portugal

Old, old, old and yet surprisingly modern and convenient are the attractions and comforts of time travelling in Portugal. Rob Woodburn reports.

Within hours of touchdown in Portugal we are time travelling, standing on the lofty ramparts of an ancient castle while, below us, throngs of people in period costume cavort along cobblestone streets set ablaze with vivid flags and sprays of crimson bougainvillea.

This spirited welcome to the fortified hilltop town of Óbidos in the grip of its annual mediaeval festival is the fortuitous result of booking ourselves into a trio of historic Portuguese pousadas.

The Pousada do Castelo is perched in a corner of the 800-year-old walled town and has only nine guest rooms. Parking nearby requires pinpoint precision as does negotiating narrow streets originally suited to horse and cart. Our car soon bears a scrape of ill fortune inflicted during a particularly tight passage.

Óbidos is festooned with garlands and colourful bunting throughout its three weeks of mediaeval mayhem. Pageants and period re-enactments are the focus of great jollity among a crowd fuelled by the steady consumption of ginjinha, a local cherry liqueur sipped from tiny chocolate cups.

Troubadours with early music instruments stroll the market set up beside the castle walls. The buzz of crumhorn and wail of bagpipe feels in perfect harmony with our choice of historic accommodation.

Pousadas are the Portuguese equivalent of Spanish paradores. A countrywide network of 40 properties includes several in restored historic buildings. The variety in flavour and location makes this network ideal for a touring holiday.

Portuguese poet and politician Antonio Ferro established the first pousada in the 1940s. A decade later the first historic pousada opened in the castle at Óbidos. What better choice as our starting point?

Óbidos is also a handy base for visiting nearby Alcobaça and Batalha. The 12th century Mosterio de Santa Maria in Alcobaça was one of old Europe’s most prestigious monasteries, home to 1000 monks and rich from taxes it imposed on ports and towns under its influence.

A popular yarn tells how these Alcobaça monks were famous for being fat and the vast monastery kitchen suggests this tale has an element of truth. Within the peaceful adjacent abbey are the white marble tombs of Dom Pedro 1 and Inês de Castro, star-crossed royal lovers lauded as Portugal’s 14th century Romeo and Juliet.

From Alcobaça we nip down to the jaunty seaside holiday town of Nazaré to stroll its beachfront promenade. Although early in the season there are rows of candy striped tents for hire pegged out on the sand.

Batalha’s Gothic masterpiece is the Santa Maria da Vitória Monastery. Construction began in the late 14th century yet it remains an incomplete project, as we saw while admiring the intricate Manueline carvings of animals and plants decorating the pillars and walls of the Unfinished Chapels. They remain roofless and open to the elements. Leaving Óbidos we relocate to the ancient hill town of Ourém and check into a 30-room pousada created out of a 15th century hospital and adjacent mediaeval houses, now linked and modernised.

Pilgrimage towns

Ourém’s hilltop castle lies mostly in ruins but its towers command wonderful views. The church opposite our hotel window is the resting place of Nuno Alvares Pereira, third count of Ourém. The pousada restaurant specialises in local dishes and local wines, so there’s no need to drive down to modern Ourém for a meal.

The famous pilgrimage town of Fatima, near Ourém, is a regular coach tour stop and often extremely crowded. We prefer to visit Tomar beside the Nabão River.

Tomar is the site of the extraordinary Convent of Christ, protected within a 12th century Templar castle on the hill behind the town. The citadel contains seven magnificent cloisters, a grand dormitory and the Chapel of the Magi. Our visit lasts for hours and culminates in the wondrous Charola, a circular chapel built large enough so knights could attend worship on horseback.

After two nights we leave Ourém and drive into the central Alentejo region between Lisbon and the Spanish border. Our destination is the city of Evora and the Pousada dos Lóios, one of the grandest in Portugal and tucked between a Gothic cathedral and a Roman temple. The original Monastery of Saint João Evangelista was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake razed the town yet spared the Temple of Diana, leaving 14 of its 18 columns still standing.

Our room is Cell 116, which now has a small ensuite bathroom. Compact yet comfortable it has views of the inner courtyard and swimming pool. We breakfast at a buffet in the ground-floor cloisters.

Roaming through Evora we are fascinated by the 16th century Capella des Ossos, a crypt of skulls and bones. This macabre experience provides more lasting memories than our brief foray through a ducal palace with rooms filled with musty paraphernalia and historic documents.

Evora has excellent restaurants. On our first night we squeeze into Botaquim da Mouraria, a tiny wine bar serving sensational tapas and excellent local wine by the glass. The next evening is spent at the intimate Tasquinha d’Oliveira where owner Manuel Oliveira solicitously guides our choice of authentic Alentejo dishes cooked by his wife Carolina.

From Evora we enjoy a day’s outing to Monsaraz, an attractive white walled village high in the mountains on the Spanish border. Having roamed its streets to see local artists’ studios we settle into a long lazy lunch on an outside deck overlooking the surrounding countryside.

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