My personal A-Z of Portugal

‘M’ is for Monsaraz


I’m going to struggle for photos for this post, because I visited Monsaraz on a damp, if not soaking wet, day!  Seems to be a recurring theme on here lately, doesn’t it?  But such was the impact it made that I loved it anyway.  Some day, I hope to return and see it like this.

So will you excuse me for borrowing from Wikipedia?

So will you excuse me for borrowing from Wikipedia?

It must have been an anniversary or a special occasion, because I was sitting at a table in “A Ver” when I first heard about Monsaraz. This Tavira restaurant is named for its view down over the rooftops and the prices are more than we would normally pay.  But treats are treats, and so I happened to be sitting at the next table to a couple whose evening was interrupted by the wife’s mobile phone. The wife excused herself and was gone for some considerable time.

I can’t remember what prompted me to start the conversation, but before too long the husband was telling me about this beautiful place that I must see for myself.  The fact that it was a 4 hour drive or more seemed insignificant to him.  And so Monsaraz nestled in my imagination until I could make it a reality.

The town square and pillory on a sparkling day- @ Wikipedia

The town square and pillory on a sparkling day- from Wikipedia

The “Rough Guide”, always my bible, confirmed what I wanted to hear.  Monsaraz is a tiny, hilltop, walled village with sweeping views across the Guadiana to Spain.  It’s name comes from the Iberian word for Cistus landifer, the Gum Rockrose.  Xaraz thrives in dry, acidic slate-based soil, thus Monte Xaraz was a hill surrounded by Rockroses.

Monsaraz is one of the oldest settlements in the South of Portugal, and there are many menhirs and neolithic remains in the area. Due to its strategic location, there was certainly a fort there before Roman occupation.  Then came the Moors, and in 1232 it became a stronghold of the Knights Templar.  In 1640 it was refortified, during the Portuguese Restoration War and the border struggles.  Then land reforms and the growth of farm estates heralded change.  These days Monsaraz is no longer embattled, but there are still signs of the past.

The castle and keep- @ Wikipedia

The castle and keep-  from Wikipedia

In late October 2009 I journeyed north from the Algarve, across the wide, empty plains of Alentejo.  My destination lovely Evora and proud Elvas, but on the return leg I knew I would visit Monsaraz.  The weather was autumnal this much further north.  Leaving Elvas I headed directly into a rainbow and travelling south the weather steadily deteriorated.  I clung tenaciously to the hope that I would be blessed with a patch or two of blue sky, but it was not to be.

I stepped out of the car under leaden skies and looked up at the castle walls, and then out across the Guadiana.  Nothing could prevent an idiot grin settling on my face.  I grabbed Mick by the hand and started up the slippery damp cobbles, and through the narrow archway in the walls.

Looking out from beneath the town walls, across the Guadiana

Looking out from beneath the town walls, across the Guadiana

Medieval Monsaraz has only one main street, Rua Direita, with the village square at its centre.  The Inquisition House and the pillory point immediately to troubled times.  I was more intent on escaping the chill as I slipped inside the Chapel of Sao Bento, with its serene warmth and frescoes.  The main church, Nossa Senhora da Lagoa, was closed.  Climbing up to the castle walls, in a light drizzle, I felt I had reached the summit of a watery world.   The plains below had been flooded by the creation of the Alqueva Dam, boating heaven in Summer and a vast body of water.

The castle is topped by the Witches Tower (Torre das Feiticeiras) and within, the unexpected sight of a bullring, complete with tiered seating!  Currently it’s used for Festivals and fireworks, so no sad bulls.  As the rain increased its pace, tiny Cafe de Cisterna provided shelter, warm turkey pies and a slab of delicious cake.  Despite all that water outside, a drinking supply for the villagers had required a huge cistern to combat the blazing summer sun.  It was just visible through a barred window and then the weather really did drive us away.

A castle in spades!

I had planned a leisurely route back, crossing over the dam by a bridge to Mourao, but visibility was so poor that I had no choice other than to agree as Mick pointed the car due south.  In a couple of hours I was back under the blue skies of the Algarve.

I’ve found a site with some lovely atmospheric photos of Monsaraz, if you click on this link.  And you can get a better look at the whole trip on my E is for Elvas, and Evora.  It wasn’t all rain!

