikes through the city gate, our heads red as beets, we are attacked from the stronghold by a busload of Japanese tourists: click, click, click... In a tower next to the gate, a church tower is built, a phenomenon one encounters here every now and then.
Monsaraz is a medieval idyll, it has exactly two streets with bumpy cobblestones. The tourist office, Turismo, nonetheless provides maps for whoever thinks to be able to get lost here. We find a room at Dona Antonia's; she is an old lady who rents rooms in one of the beautiful 16th century town houses on the main street. Inside, the houses turn out to have more space than one would think looking at them from the outside.
For centuries nothing has changed in the way these streets look. Even the antennas are disappearing again now that even CNN can be received via cable. Renting rooms, a handful of restaurants and souvenir shops provide a source of income by which the exodus from the remote fortress seems to have been prevented.
Fortunately, it's all on a modest scale and there are no screaming billboards. People seem to be aware that the beauty of the place must not be disrupted.
At 7 AM I wander through the streets, accompanied by a stray dog, to take pictures in the soft morning light. In the middle of the main street is a church square with a pelourinho, a medieval pillory. At the end of the street is the castle, whose courtyard nowadays is used as an arena. Even though there is so little space within the walls, each house has a green backyard.
Apart from the main entrance there are three more gates in the walls. Next to one of them is a cistern. A walk around the city walls offers beautiful views of the surroundings, where amidst the vineyards of Terras d'el Rei, far below, lie some villages. Outside the gates grow huge agaves and waterfalls of blossoming succulents flow from the rocks.
Slowly Monsaraz awakes. Trucks with loading platforms full of construction workers arrive. They work at excavations outside the walls, and are restoring the fortifications and the Inquisition House. In the main street trucks and vans appear, carrying fish, vegetables and bread.
It still rains from time to time. The rain makes the cobbled streets shine beautifully in the light of the streetlanterns at night. Of course, Terras d'el Rei is served with dinner. And, of course, dinner is followed by a romantic walk in the streets and around the walls, which are illuminated by floodlights.
Even the curbs and manhole covers are made of marble
As hard as it is to get to Monsaraz, it's wonderful to bicycle out of the fort. On a good, asphalted road, we zip between vineyards to Reguengos de Monsaraz, from where a dead straight road with many short, steep slopes leads northward.
Terena is dominated by a church and a 13th century castle. Alandroal too, as it is supposed to be.
It's getting more mountainous and the landscape changes into a cheese with holes full of large cranes. In the numerous quarries between the cork oaks and olive trees marble is won, as it has been for ages. It shows in the towns around here. Almost everything in Vila Viçosa is made of marble, not just the usual churches and fountains, but also the doorposts and window frames of houses; the benches in the streets and even curbs, sidewalks and manhole covers.
Of course the over a hundred meters long Renaissance façade of the Paço Ducal, the duke's palace, is made of marble, as is the paving of the huge square in front if it. On this square also sit two monasteries; a little farther is the "knots gate," the remains of a 16th century city wall.
The central square is Praça da Republica, an elongated square with marble benches and a pretty fountain, and lined with orange trees. The buildings look Moorish and sometimes one sees the weirdest combinations, like a building with azulejos and cast-iron balconies, with marble edges. There are rooms for rent in this one.
At the end of the Praça, on a hill, sit the enormous walls of the castelo: Dom Dinis didn't pass Vila Viçosa by. Inside the walls are, apart from the castle and a church, also the famous streets with low white houses.
The most complete fortress in Europe
A narrow road winds from slope to slope between cork oaks, olive trees and large stretches of undeveloped land. Every now and then we descend to a bridge over a brook. After 30 kilometers, on a hill, appear fortifications which surpass everything we have seen so far. Elvas is the counterpart of the Spanish bastion Badajoz on the opposite bank of the Guadiana, and one of the most complex and best preserved fortifications in Europe. Outside the city are two more forts on steep hills.
