Portuguese Odyssey

Sanctuary on the dark Cabo Espichel

The winding mountain path is surrounded by the lush green vegetation of Serra da Arrabida nature park. At dusk we arrive at the terrifying Cabo Espichel. The heavy, wet fog reveals only the outlines of abandoned buildings at the very end of the cape. This is a cultic pilgrimage destination and an origin of legends created over centuries. The human senses register only the dim light of the lighthouse and the psychedelic, piercingly loud fog siren signals. Alone in the expanse of night the scenery easily causes goose bumps.

At dawn the early morning mist gradually disappears and soon there is a perfect visibility. To our eyes appears a sacral set of buildings, located right on a steep cliff falling down in the Atlantic Ocean.

Here comes the next day. The souvenir seller sets up his stall and several cyclists come round. I wonder how such a friendly place could have ever evoked a terrifying feeling. We stroll along the dirt path just above the rocky coastline to admire waves splashing with powerful force against the cliff.

The cradle of democracy

The next place is the court of Sesimbra. The preserved site includes remains of the castle, mayor’s chamber, cemetery, market, residential area and a large pit for storing water in case of siege. All these relics leave you with an idea of how people lived here centuries ago.

The king Sancho I set up a list of rights and obligations for new Sesimbra settlers as early as in 1201, shortly after the restoration of Portugal from the Arab hands.

Leisure time in Serra da Arrabida nature park

A penal code was established for the new civilization to ensure the punishment of whoever commits a murder, theft, rape or kidnapping. ‘Who possess or steals other people’s cattle, will pay the king 60 solidi, and twice the size of loss to the owner’. Also the customs regulations for goods not manufactured by Sesimbra inhabitants were formed. The system built in this way had been in order for centuries and through its continuous improvements and applications of new rights undoubtedly has been a protoplast for contemporary monarchical and democratic systems.

Located on the hill Sintra is an another historic town. We climb up a mountain path Caminho de Santa Maria, which leads to the Castelo dos Mouros. There are numerous fortifications, secret passageways through dense forest, stone walls and stairs on the way up. Being here feels like going back in time to the Middle Ages. The castle served an important strategic role and with its numerous defense points it gained the reputation of being ‘unconquerable’. Water supply, reaching up to a thousand cubic meters provided the castle with self-sufficiency for potentially long under siege periods.

Fairylike Óbidos

Entering Óbidos the first thing to attract attention is the historic aqueduct from the year 1575. The functional structure is more than six miles long (of which three miles are under the ground). The aqueduct leads from the water source in Usseira right to the fountain at Plaza de Santa Maria in the city center.

Pousada do Castelo, a Portuguese luxury hotel

The castle along with its substantial court are surrounded by massive defensive walls made of locally available materials: sandstone and marble. We walk along the narrow path at the top of the fortifications to see the outline of the town. In some places a few stones are missing on the defensive walls so you need to make a bigger step. The often narrowed passages nearby the battlements also require extra attention, especially with a strong, gusty wind. Some sections are located more than ten meters above the ground and the transition is merely one foot wide.

The streets of Óbidos are delightfully cobbled with large stones. The intensely blue, maroon and creamy yellow facades are here and there decorated with pink flowers and creepers. Placed on the walls of houses are original, hand-illustrated tiles.

The city is definitely popular with visitors to Portugal, but residents do not seem to be specially dependent on tourists. The medieval era atmosphere is perfectly preserved with many secrets hidden in the obscure corners. To that end, the gloomy rain in Óbidos amplifies the fairylike, medieval atmosphere.


Not all the doors are high enough

The early residents of Alcobaça settled in the valleys of the rivers Alcoa and Baca, that is how the town got its present-day name. Mosteiro de Alcobaça is a Cistercian monastery built in the twelfth century during the reign of the first Portuguese king. The interior design is very simple, most of it being basic, specious rooms once inhabited by monks. The length of 220 meters secures the monument the status of the largest church in Portugal.

Evening walk. Light shower causes glassy sidewalks to reflect the warm orange-colored street lights. The very center is neat. Most of the streets, porches and the entrances to various premisses are cleaned up and well maintained. Faced with this place I never would have suspected that I’m in Portugal. One of the neat German or Austrian upland towns would be my first guess. So I’m looking for the Portuguese traces outside the center.

I visit a bar which has been run for several generations of the same family. Behind a glass counter with a display of home-made cheese sits a whole-heartedly smiling, a little bit obese middle-aged woman. She encourages me to have a popular throughout Portugal Sagres beer. I take a sit on a plastic chair by a wooden table. An old-fashioned TV is hung down from the ceiling. The toilet is located in the basement, along with a cobweb-covered billiards room and yet another room for special occasion parties. Today, however, I’m the only guest.

The other corners

Minimalist interior of Mosteiro de Alcobaça

Traveling without a specific plan is more rewarding. Just be the road I pass arranged in a row vintage buses. It is a collection of Volkswagen T1 and T2 buses produced in the years 1949 to 1979. Having a very good reputation, the legendary hippie-buses nowadays unfortunately have more sentimental rather than practical value. The maintainance costs of the old buses often tend to surpass the cost of buying one of the worthy successors.

We pass the picturesque quiet villages with fields of vineyards and olive trees. November is the early harvest time for green olives. If left on the trees, they would became black olives. I carefully watch whole families working in the field until late afternoon hand-picking olives. It’s both engaging and bringing togheter activity, just perfect for the warm November days.

Various side roads lead to the caves. The first part of the cave Grūtas de Alvados was discovered 100 years ago. Eversince the place had been used as a hideout for shepherds surprised by the sudden change of weather. In 1964 a group of people working at the quarry Serra dos Candeeiros was surprised by the strange sound of stones falling into a small crevice. They realized the long interval until the stone would hit the bottom. Later on a group of daredevils belayed each other down with flashlights inside the mysterious cave.

In this way, a second, much larger part of the cave has been discovered. Hundred of people worked for two years to link once separate chambers through tunnels. The interior of the caves has been arranged with practically placed lighting revealing the natural beauty of the cave interior.

The limestone sediment had for long been forming underground rock formations. We admire the stalactites and stalagmites, which as a result of the average increase of 1 cm per 100 years occasionally may form columns going from the ceiling to the bottom. The only endemic source of water in the cave is rainwater, which flowing through the different layers of rocks dissolves and mixes with its different minerals. Thus obtained compound determines the color, durability and layout of the rock formations.

Grutas de Alvados

On our route there is the monastery of Santa Maria da Vitoria in Batalhia, the monument included on the UNESCO list. This is another impressive building. Its huge entrance portal arch is decorated with 78 hand-carved statues of kings, saints and prophets. An astonishing precision and quality of details makes it look confusingly similar to a wall sculptures of the Arab castle la Alhambra in Granada.

Mid-November often brings along strong rain. We visit San Sebastian, a city in the Basque country, which has been inspiringly described by Ernest Hemingway in his book The Sun Also Rises. I honestly admit that I was hoping for good surfing in the northern Iberian peninsula surfer’s Mecca, but the weather did not convince me to plunge into cold water. I admit that I’m definitely spoiled by the waves in the southern Algarve.

Cabo Espichel

November 2009