Meantime it’s thanks again to Frizz for prompting me to respond to his Tagged ‘M’ and to Julie Dawn Fox for the Personal A-Z Challenge.  And many thanks to you for reading!


‘L’ is for Loule


The market town of Loule

The peaceful market town of Loule

Loule to me means just one thing.  Carnaval!  This quiet inland market town in the Algarve is no Rio de Janeiro, but it knows how to party. For over 100 years they have celebrated the beginning of Lent with Carnaval, Portuguese style.  No shortage of dancing girls either, though they often have to dance hard to keep warm.

Bring on the dancing girls!

Bring on the dancing girls!

Carnaval 2012 was a classic, and I made a surprising guest appearance!  Fortunately I was very easily overlooked in the crowd. Numerous photos of the Carnaval floats, of a distinctly political but humorous nature, appear in my post ‘C is for Carnaval’, so I won’t reproduce them all here.  The town’s main street, Avenida Jose de Costa Mealha, is closed for the event and there is a small charge. Don’t miss it if you are in the neighbourhood!

Normally Loule (pronounced Loo-lay, incidentally) is rather more sedate.  One of the most distinctive features of the town is the Arab style market, pictured in my first photograph.  Smaller shops surround the market stalls and it is a treat for both eyes and nose.  On Saturday mornings an open air market takes over the outdoor space too.  Parking becomes no easy matter.

On my first visit to Loule I remember having to search for the remaining fragment of the town walls and the 13th century castle, but I liked what I found. Entrance to the walls is through a small museum, which traces the town’s history back through Roman to medieval times.  It has the vaulted brick ceilings that I love.

The older part of town is fairly compact , and the narrow cobbled streets reveal artisan workshops and some lovely craft shops. Following the twists and turns you will come to a small square containing the town’s main church, Igreja de S. Clemente, and a tiny garden, Jardim dos Amuados, an ancient Arab cemetery.

Loule’s main landmark is visible from the A22 motorway when driving past the town.  Nossa Senhora da Piedade is a dome shaped modern church which sits on a hill to the west of town.  At Easter there is a huge procession in honour of the Sovereign Mother. This must be one of the few things I haven’t yet managed to see in the Algarve.

Nossa Senhora da Piedade- courtesy of Wikipedia

Nossa Senhora da Piedade- courtesy of Wikipedia

The procession to the church at Easter

The procession to the church at Easter

Loule is well worth a look when you’ve tired of the beaches and need a little historical detail, or a shopping bonanza.  A few  parking hints and a lot of photos are available in C is for Carnaval.

For now I’ll simply thank Frizz for his inspiring A-Z series.  With Tagged L this week he is just about managing to keep me on track. Grateful thanks are also due to Julie Dawn Fox, who started the Personal A-Z Challenge a long time ago!  Some day I’ll manage to complete it for both countries.  Join me in the challenges if you can. banner4

‘K’ is for Kings (three, or more?)


Hip hooray and happy day!  An opportunity has arisen for me to fill a gap in my much neglected Personal A-Z of Portugal.  You’d forgotten I was doing one, hadn’t you?  Me too, almost!  So today I have Frizz to thank for getting around to ‘K’ in his A- Z challenge.

A collection of kings

A confusion of kings- courtesy of Mike Bradley

First, a question for you.  How many kings do you see?  Three, or more?

I had arrived in the Algarve just after the New Year but in time for Epiphany, and was curious to see what kind of celebrations, if any, this might entail. I knew that in Spain the 6th January was dedicated to the Three Kings, and was hopeful that this might spill over the border into Portugal. I thought there was every chance, especially in my eastern corner of the Algarve.  The shops were full of Bolos Reis – the cake of kings- with their extravagant and colourful toppings.

The tradition of this cake dates back to Roman times, when a King was chosen at Roman feasts if he got the piece of cake containing a fava bean.  I rather like the legend about the Three Kings of the Orient disputing who should be the first to give baby Jesus his gift.  The decision was finally made in the same way- with a cake inside which the local baker had hidden a bean.

I was very happy to discover that there was to be a procession in Vila Real de S. Antonio, a small town on the very edge of the Algarve, with its toes in the River Guadiana.  Better still, the kings were to ferry across the Guadiana to Ayamonte, in neighbouring Spain.

