Portugal by pousada

Travel & Indulgence – The Australian February 2011

Driving into the Middle Ages was never going to be easy. Medieval masons probably didn’t conceive of anything beyond horse and cart or, at best, a phalanx of knights on horseback. Negotiating the narrow dogleg entry in the ancient wall surrounding the Portuguese town of Obidos required pinpoint precision to avoid leaving hire-car paint on centuries-old stonework.

Having gingerly threaded our way through we met a swarm of jesters and jugglers, troubadours and court dandies. Impudent strumpets pressed their gaudy faces against the windscreen, leaving streaks of rouge. We’d arrived during the annual mercado medieval, a three-week fair of period-costume mayhem.

The Obidos festival attracts professional medieval groups from around the country. These actors stage processions, jousting tournaments, theatre, music and dance while the general merriment is re-fuelled at stalls dispensing tiny chocolate cups filled with ginjinha, a popular sour cherry liqueur. Getting swept up in a medieval pageant was more than we’d imagined when planning our passage through Portugal.

Our first step had been roaming the Web, to assess and then act on our informed instincts. This research ultimately paid handsome dividends. We linked particular pousadas in a self-drive itinerary, a journey of discovery filled with historical intrigues, architectural splendour and accommodation of memorable character.

A golden itinerary

Pousadas are the Portuguese equivalent of Spanish paradores. The countrywide network consists of 40 hotels, many occupying restored historic monuments and others listed under nature or charm. By foraging the listings we isolated those with most appeal. Our itinerary had some solace for maturing travellers, a Golden Age Pass that shrank our hotel costs. And by ending our journey in Lisbon we also soaked up the charm of a city enjoying its overdue status as Europe’s “go-to” capital.

We wanted lots to see, as well as quality downtime. To satisfy this we chose pousadas in castles or fortresses, convents or monasteries, each within easy driving distance of other notable attractions.

Our flight from Gatwick to Lisbon touched down later than scheduled but, having collected our hire car, we had only a 20-minute drive to the Pousada de Queluz, former quarters of the Royal Palace Guard. Soon we were asleep in our comfortable room, awaking to a rosy dawn and the glorious sight of the pink Palace de Queluz across the road.

Boosted by a substantial buffet breakfast, we meandered through formal gardens beside a narrow canal handsomely decorated in yellow, green and blue azulejo (glazed ceramic tiles). Branded “the Portuguese Versailles”, the 18th Century Rococo palace was built as a royal summer residence and later became sanctum for the insane Queen Maria. It’s now a sumptuous tourist attraction with ornate reception rooms and ballroom, gilt statues and marble floors. One wing is reserved for visiting foreign dignitaries.

On our way north to Obidos we stopped in the tourist town of Sintra for a quintessential Portuguese lunch, relaxing at restaurant Tacho Real over plates of bacalhau fresco and grilled salmon with glasses of vino verde and SuperBock beer.

Medieval magic

The Pousada do Castelo in Obidos is tucked within the castle walls in a corner of the preserved medieval town and has only nine guest rooms. They’re described as “luxurious” yet ours was barely bigger than the saggy queen-size bed and had a miniscule bathroom. Oh well, we rationalised, it’s big on historic flavour. From the castle ramparts we had fabulous views over the countryside and a bird’s-eye perspective on the festival’s medieval market place. We could smell the piquant aroma of roasted meat and hear the sonorous wail of bagpipe, crumhorn, dulcian and shawm wafting up from the streets.

From Obidos we took day trips to impressive Gothic sanctuaries at Alcobaça and Batalha. We also visited the jaunty seaside town of Navare to stroll its ocean boulevard while licking our ice cream cones and admiring the serried rows of candy-striped tents-for-hire pegged out on the sand.

The Alcobaça monastery is truly monumental. Its 12th Century church is the largest in the country and the adjoining residential complex notable for its immense kitchen with its specially constructed water channel and pool for holding live fish from the river. The medieval monks apparently won wide renown for their culinary indulgences and subsequent obesity.

Equally fascinating is the story of Prince Pedro and his lover Inês de Castro, a bizarre tale of 14th Century intrigue worthy of Shakespeare. Inês was killed on the orders of Pedro’s father King Afonso, who feared her influence over his love-struck son. When Pedro inherited the throne he had her exhumed and declared his queen. Their ornate 14th Century sarcophagi can be admired in the church transept.

