At 25 years old I have become my father (for whom I would have bought this magnet had it not cost an arm and a first-born child; I wouldn’t mind paying the first-born child, but I quite like my arm): I plan my travels based on castles, and other various old historic buildings. Not that that’s a bad thing really, as man have I seen a lot and I’m loving every minute of it! Plus, the views from these places… it’s enough to break your heart and steal your breath away.
When we left off three weeks ago I was worrying over my research project. Thankfully, I have a question now (woot!) but it still took a long while to get there. Namely those three weeks. Especially since my items to be recorded and studied dropped from 15 to around 10, then went up to 20 and a bit, and has now settled around 18 individuals. Easy right? Not quite. Two still don’t exist in pictures or the excavation logs, one is merely a foot (and some other bits), and one might not even be from my time period. I feel my dissertation should just be sorting out who is from the Hospital and who isn’t!
Enough of that, though, and onto the castles! The weekend after my trip out to Évora I took the train from Lisbon out to the absolutely stunning UNESCO heritage town of Sintra, the playing ground of Portugal’s former royalty. And why not flounce around here as a royal? Situated close to the coast, Sintra is nestle in three main built-up areas at the foot of a big mountain with fresh air, beautiful vistas, and the stunning remains of my favourite place in Portugal: the Castelo dos Mouros. Built in the 9th century AD by the Moors, the castle was only taken in 1147 during the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors, led by Afonso Henriques, the to-be king of ‘Portucale’.
While you might now be thinking ‘okay, it’s a castle Jen, I’ve seen many/some/pictures of/no castles – why is this special?’ To which I merely respond with the following picture:
Yeah. Imagine taking THAT fortress. The path I took from downtown Sintra up to the entrance of the castle was about 1.3km of winding, steep mountainside, with an elevation gain of roughly 420m. I found it hard to progress at a few points, so image climbing to those peaks in full armour… The weather also aided in making this place amazing, in that between bouts of sun and drizzle the fog rolled in over the mountain and the castle’s walls – very haunting and beautiful. Once inside (finally!) the child in me spent the next hour gallivanting along the old walls and loving the fact that there were no barriers; I was trusted to not kill myself. It’s refreshing in our nanny-states of today. The views from both of the towered-peaks of the castle were as breathtaking as the walk up (literally and figuratively!), from the Atlantic all the way to Lisbon visible and stretched out before you. Zakhvativayuwschii. The cistern, reputed to have never run dry, is also a cool (pun!) place to sit with traditional Medieval music playing.
Back in Lisbon, this revelry (or nerdiness) in the historical continued as I finally made it to the Convento do Carmo; third time’s the charm! This convent was built in the 14th century in honour of the Portuguese victory at the battle of Aljubarrota (1385) in the ‘War of the Two Johns’. Here, the military and strategic cunning of Nuno Alvares Pereira and his small (6,000) army defeated the larger (30,000!) Spanish force with relative ease (and with the help of 100 English long bowmen). Long story short, Nuno funded the building of the convent, and after his wife’s death he gave up all his titles and fortunes (which was almost half of Portugal!) to live out the rest of his life in the convent; he was made a saint for his piety. The convent is a stunning piece of Gothic architecture, made even more stunning by it’s roofless-ness. The great earthquake of 1755 destroyed the roof of the convent and did some damage to the structure, but the vaulting arches and stone walls stood firm and remain today as a testament of Nuno’s faith (and that of Gothic architecture!) The open-air ruins house a host of carved works, a cat, and the small but very interesting Archaeological Museum of Carmo. I was lucky when I finished in the little museum, as upon returning into to the nave of the convent I was the only person there. Sun shining, birds singing, and a roof open to the sky and the glory of above.
