Out of the big smoke and into Alentejo. This is an area I’ve been wanting to explore for some time. Gentle rolling hills, dry, big blue skies and white-washed buildings with blue trim for a strangely Greek look. Well except for those red terracotta Chinese roofs with the little kick-up at the eave. While driving south on roads of questionable quality past the odd lady of questionable repute, you’d think you were driving through the middle of New South Wales. Not the ladies, the landscape. Well, I say the landscape, but on closer inspection, the trees don’t look right. Thankfully this bit of Portugal has less of the Eucalypt and more of the cork and pine. Having grown up watching never-ending gum trees swoosh past the car window on drives that seemed to take an eternity, I’m not a great fan of these incendiary-bomb trees. Although I do like those huge white gums, the type that featured in the paintings of Hans Heysen.
There’s space between towns and villages out here as well. Space to breathe. Entertainment on the road is watching the Portuguese overtake in a relaxed fashion whilst narrowly avoiding death by head-on. I’m making this sound dramatic, but I’m quite relaxed about mad overtaking going on around me as everyone seems to know what’s coming and nobody panics. I’m getting into the Portuguese mind-set and indicating to let people know it’s “safe” to go, knowing full well there’s no way I’d go for it myself what with that looming crest or blind corner! Better they go on my terms than in 100 metres time when said crest or corner is no longer looming. Despite the scary statistics, Portugal is a joy to drive a hulking great Hans around. People are so chilled, you could go round a round-about backwards and the wrong way and they’d just wait with an amused smile.
If you were wondering, Alentejo translates as “beyond the Tejo”. An area that stretches from the Rio Tejo (which enters the sea at Lisbon) right down to the north of the Algarve seems a large area to be merely, “beyond the Tejo”. Never the less, it seems a romantic name. On the subject of romantic names, how about Alcacer Do Sal?! The Portuguese aren’t embarrassed by the Moorish part of their history and it shows in various place names particularly in the south. Depending on the guide book or tinternet site you look at Alcacer is Arabic for “town”, “castle” or “palace”. Do Sal is Portuguese for, “of Salt”. Alcacer Do Sal. Wonderful – 1000 years of trade, war and language in one name.
The town is set on a hill overlooking a bend of the Rio Sado with fertile paddy fields in place of the old salt pans. It has tight little cobbled streets, some that feature a steep slope then a step followed by another steep slope to the next step. Level between steps? Don’t be daft this is Portugal! There is a very relaxed and friendly feel to the place. Much as I wanted to be wowed by this little town in a lovely setting with a romantic name, sadly the place looks like it’s seen better days. Not in a crumbling mellow way that places of former glory in the sun seem to, it just seems unloved by the locals and the council. Some buildings look unsafe, graffiti is popular and so is dog shit. Poverty is the great preserver, but dog shit is a big turn-off. People let their dogs roam the streets and the council can’t keep up or couldn’t be bothered to clean up. Perhaps the locals like it that way. Keeps the English in Bordeaux.
We visited a brilliant little museum under the old Moorish castle. When part of the castle was being converted to a Pousada (posh hotel in an historic building), they discovered all sorts of interesting historical goings on. It turns out we aren’t the first visitors! There is layer upon layer of settlements dating back to the Phoenicians. So many building materials were reused in different eras, archeologists had trouble identifying Iron Age from Roman, from Moorish from Mediaeval. There is also some evidence that Alcacer Do Sal has been permanently inhabited for 5,000 years.
The Pousada was built, but underneath, the layers of human history are intact with slate paths for visitors to explore. I’m hoping for a teleport station on top of the Pousada in 1,000 years time.
Roman road utilising Iron Age mill-stone. Bloody vandals – oh sorry, they came later.
Roman crazy paving. The inspiration for paths in countless 1960’s suburban houses.
Iron Age man with wood.
Well on that note, I should probably sign off.