Wintertime in Portugal

A little over a year ago, we had just returned from our five-month round-the-world trip. Those 160 days had hit the perfect balance between fully appreciating a sabbatical from day-to-day life and not being consumed by the guilt of self-indulgence. Once back home, and just like a sleepy but restless baby, we weren’t entirely lulled by the reassuring hum of a familiar routine. After a few jittery weeks, we looked around us and realised we hadn’t exactly gone from paradise to a lugubrious basement. Portugal is breathtakingly beautiful, perhaps even more so during winter. It was certainly colder than Goa, our last stop, but nothing that would force a Scandinavian or a Minnesotan to wear something over a t-shirt.

So over those three winter months of late 2015 and early 2016, we used every minute of our free time to travel around Portugal. We started with the familiar southern coastline but quickly ventured northeast to explore the less known central and northern Portuguese regions.

As to welcome 2017, we’ll leave you with 17 stories from these voyages inside Portugal.


Costa da Caparica: Black and white memories (by Verne)

One of our first escapades was to Costa da Caparica, a 23 km (14 mile) stretch of beach on the south riverbank of the Tagus. While we walked along the seemingly never ending patch of sand, Jules and I shared our earliest memories of this place. After a while, we realised we were talking about the exact same long-gone year of 1986. Jules was a hair over five by then, and had come with her parents to the beach. An early adept of long walks on the sand, she took off. When she realised she was on her own (many hours later by Jules’ estimate, closer to five minutes according to her dad), she started to cry inconsolably. In that same year of 1986 I was twice as old as Jules, ten years of accumulated wisdom. At the end of the day, after the beach goers had gone home, my mom, my sister and I would get onto our old Talbot and drive to the beach. We would follow the same wheel tracks from the picture above. At the end stood an old tractor, used by local fishermen to haul the fishing nets to shore. After a couple of years living in the US, my sister and I were not particularly fond of fish, but my mom (and our cat) was, so we would buy some from the fishermen, fresh out of the net.

Tróia: Silver linings (by Verne)

A bit further down south lies Tróia, a long and narrow península. We went there shortly after returning to Portugal, eager to try the new camera we had bought to replace the trusty old smartphones with which we had taken all the round-the-world trip photos. After an afternoon chasing seagulls at the beach, we headed back with a handful of photos and a chestful of sand on our socks. We got to the harbour just in time to see the ferry leaving. Frustrated by the long wait ahead of us, we looked back. The day was ending behind a silhouette of trees and a deep blue winter sky. Strings of silver clouds rose up from the setting sun, in a dance that mesmerised us till the next ferry came.

Évora: Saudade (by Jules)

“Saudade” is a word, perhaps unique to the Portuguese language, that combines longing for someone with nostalgia and hopefulness. It is a feeling, more than a word. It was exactly what I felt when my mother would travel to Évora during her college degree. I was only four or five, and the 90 km (55 miles) that separated us from Évora felt insurmountable, as they meant I would be away from her for a couple of days every week. That’s an eternity when you are a kid. She would always come back with her arms wide open, full of kisses and love and the occasional gift, but the best present was always to travel to Évora with my dad and see her growing silhouette casted on the centennial city walls. Going back to Évora brings back mixed feelings, perhaps in the same proportions that form ‘saudade’: one part longing, one part nostalgia, and a sprinkle of hopefulness.

Vila Viçosa: The plebeian orange house (by Verne)

On a sunny winter Sunday, Jules, her parents and I were having lunch next to Vila Viçosa’s Ducal Palace. While waiting for the food to arrive, I snuck outside to take some pictures. To my left was the Palace, and to my right stood a string of much more modest houses. A plebeian myself, I headed right. Perhaps once inhabited by the servants of the nearby palace, these residences are now part of the village’s impeccably restored centre. One in particular caught my eye: it had pristine white walls, red doors and bright orange accents that matched the orange tree that stood next to its front door. I stood on my toes and threw a hand towards the tree, but it was hopeless. Cursing the taller tourist that probably beat me to the punch, I hastily made my way back to the restaurant to see if the food was already out.

