Sunday, January 13, 2013

Travelogue: The Central Alentejo

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We left Tomar in late morning and set off in the direction of our next stayover location: Estremoz, in the central Alentejo region in west-central Portugal. 

Before we got there, though, we needed a lunch stop.  The town of Portalegre, with a cathedral on a hill, looked gorgeous from the highway.  We parked near the old part of town and found a pizza joint, which was perfectly satisfying.  Then, since we were there, we took an hour or so and split up to look around town.  The cathedral (NO PHOTOS!) was interesting inside, feeling more like a museum full of framed paintings than a church.  The streets, full of houses all painted white and yellow, were pleasant enough.  Overall, though, the town felt as though it had once made a half-assed attempt at attracting tourism and then given up.  What looked like a brand new approach to town through an old wall and an adjacent brand new fountain were getting weedy and full of trash.  The also very new visitor's centre for Portalegre's tiny castle ruin was lacking in useful information and reeked of cat poop.  The pizza was good but otherwise I can't personally recommend it as a destination. Maybe we just missed the good parts.
Portalegre Okt 2012

My in-laws made our booking here - and they opted to stay in one of Portugal's famous pousadas.  The Portuguese government took old, historical buildings around Portugal, fixed them up, and made them into fancy hotels.  In Estremoz, the pousada is in an old castle overlooking the town.  It was my turn to be a little disappointed (all's fair in love and accomodation bookings), although I mean this in the least-bad way.  It was still a nice place to stay.  But considering that it cost twice what the previous place did, I expected it to be twice as awesome, and it wasn't really.  The things that people really seem to be paying the extra for are space, the ability to say that they stayed in a castle, and staff that bow and scrape and call you sir and madam.  The first is always a plus, the second is cool but not my thing, so to me personally it doesn't add value, and the third just makes me feel really awkward.  I think if you can get a discount, it's worth trying the experience, just don't put your expectations as high as I did.  I don't mean any of this in a complainy way, I'm just trying to describe the costs/benefits of the pousada experience from the point of view of someone with my travel style.

That aside, on to Estremoz itself!  We spent three nights there and if you have a car I would recommend it as a really pleasant place to stay and relax. First, the food. On the first night we had dinner near the castle at São Rosas.  We just wanted something small, and got that, and it was delicious and nicely served, but dear god was it expensive.  We didn't go back, opting the second night to turn to Lonely Planet for ideas.  We ended up at Adega do Isaias, which everyone loved.  We ate there again the third night.  My father-in-law called it one of his favorite things from the trip.  The second night D and I had migas, which is different from the Tex-Mex egg dish. It was a garlicky bread pudding with ribs.  Amazing.  This was also where we discovered açorda, a bread soup with tons of garlic and cilantro and a poached egg.  I'm not a huge cilantro fan (soap, yes), but this soup may start me on the road to conversion.  We make it regularly at home now.  We'd love to make the migas, too, but that's a more serious undertaking!

The town itself is very small and quiet - probably the quietest place we encountered during the entire trip.  Many of the streets and sidewalks are paved entirely in marble, which was readily available in the area.  One funny thing about the town was that there seemed to be a zillion dogs living there, and they would all bark at all hours of the day.  From the castle you could hear it all!  Our last morning there was a Saturday, and there was a weekly market in the center of town.  A lot of it was just the usual produce and such, but they were also selling live animals both as pets and as food!  Caged birds did seem to be very popular as pets in Portugal.  As for the food animals, I guess they're fresh that way!
Estremoz Nov 2012

We'd specifically scheduled the Alentejo portion of our trip for these particular dates so we could attend the All Saints' Fair in Borba, which was noted online and in Lonely Planet as happening on November 1 & 2.  I was expecting maybe some cool parades and interesting food stands, but it turns out the fair is actually just a really big market!  There were a couple streets of food stalls selling nuts, olives, cheese, bread, sausage, and fruit, and then a massive field full of stalls selling cheap clothes, shoes, hats, and kitchen supplies.  Despite the lack of parade it was really fun to poke around.  D ended up getting what's become his trademark hat, a Portuguese flat cap, for only 10 Euro, and we also got a square baking dish in a size we hadn't seen here.  Then, with his parents, we got some cheese, meat, bread, olives, and wine, packed it all up in the car, and drove to nearby Elvas to have a picnic with a view over an incredible 16th-century aqueduct.  The town of Elvas itself also sounds interesting but I don't think we quite realized how much so at the time, so we didn't go in.
Borba & Elvas Nov 2012

The town of Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most-visited place in Portugal, so we made sure to set aside a full day to check it out while we were staying in Estremoz. To be honest it was slightly less amazing than I'd been imagining from the descriptions, but still worthy of a visit.  I think we'd have appreciated it more if we'd stayed there overnight and gotten more embedded.  It seemed more touristy than other places we'd been, with entire streets given over to cork purses, cork postcards, tablecloths that would be really cool if they didn't say "PORTUGAL" on them, and other souvenirs.  Still, these shops managed to maintain a certain charm...we bought postcards at a couple of them and instead of sticking them in little shopping bags they wrapped them up in torn-out magazine pages!

Évora's main attractions include huge stretches of old aqueduct, Roman temple ruins, and a chapel decorated with bones.  Bone chapels are always a hit with me, and this one didn't disappoint.  We were lucky to make it in - we saw a tour group approaching it and we ran half a block to get in ahead of them.  Turned out they were about to close and only let the group in as a favor - and we blended into the group to get admission.  It has less of a reliquary feel than the bone chapel at St. Ursula's in Cologne.  The inclusion of two corpses hanging from a wall ups the creepiness factor considerably!  The Roman ruins were kind of small - more of a thing you walk by than really visit.  The aqueduct is especially cool because several buildings and shops are built right into it.  Supposedly you can also walk on top of it, but we didn't find any entry points during our brief visit.  We did have to work in a few minutes for pastries, after all!

Outside of Évora there are many megaliths - standing stones and tombs from thousands of years BC.  We picked up a free map describing the locations from a tourist info office in town.  Between those and Lonely Planet's directions we managed to find a couple of megaliths we wanted to see.  At the Almendres Cromlech, a particularly big group, we enjoyed a picnic lunch amidst the cork and olive trees and ancient rocks.  The cork tree groves were one of my favorite parts of the trip.  The trees are very pretty and in various stages of growth; they are harvested every 9 years and marked with numbers to indicate when they were last harvested.  Those that are freshly harvested are bright red!  As for olive trees, I love the color of the leaves and huge groves of them are gorgeous.  After lunch and wandering amidst the rocks a bit, we had - of course - more pastries in a tiny shop in a tiny, tiny town on the way back to the highway.  Man, writing all these posts is making me really hungry.
Évora Nov 2012

TL;DR: Portalegre meh, Estremoz lovely, Évora 80% as awesome as it sounds, Borba fair turned out to be market. Click on photo albums for summarized version of all we saw.

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