‘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!


Six word Saturday

My week as a tour guide

My weeks are often hectic, but this one has excelled itself- mostly in a good way.  The Polish family from Norfolk are coming soon, so I’ll keep this brief.

If you’re ever in Durham, book the Castle tour- it really is fabulous!

Just one highlight- the carved pews in the Chapel

The University Library is having a makeover. These are the glass entry doors. Pass through to buy your tickets for the Castle tour. The Lindisfarne Gospels are coming soon- awesome!

Replica door knocker at the Cathedral- they won’t turn you away.

A rainy day on the Cathedral roof. Of course, we still went up there!

Newcastle Quayside, celebrating the Olympics

A view from my favourite “Eye” (Gateshead Millenium Bridge) across to the Sage Theatre

And of course, the Millenium Bridge from the Baltic Gallery viewing platform

Welcome to York- the Medieval gatehouse sits nonchalantly beside traffic lights.

The city walls are a great place to start

The gardens at the Treasurer’s House

We used to make brass rubbings here.

I could definitely use a seat in one of the numerous shops.

Or maybe Betty’s Tearooms would be a better choice? (just visible in the corner)

St. Mary’s unique church at Whitby

It was a pleasure talking to the church warden. So many tales to tell.

Whitby Abbey is incomparable

The setting is superb

And the craftsmanship- how did they achieve this?

I have really appreciated seeing my world through my niece’s eyes, and will miss her when she goes to Norfolk tomorrow.  She has one further week in the UK before her return to Poland.  We certainly packed a lot in.  I haven’t included the local stuff, the 1st birthday party, or the one for my 96 year old aunt, Isa!

I’m sharing my world on the invitation of Cath of Show My Face, and am grateful for the opportunity to do so.  If you have six words that would sum up your week, why not join in?  Just follow the links or the header to do so.  More 6WS’s on this pretty button.

Obidos – chocolate cups and pure theatre!

There can be few settings better suited to a Medieval Fair than Obidos- a charismatic walled town, suspended in Central Portugal in a seeming time warp.  Given to his bride Isabel as a wedding present by King Dinis in 1282, this is one very special small town. 

Porta da Vila

Porta da Vila

Passing under the Porta da Vila, the main gate, your eye is drawn upwards to a balcony nestled beneath an arch full of azulejos.  These characteristic blue and white tiles are seen everywhere in Portugal, though rarely to better effect.

I had great expectations for my visit but was quite unprepared for what transpired. I was enchanted and completely drawn into the atmosphere of the place.  It came as no surprise that maidens with floral crowns wandered the streets, nor that tabards and hose adorned a majority of males.

Banners overhead knitted the narrow streets together.  Tiny shops beckoned and beguiled.  

By the castle walls a booth had been erected. The realisation dawned that I had walked into a  Medieval Fair!  7 euros could buy admission to an evening of entertainment, inside the Castelo, from 5pm till midnight.  According to the programme, there was a parade at 6pm.  Much jingling of horses and good natured banter preceded it.

Finally a disdainful looking knight on horseback wheeled around, summoning his minions.  A flare of trumpets and the steady beat of drums and they were off. The hunting dogs looked regal. A juggler and jester entertained.  Threading through the narrow streets they circled the town, pausing frequently to engage with their audience.

Around the castle, barbecues and food stalls smoked and sizzled. The lights came up as day faded into warm evening.  The castle stood tall behind the courtyard.

Courtly dancers took to the stage, bowing and dipping to medieval strains. There was Falconry and Jousting.  Periodically the drummers leapt in to heighten the atmosphere with their furious thrumming.  But unquestionably the star of the show was our jester friend, “the fool”, with an hour or more of silliness and audience involvement.  A Portuguese Tommy Cooper, he transcended language, holding the crowd in the palm of his hand.  My sides were aching at his antics.  Midnight came all too soon.

A sweet treat- Ginja d’Obidos Still absorbing sights and sound, it was time to return to the hotel.  I planned on a chocolate treat to round off the evening.  At intervals along Rua Direita, small counters were set up.  On each, delicate, diminutive cups of chocolate awaited the cherry brandy liqueur known as Ginja d’Obidos.  First you drink the liqueur, then you eat the chocolate cup.  Inspiration!

And finally…

Casa de Relogio

I stayed at the Casa de Relogio, just outside of the town walls, and was made warmly welcome by the owner.  Our hire car was parked on a postage stamp of space outside our bedroom window. (Rua de Graca, Obidos 2510-999)The towns architecture is quirky and interesting. On a fine day you can walk around the ancient walls, peering down or off to the horizon.

I can highly recommend the restaurant O Conquistador.  The  warm bread and cheese to start was exceptional and I loved my lombo do porco no forno with rice, peas and wonderful roast chestnuts.  The javali (wild boar) also got the thumbs up, and the scrumptious house red was served in earthenware mugs. (Rua Josefa d’Obidos tel. 262 959 528)

The Medieval Fair takes place in July.  Another highlight of the town’s year is the Chocolate Festival in March.  Both children and adults can take part in culinary adventures with chocolate, feast upon chocolate and cakes, and wonder at the remarkable display of chocolate sculptures.

Whenever you choose to visit, I think you’ll find that Obidos has a magic all it’s own.