Monday, January 10, 2011

from Evora, Portugal

Ed asks at the Lisbon bus station – may I have two tickets (fingers indicating 2) to Evora? The ticket agent indicates that he doesn’t understand. Where? Ed tries again:  Evora.  The agent shrugs his shoulders. Meanwhile, we know from the Internet schedule that the bus, wherever it is and however you buy tickets for it, is to leave in two minutes. Ed moves to another window, another teller.

Two tickets (fingers show 2) to Evora, please.
Ah, Evora. This agent knows foreigners.

There are so many ways to say Evora, and so many of them are quite wrong.

Back in Madison, in early fall, when I was thinking about Portugal in January, I had in my mind split the trip into three parts: first third near Lisbon (Cascais), second third in Evora.

It’s a UNESCO protected town, not very large at all, and it is in the heart (rather than along the coast) of Portugal. It seemed to offer another perspective.

We're on the bus. At least three other people have confirmed it. Evora. It is quite a lovely bus ride, through a landscape that has to be the essence of Portugal: an occasional vineyard and lots of cork (or actually an evergreen oak, whose bark is used for the production of cork).


You can always spot a cork oak by its naked bottom – like a tree robbed of her skirts.

Now, you may think all that harvesting of cork bark is bad for the environment – that it destroys yet another tree for the pleasures of the human palate. You would be wrong. The current thinking is that harvesting cork is a good thing: cork oak thrives in these regions and it provides every ten years or so a new layer of bark, the harvesting of which is harmless to the tree. And, due to the heavy demand for cork for wine, these Mediterranean forests have expanded. Which is commendable. And if the demand should go down, the forests will eventually disappear – the land will be put to other uses, eucalyptus will take over – the list of bad outcomes is long. The bottom line – drink wine with corks rather than screwtops if you care about preserving the environment. Who would have thought.

Of course, you would also be aiding Portugal’s economy which, as you probably know, needs a bit of a pick me up right now. (Portugal provides about 50% of the world’s cork.)

Evora. Accent on the “E.” A town of with medieval walls, a Roman Temple, whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets. At the same time it has recently been ranked as the top most livable town in Portugal.

We’re staying at a place that used to house an olive oil press (Albergaria do Calvario). It’s lovely and quiet and it’s a short walk to most any significant monument here. Of course, it’s a short walk from any point to another here. Evora, with a population of about 40,000 is charmingly small.

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We walk in the fading light of the late afternoon, taking in the now lovely weather, pausing for roasted chestnuts, peeking in at a church, meandering through a park, finishing finally on the town square.

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I love these winter walks in places that don’t really understand real cold. It’s in the upper fifties now and I see winter coats, scarves – all the things we save for freezing weather. The cafes have some brave souls outside, so long as the sun is out. After, only a few hardy young ones stay out. Like this man with his laptop and his dog.

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Inside, the café is packed. We sit at the counter over an espresso and a few of the local pasteries...


...Ed watches a volley ball game on a screen. The evening comes quickly now. Dark blue skies are a beautiful contrast to the white houses.

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We walk back for a brief rest and then set out for a Portuguese dinner at 9. It’s a terrific little place (with a curious name of 1/4 Para As 9)...

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...with just a few tables – two of them occupied by large Portuguese families. Ed is finally up for ordering what I have wanted to order since coming to Portugal (it requires his cooperation as it serves two) – arroz de mariscos.

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It’s not like bouillabaisse as it has rice and isn’t quite as brothy. It’s not exactly like paella because it is cooked only with shellfish – chunks of it throughout,  and it is not at all crisp – it’s soupy and thick and the taste of tomatoes is there, but delicately so.

It is exquisite.


We eat way too much. How can you not? We have a regional white wine that is exactly perfect for the meal. And there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this may be the best meal of the trip. And most definitely the best non-bouillabaisse, non-paella crustacean soupy rice dish I have ever eaten anywhere.

We stroll home in the dark starry night. The rains have left the Iberian peninsula. We’re one pair of lucky travelers.