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Peripatetic Perceptions of Portugal

I finally reached the Portuguese border. The steep climb out of Spain through the Sierra de Aracena had been narrow and at times tortuous but at last the road straightened out and leveled off as I approached the border control just beyond Rosal de la Frontera. I had arrived at the edge of the Alentejo, Portugal’s largest province that stretches from the Atlantic to the Spanish border, south of Lisbon but north of the Algarve.

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A careful check of the car’s papers and I was through. Much of the Alentejo is devoted to large plantations of cork forests. As I drove along, I could see that each tree was numbered; the bark is allowed to be stripped only once every nine years. I wondered if there could ever be enough. Portugal is quite a contrast from Spain; everything seems so much neater. I passed women scrubbing their front door sills and actually sweeping the main road in front of their whitewashed houses. I’d heard that the people of this region were independent and self-sufficient, but this was almost too much. But the biggest difference was the roads. Spain’s had been narrow, hardly ever more than two lanes even between major cities down on the flats. Here the “yellow” roads were twice as good and the “reds” virtual motorways, amazing when you realize that Portugal is the poorest nation in Western Europe. Planning my trip on the map, I had figured that the route from Beja to Evora would be even worse than that through the Sierra de Aracena (which had been marked in red). Driving west from the border, I turned north at Beja only to find that the road was wide and straight and I arrived in Evora just before lunch instead of after tea.

Evora’s walls encircle a town which seems to encapsulate the history of Portugal in one extraordinary package. If you’re a history buff or a student of architecture, Evora is a “must.” On the other hand, if you enjoy relaxing in a typical, peaceful town which reflects the habits and temperament of a people, Evora is also for you. And for me, it houses one of Portugal’s outstanding pousadas that, like the paradors of Spain, are hostelries operated under the guidance of the government and usually located in buildings of considerable architectural merit.

The Pousada dos Lios sits in the very center of Evora.

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Right outside its nearly perfect, Moorish-Portuguese, 16th-century portal is the stark, Corinthian-columned Temple of Diana that dates from the second century.

Many say that this town, from an historical point of view, is one of the most important in the world. Obviously it was an important Roman city, then Moorish, but to the Burgundian kings, it was too isolated and was forgotten. In the 14th-century, however, the king moved court to Evora from Lisbon and everyone rushed to build palaces and important convents.

The Convent of the Lios Friars is perfectly preserved and is bounded by the palace of the Counts of Baston, on one side, and by the house of the Dukes of Cadaval, on the other. And here is where I spent the night in an extraordinary Indo-Portuguese, four-poster bed with red velvet hangings and turned mahogany and brass filigrees!

My accommodations, the only suite, had magnificent, eighteenth-century, hand-painted walls and ceiling, but the bathroom was as modern as one could ask with gray onyx everywhere.

The bedroom looked out on a small private square which protected a vine from which grapes might very well have been plucked for hundreds of years.

The cloisters have been sensitively glassed-in to make the restaurant, and even though it was 2:30, I thought I’d see if I could have some lunch.

I was surprised to see so many people still eating and when still more arrived after I had been most graciously seated, I felt no qualms about having arrived late. I was served a delicious traditional lunch of Alentejo garlic soup, a charred brochette of squid, and chicken in a Moscadet de Fonseca-based sauce accompanied by a heavy red Da. I went upstairs and read heavily myself until woken by the bells of the famous cathedral, The S, built in 1186.

There are 18 important sights well-marked on the walking guide which I picked up at the front desk. I wandered the town for several hours before dinner, enjoying the atmosphere of a town full of animated people chatting in ancient squares, and tending their shops as if unaware of the fantastic beauty around them.

Dinner was well-served and delicious; the pousada charming and comfortable. As I edit my photos in the folder, I know I will remember this spot more clearly than many.

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