Estremoz: The great conciliator (by Verne)

“She died right here”, said Jules. While I looked around, searching for some old lady that might be feeling unwell, Jules quickly saw the need to add she was talking about Queen Elizabeth of Portugal, that died at the Castle of Estremoz in 1336. Daughter of a Aragonese King (Aragon would later unite with Castile to form Spain) and married to a Portuguese one, she is best know for the miracle of the roses but also played a decisive role in ensuring that the Iberian Kingdoms behaved neighbourly. Shortly before dying, she mediated a peace treaty between her son Alfonso IV of Portugal and her grandson Alfonso XI of Castile. But perhaps her biggest feat as a diplomat was the 1297 Treaty of Alcañices, which stabilized the borders between the two countries. Jagged as they are, they have remained unchanged since then. Well, for the most part. As old neighbours that politely argue about parking spaces, Portugal and Spain have a centennial pet peeve over Olivença, a municipality some 50 km (30 miles) from Estremoz. Awarded to Portugal by the Treaty of Alcañices, it was occupied by Spain in the early 19th century. A few years afterwards Spain agreed to give it back, but has dragged its feet ever since. Today it is considered a “Portuguese territory administered by Spain”, a conciliatory term that would certainly make Queen Elizabeth of Portugal proud.

Almourol: Tales of knights and magic (by Jules)

Back when I was in kindergarten we used to go on a lot of field trips. To this day, whenever I smell scrambled egg sandwiches or peach juice, my mind immediately goes back to these field trips. Living in a country with such a rich history and beautiful landscapes gave us plenty of places to explore, from palaces to monasteries, from beaches to mountains. But of all the places I went, Almourol was perhaps the most magical. It felt like something out of a knight’s tale: an imposing castle, standing on a tiny island in the middle of the river, perhaps guarding a damsel in distress… To go there we had to take a small wooden boat steered by a mysterious hunchback, which added to the sense of magic and peril. Of course, the boat was rock solid and the boatman (which was not even a hunchback) could take us there blindfolded, but it was so much more fun to believe that we were in real danger!

Serra D’Aire: The late field trip (by Verne)

Visiting the caves that swirl beneath the Serra D’Aire hills is one of those field trips that most Portuguese kids have done at least once. As I didn’t spend my whole childhood in Portugal I somehow missed it, but Jules would have nothing of that and quickly made plans to get me there. Being stuck in a confined space with fifty over-sugared kids can’t be fun though, so we called ahead to plant our visit neatly between field trips. We started with the larger Mira D’Aire caves, but found the multicoloured lighting a bit kitsch, so moved on to the smaller and less spoiled Santo António caves. Our guide, who probably was seeing her first two adults that day, was keen on having a more edifying discussion about the history of the caves. But her eyes filled with disappointment when, likely mimicking every school kid that had walked through those corridors, we pointed and giggled at the stalagmites that closely resembled human body parts. Probably as karmic punishment, we left the caves without a single good photo. It was disappointing, but not all was lost. While driving through the rolling hills above the caves, we stopped the car in the middle of the empty road and looked around. The rain had stopped, the clouds had cleared, and all around us the scenery was spectacular.

Fátima: 99 years after the apparitions (by Verne)

Shortly after confessing I had never gone to the Serra D’Aire caves, I also mentioned to Jules that I had never set foot in Fátima. “What do you mean, you’ve never been to Fátima? I’m not the religious type either, but that’s like someone that lives in Texas and never tried Tex-Mex food!”. Half-expecting to find Margaritas, I went ahead and planned a trip. Fátima became a place of worship in 1917, when three little shepherds witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The centenary of the apparitions happens precisely this year, and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will surely roam to Fátima to see the pope and remember the three little shepherds. Things were considerably quieter when we visited, but Fátima’s Sanctuary, capable of sitting close to 10,000 people, was no less impressive. After exiting the Sanctuary, I sat down on a bench and observed the pilgrims that were completing the last stretch of their voyage  on their knees. Before I could voice my bewilderment, Jules, who has a knack for spotting logical fallacies, reminded me that this was a much quicker and less painful penitence than cycling 1,000km.

