Continued north today passing up through Guimaraes and Sao Torcato to a small (and very friendly) family owned campsite in the tiny village of Garfe for a couple of day’s relaxation. We didn’t drive far but the landscape has totally changed to one of rolling wooded hillsides.
On our way to Garfe we paused in the village of Sao Torcato so that I could view the Basilica. We couls see the Basilica from quite a way off with it’s two tall, slender granite towers. They started building this church in the 800’s but didn’t finish it until well into the 1900’s with the sanctuary not being consecrated until 2015 and with the church being elevated to the rank of minor basilica by Pope Francis in 2019. Saint Torcato was born into a noble Roman family who grew to become Archbishop of Braga and then Oporto and Dume. Early in the 8th century he was killed by General Muca who had been sent to conquer the Iberian Peninsula and convert the Christians to Islam. Torcato became the first Saint on the Iberian Peninsula and his body is now housed in a glass chamber in the church sanctuary. Inside the church they were preparing for a christening as I arrived and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the craziest fountain with running hot and cold water feeding into the baptismal font.
They were preparing for a christening as I arrived. The fountain feeding the font is amazing
There was little for us to do in Garfe, just the one cafe bar and the smallest shop and so we all simply chilled.
While Aveiro has no beach of it’s own, the town has two beaches nearby (Barra 9 kms away and Costa Nova 3 kms further on). Vanya wanted to visit Costa Nova to see the colourful beach hut houses which predominate there and this led to us staying overnight.
The village was formed in the 19th century as fishermen, wanting to be closer to their fishing grounds, first extended their brightly coloured wooden storage huts into temporary shelters and then into more permanent dwellings (so that their families could join them). Costa Nova still has a fishing industry but, judging by the crowds that were there when we visited, tourism has fast taken over with the colourful houses being the main attraction.
I was not sufficiently impressed by Costa Nova to recommend it as a place to visit (there’s little there other than a beach and the colourful houses) unless of course you do as we did and combine the stay with a visit to beautiful Aveiro. Having said that, the dogs loved the beach…
The weather is far more bearable further north and on the coast (mid twenties during the day and high teens during the night) and our revised route should ensure more of the same. Everyone is happer. The drive today took us towards Costa Nova (Vanya wants to see the beach houses there) and was notable on two counts. First, it took us through Aveiro (a place I was keen to visit) and second, we passed the 4,000 mile mark for this trip.
Known locally as the Portuguese Venice Aveiro is a delightful and very colourful city less than 10 miles from Costa Nova on the Ria de Aveiro lagoon. The place is crisscrossed with canals and they lend the place considerable character but the similarities with Venice end there. Visit Aveiro expecting to see a replica Venice and you will be disappointed. Arrive with a more open mind and, like me, you will love the place.
Aveiro is a city of more than 60,000 people but parking up just outside the older part of the town by the (Terminal Rodoviario de Aveiro) railway station and walking 15 minutes or so through the Parque da Fonte Nova to the canals into the old centre (Vera Cruz) you really wouldn’t believe that. It seems small and cosy.
There are canals, bridges and boats but the place is nothing like Venice. I do like prefer ribbons on the bridges to padlocks.
In some respects it is not hard to see why Portuguese Travel Agents(?) might refer to Aveiro as a Portuguese Venice. There are canals and there are bridges crossing the canals and there are colourful boats but, get a grip, it’s nothing like Venice. The boats are known as Moliceiro and were used to harvest seaweed to fertilise the land. Now they are used to ferry tourists around the city and the adjacent lagoon at a tenth of the price of a Venetian Gondola.
The Moliceiro Boats
Three very distinct styles of houses are to be found in the old town(Vera Cruz) area. Many of the older buildings that used to house the fishing community are painted in pastel colours not unlike those in Burano (okay so there is another Venice connection) but alongside these are houses adorned with the beautifully painted azulejo tiles and then, perhaps most impressive of all are, the elegant properties built by emigrants returning from Portugal’s colonies (particularly Brazil) with their mixture of colour, ceramic art and ornamental wrought iron balconies. It is quite unlike anywhere else we have seen in Portugal with a wonderful mix of old and new .
