Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Day 10 - Évora & the Cromlech of the Almendres

Today's mission was to drive from Serra da Estrela all the way down to Algarve, the most southern province.  We wanted to pass through the historic town of Évora, though, which we knew was going to take more time.

We left the mountains as early as we could, and headed south.  After descending the mountain range, we eventually reached the flat terrain of the Alentejo provinces. 
The difference in terrain is a surprise, after so much mountain driving, and we can't take our eyes off the seemingly endless fields of olive trees and vineyards. 

After a few hours of this, we eventually reach Évora - the walled city.  In the medieval era, the city was entirely surrounded by walls.  Much of these walls are still preserved, so driving into the city feels quite special and unique - as if you are entering a fortress still frozen in time.

Scattered in the heart of the city are buildings of varying ages and periods in history.  We only have a few hours to spend here, so we don't go in any of them, but rather wander around the intricate streets and alleys, lingering here and there and simply stumbling upon bits of history.  A chapel here, a few old stone arches there.  There was even, behind a chained fence, a handful of mysterious, un-marked columns and other clearly very old crumbling ruins.
Ancient archways in the way?  No problem, let's just
build our homes around them.

The city is alive with layers upon layers of history.  We don't have time to learn and aborb it all, but as we walk around, we definitely feel it.

The crowing jewel of these various historic remnants is the Roman Temple built for the goddess Diana.  There in the middle of the city it lies, quietly, standing tall and proud, despite its state of disrepair.  It seems oddly out of place, with the bustle of modern-day pedestrians walking around taking photos, a small outdoor cafe just steps from it, and various vehicles parked nearby.

To me it felt strangely sad and beautiful at the same time; remnants of an ancient civilization, standing here untouched in the middle of modern-day Europe.  So many other peoples have come and gone through here over the centuries, and yet Diana's temple remains, though so far away from its former glory and purpose.

As I stare up at those intricately designed columns, I again try and imagine it the way it may have once been.  Today it's harder than usual, it feels.  Especially with the chattering of coffee drinkers at the cafe behind me.  I can't make up my mind on whether it's beautiful that this is still preserved here, amidst the modern city that must go on, or sad that it is not somehow more secluded and set apart from the mundane of every day life, the way it once may have been.

But that is Portugal, it seems.  There is so much physical history everywhere that sometimes you feel as if you can't turn around without stumbling over another ruin, another plaque reminding you of what was once here.  Not everything can be preserved in a vacuum, and Évora, at least, does a fascinating job of integrating the old with the new. 

Another highlight of the trip into Évora is the Fabrica dos Pasteis (Custard-tart factory).  We wandered in to a small front shop that serves only pasteis and a few other Portuguese tarts, fresh out of the oven.  We ordered a selection of a few.  The custard tarts are so fresh that the woman serving us can barely touch them as they are so hot.

We sit down at one of their cozy tables with our box of treats and an espresso, and dove in. 

The pasteis were... magical.  While most non-Portuguese people seem to be obsessed with them, they're not my first choice off any desert table, but these were something else entirely.  The crust, still hot, flaked perfectly in layers as you bit into it, and the custard itself was thick and creamy, oozing out softly as you bit into it.  The taste was subtly but deliciously different than any other pastel either of us has ever eaten.  To quote J - "This is the best place to have pasteis de nata in all of Portugal."
As we've tried one in almost every town we've been in, she may very well be right.


Another place we visited while near Évora was the Cromlech of the Almendres - in other words, Portugal's "stonehenge".

Yes, you read that right.  The UK is not the only place in the world to have these fascinating and ancient arrangements of stone circles.  The ones near Évora are dated back to 6000 - 4000 BC.
We walked around them slowly, taking in the presence of these large rocks, placed upright by people from a time and world so much different than ours.  The people and their histories and spiritual beliefs are long gone, erased by time, but these stones remain.  The whole space seems sacred, somehow - especially since this little spot is so out of the way.  A handful of people wander by and take a few photos, but they quickly leave, and we have the stones to ourselves for a long period of time.

I try and imagine people gathering here, to watch the sun during the summer solstice.  Were they quiet?  Did they joyfully celebrate?  Did they eat, or sing, or dance?  Did they say anything to each other?  These are impossible questions.  Still, we ask them, and imagine... I place both my hands on a stone and lean in, trying to feel the answers, perhaps, but none come.

We reluctantly walk back to our car, while a solitary man goes into the centre of the stones and sits on a flat one in the middle, just looking up at the sky.  We leave him to his imaginings, for it's his turn to have the circle to himself, and make his own connection, as we did, to people from long ago.

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