Sure enough, a carnival atmosphere prevailed in Vila Real on Sunday, 6th January.  A Christmas market and ice rink were set up in the main square, Marques de Pombal, with jars of honey and every variety of cake adorning the stalls.  Trying to avert my eyes, I made my way to the Cultural Centre, where I knew there was a Nativity display.  It was enchanting.  As I emerged I was delighted to hear the ‘oompah’ sounds of a band.

Ambling along the street, with caskets of bonbons and flashing smiles, came a procession of kings.  Cordially they distributed sweets and paused to chat or have their photo taken.  It was all very casual and laidback, rather than kingly, but no less charming for that. A dais was set up awaiting them in the square, and soon they were enthroned, hurling the last of their sweets to the cheering crowd.

Beat a retreat?

Beat a retreat?

Thinking that I might manage two processions ‘for the price of one’, and wondering how it would be on the Spanish side of the border, I craftily caught the 12.30 ferry across to Ayamonte.  In January there is a 2 hour time difference between the two countries, so my arrival, 10 minutes later, was at 14.40.  A time at which all self respecting Spaniards are eating.  There was no sign of an impending celebration so, after a leisurely stroll and a delicious ‘biscuit’ flavoured icecream, I returned to the ferry terminal.

Sitting on board, gazing at the river, I became aware of a party of excited children boarding the ferry.  As we left the shore, the adults in the party proceeded to dish out sizeable portions of bolo rei, oozing with cream.  I had high hopes, but was obviously too tall to be regarded as one of their charges.  Nearing the Portuguese shore, I realised just what was happening.  The Kings, minus their band (who had presumably gone to lunch at Portuguese time), were strolling to the terminal, to meet the ferry. As the gangway came down, whistles and cheers and waving of flags greeted the sovereigns. Smiling amiably, they were destined for Spain, their caskets newly filled.

3 kings

I never did fathom out who were the genuine kings and who were the ‘imposters’, but they were a handsome bunch, don’t you think?  I hope you enjoyed my entry for ‘K’.

Many thanks to Frizz for hosting his A-Z challenge, and to Julie Dawn Fox, whose idea the personal A-Z series was.  Please click on the links or logos for more information.


Q is for Quinta


“Quinta” is the Portuguese word for a country home or farmhouse.

It’s something I’ve long aspired to, though I’m more likely to end up in a beach hut!  This place on Armona would be fine, with bougainvilea tumbling over the walls, and a pot or two of welcoming hibiscus on the doorstep.

I might go for this tropical look

Isn’t it wonderfully tropical?  Imagine those palms rustling in the breeze.

There’d be a lemon tree and a fig tree.  Maybe a lime too, but no oranges.  I’ve never liked oranges, though the blossom is very pretty.  I have no idea how long it takes to produce a decent vintage of grape, but the notion of a few vines and their dangling temptation is very appealing.

A little grape trampling anyone?

A little grape trampling anyone?

A Portuguese house isn’t a home without an azulejo panel.  Maybe even two!

There's those tempting grapes again!

There’s those tempting grapes again!

And a barco rabelo!  What more would I need?

And a barco rabelo! What more would I need?

And this view of the Douro might come at more than I can afford.

This view of the Douro might come at more than I can afford.

Especially with the swimming pool!

Especially with the swimming pool!

The Vintage Hotel, Pinhao

And I could live with wooden ceilings and floors! (The Vintage Hotel, Pinhao)

But I’m getting a little carried away now.  It easily happens, doesn’t it?  You know I’d never want to be too far from my salt marshes.

When I first visited Portugal I read my “Rough Guide” from cover to cover.  One of the Algarve recommends was Quinta de Marim – a nature reserve with a tidal mill.  It wasn’t far away, just 2kms east of Olhao, but finding it was a different proposition.  I seem to have the ability to blatantly disregard directions in a guide book, while still being convinced that I am on the right track!

Eventually we got there, and I loved what I found.  Nothing very fancy.  A few nature trails.  Wild flowers thriving quite happily in the salt air.  The gentle lap of the water flowing through the tidal mill, itself just an old quinta.  I need to go back, and soon.

The salt marshes at Fuzeta

Salt marshes at Fuzeta

The tidal mill at Quinta de Marim

The tidal mill at Quinta de Marim

This post hasn’t gone quite the way I thought it would, but this is my Personal A-Z Challenge, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  My customary thanks go to Julie Dawn Fox for conceiving the challenge, and to Frizz who daily inspires and entertains me.  This week his A-Z has reached QQQ.  Follow the links and logos for a little inspiration yourself.