Oh, and did I mention shopping? I can’t believe I’m saying this but the shopping here is not at all bad. There is an unusual, largely open air shopping mall (the Forum Aveiro) which has all the shops you would normally expect to find in an Abu Dhabi Mal and more besidesl. It sits by the canal and we passed through it both on the way into Vera Cruz and on the way back (yes, I was with Vanya). I am advised that a large antiques market is held in the shopping centre on the last Sunday of every month which attracts collectors from all over the Iberian Peninsula. Of course that last comment could just be clever marketing by travel agents(?).
A few more photos of the old town. Love the mosaic tiles.
I’ve not mentioned food. That is unlike me. The city is of course renowned for it’s sea food (particularly salted cod) but it was the sweet known as Ovos Moles (sweet eggs) which most interested me. Apparently, this sweet is protected and can only be bought in Aveiro. They are made with egg yolks and sugar, wrapped in a crispy wafer in the shape of sea shells. After tasting them, I can report that the initial taste is great (albeit very sweet) but then the sugar gives way to the egg and you are left feeling as if you have been sucking on the yolk of a hard boiled egg. Well, that is my view. I was not impressed with them.
My strongest memories of Aveiro are, on the one hand, the cheerful colours across the city (as demonstrated by the Moliceiros) and, on the other, the horrid taste that comes of sucking a hard boiled egg yolk. Great place to visit though.
Having very quickly tired of both the Algarve and the heat (the dogs were really suffering in the 42 centigrade temperature) we decided to move back north. We agreed on the coastal town of Peniche, up near Obidos, which made for a drive of some 240 miles. Good decision. Up at Peniche it was 20 degrees cooler and yet remained pleasantly warm.
Peniche had been recommended to us a couple of weeks ago (while we were staying in Obidos) as a place to visit. It is a beach resort as much as anything and tailor made for surfers but that was fine with us. We were on our way back to Spain and just looking for somewhere cooler to get a good meal and rest up for the night. We struck lucky on that last point too. We found the ASA Peniche Motorhome Park which place is just as the title suggests – it’s a secure area to park the Van but, with clean hot showers and within easy walking distance of the town centre. Moreover, it had a Campervan Cleaning Station. For the first time in nearly 4 years I was able to get to the roof of the Van.
Peniche is simply about the sea and fish. I enjoyed a couple of good cliff walks and then Vanya and I walked into town for a large bowl of lobster, prawn and mussel stew served with a couple of bottles of Planalto (a Douro dry white wine with a bite not unlike that of Gruner Veltliner). Feeling better already.
This was the view I encountered immediately around the corner from the Van Park. That rock outcrop simply had to be explored…
… and explored it was…
… from every conceivable approach
We were parked on the north side of Peniche, which provides spectacular views of the sea (not least because of the rugged rock formations which fill the north side of the peninsula that the town fills) but, to the south, is the famous Praia dos Supertubos which is revered in the surfing community and is even included amongst Portugal’s top seven natural wonders. A combination of the shallow slope of land into the sea, north winds and the local currents give rise to a tall, perfectly hollow wave that is unique in Europe and the ultimate for surfing and bodyboarding. Every October, the Rip Curl Pro Championships are held here.
And the food was great…
We didn’t stay long in Peniche (we are now committed to getting back into Spain) but if I were to return I would make a point of visiting the Berlengas Archipelago which is a group of islands 10 kilometres offshore pg Peniche. There is no permanent settlement on the islands but the largest island has a fort, a former penal colony, which is now a campsite. The leeward side of this island has small beaches with the clearest water. That sounds worth a visit.
Whilst in Beja, two local people suggested Aljezur as somewhere to visit and so we decided to give it a try. Unfortunately the town was too busy. We were unable to find a decent place to stay and so headed further south to the Algarve and parked up in the small town of Alvor.
We were looking forward to chilling for a couple of days and, from what we read, Alvor looked a quieter, more pleasant place than say nearby Portimao or the Praia da Rocha (where we took our children many years ago). More to the point it read as if there was something about the place that we could enjoy. It wasn’t to be the case.