Elvas is surrounded by double city walls, complete with motes and star-shaped bastions. It's still hard to enter the city through the Portas de Esquira: before they cross the drawbridge, cars honk to warn others that they driving into the narrow tunnel and are coming around the bend. Before the second gate, there is a little room between bastions and motes to let oncoming traffic pass by.
From the bastions one has a great view of the huge aquaduct which reaches the city here after 7 meandering kilometers. The construction of the 33 meters high colossus with over 800 arches took over a century. Trucks crossing underneath the enormous quadruple arches look like toy cars.
The central square with the cathedral is also called Praça da Republica in Elvas. Behind the cathedral is the gorgeous Largo de Santa Clara, surrounded by town houses and a church. On this miniature square sits a Manueline pelourinho, with a Moorish gate from the 10th century behind it, which is flanked by fortified towers which were part of the old city walls. On top of the gate is a beautiful loggia.
The gate leads to a maze of steep medieval cobblestone streets, part of which form the old Moorish quarter. There are potted plants everywhere and laundry is drying in the streets.
Sometimes the streets turn into stairways, or we have to walk through gates. On the edge of the quarter is the castelo. The keep has a great view of Elvas and its surroundings. In the distance sits the Graça fortress on a hill of the same height as the one we're on.
In a street which ends on Largo de Misericordia I discover a little restaurant with the promising name "Vinho Verde". The tasty, cold vinho verde is served by the liter in large stone pitchers. It goes well together with a tuna salad and broiled fish, which even here, near the Spanish border, is fresh.
Castelo de Vide
Waves of white houses seem to flow from two mountain peaks
We leave Elvas, bicycling beneath the arches of the aquaduct and below the Forte da Graça. Santa Eulalia deserves to be mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records for the smallest houses with the biggest chimneys.
Riding between hills with cork oaks amidst large rocks, we reach Arronches, a pretty white village which lies hidden behind olive groves on a hill above the Rio Caia.
Between Arronches and Portalegre the increasingly high mountain peaks of the Serra de São Mamede slowly appear behind meadows with cows. To our left are cork oaks between endless fields of yellow and purple flowers.
Portalegre, a town with many college students, lies at the foot of one of the highest mountains and is supposed to be very pretty. The streets are narrow and the differences in altitude large, but it is mainly crowded and grey.
Prepared for the toughest part of the tour, we keep bicycling, into the mountains. It's not as bad as we thought: we rush in a relaxed way through the wooded mountainscape. Only the last part is tough: a busy road climbs up steeply through all of a sudden rocky surroundings toward the Spanish border. High up to the left, Castelo de Vide appears, to our right sits a small church on a steep green mountain wall.
Castelo de Vide is (at 620 meters) both literally and metaphorically a high point of our trip. From two mountain tops, white houses with heavy granite doorposts and window frames seem to flow in waves toward the city center. A few hairpin turns take us there, along a park with palm trees and a square with a marble fountain. The town center sits between the mountain peaks, like a pass. It has a huge church and a large, muddy square. The buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries, as do the walls that surround Castelo. A town palace in the main street houses the Turismo, the tourist office. Outside sits a pelourinho.
From the main street, straight streets climb steeply to Praça Alto, a miradouro (lookout) on the right mountain peak.
On the walls of the fortress with little watchtowers one has a view of green farmlands and lower hills down below. To the right, the walls end in the Forte de São Roque, to the left sits the castle on the next mountain peak.
The main street ends in a medieval alley. Meandering alleys lead up to the Fonte da Vila, a covered marble Renaissance fountain on a beautiful square. Through the judiaria, the former Jewish quarter, of which a synagogue remains, the streets climb up. Many house doors are shaped like Gothic pointed arches. Beside the doors hang bird cages. There are potted plants everywhere and marguerites grow between the cobblestones.