The Dominican abbey of Santa Maria da Vitória at Batalha is an unfinished symphony. Construction lasted than a century yet at one end of the impressively ornate church stand seven chapels around an octagonal rotunda, all of them roofless. These Imperfect Chapels, open to the elements, are now used for fair-weather concerts.

Batalha’s masonry is richly inscribed with Manueline motifs from the 16th Century, its pillars and arches embellished with carvings of creatures and plants from “the New World”. We would see similar ornamentation on many of Portugal’s classical buildings, particularly the fabulous Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, burial place of famous explorer Vasco da Gama who, in 1497, discovered the ocean passage to East Africa and India. The Batalha abbey was built to honour a 1382 battle in which Portugal won independence from Spain. Nowadays an army squad regularly enacts a crisp changing of the guard ceremony in the cloisters containing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.

Treats in Tomar

Our next pousada was in Ourém, close to a crumbling hilltop castle overlooking the modern city. From the summit, on a clear day, you can just about see the famous pilgrimage town of Fatima. Behind the castle is a statue of Nuno Alvares Pereira, third count of Ourém and the man whose army inflicted that momentous 1385 defeat on the Castilians at Aljubarrota. He’s buried in the crypt of the church in the medieval town on the slope below. Don Nuno achieved sainthood in April 2009.

The Pousada de Ourém consists of three medieval houses that have been linked and modernised. It’s immediately across the road from the church. A fourth separate building has a terrace with swimming pool. There’s scant else on the hill other than a tiny tourist office and two bar-cafes. Most pousada guests dine in-house and the restaurant makes an effort to feature fine local produce and regional wines.

We had an exceptional day in Tomar beside the Nabão River, a charming town with elegant 17th Century houses and one of Portugal’s oldest synagogues where, just as the guidebook had said, we found the amiable Luis Vasco. He maintains this tiny national monument and graciously spent time with us recounting its history and pointing out Jewish artifacts and memorabilia sent from around the world, including Australia.

Tomar’s crown jewel is the Knights Templar fortress above the town. This 12th Century citadel protects the fabulous Convent of Christ with its unusual Templar round church, or charola, reputedly fashioned so knights could worship inside on horseback. Henry the Navigator’s later additions created a truly astonishing complex. We spent several hours admiring the church, sacristry, the chapel of the Magi, the grand dormitory and the convent’s seven magnificent cloisters.

Fine fare in Evora

After Ourém we drove south into the Alentejo region and the city of Evora, where we slept in the shadow of a Roman temple and, in the cool twilight, sought out the best regional fare. The Pousada dos Lóios, finest on our list, was a fusion of quasi-monastic restraint with creature comforts. We slept in a converted monk’s cell with en-suite bathroom where we showered by standing in a wobbly old tub. Breakfast was a buffet affair in the ground-floor cloister.

Evora’s most striking historical relic is the Roman temple with 14 intact columns. It stands in the square outside the pousada. Another memorable sight is the ghoulish Chapel of Bones, a chamber lined with human skulls and skeletons. For me, this dimly lit ossuary beside the Church of St Francis was far more interesting than the fusty art and furniture on display in the Dukes of Cadaval palace.

We dined really well in Evora. Botaquim da Mouraria is a wine lover’s hidey-hole, a bar in which 13 patrons makes a full house. Owner Domingos Canelas and his wife Florbela serve prize ham, prawn, mushroom and sizzling cheese tapas. Tasquinha d’Oliveira is equally intimate but has a far more refined Alentejo menu. We let owner Manuel guide us through dishes created by his wife Carolina and also took his sage advice on suitable wines.

Before leaving the Alentejo we drove east, almost to the Spanish border, to visit the whitewashed hilltop village of Monsaraz. While there, over a salad lunch on a sunny balcony with spectacular views of the countryside, we toasted our prompt return to Portugal, a country that had delivered much more than expected.

Travel facts: The Pousadas of Portugal Golden Age Pass is valid for one year from date of purchase. It costs €400 and includes eight vouchers, valid for five nights in a standard room including breakfast with three vouchers for a 20% discount on meals. Only one guest need be over 55 to qualify. It’s valid for all pousadas except Obidos. www.pousadasofportugal.com

Tacho Real, Rua da Ferraria 4, Sintra +351 21 923 5277
Botaquim da Mouraria, Rua da Mouraria 16A, Evora, phone +351 26 674 6775
Tasquinha d’Oliveira, Rua Cândido dos Reis 45, Evora, phone +351 26 674 4841

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