I’ll not classify Alvor as I might some of the Spanish Costas. It isn’t particularly overdeveloped and/or unsightly; neither is it very overcrowded or messy. It does appear a bit loud and tacky (as do many other places, including Brighton where we now live, but that is never going to be a show stopper with me). No, it is simply a resort with numerous Irish bars (I counted 7 just walking through the main drag), cafes, tourist shops and tours. It is wholly lacking in character and has neither heart nor soul and there is absolutely nothing there of interest to me. I might have felt differently if I were there twenty years ago with young children but, not now. It was time to head back north.
Aljezur looks good from the remains of the Moorish Castle (not my photo, unfortunately)
Not what we would call a good night out nor the place for a good night out
Nala and Vanya look incredulous. Beanie was acting like the robot dog in the “Smash” (Mashed Potato) tv adverts of the 1970’s – laying on his back laughing while kicking his legs in the air
We tried Aljezur again but there would be nowhere decent to park up for a few days and it was far too hot to wild camp for so long.
Beja is fairly large as towns go in the Alentejo Region but during the period we were there it struck me as utterly quiet and almost sleepy. The municipal campsite manager who doubles as a local tourism officer recognises this and attributes it to the summer heat and the fact that a large proportion of locals head for the coast during the August holidays. He loves this time of the year; I kid you not.
There’s been a settlement here since at least the Bronze Age and in the 1st century under the Romans, it became known as the regional capital of Pax Julia, after the peace treaty imposed by Julias Caeser on the Lusitanian tribes who had previously ruled the area. The town grew greatly under Roman and then Moorish occupation and further still when the Portuguese Royal Family moved their court to the Alentejo Region during the 1600’s. This diverse history is reflected in the many archaelogical sites and museums to be found in the area.
Nowadays the town appears to be largely of Medieval origin. The lanes and squares are full of tradional whitewashed Portuguese houses (and just as in nearby Evora they are almost all edged in yellow) and interesting historical buildings and/or monuments which just drag you in.
A typical shaded “square” in old town Beja
Typical lanes in old town Beja and some wonderful street art on a bricked in doorway
There are a great many museums to be found in Beja old town including, the Museu Jorge Vieira, Museo Botanico, Museo Episcopal de Beja, Museo Visicotico (in the St Amaro Church) and my favourite (by a long way) the Musea Rainha Dona Leonor – the Queen Leonor Regional Museum.
The ‘Queen Leonor’ was moved to the 15th century Convento da Conceicao (the Convent of the Immaculate Conception) in 1927 although, at least part of the building served as a museum for some considerable time before then. In terms of architecture and furnishings, this museum is truly breath taking. There is a wealth of artistic heritage on display. Particularly stunning is the tiling, some of which dates from when the Convent was first inhabited (i.e. when the first nuns arrived – forgive the pun) in 1473. You have to see this place to fully appreciate azulejos tiles.
One of the nuns who lived in the convent during the 17th century is alleged to have written Cartas Portuguesas (Portuguese Letters), the scandalous 17th century love story about a nun and a French soldier. Not sure about that. The book was supposedly written by Mariana Alcoforado and there was a nun named Mariana Alcoforado living in the convent at that time but … really?
My difficulty here was in deciding which of my many photos of the convent to include in this blog
The fact is, no photos can do the place justice
The cloisters were so cool and refreshing
I didn’t have the time to enter all of Beja’s museums but if you are to visit just one, I would recommend the Musea Rainha Dona Leonor.
Saw so many that I cannot remember the name of this place but once again it included a number of beautifully painted tiles
And then it was on to what at one time was the 4th century Castelo de Beja and it’s beautiful 1310 Keep, the “Torre de Menagem”. The Keep is made entirely of marble and at 40 metres high is the tallest Keep of any across the whole Iberian Peninsula. It’s an impressive tower with views to match (but to enjoy those you first have to negotiate a rather narrow spiral staircase). It is worth it (and entry is free).
The entrance to the Keep is guarded by a 14th century knight
The views from the keep are impressive. The church just outside the castle walls is Beja Cathedral, otherwise known as the Cathedral of Saint James the Great
From the top of the keep there are excellent views both over the town and the surrounding very flat countryside and this, in part, explains why the castle saw so much conflict in the wars between the Moors and the Christians.