N is for “não faz mal”

404322_287595227969825_100001580503329_842365_806400363_nIt seems ages since I was in Portugal, though in fact it was only in July.  In the words of a little Portuguese phrase, “não faz mal”- it doesn’t really matter.  Não faz mal is a bit like de nada in Spanish, but said with a Portuguese shrug of the shoulders, meaning “It’s ok!”

Portugal will still be there waiting for me, but I can’t help feeling a bit regretful.  Autumn is a lovely time to be there.  My walking group will be back in action after the Summer heat.  So many things I miss.

Liquid gold skies on our rooftop

Like the liquid gold skies on our rooftop

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My mind drifts back over times and places I’ve shared with you, and maybe some I haven’t.  Like my favourite island Armona.

Não faz mal!  It really doesn’t matter. Click on a photo to see the gallery.  I’m nostalgic today but who knows what tomorrow might bring?

Evening falls on Fabrica

Fabrica as the evening falls

Grateful thanks to Julie Dawn Fox for inspiring my Personal A-Z series, and to Frizz, who always welcomes people to his world.  The links will take you there.


J is for João and “javali”

It’s not often that my A-Z’s run parallel but, in trying to “patch the gaps” in the alphabet, I find that I’ve arrived at the letter J on both my Polish and my Portuguese challenges.  Well, “J is for Jo”, so, let’s try not to disappoint.

Javali means “wild boar” in English.

Wild boarNot always the most adventurous of eaters, I’m happy to say that I can quite happily trough away at wild boar.  It is delicious!  I first experienced it at the end of a morning’s walking with my group in the Algarve.  The reward for our walks is usually a restaurant, known to one of the group as being very good value. (us Brits like a bargain!)  The “wild boar” restaurant was the occasion of a 60th birthday so it was a bit special.  The meat arrived in huge pans and had obviously been slow cooked for hours.

The occasion ended in rather a traumatic fashion, as the partner of the lady who was 60 keeled over and an ambulance had to be summoned!  He suffers from low blood pressure.  The medics stepped in and would you believe it, another member of the party collapsed with heatstroke!  Both were fixed up, and nobody blamed the wild boar.  If by any chance you’re reading this, Jeff and Anne, very best wishes to you both.

João is the Portuguese form of the name John.  According to Wikipedia the diminutive is Joãozinho, but I’ve never heard it used.  I understood diminutives to be short forms, but it doesn’t surprise me that in Portuguese, it’s longer.  The feminine form, however, is Joana, and that’s me!

And now for the history lesson.  There have been six ruling King João’s in Portugal. To see them in context, click on the Wikipedia link.

The wedding of King João 1, February 11th, 1387- from Wikipedia

The wedding of King João 1, February 11th, 1387- from Wikipedia

João 1 was King of Portugal and the Algarves from 1385 to 1433.  He came to the throne after a 2 year period of political anarchy, when Castile was laying claim to much of Portugal.  The overthrow of Castile and their French allies was accomplished with the aid of English troops.  When João married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, in 1387, an Anglo-Portuguese alliance was secured which exists to this day.

Dom João I, Lisbon

Dom João I statue, in Lisbon 

João II (reigned 1481-1495) was known as the Perfect Prince.  His chief priority was continuing the exploration of the African coast, hoping to discover a maritime route to India and the spice trade.

João III (reigned 1521-1557) has been referred to as the Grocer King.  He extended Portuguese possessions in Asia and the New World, securing the spice trade in cloves and nutmeg.  Brazil was colonised and the Portuguese became the first Europeans to establish contact with China (under the Ming dynasty) and Japan.

João IV (reigned 1640-1656)  The Portuguese Empire reached its zenith, totalling 12,000,000 km by his death.  He was a patron of music and the arts, amassing one of the largest libraries in the world.  Sadly it was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Dom João IV at Vila Vicosa

Dom João IV at Vila Vicosa, where he was born

João V (reigned 1707-1750) was nicknamed “The Magnanimous”.  He ruled at a time of enormous wealth for Portugal, with gold and diamonds from Brazilian mines filling the coffers.  Money was no object, and the Royal Palace at Mafra was built as a rival to Versailles.

