As our restlessness to get moving grows, we seem to be trying to compensate with road trips. We’ve got a week-and-a-half before we’re out of here — the plan as of today is to head straight up to Lisbon for a little urban therapy before going to Seville — and I’m determined to see everything I set out to. Geoff is less determined, but I somehow convinced him the drive north into Portugal’s Alentejo region would be worth it.
“An hour and twenty minutes, tops,” I said. It took at least two hours to get to the first of the two towns we wanted to see, but dammed if we were going to let these towns beat us. We powered through like champs.
We drove north from Loulé, along a windy road that soon took us north into the rolling hills of the northern Algarve. Loulé to Almodovar to Castro Verde to Beja; it was one of the least direct routes we could have taken, but we didn’t really care. What this part of Portugal lacks in vibrancy, it makes up for in beauty.
The landscape changed subtly: from rolling hills — red earth and sage-coloured bushes and scrub — to evergreens and pine trees along the side of the road. We were mostly alone, and so took our time winding around each corner, stopping to take pictures whenever we felt like it. For each small village we passed through, the locals stared at us with curiosity, and I don’t think it was because we are foreigners — how would they know? We got the impression they just don’t get a lot of non-local traffic through town.
It’s in the northern Algarve and Alentejo that you can see the cork trees for which Portugal is famous. Portugal is responsible for about 50% of the world’s cork production – screw-top bottles of wine would be laughed off the shelves here, and most grocery stores have a recycling bin for customers to return their wine corks.
The cork trees are easy to spot, as you can see where they’ve been stripped, making room for another layer to grow. You heard it here first: cork farmers are nothing but a bunch of strippers.
We passed an unexpectedly aggressive wind farm. The turbines butted right up against the road, forcing us to drive under a few of them – it felt very sci-fi.
Once we were out of the rolling hills, there were fields worthy of a good frolick. Geoff refused to stop for some reason. Something about trespassing…I can’t really remember.
All along one stretch of road, these birds were building gigantic nests on the tops of electrical polls. They also roamed through the fields, picking at the ground for food.
When we finally got to Beja, the town itself was a disappointment. We made the mistake of going on a Sunday; in the Algarve, most things seem to be open on Sundays, but in Beja, only McDonald’s and a few random cafés showed signs of life. At those cafés where there was life, life seemed to consist of drunk men of all ages. Winning. There were a few women too.
The town of Beja — to put it kindly — looked as if it had fallen on hard times. And given the economic climate of Portugal, it’s entirely possible it has. Or maybe it was just because it was Sunday, and Saturday night’s urine had yet to be power washed from the sidewalks, and I’m a jerk for judging it too harshly. In either case, we didn’t take much time in getting to the Beja Castle.
It’s hard to come to these places without considering their past. Beja, like other cities in Portugal, has a long history: it was part of the Roman Empire and capital of the Roman province of Lusitania, and fell at various times to the Moors and Christians during that whole thing.
The castle was built in the 13th Century over the remains of a Roman/Moorish structure. The central keep is made of marble and granite, and is the tallest in Portugal. It’s not the largest castle, but the keep is pretty fantastic. Would have made a perfect prison for Rapunzel.
We were pleased the castle had a small café in the courtyard. We ordered up some coffee and tostas – mista for me; fiambre for Geoff — and set up the camera for a nice little 15- or 20-second time lapse of the castle’s keep.
Once we’d seen the castle, we felt ready to leave. After the disappointment that was Beja, I was pretty sure we’d be heading home. But instead I somehow convinced Geoff that we’d be better off going to see Mértola, which involved more winding, tertiary roads, rather than taking the direct route home; he acquiesced pretty easily, almost as if he too wanted to see Mértola.
The road to Mértola is through protected lands, and there are a few vineyards along the way.
Mértola, not surprisingly, also has a castle. The town sits on the banks of the Guadiana river, and has been an important port town through much of history. The castle dates to Moorish times, but its current appearance is from the 13th Century, after the Christian reconquest. The best part of the castle are the views it offers of Mértola and the Guadiana River valley. And the dungeon – that was pretty cool; either it was a dungeon, or a cellar. Either way.
We got ourselves into a bit of trouble of the way out of town. You can’t really tell from the photo, but this was a steep, narrow, cobblestoned hill, and Geoff was forced to reverse after travelling further down it than he would have preferred.
It’s possible that I got us into this predicament. It’s possible Geoff let a few choice words pass his lips. It’s possible the car smelled like burning for a few minutes when it was all over. Possible – we admit to nothing.
On the drive home, we passed this
damned dammed lake. Ha.
Look at how much fun we’re having. That white town in the distance is Spain, by the way.
On the way home, we had to stop for what has become the most hated of chores in Portugal: a late afternoon stop at the grocery store for milk. For some reason unbeknownst to either of us, most grocery stores seem to run out of milk at an absurd rate, and it happens early. On Christmas Eve, I almost had to use my elbows.
We actually went to four different grocery stores before finding anywhere that still had milk in stock, and when we did, it was glorious. We were so excited, we purchased six litres of the blue flavour; it’s meio gordo or nothing for this family.