Given how hot the summers are in Beja I was surprised at how fertile the local countryside appears to be. In addition to large olive groves and cork plantations (which are to be expected in this part of the country), there are large vineyards and huge fields of wheat. One or two interesting facts regarding the cork groves that I would share: First, 50% of the worlds entire cork production is harvested in the Alentejo Region. Second, cork trees cannot be harvested until they are at least 25 years old and, as a result, cork groves tend to be superb habitats for wildlife. Third, the extraction of the cork causes absolutely no harm to the tree which continues to grow and actually produces more cork to replace that which is lost. Fourth (and sadly) this self-sustaining crop is under threat because the growth in plastic and screw-top wine stoppers is forcing many farmers to rip up the cork groves for more viable crops (and destroying ancient habitats in the process).
I’m now about two weeks behind with my blog entries and I am therefore going to cut this one short now and simply end with a few more photos which I took when Vanya and I returned to the old town after dinner…
The Castle looks good at night; so too do the cobbled streets and the artwork…
… and the little ‘Squares’
Hey, but I forgot the food and wine. We had a laugh that night; not least because, after enjoying some wonderful Hor d’oeuvres (Serrano Ham, Olives & Garlic Bread) and a very tasty Shrimp Mayonnaise, I ordered what I thought was a (veal) Wiener Schnitzel and received instead a doorstop size veal sandwich. My Portuguese really is bad. No matter, the Port was very good.
Evora is an enchanting world heritage site rich in history, architecture and a great deal besides. It is a compact city almost entirely enclosed within the 14th century castle walls built by King Alfonso IV (although some of the walls are older having been erected by the Moors in 715) but, the day and a half which we allowed ourselves to explore the place was still insufficient. There is so much to see.
On arrival in Evora we saw what looked like a market filling half of the Praca do Rossio. We found a parking spot alongside the market but it was just finishing for the day so instead; we set off into the town for a beer and a quick look at the sights. We passed a couple of beautiful churches, the Igreja de Sao Francisco (Church of Saint Francis) and the Cathedral of Evora on our way to one of the highest points of the city, the Jardim Diana (the Garden of Diana), where we paused to get our bearings and that beer. The Garden of Diana is something of a disappointment being both small and very overgrown but it does sit high up in the centre of the old town, close to both the remains of a Roman Temple and the Cathedral of Evora and it provides great views over the city to the north.
We sat having a cold beer on the Jardim Diana looking at the Roman Temple (on the right) and the Archbishop’s Palace and the Convent (on the left) with a part of the Cathedral just visible behind the Temple.
Two further photos of the Roman Temple. This temple is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the Temple of Diana. It was actually a 1st century temple dedicated to the Emperor God Augustus.
Two statues from the small Garden of Diana
After a short sto on the Jardim Diana, I drove Vanya and the dogs to a campsite on the outskirts of Evora and then walked the 3 kilometres or so back into the old town for a proper look. I don’t know how many miles I eventually covered that day walking to, from and around the town, but I enjoyed every yard of it.
First rising to prominence in Roman times, the city grew further during 500 years of Moorish occupation but, really began to flourish in the 15th century when Portugal’s kings moved there. The old town mostly dates from this latter period and it is a typical medieval maze of cobbled streets and traditional whitewashed houses (almost all of them with yellow edging).
You really do need to keep a close track of your movements if you are not to get lost in the maze of streets that is old town Evora.
I saw far too many interesting places and took far too many photos to include them all in this particular entry (not least because I am about two weeks behind with the blog now) but, the Igreja de Sao Francisco (the Church of Saint Francis) which was built in the early 1500’s and was the preferred church of resident royalty is perhaps my favourite.
The magnificent Portico of the Church of Saint Francis measures some 36x34x24 metres and leads into the longest vaulted nave of any church in Portugal. Twelve open chapels line the sides of the nave and throughout the entire interior there is a mass (forgive the pun) of extravagant gilding and wood carvings and countless beautiful hand painted tiles depicting various biblical scenes.
