Elvas has been an important military outpost since the Reconquista of the Peninsula from the Moors. It was a frontier town to the south, to the Muslim part of the Peninsula, and then later to the east, to Spain. Its many walls, castles and fortresses attest to that historical role.
The 17th century star-shaped city wall with dry-ditch, built during the Restoration War replaced the outdated medieval castle on top of the hill and its wall system. The city’s defence system adapted to counter the newer siege weapon technologies. Thick ramparts rather than high stone walls were favoured to absorb cannon firepower. Dry ditches were left between ramparts to allow killing grounds for assaulting troops. Forts and fortlets were built on nearby hills to disseminate besieging forces. Extensive tunnels were dug inside the ramparts to allow communication between forts.
Later, during the Peninsular War, as improvements were made to the defence system – additional walls and forts – the city also played an important role as an outpost in driving back the French Army.
Nowadays, there is a military museum established in this UNESCO World Heritage site. A messy spread of tanks, armoured vehicles, support vehicles, mobile artillery guns, howitzers and armoured troop transports used by the Portuguese military await cataloguing and proper insertion in the museum’s exhibition in the dry-ditch of Elvas’ fortifications.
You could probably fry an egg in the armour of these menacing beasts.
Most of the Canastreiro clan – my in-law family – lives and works in or around Campo Maior, a small town close to the spanish border. It is famous for being the headquarters of Delta, one of the largest coffee roasters in the Peninsula. It is not a pleasant place to be in the peak of the summer! People there avoid walking in the scorching hot sun and all the blinders are permanently rolled down. People care little about formal clothing or any clothing whatsoever. Everything begs for a little sesta (afternoon nap). Despite all that, one ritual has to take place after lunch: everybody in the house walks over to the nearest coffeeshop and drinks bica com cheirinho – the portuguese slang for an espresso with a side cup of firewater – taken separately or blended.
Deep inside the Iberian Peninsula lay the great plains of Extremadura, a region with tight connections to the Portuguese Alentejo. Besides the land border – now virtually nonexistent due to the Schengen Area – there are deep cultural bounds that go way back to the time of Roman occupation, when the province of Lusitania was formed.
The walled city of Cáceres is a UNESCO world heritage site, with much cultural and historical overlapping between Moorish and Roman urban design and Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Most paths are an intertwining of small squares between wealthy manors and churches, in the way of the fora in Rome. Even the private outdoor space is fashioned in such manner. The two patios featured in the 15th century Palacio de Carvajal are connected by a small passage and, while one of them is a place of meeting where all compartments of the palace converge, the other is a place of reflection and meditation, a cool breeze in a dry desert
Even the Plaza Mayor has a hierarchy of different public squares, some more exposed, some more secluded, some are noisier, some are quieter. And the space beneath the dozens of parasols in front of the coffee has a different atmosphere still. The only place bearable under the Iberian sun is the shade, where the view between the tables and chairs and the thick canvas was minimal.
A friend of mine has the theory that the region could benefit if Mértola, Marvão, Cáceres and Elvas joined efforts, because between them they share traces of the most important heritages of the Peninsula: the Roman, the Moorish, the Medieval, the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.
Late at night, back in Elvas, Mor Karbasi, a Sevilla-based israeli singer seemed to tie this theory together. She was singing in spanish, portuguese, hebrew and ladino, the jewish language of the Peninsula.
Kids ask the funniest things!
While spending the day at Elvas’ public outdoor swimming pool with family, João, the nephew, munching down on a famous Maria biscuit, casually threw into the air the question: “Why are there Maria biscuits but not Manel biscuits?” (where Manel could be the unofficial male counterpart to the name Maria).
Meanwhile, the sketching activity drew the attention of Maria (the niece, not the biscuit), who soon after became my new sketching best friend, sharing tools and colors!
Lisboa’s outskirts are peppered with suburbs of different shapes, sizes and styles. They range from forest parks to densely packed residential districts, from slums to industrial areas, from bourgeois waterfront mansions to medieval towns that have been absorbed by the city’s ever expanding grid. Queluz is one of those suburbs. It is home to Queluz National Palace, built in the 18th century as a summer home for the royal family. It is but a dwarf variation of the great Rococo palaces of Europe like Versailles. Right next to it rests a tiny urban settlement of old houses and narrow streets. I’ve always admired how in Lisboa great buildings of power are offset by projections of the humbleness of common people. Another example of this is the National Parliament of São Bento and the vernacular buildings that face it. It is in that space between that most political oriented demonstrations of Lisboa have their final checkpoint.
Then, there’s Magoito, a village by the beach in Sintra. Still close enough to be a candidate for the title of suburb of Lisboa, but far enough for people to feel as if they are spending holidays away from the city, if they happen to sleep over. The farthest people in it were engulfed in a thick sfumato of dust and iodine, and the smell of the salty water was instantly invigorating. The sun was hidden behind clouds, so we had to be extra careful not to get burned without noticing. The layers of blue and grey almost melded on the horizon and the body-boarders peppered the waves. The sand was not yellow nor white but in shades of brown and shadowy brown – contrasts lowered by the wind and the clouds. I always get drowsy in the first days of going to the beach.
During the match between Holland and Costa Rica, there was, of course, time for more snails and bifanas and beer.