And now for something completely different (but not): the other castle. Friday and Monday were bank holidays in Lisbon in honour of Saint Anthony, so the university was closed. I took advantage of the extra days and made my way north to Porto for the weekend, to explore the city of port and to visit the UNESCO heritage town of Guimarães. I arrived Friday morning, dropped my bag at my hostel, and saw everything in the city I wanted to see. Compared to other cities, Porto is not as tourist-y (explained by the Portuguese saying: “Braga prays, Coimbra studies, Lisbon shows off, and Porto works”) but it still has an amazing array of things to see and do. Among the numerous gorgeous churches that litter the city, the one I found most enjoyable was that of Saint Francis. Beautifully carved with a gold-gilded interior, this 14th century Gothic construction is also home to some 19th century catacombs and an ossuary (which you can see into through a grate in the floor. Yay, bones!). The Catedral do Sé is equally impressive, and the Torre dos Clerigos gives stunning views across the city. I spent the evening wandering around the UNESCO-designated historic waterfront, Ribeira, ate a francezinha (a most fantastic sandwich full of meat meat meat!), and sat by the water’s edge before bed called.
Saturday morning dawned far to early (I curse drunk people who fight loudly in the streets at 2am >.<), but I was bright eyed and bushy tailed by the time my train arrived at Guimarães. It was here that Afonso Henriques was born and from whence he began his reconquest of Portucale from the Moors in the 12th century. Guimarães became capital of the fledgling state, and as such the city boasts that “aqui nasceu Portugal” – Portugal was born here. And boast she can! The narrow, medieval, winding streets lead one up through a well-kept and history-laden city up to the Paço dos Duques (the palace and home of the Dukes of Braganza) and to the castle.
The castle was ordered built by Mumadona Dias, a wealthy noblewoman, in the 10th century in order to protect the city and people from the Normans and the Moors. It now stands proudly at the top of the historic centre of the city, with views from it’s corner towers across the surrounding area; it is lovingly decorated in the colours and flag of Afonso Henriques. After my jaunt along the castle walls, I took the cable car to the top of Penha Mountain, the views from which are as stunning and breathtaking as those from the Castelo dos Mouros. While walking around the exterior of the church at the top of Penha (couldn’t go in as a wedding was underway), I was hit in the arm by something. When I looked down I saw a small lizard scurrying away. So, I was hit by a small lizard from on high. Cool beans. Is this where I should have heard a heavenly host?
My final day in Porto I walked the 8km out along the Rio Douro to reach the lovely sandy beaches of the Atlantic and to see the two castles (well, fortresses, but the word is interchangeable in Portuguese) protecting the coast: Castelo do Queijo (Cheese Fortress) is worth a mention for its fun name cased on the cheese-like rocks upon which it stands. I’d hoped to catch the tram back as it was very hot and a long walk to get there, but public transportation was suspended as I happened upon the running race weekend in honour of Saint John. Cool, but it meant a long walk back. So much exercise…!
I had some time before my train back to Lisbon, so I finally made it to one of the port caves to learn about the wine (and have a cheeky little sample). Our tour guide at the Calem Port Caves was fantastic with a delightfully subtle sense of humour (wait, am I discussing a human or a wine?), and the two types of port we got to try were both very nice. I don’t drink, but when I do I enjoy a small glass of port, so a bottle of Calem port will go back to Canada with me in August. I had lovely chats with my co-port-tasters, and in our group of twelve or so and nine of us were Canadian, French- and English-speaking! What are the odds? I’ve met more Canadians in 5 weeks in Portugal than in 3 years in the UK :)
Two of these Canadians, like me, where on their way to Lisbon that afternoon to see the festival of Saint Anthony. We exchanged contact details and later that evening met up in downtown Lisbon to party-it-up with the rest of the city :D The parade was cool, however it was not like parades at home (a bit too slow for us), and around midnight we went our separate ways. I spent the next hour or so (until 1:30am!) walking around Alfama and watching the party; the entire city by now was just one big party. Literally. There were people everywhere: eating from charcoal bbqs, drinking, dancing in the square in front of the Sé, dancing in the main square; even on my walk home, which is normally calm and people-free, was chock-a-bloc with mini-party after mini-party. It was definitely the largest party I’ve ever been to! Luckily I was so tired that I fell asleep immediately, as the music I’m sure was playing until dawn ;)
Images: top from left – festive decorations in Porto; one of the many beaches of Foz do Douro on the Atlantic coast; my newest little friend in Guimarães. Bottom from left – the church of Cedofeita (made early), the oldest Christian building on the Iberian Peninsula supposedly built by King Theodemar in the 6th century AD; graffiti of le Petit Prince near our place in Lisbon; view of the area down river of central Porto.