On the left, one of the dozen open chapels to the sides of the nave and on the right, a small meeting room
Almost alongside the main entrance to the church and part of the same complex is the sinister Capela dos Ossos (the Chapel of Bones). This chapel was added to the church during the first half of 17th century with Franciscan friars digging up some 5,000 skeletons from 42 local monastic cemeteries and integrating them into the new chapel’s walls, arches and supporting pillars. It’s aim was to both create more space in the burgeoning city and provoke visitors into reflecting on the transitory nature of our lives. At the entrance to the chapel, as if to reinforce this, are the words:- “We the bones that are here for yours we are waiting”
Inside the Chapel of Bones
At almost the highest point of the town is the pink granite Cathedral of Evora. Although construction of the cathedral commenced in 1204, it’s development continued over many hundreds of year and the finished product is a jumble of gothic and baroque architecture but, it is still very impressive. Unfortunately I arrived back at the cathedral as it was closing for the day and was denied entry. That was a real shame because the internal cloisters are supposedly very impressive and there are excellent views of the city and surrounding area from the roof top. (which can be accessed for 3.5 euros).
The Cathedral. Vasco de Gama’s flags were blessed here in 1497 just before his epic sail to India
Another impressive church in Evora is the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Graca (the Church of our Lady of Grace), notable for it’s baroque facade. In certain articles on this church it has been written that the statues on the roof represent Atlas and others like him holding earth in place in heavens. How could this be when in both Roman and Medieval times Earth was presumed to be flat?
Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Graca
Another interesting place to visit and watch the world go by is the square, Praco do Giraldo. It is named after Gerald the Fearless who turfed the Moors out of Evora in 1167. At one end of the square is the renaissance Church of Santa Antao and an attractive marble fountain while at the other is the impressive facade of the Bank of Portugal (now a craft shop showcasing the work of local artisans). In the 15th century, Evora was home to one of Portugal’s courts of the Inquisition (Spain put pressure on Portugal to continue the work of the Spanish Inquisition) and the Praco do Giraldo saw many burnings of so called heretics.
Another place to visit in Evora, if only to take advantage of the shade on a hot day, is the Jardim Publico (the public gardens or park). I popped in on the place on my way back to the Van. Laid out just inside the town walls in 1863, and covering just over 8 acres, it’s main entrance is just down from the Church of St Francis. It’s a pretty enough garden with some unusually interesting features including a fake ruin built as a home for the park’s resident peacocks.
Most interesting are the remains of the once magnificent Royal Palace of King Manuel I. The palace had it’s origins in the Convent & College of San Francisco (when, in the 14th century, King Joao I evicted the resident Franciscans and started the conversion from convent to palace) but it was Manuel I who transformed the place into grandiose renaissance palace. There’s not a great deal left of it now, only the Ladies Gallery which is now a small museum.
A small guard post on the castle wall above the park and the fake ruin built to accommodate the local pheasants.
The Ladies Gallery, all that remains of the Palace of Manuel I
That night was about a feast in the Van – We decided upon a cold meal of Iberico Ham and a selection of French and Spanish cheeses (plus olives, prawns, onion pate, picles and the juiciest of tomatoes) served with fresh bread and a fine Albarino wine. It was too hot an evening to consider anything else.
The Iberico Ham was to die for and the cheeses (Manchego, Comte and Reblechon) went down really well.
A little bit about Iberico Ham before I finish. To be called iberico, the ham must come from a Black Iberian Pig or a cross breed that is at least 50% iberico. That said, there are four levels of iberico called ‘labels’ – black, red, green and white in descending order of prestige. To qualify for the black label (pata negra or black hoof) the pig must be pure iberico and fed exclusively on acorns – up to 10kg of acorns per day and lots of exercise. Red label is more than 50% cross bred fed and exclusively on acorns . Green is cross bred fed partly on acorns and white is crossbred fed grain (and no acorns). I’m advised that grain fed has a saltier chewier quality. Only other thing worth mentioning is that carving the ham is a real art!
We had the black label and ham will never be the same for me again. To coin a phrase, it is truly scrumptious.
Although we didn’t drive that far (Cascais is only about 40 miles from Torres Vedras) we packed a fair bit in – stocking up on supplies at a supermarket in Mafra and then walking the National Palace and Grounds and, finally, I had a look-see around Sintra. Although there is much to see and do in Sintra (it is a very pretty town with an abundance of impressive buildings – the Palaces of Pena and Monserrate, the Castelo dos Mouros, the Quinta da Regaleira, the Convento dos Capuchos, etc) the place was packed with tourists (No surprise there; it was a weekend during the height of summer) and I decided it should be left for an out of season visit.
