Tuesday, January 11, 2011

from the heart of Portugal

A sun dappled day in the town of Evora!

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And yet, I want to know -- what's beyond this town?

You cannot do village hopping in a day without wheels. Sometime in the middle of the night, Ed located (thanks once again, argus car hire!) a local car rental place that would rent a car for a day for a mere 25 Euros. We are set for a drive through Alentejo -- the countryside to the east and south of Evora. (More on Ed's sleeping habits later.)

But not before we indulge in a heavenly breakfast at Albergaria do Calvario. I have to mention this because when a breakfast stands out, it really sets the mood for the day. At the Albergaria, most everything is freshly squeezed, pampered, organically touched and massaged and it is so delicious – the local fruits, the juices, the cakes, cheeses, slivers of aged ham – that we return for another helping, and another and that’s before the lovely person from the kitchen comes out and shyly asks – would you like some (free range) eggs?

The significance of this? Well, 1. I love this little hotel (rate: about 75 Euros per night, with this heavenly meal included) and 2. I want to note that I have learned that it puzzles the Portuguese as to why anyone would eat eggs in the morning.

Just east of Evora, the earth is rich in red clay and here is where much of the quite lovely Portuguese pottery is made. We drove through one such village – a potters’ village, because nearly every other house had a sign indicating that you could come in and browse their pottery.

And I did stop. I told myself that traveling light means no pottery purchases, but I also thought that were I to come across a pretty soft boiled egg cup, I’d buy it. I call it a needed rather than frivolous item as Ed has recently, inexplicably, developed a fondness for morning boiled eggs.

In the last shop I visited, I finally could not resist a pretty little olive dish. From this set, here:


I had asked about the egg cup thing and this salesperson knew some English and she explained that just this morning she mentioned to her husband that maybe he should be making egg holders because (and she said this with a puzzled shake of the head) some foreigners appear to eat eggs for breakfast and so there may be a market for these cups. And she asked, perhaps because she did not really believe this to be true – do you eat eggs for breakfast? I admitted that I did. Just this morning. Scrambled. With tomatoes actually.

Our first and most important destination was Monsaraz. But I’m not just going to post photos of this most stunning village, perched on a hill high above the vast plane, extending beyond the border to Spain and north toward the “mountains. Before we even get there (a mere 35 kilometers from Evora), we pass through the delicious scenery that I love so much – of vineyards, olive groves, cork oak, and meadows of yellow flowers – all sparkling from past rains, but bathed today in glorious, wonderful (albeit dappled) sunshine.



Now the village of Monsaraz.


I have to say that the entire drive was along empty roads (notably gas here is a whopping $8 per gallon), sometimes lined by cork oak...


....and so perhaps it should not have surprised us that the village would also be very quiet. A woman hanging out her laundry, a delivery truck with Lays potato chips, an open café, a man standing in a doorway, a pottery shop salesperson with the sound of a TV inside, and the occasional cat or dog.


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Ocean author and a dog

Otherwise – silence. And this leaves you with this feeling that you are stepping into a past life that somehow has marked this little place, arresting it in that moment when it was the all important Medieval fortification.


There is a castle, and a bull fighting arena (still used, I hear) and all that is quite spectacular. And there is the silence. And the view. In every direction. And because sound carries, we hear the sheep bell from somewhere in the valley.


Perhaps we should have just stayed there, looking this way and that, taking in the sunshine. Maybe we should have not hurried out an hour later. But I am thinking – we should experience other places too. And so I find the one open shop, buy my olive dish, and chat (about the tragedies of the world) for just a minute with the shopkeeper. (Most other potters admitted to no English and we are used to them saying, too, that they speak no Spanish; this is of course not entirely true, we know that, but we’ll respect their right to feel shy about English and their right to feel a bit competitive with the Spaniards, even as this means that we are in a communication limbo, because my handful of Portuguese words just wont do beyond the hellos and goodbyes and thank yous in between.)

We leave the lovely little hilltop village with the cats, dogs, and one shopkeeper selling her beautiful bowls and dishes and we drive a little north, through a green and gold landscape...





...and through the village of Redondo, where I pause for an espresso, perhaps sensing that one of us has to stay awake, even as that person actually should be Ed, as he is the one driving.



Which brings me to this curious fact: Ed can drive from New York to Madison virtually without pause. I can’t do it. I find our interstate highways so incredibly boring that I start feeling sleepy one hour into the ride.

But here, in Portugal, Ed must still be on a clock that is uniquely out of sinc with real time. Several times during the short drive he has had to pull over for a little nap. Yes, I could take over the driving part, but you cannot take in the scenery that way (at least I cannot). And besides, I am not a listed driver today and the rental agent – a most fastidious gentleman – assured us that if a police car stopped us and I was not a listed driver, we would be in trouble.

Even though our final destination for the day, Estremoz, is a mere 35 kilometers from Monsaraz, it looks to be over a “mountain” range and as we drive up the winding road...



....I begin to notice a weather change. It was not supposed to rain, or drizzle, no not any of it. But by the time we reach Estremoz, drizzle it does.

Ed chooses to nap in the car while I set out to explore this larger town.


It, too, has a castle, and its buildings are interesting – white, of course, with the balconies that you come to expect in this region...

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But it is a large place and there is traffic and drizzle and so the connection to the heart and soul of the place is, for me, more difficult to make.

In the “lower” part of town, on what appears to be the main square, there is a quite splendid church and just outside, a vendor is selling fruits and vegetables and I pause there, as well as in the local pastry shop, because when all else fails, I can usually find my way back to the heart of a place through its food vendors.


Indeed. And the cookies and chocolate were delicious.

We drive back to Evora through the rain. And just before returning the car, we stop at a supermarche to buy a local port. We had just finished Margarida’s port and we have found this to be a pleasant custom – to sip a little for an aperitif before setting out for a late dinner.

Our late dinner, by the way, is back in Evora, at a simple place that serves soups and pork and Ed has a soup and I have a soup – his was tomato, mine was cod and I’d say he made the better choice except cod is so Portuguese and I needed to give a nod of acknowledgement that I, too, have eaten boiled cod.

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