Way down south

Menhirs, maps, wasps and natives

Unlike a plane trip, a road trip where you are the driver won’t bode well for your travel journalling. Especially if the trip is made under a scorching sun.

Memories from the trip from Elvas to Lagos include few sketches and half a dozen wasp stings. The territory of Alentejo is marked by man-made objects of so many different eras. The arid plains of northern (Alto) Alentejo, peppered by its Reconquista era castles, became not so arid in more recent years, due to the construction of the Alqueva dam. Monsaraz certainly benefited from this new dammed landscape, as it became a coastal town other than a well-preserved medieval town.

The menhir of Outeiro is a sign of the Megalithic era, lost in the middle of nowhere, re-erected but a few decades ago. It now provides shade to the gigantic and euphoric Alentejo ants.

In Terena, besides the ubiquitous medieval castle, we stumbled upon a couple of Moorish-inspired tile tables, which pattern I copied.

Southern (Baixo) Alentejo is scarred with constructions of the wheat era. “The barnhouse of Portugal” as it was dubbed under the dictatorship. Its plains were dramatically and systematically altered in the first half of the 20th century to yield great quantities of wheat. The grain storage silos in Moura, Serpa and Beja are the few shadows in this immense golden landscape.

Nowadays, all around Alentejo, old men gather in coffee houses, coming up with nicknames for everybody, letting time go by. A friend told me of this strange particularity that town of Amareleja is known for: whoever happens to wander there is certain to get a nickname. And there was one man who, for work reasons, had to go by Amareleja. But as he did not want to get one of the famed nicknames, he avoided the town and went around it. Town folk dubbed him “the went-around” (“o vai-de-volta“).

I wonder what nicknames they gave us.

With all guns blazing

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The 17th century star-shaped city wall with dry-ditch, built during the Restoration War replaced the outdated medieval castle on top of the hill and its wall system.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.

Patton and Saladin

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.

Hotter than hell

Canastreiros

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.

Canastreiros

Travels in UNESCO lands

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.

Cáceres sights

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

Plaza Mayor

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.

Mor Karbasi concert

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.

Questions kids ask

Maria & João

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!