The next morning we were off in the Van to explore the former fishing village of Cascais. On the way, we stopped off just a few miles down the coast at a local attraction, a sea arch known as the Boca do Inferno, the Hell’s Mouth. I’d read a number of blogs on the internet which described the Boca do Inferno in quite glorious terms – “an amazing arch”, sensational location”, “must see site with amazing vantage points”, “dramatic” – Forget it!! The Portuguese coast is full of such sites and this one is barely worth parking the car for.
The Boca do Inferno (not my photo but one of the better ones I could find) – not that impressive and highly overrated
Now Cascais; that’s a totally different matter. Yes it is touristy and it is quite expensive but it is a pretty place and well worth visiting. I once described the town as “hollow” and, in hindsight, that is both unfair and incorrect. At the time I was comparing Cascais with Portofino in Italy and it is inappropriate to make such comparisons. Cascais is a fair sized town in its own right (much bigger than Portofino). Moreover it is situated in one of Portugal’s most popular tourist areas (perhaps the most popular tourist spot on the west coast) AND it is just outside of the country’s capital city. Come on, with that in mind it could never be as exclusive as little Portofino.
So what is Cascais like? It is a pleasant mix of new and old. There are still traces of the charming old fishing port with it’s narrow lanes and cobbled streets full of whitewashed and/or tiled cottages but, early in the 20th century the town became the preferred holiday resort of the Portuguese royal family and other nobility and as a result a great many far more imposing buildings were added to the town and these now sit side by side with the old cottages.
As the twentieth century progressed Cascais and the neighbouring almost equally fashionable town of Estoril were joined by a wide tree lined promenade and the combined towns then developed into a playground for the rich and famous with beautiful beaches, lively bars and restaurants, expensive designer shops and boutiques, premier international motor racing (the Estoril motor racing track ran the Portuguese Grand Prix between 1984 and 1996) and, let’s not forget, the glamorous and sophisticated Casino Estoril (the largest casino in Europe) which Ian Fleming visited before writing his 1953 James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
Surprisingly, it was easy finding somewhere to park the Van in Cascais and minutes after leaving the Van we were in the largely pedestrianised old town. Be warned however, this is not the easiest town to navigate. My initial objective was the Praca 5 de Outubro and it wasn’t easy to find. Indeed, we gave up on it for a while and made our way down to the beach for a drink and a spot of lunch.
The old town is pretty. Most of the squares and streets in the old town are paved with patchwork mosaics (calcada portuguesa) and many of the houses are adorned with beautiful patterned tiles and thick growths of vibrant pink Bougainvillea… and dotted throughout the old town are some amazing street art.
Beautiful streets of the old town…
… with equally beautiful tiled properties and street art.
Praca V de Outubro
The beaches in this area are generally very good and the sandy Praia Da Rainha is amongst the best. It is overlooked by cafe bars and restaurants and it was at one of these we enjoyed our lunch.
Praia Da Rainha from our restaurant bar
After lunch we continued our search for the Praca 5 De Outubro, taking in the blue and white lighthouse and, next to it, the Casa de Santa Maria. Both are now museums although the lighthouse is still operational.
The lighthouse and the Casa de Santa Maria
Another place turned into a museum is a former property of Manuel Inacio de Castros Guimares which he gifted to the town in his will. This property, which was built by an eccentric Irish tobacco baron in 1910 has been described both as a mock Gothic Castle and a whimsical Revivalist Palace. It is quite unique. The gardens, together with land previously owned by the Viscount Gandarinha, now form the Marechal Carmona Park – a shaded public park with lush green lawns, flowerbeds and various water features. It is one of the noisiest parks I have ever visited with free roaming peacocks, roosters and ducks seemingly vying with each other to be heard.