Batalha: Alien architects and prisoner workers (by Verne)

Jules has talked before about Batalha’s fascinating story of kings and heroes, so I’ll talk instead about this particular photo, which shows the ceiling of the Founder’s Chapel at the Monastery of Batalha. I remember staring at it for a long time, admiring the delicacy of its lines and its perfect symmetry. Designing such a thing of beauty now would certainly be challenging, but designing it in the 15th century seems like an impossible feat. While it is tempting to conclude that Huguet – the architect responsible for the Founder’s Chapel – used alien technology, it seems more likely that he was just a particularly perseverant builder. How perseverant, exactly? A lot. Mathematical functions were only invented in the 16th century, so he had no easy way to express the relationship between two variables (something that we nowadays use daily, for instance when converting distances: 1 inch = 1 centimetre * 2.54). Calculations were also rather cumbersome, as they were done using counting boards, a sort of large-scale abacus. Even our current numeral system, invented by Indian mathematicians before the 4th century, only became commonplace in Europe during the 15th century (when complaining about Imperial units, we Europeans should remember that it took us more than 1,000 years to replace Roman numerals by a clearly superior system). But Huguet and other medieval architects did have access to a resource that would raise a few eyebrows today: a steady supply of prisoner workers to test precarious designs and iron out calculations errors.

Porto: Bridging rivalries (by Verne)

When I was a teenager, I used to buy a weekly music-centric newspaper that was popular back then. After checking the new album releases to see where I could invest my hard-earned allowance, I would flip to the newspaper’s rather unique classifieds section. Long before the proliferation of internet forums, this section gave the inhabitants of Lisbon and Porto – longtime rivals on football, food and life in general – a place to vent their opinion about the opposing city. While slightly irked to see my full line of ancestors slandered and my hygiene habits questioned, I never took these insults too seriously and always enjoyed visiting Porto. Portugal’s second largest city has always been special, but in the last years it has blossomed into what is, in my opinion, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. The riverbank area is particularly captivating. The river mouth is narrower than Lisbon’s, so one can walk from one bank to the other over the old D. Luís steel bridge. Standing on the south bank, back turned to the Port wine cellars, one can admire Porto’s entire old-town reflected on the surface of the river.

Aveiro: The cold early run (by Verne)

Saturday morning, 7:05. The alarm had gone off five minutes earlier, but I was still drafting all my resolution in order to get out of bed and go for a run. The sky was clear blue, but the condensation that covered the window hinted that the t-shirt and shorts I had managed to cram onto my suitcase were not the proper attire for this weather. One step out of the hotel confirmed that. Too late to back out now, as I would lose face with the sleepy but mocking receptionist. A brisk pace would have to make up for the missing jacket. Bad planning aside, I love exploring a new city in the early hours of a sleepy weekend morning. I ran along the deserted river bank, passing the many colourful moored ‘moliceiros’ (boats traditionally used in the Aveiro estuary to collect ‘moliço’, or seagrass) and slowly drifting outside of town. Salt warehouses, piles of fishnets and small boat docks replaced the city centre’s tidy three-story buildings. It had rained throughout the night, forcing me to twirl around the many potholes that littered the otherwise straight gravel road. The extra effort helped to subdue the cold, so I stopped to take some pictures. As I held my phone with cold but functioning hands, I looked around and admired the serene scenery, happy to be out of bed.

Coimbra: Finally together (by Jules)

My sister and I are eleven years apart. Now we are like two peas in a pod, but when we were growing up that age difference seemed unsurmountable, a feeling compounded by the fact there was always some physical distance between us. First I went to college while she stayed with my parents, then it was her turn to go off to college to a beautiful but distant island (São Miguel in Azores, we’ll have to write about it). She’s now back and has settled in Coimbra, a mere couple of hours away from Lisbon. We go there often, but there’s a winter weekend I remember in particular. We drove there to surprise her, not long after our round-the-world trip. The clouds looked threatening but it wasn’t yet raining. The air was cold but my heart warmed up to the realization that, despite the age difference and the distance that had kept us apart while we were growing up, we were now sitting side by side looking into the same direction.

Conímbriga: The same old sky (by Verne)

‘Old’ is a very relative term. When I was a kid I remember thinking that, at 24, I would be positively ancient by the turn of the new millennium. By 2001 I didn’t feel particularly mature and since then I have kept the milestone for achieving the wiseness of old age a steady twenty years ahead of me. The same thing happens with buildings. One of Austin’s oldest constructions – the 1841 French legation – wouldn’t even qualify as middle-aged in Lisbon, a place with 16th century churches at every corner. But even those would be seen as futuristic Calatrava contraptions by the inhabitants of Conímbriga, a settlement that dates back to the Iron Age and was later occupied by the Romans in 139 BC. While we walked through its ruins, we looked up. The old sky that looked back was the same one that had perhaps witnessed Decimus Brutus – the general that first led Romans to Conímbriga – standing on the exact spot we were now on.

