Tuesday 28 January 2020

Portugal: Delights between a rock and a heart place

Alentejo may not always improve your love life, discovers Andrea Smith, but you will be seduced by Portugal's charm

Andrea Smith

IT was truly the rock that my romantic dreams perished on. On a recent trip to the Alentejo region of Portugal, I failed to land a stone on the top of the Rocha dos Namorados (or Uterus Rock).

The Rocha de Namorados is a large rock outcrop situated outside the town of Estremoz. Every day, troupes of single women can be seen standing on the top of a small mound of earth with their backs to the rock. They throw fairly large stones over their shoulders in the direction of the rock, and their romantic fate is sealed by one of three possible outcomes.

According to legend, if the stone lands on the top of the rock, they will marry within a year. If it misses, they will stay single. If, however, their stone knocks one of the other ones perched smugly on top of the rock, they will have an affair with a married man.

Mine went nowhere near the target, so you can loosen your grip on your husbands, ladies. The rock has decreed that I won't be luring your baldy, paunchy treasures into my bed for fun and frolics any time soon.

It was quirky little things like that added to the charm of Alentejo. It isn't over-commercialised and is refreshingly untouristy, unlike some of the better known areas of Portugal.

This is possibly because, although it covers approximately one-third of Portugal, only five per cent of the population lives there.

We stayed at the lovely Hotel Evora, which is perfectly situated to explore the delights of Evora, a town that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

We strolled around its cobbled streets on our first evening, which took its toll on our flight-swollen feet. There are plenty of things to see, from the impressive cathedral of Santa Maria to the Igreja Real de Sao Francisco (Royal Church of St Francis). The opulence of these churches is quite staggering, as they contain several liberally decorated ornate golden altars.

The macabre-loving streak in me got a bigger thrill from Capelo dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). We entered through an arch that bore the words "Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos". This translates as "We bones that are here, we wait for yours". Eek!

The most startling sight greeted us. The interior walls and pillars were completely covered from floor to ceiling with human skulls and bones. The chapel was created by Franciscan monks in the 16th Century, because the monastic cemeteries were taking up too much space in the area. So all of the bones from an estimated 5,000 skeletons were moved to the chapel, which contains walls of femurs and decorative rows of skulls. There are also two full skeletons hanging on the walls which, legend claims, are the remains of an adulterous husband and his young son, who were cursed by his jealous wife.

Dinner that evening was at the very lovely Pousada dos Loios, the former monastery of Sao Joao Evangelista. It was here that we sampled the first of the fine wines and desserts that are a feature of the region. Most sweet treats are made with cinnamon and eggs here, and while undoubtedly delicious, we came away with a truer understanding of the meaning of the phrase "over-egging the pudding!"

The following day we visited the town of Estremoz, with its famous pottery shops, and also paid a visit to the Paco Ducal (Ducal Palace). While well worth a visit, the majority of the palace is neither heated nor lit by electricity, which was a bit disconcerting as it was pretty dark in places.

That evening, we were invited to help prepare the evening meal by the chef at our hotel. Much to my horror, we were kitted out from head to toe in inelegant plastic hats, coat, gloves and shoe-coverings, and the addition of hygienic face-masks completed the look.

Correctly gauging by the look of us that we were collectively useless on the culinary front, we were each set different tasks that would combine together to form some sort of garlicky fish and bread soup starter.

A companion and I were landed with the joyous task of de-boning fish, with the chef's ominous warnings about patrons choking on errant bones ringing in our ears. We completed our task diligently, although less than enthusiastically. Happily, none of the other patrons required the Heimlich Manoeuvre after sampling our concoction.

The following day we visited the gorgeous village of Monsaraz which is definitely worth your time. Then we took a trip on a boat from the Amieira Marina, situated on the largest reservoir in western Europe. These houseboats are available to rent for those who are seeking a holiday on water (www.amieiramarina. com).

We also took the opportunity of shopping in Evora and between the flea market and the very competitive shops dotted around the town, it is safe to say that several bargains were enjoyed by all.

Lunch was a traditional meal from the region at Restaurant O Comoes in Villanova, where we were serenaded by a charming group of local singers. The group was typical of many such acapella groups of cantores Alentejanos, who come together to sing in each other's houses most evenings. Their songs have typically been handed down through the years, and others are modern ones composed about local matters.

While they were no Palestrina Choir, we greatly enjoyed the enthusiasm and conviction of the group of predominantly elderly men in traditional dress. And we were impressed by the presence of the two elderly women among them who, we were informed, had refused to be sidelined from the hitherto all-male group.

This is the kind of thing that makes Alentejo so interesting. More so than any other part of Portugal, it gives the visitor a real opportunity to experience authentic local culture and customs. Even if it sends her home destined for spinsterhood, her romantic dreams dramatically crushed by a rock!

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