While our batteries are charging nicely
Two whole new worlds opened up for us this week as we embarked on an Alentejano adventure while simultaneously entering a new era of solar dominance.
We embarked on a road trip across our region in search of wine, marble and blankets while our brand new solar panels were charging our batteries like never before.
We climbed the shear walls of dramatic mountaintop towns while scaling new heights in energy generating capability.
And languishing in the luxury of endless water supplies we discovered our new off-grid habits die hard.
In the eastern Alentejo you can’t move for Roman remains, Moorish monuments, Crusader castles and at one point we even found ourselves in a chapel lined with human bones.
The many layers of Portuguese history are literally stacked on top of each other.
And we didn’t even have time to stop off at the nearby Neolithic tombs or a stone circle that’s thousands of years older than Stonehenge.
I thought Northumberland had a lot of castles, but this is ridiculous: we kept stumbling across another one in every small town we happened to drive through.
One of my lingering images of the week was a washing line stretched out in front of a 13th century church on a winding Moorish street in a picture-perfect historic town: these aren’t just tourist theme parks, but real lived-in places.
That was in Marvão – one of the most spectacular of the walled towns we visited – high up in the mountains of Serra de São Marmede natural park on the Spanish border.
We stayed in a pousada – a good but affordable hotel in a restored historic monument – and excitedly, but with a certain amount of guilt took slightly longer hot showers than normal.
But when it came to brushing our teeth, we both totally unconsciously turned the tap off between rinses...there may be no way back from this off-grid way of living.
Despite having missed seeing the town at sunset, we hiked the steep walls at sunrise and discovered we had the castle to ourselves.
There were incredible 360 degree views over eastern Portugal and into Spain, a small signpost labelled “Cisterna” took us down into a cathedral-like water storage cavern, and back hundreds of years in history.
Unfortunately my copy of Bradt’s guide to Alentejo didn’t arrive until after we got home, but it has helped me research some history.
Marvão’s mountain was strategically important to Bronze Age warriors even before the Phoenecians, or the Romans who arrived in 45AD and used it as a lookout post to protect the important trading town of Ammaia in the valley below.
But its name dates from five centuries of Muslim rule across today’s Portugal and a Galician-Moorish rebel Sufi called Ibn Maruán who was a renegade from the powerful Islamic kingdom of Córdoba and built and held this fortress for fifty years.
But like many other strategic towns, it changed ownership as Islamic caliphates ebbed and flowed, and in the 11th century Marvão marked the northern-most stronghold of an Almoravid empire which spread from Mauritania.
After falling to the Christian crusaders in 1226, the castle was upgraded by the Knights Hospitalier who strengthened its defences to protect the border with Spain – it was their cistern which guaranteed 6 months of water when the town was besieged.
It fell under Spanish rule and then back again in the long and fascinating Portuguese history of which I’m still only scratching the surface.
There are times of the year when tourists undoubtedly have to queue for a view, but for much of the year it’s a beauty reserved for the locals and explorers like ourselves...and what a treat.
And that’s also how I’d describe the totally traditional Mil Homens (Thousand Men) restaurant in the valley below, which was living proof to the rumour that meal portions get bigger the further north you go.
We had bacalhau, and ribs with migas (a bread-based accompaniment) and shared half a portion of each...just one meal between two people and we still left totally stuffed!
On our way up to Marvão we had tasted wine at the famous Esporão vineyard and so we stopped off at Torre de Palma and Borba on the way back.
It was research for our wines podcast, spurred on by finishing the first version of our pilot episode...which I’m afraid needs more work before I can share it.
I’ll write up all the wineries we feature in full at a later date, probably on a separate blog, but Esperão was as beautiful as we had expected and has some incredible wines.
Borba is a town based on three things – a local told us – marble, olive oil and wine...and it has a co-operative of around 270 grape growers producing more than 11 million litres of wine a year.
And Torre de Palma is a stunning modern wine hotel and vineyard with marble presses for trampling grapes and a cavernous concrete cellar reminiscent of Marvão castle’s water cistern in both style and acoustics.
Rebuilt from a ruin and opened in 2014, the property was at various times owned by the religious Order of Avis and the Portuguese royal family, but its name comes from the nearby Roman remains which had been home to the powerful Basilii family.
One and a half millennia ago they grew grapes, made wine, lived in lavish villas and raised Lusitanian horses which originated in the area...the perfect forebears for today’s reinvention!
With huge thanks to our neighbour Daniel – whom Simon & Garfunkel looked after – we were away two nights and three days, but managed to pack in a lot.
Driving past deep quarries of beautiful pink marble we daydreamed about countertops.
Visiting Fábrica Alentejana de Lanifícios to see their amazing Alentejano blankets being woven, we planned our interior design.
Wandering the famous Estremoz Saturday market in search of fun antiques we bought meats and cheeses and ate hot roasted chestnuts and farturas donut wheels.
And driving into Elvas – another historic border down – we stumbled across a beautiful, towering Roman aqueduct...just to complete the theme.
Our second hotel wasn’t as fancy as the first, but we need to learn what to do and what not to do while furthering our tourist lodge education.
We headed back home via the regional capital of Évora and honed in on the Chapel of the Bones attached to São Francisco Church in the city.
More than five thousand human skeletons were used by the friars who built the chapel in the seventeenth century and they are all neatly plastered into the walls.
The inscription above the entrance reads: “Nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esparamos.”
“We the bones that are here, for yours we are waiting.”
I’m not sure what’s more disturbing, that or the sign that read “this is the oldest chapel of the bones in Portugal.”
Wait, what? There are more? This is actually is a thing?