| || |
Walking the labyrinthine, narrow, hilly cobblestone streets in old town Mértola we encountered several obviously befuddled tourists driving cars desperately trying to find an exit from behind the walls and we were very happy that we learned our lesson in Odemira and parked the car at the first free spot we could find and continued our exploration on foot. It is impressive how locals are able to navigate these streets with motorized vehicles but rather foolhardy for tourists to attempt.
Mértola was an important river port to many different civilizations. Ruins from Rome, the Moors, and Christendom are found throughout the town. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the river is an impressive castle keep surrounded by a very large castle that would have seem impregnable to pre-modern warriors. The Igreja Matriz was built upon a Mosque near the ruins of an Islamic neighborhood that serves as a living archeological exhibit with both tourists and scientific laborers on the site. Remnants of what was once a very beautiful and elaborate mosaic feature various animals from Europe and Africa.
After strolling through the castle we found a wonderful restaurant with outdoor dining above the river. Jo enjoyed grilled prawns and Paul had black pork. We viewed an old Roman structure guarding entry to the river before going back to the car and onto Serpa.
This time we kept driving into old town, inside the castle walls, before finding a parking space right next to egress out into wider, straighter streets. We enjoyed looking at painted pottery at an artisan shop and managed to limit our purchases to two small bowls and an olive serving dish with small side bowl for discarded pits (we will miss the ready availability of delicious olives at nearly every meal). Then onto the castle past numerous churches.
On the way out we looked for what we thought was a brewery but turned out to be just a pub serving the widespread Sagres beers (Portugal is great for wine but is behind on the craft beer scene). We stumbled upon a Chinese Store - it seems that there are several in every town - selling all sorts of things at, usually, low prices, and purchased the additional candles we need for our installation of 40 handmade lanterns. We thought that "Chinese Store" was slang used by the locals to denote stores operated by Asian immigrants but noted that the stores had "Loja Chinesa" painted on their outside logos as self-designation.
We noted through the day's drive how much the landscape seemed so typical of Portugal - as well as California - everything appeared. At least in Alentejo we have observed towns of only white-washed buildings and red-tile roofs without exception. Castle ruins are common, as are many churches - Igreja Matriz and Igreja de Nossa Senhora are typical. The dried grass covered hills are dotted with cork trees which have an appearance much like the scrub oak familiar in California. As is true in California, wild fires are a threat - last year there were many deaths from the fires.
We joined Carlos, Sara, and Jaime for lunch at the sports club. It was a very hot day so they grilled sardines and another local caught fish on a street-side barbecue. Boiled potatoes, fresh bread and – the highlight – tomatoes, grilled pepper, onion and garlic swimming in olive oil salad. That evening Carlos provided insights into the last half of the 20th century in Portugal: fascism, revolution, the end of colonial powers, a military coup that led to democratic elections.
Wednesday the 11th was Carlos’ birthday so he spent the day caring for artist residents – ferrying us in two different trips to Aljustrel for grocery shopping and, in our case, to various stores to search for supplies for our project(s). In the evening we joined their friends and family to celebrate with a dinner at the sports club.
Carlos and Sara greeted us on the railroad platform, guided us to their car where we met baby Jaime. Driving through a countryside of rolling hills and farmlands filled with scrubby cork and olive trees surrounded by dried grasses reminiscent of both Umbria, Italy and northern California (all three regions known for wine making), our hosts provided information about the southern region of Portugal, specifically Alentejo. It is known as the “barnyard of Portugal", providing the food for the denser, industrial, more mountainous North. When industrialization came to agriculture the population dwindled, however recently the trend has reversed. Tourism is becoming important; Carlos noted that at small railroad station of Funcheira in the middle of nowhere, half of those debarking weren’t speaking Portuguese.
stripe rising from the cobblestone roads and sidewalks. There is a functionality as well as aesthetic at play: the white walls reflect the heat of the sun off of thick walls and there is a belief dating back to the Arab times that the blue discourages infestation by mosquitoes and other insects.
American undergraduate student from a Rome-based university here on a ERASMUS scholarship, Rita a local teenage intern, Lucas a new intern from Brasil, and four parties of mostly male local residents. Bowls of broth soaked bread were brought out which served as the base for a hearty stew of chickpeas, pork sausage, bacon and bones which was placed in the middle of the table in a massive pot. This delightful and delicious meal was topped by a small, intense shot of espresso and an anise-flavored aperitif.
Dinner was just local wine and cheese on the picnic table on the veranda off our bedroom with Margaret, foregoing the fish stew she had prepared as we were too stuffed from lunch, followed by a stroll back to the ruins of the monastery. As usual 'Gris', one of two cats and a dog living here, visited us as we slept.
of futbol fans waiting for the upcoming broadcast of the World Cup game between Portugal and Uruguay. Later, at the apartment, we heard our downstairs neighbors explode with excitement. A quick internet search showed us that Portugal had just tied the game. Happily for our sleep that night, Portugal lost so the neighborhood quieted down at a reasonable hour for a Saturday night.
On Sunday we strolled some more before our train trip south to Funcheira. The tiled buildings are gorgeous. At the highest point of the city we spied a suspension bridge that looks remarkably like the Golden Gate Bridge. The hills and walkability of the neighborhood made the guide book comparisons to San Francisco make sense. The train trip was relatively easy though we carefully counted stops to make sure we didn't miss our exit. Our hosts from Buinho Creative Hub picked us up for the half hour drive to Messejana and the beginning of our residency.