The castelo from the 13th and 14th centuries sits on the top of the mountain behind another row of thick walls. Some doorposts are decorated with a coat of arms and in every alley there is a church or a chapel.
Even in the gates laundry hangs out to dry. From the keep of the castle on has, almost needless to say, a great view of Castelo and the mountains around it. On one of those mountains lies Marvão.
A maze of medieval alleys
Marvão lies at a distance of 12 kilometers from Castelo, at an altitude of 900 meters on a steep, rocky mountain. In the category of eagle nests, it competes with Monsaraz for the title of most beautiful town. The village is surrounded by enormous walls, which merge seamlessly with the rocks. A few gates lead into a maze of medieval alleys. It doesn't matter which street or stairs one takes, they're all equally beautiful.
Walking up, one automatically ends up in a green park. Behind it, the castelo towers sky-high above the town, with a complex of fortifications and gates. The view is supposed to be fabulous, but not today...
It's rainy and Marvão is covered by clouds. Every now and then we can hardly see the other side of the street. It makes for a fairy-tale atmosphere, but also obscures the mountain ridge of Serra de Estrela, which lies 100 km farther north.
The huge keep dominates the area
Castelo de Vide and Marvão are the most northern points of our trip. We descend from the Serra de São Mamede in western direction.
We bicycle south on quiet roads in a varied landscape with woods, fields of flowers and recently plowed, deep-red soil. On our route are nice towns like Crato, Alter do Chão and Fronteira.
When we descend from the Serra de São Miguel between vineyards, we see Estremoz in the distance on a hill with heavy fortifications. The lavish marble shines in the sunshine. We are back in marble land, in the area of Vila Viçosa.
Around the Rossio of Estremoz, a vast sand plain, lie some interesting buildings: a monastery, a sweet rural museum (lots of home-made cork thingies, which is only appropriate in the Alentejo), a large church which is completely made of marble and a building with gorgeous azulejos (in which the city hall and a police station are housed, entrance is free).
Next to the Rossio is a square with a nice park, a marble fountain in a big pond and a view of the castle, which towers over the bright-white houses. Via a few streets with again lots of marble, we walk to the pretty Praça Camoes, with a pelourinho. To the right, narrow streets meander up to the medieval quarter. The picturesque Rua Direita ends at the castle gate. The castle is surrounded by a ring of star-shaped bastions. From the gate an equally picturesque street leads to a square with a huge keep with Moorish battlements, which dominates the whole area. Next to it is the large white palace of Dom Dinis, in which nowadays a pousada (luxury hotel) is housed.
Within the enormous walls, there is only one street
Slowly we leave the border area with Spain and bicycle westward. Between the cork and holm oaks on the foothills of the Ossa de São Gens black pigs rummage about.
High above us another walled-in medieval village appears. The road that leads to it, is steep. Too steep, so we have to walk.
We push our bikes up to the gate, along a chapel and beneath the enormous walls. The gate gives access to the only street of Evoramonte. Also here, pretty white houses with Gothic doorposts and large Moorish chimneys on a cobblestone road. Vegetable gardens lie behind the houses against the walls of the village.
The only thing that is out of tune, is the castle itself, a huge cake box, which even has ribbons and bows... Moreover, the colossus is a cement replica. But the view is breathtaking: on one side we see Estremoz and the mountains over which we bicycled to that city, on the other side lies Evora in the distance.
Definitely not a city to see in one day
After a last series of wooded hills we bicycle on a dead straight road between rolling grainfields. Ahead of us is Evora, behind walls, on an elongated, low hill. To the right the aquaduct continues outside the city.
Evora doesn't have highlights, it is a highlight. The Unesco couldn't make up its mind either and simply declared everything withing the city walls world heritage. That was the right decision, because it is exactly the harmony of everything together which makes this city what it is.
After a golden age during the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was the residence of the royal house of Avis, a university was founded and many city palaces were built, Evora declined to a sleepy agricultural town. Because of this, it never was spoiled by eye sores in later centuries. Thanks to its current protected status that won't happen either.