Nazaré: The old man and the cellphone (by Verne)

My grandmother used to make incredible clay figures, but never gave them faces. While still a kid, I once I asked her why. She told me it was her artistic prerogative but, seeing my blank expression while trying to figure out what ‘prerogative’ meant, she quickly confessed it was because she didn’t know how to draw a face. I face a similar dilemma with photography. I rarely photograph people, and when I do it’s usually from the back. It’s tempting to call it a style, but in you I confide it’s because I’m too shy to approach my subjects. I took the photo above imagining an old fisherman, contemplating the sea in remembrance of past adventures worthy of a Hemingway sequel. But to you I confess he was merely playing around with his cellphone, was not particularly old and probably not even a fisherman.

Óbidos: The backstage (by Verne)

Óbidos, a small fortified town perched on the hills of central Portugal, is best known for its medieval and chocolate festivals. While we’re fans of both, we’re less enthusiastic of the crowds that fill the town’s narrow cobblestone streets during those fairs. So we instead chose a cloudy Saturday winter morning to visit Óbidos. With no knight duels to organise nor chocolate ‘ginjinhas’ to prepare (a local sour cherry liquor served on a chocolate cup), everything was still and serene. Smoke rose from fireplace chimneys, old women poked their heads outside the window to chat with their neighbours across the street, fat cats stood on the porch, one eye sleeping and the other one kept on nearby dogs. As we slowly circled the town, high up on the fortified walls, its inhabitants went on with their daily routine, as actors crossing a stage between performances.

Ericeira: The real eyes behind the mask (by Verne)

We arrived to Ericeira, a tiny fishing village a mere 40 minutes from Lisbon, with different expectations. Jules was looking forward for fresh fish for lunch, I was more inclined towards taking pictures of the landscape. It was close to Carnival, and our walk towards the ocean front where we could do both things was blocked by a costume parade. There were hundreds of children, teachers and parents, all wearing colourful depictions of various professions. A student of science myself, I was happy to see a healthy proportion of mad astronomers, solar systems and rocket ships. Besides the reassurance that the future of Ericeira lies with astrophysics, the parade also gave me a chance to work on my street photography. While a good photographer is able to put subjects at ease and capture candid moments, a clumsy, shy and slightly crosseyed one cannot. While I remained clumsy, shy and slightly crosseyed during the entire parade, I did notice that a mask can leave people more at ease. Like a cat that feels safe peeking through a corner, the passing parade participants would candidly stare into my lens.

Sintra: Wine on the clouds (by Verne)

A friend of ours, an enthusiast of both nature and wine, found a brilliant way to combine these two passions in the form of wine tasting hikes. We joined him on a cold Sunday afternoon on the foothills of Sintra. After a few hours climbing through paths that only a local would know, we pierced through the clouds and found ourselves at Monte da Pedra Amarela (‘Hill of the Yellow Rock’). We sat down, enjoying both the spectacular view and a comforting combination of wine, cheese and homemade biscuits. Looking around, we noticed the odd yellow moss that speckled the boulders we were sitting on. These yellow freckles are probably what gave this place its name but, between sips of red wine, we listened to the much more interesting myth of the Yellow Rock. As the legend goes, there’s a treasure hidden beneath these boulders that will belong to whoever can bring them down using only eggs. An old woman, dreaming of gold and silver, used all her savings to buy as many eggs as she could afford. After laboriously carrying them to the top of the hill, she threw them against the boulders with all her might. Many hours later, after throwing all her eggs, the old woman fell to the ground, exhausted. Besides her stood the boulders, unscathed but dripping with yellow egg yolks.

Curious with one of these places in particular? Let us know why and we’ll try to write a post about it! In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a picture of 2017’s first sunrise, as seen from our Lisbon’s apartment.


Jules & Verne*

113 thoughts on “Wintertime in Portugal

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