João VI (reigned 1816-1826) had something of a turbulent time.  His kingdom included sovreignty of Brazil until independence was declared in 1825, and he had to flee there when Napoleon’s troops invaded Portugal.  He stayed in Brazil for 13 years, establishing a court and growing to love the place.  The loss of Brazil had an enormous effect on the Portuguese economy, and João was constantly embattled and plotted against on his return home.  His eventual death was believed to be as a result of poisoning.

Phew!  I hope you are not too exhausted by my tale of six Johns.  I’m linking this post to Julie Dawn Fox’s A-Z Personal Challenge and to Frizz’s A-Z.  You can follow their challenges through the links.  Many thanks for staying with me.


S is for Silves


Silves is a city with a glorious past.  You can’t fail to know this from the second you set eyes on the rust red hilltop castle, dominating the town and its surrounds.  Always a sucker for faded glory, it was one of the first places I visited in the Algarve.  On my recent return, I wanted to inspect the castle gardens development.

My first visit to Silves in April 2007- Michael's photo

My first visit to Silves in April 2007- Michael’s beautiful photo

From earliest times, the Arade River was the route to the Portuguese interior used by Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, drawn by copper and iron, mined in the Western Algarve.  With its strategic hilltop position, Silves was bound to attract the Romans, but wealth and prosperity began with the Moorish invasion of 714AD.  By the 11th century, Silves was capital of the Algarve and a rival in importance to Lisbon.

Nothing lasts, and with the power struggles in the Muslim world, Silves was briefly restored to Portugal in 1189.  King Sancho 1 laid seige to the city in a brutal and gruesome episode, only to loose it to the Moors two years later.  By the 1240s the tide was turning again.  The river began to silt up, cutting off the trade route to North Africa.  In 1534 the episcopal se was transfered from Silves to Faro, and the power transformation was complete.

The Roman bridge over the River Arade

The Roman Bridge over the River Arade

The riverside, where there is ample parking, is a good starting point for a journey through Silves.  The narrow 13th century bridge is a little reminiscent of that at Tavira, which perhaps explains my fondness.  Wandering slowly upwards through the historic centre, the streets are still laid out as they were in Medieval times.  The 16th century pillory, or pelourinho, is a reminder of harsher times.

The pillory on Rua Dr. Francisco Vieira

The pillory on Rua Dr. Francisco Vieira

With its back to the ancient city walls, on Rua das Portas de Loule, you can find the Archaelogical Museum.  It contains an Islamic water cistern, or well, from the 11th century.  18metres deep, a spiral staircase now leads to the bottom.

Climbing steadily on Rua de Se, you come to the cathedral, a stern looking structure.  In red sandstone, like the castle, it sits on the site of a former mosque.  The grandeur and sobriety continue inside.  Opposite is the Igreja de Misericordia.

The cathedral, on Rua de Se

The cathedral, on Rua de Se

Manueline doorframe of the Igreja da Misericordia

Manueline doorframe of the Igreja da Misericordia

It is when you finally arrive at the castle that your imagination can no longer resist the temptation to recreate the past.  It is the finest military monument in Portugal to survive from the Islamic period.  Of the eleven towers, two are “albarra”- solid structures, joined to the walls by an arch that supports the walk around the castle walls.  They defend the double entrance gateway.  The doorway of the “traitor’s gate” still exists.

The castle once housed the Alcacova, the Moorish “Palace of Verandas” so described in poetry of that time.  A huge subterranean water tank is the main feature of the surviving remains, but excavation is ongoing.  An attempt has been made to recreate the feel of those Moorish times, but with a modern twist.  The rills and fountains beloved of the Moors today exist in 21st century red brick, and a restaurant has been installed, with modern seating.  I think it’s a brave effort.

The cork industry, dried fruits and tourism were Silves’ salvation.  In high season expect it to be a very warm place.  Whenever you visit, the Mercado, near the riverside, will be bustling.  You could purchase from its numerous stalls for a picnic.  But the delicious barbecue smells of the neighbouring restaurants often prove irresistible.

I could hardly wait to get out of bed this morning to write this piece, having arrived back yesterday evening.  Hope you like it.  Thanks, as always, to Julie Dawn Fox for the A-Z  personal challenge.