The central square of Evora is Praça do Giraldo, a gorgeous square with terraces on mosaics made of white and black pebbles. The square is surrounded by arcades, a church, town houses and city palaces - all of them white with yellow-ochre accents. Despite the bus loads of tourists and the first hippies with guitars and knick knacks who followed in their wake, it is still an atmospheric square, where one just wants to sit for hours to watch the sun move in its orbit in the sky. It is hard to imagine that on this peaceful square many people were burned at the stake during the inquisition.
From Praça do Giraldo, Rua 5 de Outubro, a street with many tourist shops in old city palaces, leads to the cathedral. The cathedral's choir is made of pink and blue marble, a combination we have seen before during this trip. In the cathedral is a nice museum with the usual treasures. The cloister can be visited from the cathedral.
Next to the cathedral is the former archbishopal palace, which now houses the municipal museum. At the center of the museum are excavations of remains from the Visigothic and Moorish periods, on which the castle was built. In the rooms around it, columns, portals, windows, coats of arms and tombs that were found in the excavations in the building itself and in the rest of the province, were integrated into the building. On the upper floors are exhibitions of paintings (Flemish masters, a beautiful Dutch winter riverscape and many still lifes), marble statues and antique furniture.
On the square next to the museum sits a Roman Diana temple, dating from the second century, with behind it a 15th century monastery, which has been converted into a pousada. One can have dinner in the cloisters amidst wonderful columns with Moorish arches. Next to the pousada is the former monastery church, which is privately owned by the ducal family Cadaval, who live in some wings of the palace next door.
It is definitely the prettiest church we have seen in the Alentejo. It is tiled from floor to ceiling with beautiful azulejos. The windows on one side are mirrored in perspective in the tiles on the opposite side. The impressive wooden altar in Manueline style is painted with leafgold. The transition from the blue and white azulejos to the gold is made by blue, white and yellow tiles, which provide a great light effect. Through a trapdoor one can see a charnel house with bones of monks, through another trapdoor the Moorish cistern of the castle - which lies beneath the church and monastery - is visible.
Rua Miguel Bombarda leads from Praça do Giraldo, via ice-cream parlor Zoka (with many kinds of delicious home-made ice cream), to Largo da Porta de Moura. On one side of the square one sees the cathedral between the towers of the old medieval city walls and some city palaces with beautiful windows. On the other side of the square, behind a gorgeous marble Renaissance fountain, sits a city palace with on its roof a fantastic loggia in Moorish style. The third side of the square has arcades.
From the square one walks in a straight line to the old university, which opened in 1559. Behind a gate with marble columns lies a beautiful, two-floor cloister with a plethora of azulejos and in the center a - what do you expect - marble fountain. In 1759 the university was closed when marquis de Pombal had the good sende to chase the Jesuits out of town. In the 1970s the university was reopened, which changed Evora from a rural town into a lively city again.
In the well-kept city park above the walls are palace ruins and the restored women's gallery of Dom Manuel's palace, of course in Manueline style. When we rest in the shade, I take a look over the walls. To my surprise I see that the huge sand plain has changed into a see of tents. It turns out that every second Tuesday of the month there is a big market on the Rossio. Most merchants are gypsies. Literally everything is sold here, from food and clothes to pots and pans.
The city also has numerous monasteries and churches, among which the São Francisco church with a Capela dos Ossos, which holds the bones of over 5000 people. The streets of the former Jewish quarter, like Rua do Raimundo and the streets parallel to it, are very charming.
That goes also for the neighborhood through which the aquaduct runs. Between the arches of the aquaduct houses were built. It doesn't matter what you do in Evora, everywhere are beautiful houses, stairways and - when you look up - Gothic windows in places where you don't expect them. Around Evora, there are megalithic sites with dolmens, menhirs and stone circles. A visit to Evora should definitely last more than one day.