The Gothic Castle and a lovely little chapel in it’s grounds, the Capela de Sao Sebastiao
We were travelling south through the saloia (the rustic area – so called because it has long provided Lisbon with its garden produce) towards our next stopping point of either Sintra or Cascais when we detoured slightly into Mafra for some supplies and lunch. That was when we noticed a most imposing building which needed further investigation. I quickly read up on the town and learned that the building was formerly the Royal Palace built by order of Joao V way back in the 18th century and which was renamed the National Palace after the Portuguese royal family was overthrown in 1910 and sent into exile. Of particular interest in the palace is, arguably, the finest collection of Italian Baroque sculpture outside of Italy; the large Capuchin Convent and Infirmary and; a spectacular library of more than 36,000 ancient books. Even without those things the building itself was sufficient to interest me and so off I went to explore the Palace…
With a facade some 250 metres long and two bell towers standing at 68 metres high, this is one imposing building
At the centre of the building is the Basilica of our Lady and Saint Anthony of Mafra. The square towers at each end of the building are, as you look towards the Palace entrance, the King’s Tower to the left and the Queen’s Tower to the right.
To the front and centre of the building is the Basilica of our Lady and Saint Anthony of Mafra and it is one very impressive church both inside and outside. It is built in the Italian Baroque style of limestone which was mined mostly in the Sintra area. The first stone was laid in 1717 and the church was consecrated in 1730 although the rest of the Palace was not completed until 1750.
To the front of the Basilica are the statues, sculpted by some of Europe’s finest artists, of various saints who were among the founders and the reformers of the main religious orders – these include Saint Dominic, Saint Benedict, Saint Clare of Assisi and, most appropriate (given that the Palace includes a Capuchin Convent) Saint Francis of Assisi.
Saint Bruno of Cologne was the founder of the Carthusian Order in 1084. Saint Teresa of Avila reformed the Carmelite Order. Saint Sebastian was a Roman soldier converted to Christianity and martyred by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century – see my blogs on Split, Croatia.
The inside of the Basilica is tremendous. I’ll let the photos do the talking…
There is a unique set of 6 organs inside the church. Oh to have heard those kick off!
The sculptures throughout the Basilica are amazing
The Palace was supposed to have been completed well in advance of 1750 but with wealth taken from the Portuguese colony of Brasil, the original plans were continually updated and the Palace grew and grew. For example, the Capuchin Convent (female equivalent of the Franciscan Order) was originally intended to accommodate just 13 nuns but when finished there was room for 300 nuns.
Only a small portion of the Palace’s 1200 rooms are now open to the public. Principal among these are the king’s living quarters, the library, music room, games room and a trophy room and; not forgetting the convent and it’s infirmary.
The King’s State Room and the Convent Infirmary. Patients in the infirmary were close enough to the church to hear Mass being recited
The 90 metre long library. A colony of bats has resided in the library for over 300 years. They are released every night to feed on the insects which would otherwise devour the 36,000+ ancient books.
The (yellow) music room and the trophy room. Some of the furniture in the trophy room (e.g. chairs) is made from animals hunted in the Palace grounds.
A scale model of the whole palace – it is unbelievable. The sad thing is it was rarely used by royalty other than as a hunting lodge
To the rear of the Palace are the Palace Gardens, the Jardim do Cerco. Entrance into the gardens is free. They are extensive and parts of them are quite pretty (and there is a small aviary) but there is clearly too much work for the handful of staff currently employed. There is perhaps a case for levelling a small charge at least to tourists. Behind the gardens are the former hunting grounds, the Tapada Nacional de Mafra, which is now a deer park and plans are afoot to create a protected area for Iberian Wolves.
Some of the prettier parts of the garden
And the rest of the town of Mafra? There really isn’t a lot to it…
Soon enough we had completed our journey to Cascais. We even had time for a brief walk around Sintra – too many tourists, we’ll return in the Winter.
Vanya discovered something called Portugal Easycamp – an organisation not unlike France Passion but with the aim of showcasing Portuguese products and crafts through motorhome stopovers. She wanted to visit one Easycamp place, the Quinta da Almiara Vineyard (just outside of Torres Vedras) and that, for me, was an absolute no brainer – a private wine tour and tasting session followed by free parking in the vineyard at a site near one of the Duke of Wellington’s first headquarters during the Peninsula War. That ticks a lot of boxes. Vanya booked us in and arranged for us to start with a wine tasting session at 4pm the next day.
