Rural ramblings (Alentejo, Portugal)

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We head out for a drive. My aunt has devised another fabulous route to show off the best of the Alentejo region. It’s so diverse that we can go for a fourth drive and have a totally different day to the previous three. And a different day it will be. Not far from my aunt’s house we turn down a random road. A sign indicates that there’s a church down there. My aunt hasn’t been here before so off we go. We drive and drive through paddocks where cattle are grazing. It’s a gravel road so well off the beaten track.

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We cross the swollen Sado River and watch in amazement as a big cow (or maybe a bull) swims it’s way across. It’s obviously done this many times before because it seems to know exactly where to go to make the trip as short as possible.

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We do eventually reach the church. It’s an old ruin dating back centuries. The structure is interesting and old. I imagine it’s a good half dozen centuries since it was built.

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We continue our drive. The next village is small. In the main square there’s a pattern of tiling that makes it look like the ground is ribbed but it’s actually flat.

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We meander some more through the rural landscape. Goats graze by the road, their bells clinking as they move. It’s a quiet slow paced landscape that is easy to move through.

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There are plenty of ruined old buildings that are falling down like drunks who have been out on a big night. Their whitewashed walls slowly fading and being covered in the colours of ruin.

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A village that doesn’t even appear on Google Maps boasts a glaringly white church. The church’s crucifix is pretty much sitting in the front yard of a woman who is hanging her washing out the front of her house. This is a thing here in Portugal; washing is not hidden out the back or indoors. It’s hung right out the front of the house. A strange sight for someone who comes from a country where the saying “don’t air your laundry in public” makes sense. I guess that saying wouldn’t mean much here.

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We stop in Cuba for lunch. The Cuba Cafe is lovely. We eat a salad of chopped squid and another salad that combines chicken and fish eggs. It’s tasty. Each dish sets us back 3.50 Euros. It’s a crazy low price but if it were higher the locals might not be able to afford to eat here. But there’s no way old mate in the bar can be making money either. He is proud of his bar and describes the many historic photos. There’s a cycling club photo from 1912 and a photo of a theatre group with program dating to a similar time. Naturally, there are also old photos of the bull fighting. It’s not the same here as in Spain. Here in Portugal the bull isn’t killed. Rather, eight men try to tackle the mountain of muscle and meat that charges them. The bar owner points us in the direction of the plaza do Toro (bull fighting ring). It’s closed now but there are enough gaps in the fence for us to get some photos away.

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We leave Cuba and are once again driving through green fields under a blue sky with Simpson-esque clouds. It’s a stark contrast to the red soil and rocks of the area around Mertola.

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There’s a castle in Alvito. It’s a pousada (state-run hotel) that has a cafe in it. We have plans to take a coffee there in the gardens but it’s closed for the winter. So we stop at a cute cafe where I drink lemon rind tea (hot water and fresh lemon rind). It’s 60 Euro cents per cup so, again, there’s not much money to be made running a cafe here.

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We walk through Alvito. There’s a church and some official buildings. The village is quaint and makes a good place to explore. I can’t help myself and have to take a photo of the man standing in the street. This is such a common sight here in Portugal. Men just stand around in the street. I don’t know what they are doing. Maybe they are talking. They’re not drinking tea or coffee, and they’re not smoking cigarettes. They just stand and watch the world go by.

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Speaking of standing and watching the world go by. I guess that’s what castles do too. They stand the test of time and the world just moves on around them. Here in Portugal they do anyway; the castles I have seen here have been in quite good condition compared with those I’ve encountered in other places. This is the castle at Viana do Alentejo.

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The castle is unique because it has five towers instead of the usual four or eight towers. Four of the five towers have smooth conical turrets. It’s quite pretty and from some angles might appear to be like in a fairy tale.

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At first we think the castle is closed but then we walk around to discover another entry. We have half an hour before closing but the man who works here doesn’t not seem to be concerned with rushing us. Inside there’s a church that has a famous entrance door. There’s a story to it but I have forgotten and going to search on Wikipedia would slow the flow of my thoughts. So you’ll just have to trust me that the door is impressive. haha.

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My favourite thing about the castle is that you can walk around the tops of the walls. Unlike in some castles, these are relatively narrow walls and the remaining buildings inside butt up against the walls, making it even more intriguing as I walk down narrow wobbly sections like moody corridors without a roof.

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The path around the walls actually leads to the roof of the church. It’s high up here and today the winds are gusting around 55mph (90kph/48 knots). I cannot hear myself think as the wind howls in my ears and all I manage is to blindly snap this photo of the church bell before quickly retreating; a little wobbly on the legs after the experience.

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It’s just after 5:30pm when we leave the castle. The man tells us we should go to the sanctuary just 2km away. If it’s closed we are to knock on the door of the first house opposite. The lady there will let us in, he says. We drive to the sanctuary and enjoy the visual spectacle of it glowing in the setting sun. Inside the sanctuary is an impressive array of religious motifs and a massive display that is a cross between a statue and an altar. But this isn’t the really interesting thing are the photos of the people in the rooms behind the statue/alter arrangement. They date back a long way; probably to when photography first became common because some are in sepia. We believe they are probably local people who have passed away for whom prayers are now said. Many are soldiers wearing khaki and holding rifles while smiling. Other photos are of young men in battle. And still others are of babies and children. It’s kind of sad but also a fascinating look at the town’s history. And, I guess, it’s pride in it’s people.

It’s dark when we exit the sanctuary. All that’s left to do is drive home to my aunt’s place down country roads about which I know nothing but the white line I stayed right of and the pot holes I dodged.

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