Torres Vedras is an unassuming town some 40 kilometres north of Lisbon. It came to prominence in the early years of the Peninsula War when the Duke of Wellington had a huge network of defences constructed in the area so as to protect Lisbon from the invading French Napoleonic army under Marshall Andre Massena. The Torres Vedras Lines (there were actually three lines of defences) stretched a total 100 kilometres and included 152 fortresses. What was particularly impressive about this feat of engineering was that it was all completed within a year and it was kept totally secret from the French. Massena reached the line(s) with 65,000 troops and was so shocked by the scale of the defences that he immediately retreated back into Spain. There’s not a great deal left of the Torres Vedras lines now but the largest of the forts, Forte de Sao Vicente, which could house 4,000 men and 39 cannon is to be found just outside of Torres Vedras. For the real Peninsula War buff, there is also the Grande Rota das Linhas de Torres Vedras, a walking trail which follows the old network of defences.
Overlooking the town are the ruins of another much older military installation, the 13th century Torres Vedras castle which was built on the site of an even earlier Moorish Castle. The Torres Vedras castle was almost totally destroyed in the 1755 earthquake but some significant reconstruction in 1809 saw it become Redoubt No 27 of the Torres Vedras Line and it was occupied by 500 men and 13 pieces of artillery under the command of Colonel Edmund Mulcaster.
The front entrance and a section of the walls of Torres Vedras Castle. This castle was built on the remains of a Moorish Castle and, even earlier than that, a Roman Fort (although there is very little left of either of the older fortifications). The place is full of history. It is said that the castle was captured briefly in 1589 by Sir Francis Drake.
It is a fairly short walk down from the castle and through the medieval lanes of Torres Vedras old town to the main square, Praca de 25 Abril. Walking through the town, a number of interesting churches are to be seen. The first is the pretty little Church of Santa Maria de Costelo which sits within the castle grounds and was built in 1148 on the instructions of Alfonso I immediately after he evicted the Moors from the area. The second is the Igreja de Sao Tiago (a simple but very attractive design on the outside but in need of work on the inside ) and the third is the Igreja de Sao Pedro which needs tidying up on the outside but has a beautifully tiled interior.
Typical Torres Vedras old town street scene leading to the Igreja de Santiago
Igreja de Sao Pedro
The Praca de 25 Abril is a pleasant area to sit and escape the hot midday sun. There’s an obelisk in the centre of the square commemorating the Peninsula War and on the south side of the square is the 16th century Convento de Graca (now a museum) and it’s church, the Igreca da Graca. There was an older convent on this site but it was destroyed in a flood.
On the left, the Obelisk commemorating the Peninsula War. On the right a monument remembering the Portuguese soldiers from Torres Vedras who lost their lives in colonial wars in Guinea, Mozambique and Angola.
Four 4 pm came soon enough and we had a very informative and enjoyable tour of the family owned Quinta da Almiara. We tried 4 wines and without a doubt my favourite was the Touriga Nacional red. I bought a 3 litre flagon (it cost just over 10 euros – that’s for nothing) and it went very quickly. No surprise that Vanya favoured the white wines.
I read that in the past this area of Portugal has been renowned more for the quantity of wine it produces than the quality and that the white wines are generally low in alcohol. If the wine we drank is anything to go by, I would say that Quinta da Almiara is bucking both trends. The Quinta retain and bottle just 1% of the 4 million litres they produce every year. The rest is sold on. The wines we came away with are 100% Quinta da Almiara and the red is 14% and the white is 13%. Both taste fine.
That’s a view of the Quinta from across some of the vines. It’s a relatively new building designed by a local architect. The cladding was inspired by the vines.
Here we go, here we go, here we go!
Jose Constantino bought the vineyards as a going concern in 1980 but has since totally remodelled it and expanded it to 180 hectares. All 4 million litres of the wine they produce is made with home grown grapes and there are now three generations of the family working in the business. Good luck to them.
From this to that. Included in the wines we came away with is a Reserva Touriga Nacional – a numbered bottle of just 3,000 produced to celebrate the owners 50th wedding anniversary.
We stayed in the Van on the estate and awoke after a quiet night’s sleep to the most beautiful sunset…