Elvas Portugal

7th July 2015

Leafiness, Life and The Secret to Happiness

The secret to happiness?
Happiness is a cold beer on a hot day. There you go. I’m a genius, on my way to Buddha-hood.

They have a particular fondness for trees in the Mediterranean towns and cities through which we have passed. Trees are treasured, pruned and nurtured. It is clear that they are nurtured thus for their shade, and to be in a Mediterranean country in summer you get to witness the wisdom of the city planners. Leafy tall trees line spacious wide avenues and plazas where people can walk, rest on benches, dip their hands in cooling fountains or refresh themselves at the bars that are spaced along and around the centre of these traffic-straddled areas. Some of the trees are familiar to me – the plain tree, some firs, elms, palms, figs, but many, many more, and I am left wondering at my lack of knowledge of their names. I am frequently amazed at how little I know. At this hot time of the year the air in these rural towns is redolent with fig, privet, lavender and other scents from trees and shrubs. If you can get over the ‘heat’ thing and breathe deeply, it is really lovely.

Role Changes
After a couple of unfortunate choices of places to eat we decide to change roles and now Rachel is ‘Tour and Walks Director’ and I have resumed my previous position from older trips as ‘Food and Beverage Locator’. It’s a question of the nose. Rachel has a superior sense of direction, leads us to interesting places and pushes me into really enjoyable long walks. I have a nose for places that provide good food, even though I can’t cook to save myself.

Buena dia – Bom dia
Cáceres – Badajoz (Spain) – Elvas (Portugal)

Elvas Portugal

It was prosperous and tidy-looking landscape from Cáceres through to Badajoz: Cork oaks, Olives, Oranges, Sunflowers, Wheat, and Rice paddies . . . hectares upon hectares under a deep blue sky and the town of Badajoz seemed prosperous, if not particularly ancient or interesting.

Arriving in Elvas was interesting – it is such an architecturally different style of fortress/citadel city.

Elvas - Bastion forts in Portugal

A local food and beverage kiosk; street cleaners – they consist of a large team of women – note the brooms

It has occurred to me lately, too, that all of these medieval hilltop towns were sited thus for two reasons: access to an aquifer – or a river at their feet, and their Line-of-Sight Defence system – where they were able to clearly see advancing armies out over the plains or rivers and thus prepare their walls for defence. It has also become clear that these cities were built in times that brooked no meek confidence in visiting tribes; visitors must have appeared as a challenge, a threat, and would therefore be greeted by a city in high defence mode – drawbridges drawn, supplies in place for a siege, and archers in place. Their line-of-sight defence strategy covering the lands all around would give them plenty of time to assess their visitor’s strengths – and weaknesses.

An aerial shot below of the small secondary fort just outside the main fortress city of Elvas (also star shaped). The Star shape was a favourite form of fortress design throughout the area.

Elvas - Star shaped fort in Portugal

Spain afire?
Elvas - after sunset

A section of Elvas’s old Aqueduct
Elvas Aqueduct - Portugal

From the vantage point of a castle’s keep we could see Spain in the distance disappearing into a russet, cloudy haze under the setting sun. The warm wind from that direction brought with it clues as to the opacity; we could smell wood smoke. Spain could be burning up as we retreat westwards, away from it. It could be intentional burn-offs, but I doubt that: the temperatures lately would surely forbid it. As the lights went on around the caste and its walls, the resulting combined effect of warm breeze, setting sun and smoke-hazed vistas out over the land was, however, magical.

By chance (being nosey) we met a renowned local potter who works in part of the old castle. He is also a poet. His work is unique.

Below: An African piece, part of his private collection

We also found a permanent bar within the castle’s compound and had a lengthy chat with the owner, a young man born in Angola. He is a retired professional football player, now a coach and bar owner. All his siblings have become renowned in the sport in Portugal. We watched and listened to Marissa sing her modern Fado on his computer, and saw some of his exploits on the field. On weekends they have Fado singers on the stage outside within the walls.

For those of you family who are not aware: my grandmother’s mother was Portuguese. Her name was Serafin Da Costa. This may go some way to explain my enjoyment of Fado music. I find it hauntingly beautiful and Marissa’s up-beat modern version appeals to me equally. Rachel prefers the modern Fado.


Portugese tile work
Elvas - tile work


1st July 2015
Fast and Loose

Zaragoza to Cáceres (Extremadura) by Train
Fast? The train from Zaragosa to Madrid – 300km/hr. With wings we may have taken to the air.

Here we go, here we go, here we go-o-o-o-o-o . . .
We’re back in the land of Storks perched up high in nests in improbable places (old chimney stacks, bell towers, power pylons etc.) and Vultures circling high over their prospective dinners.

Strorks in Caceres Spain

Olde, dun-coloured villages nestle neatly against hillsides as we race by. Topped by crumbling castles, each village is overseen by its inevitable church – that medieval connection between elevation (altitude and attitude?), power and defence. The vast and sprawling landscape is broken by tidy hectares of horticulture, the distant mountains sprinkled with slow-turning windfarms: they would have driven Don Quixote insane – wait a minute, he was, wasn’t he?

Hey, but I don’t want to write a travelogue, the day is young and I may yet fall on my face somewhere or spill red wine over some fair Spanish maiden or get food poisoning again.

Having arrived at Madrid’s sprawling and cavernous Atocha central Rail Station we have a two hour wait in its stultifying atmosphere – the whole country is battling a heat-wave. Our anticipated three and a half hour ride is to be at a much more respectable pace, and we are predicted to stop at many small towns en route for Cáceres. This train, too, is the bullet-nosed type so visually evocative of their capabilities. They have comfortable seats with fold-down tables and very effective air conditioning. Ah, joyous, speedy travel.

Who would have thought it . . .
Our train stopped in the small rural station of Villaluenga Yuncler – and stayed there. Two hours later we were off-loaded onto a bus. There was a bushfire somewhere along the line and that was it – the main (and only) line from Madrid was out of action. I told you it was hot, and out here in the plains there was a strong and very hot wind: perfect bushfire conditions. Fortunately, our West Australian arsonists haven’t discovered this place yet or the whole, dry land with all its crops would be up in smoke. Unlike Australia, most of the land is given over to producing food.

Train to Caceres delayed

The bus took us to a station on the other side of the trouble, Torrijos (a pleasant little station), where we boarded yet another train while we waited for the other passengers to be bused over. The carriages were, however, air conditioned and very modern.

There was an unexpected visit from a couple of characters from the Guardia Civil, one looking like a dangerous hoodlum or ‘cyber cop’, as Rachel suggested, with wrap-around sunnies (standard issue), bullet-proof vest and tats around his wrists, but they weren’t after us. However, not long after that bit of excitement we were under way again; this train carefully only hitting speeds of up to 150km/hr.

But we were stopped again, this time to be kept in the dark, so to speak, while we waited-out the delay with much speculation amongst the frustrated passengers, and many mobile calls being made to pre-booked accommodation and awaiting families. The result was that we arrived in Cáceres just after midnight, exactly four hours later than planned – not bad. Before night fell, however, as we glided along we were treated to nature’s low, late-afternoon sun painting the landscape with a gorgeous palette: golden acres of top-harvested grain stalks; broad silver-green swathes of olive groves; purple lavender fields; and the red, tilled soil of this land – what a spectacle. We saw only a little of the distant bush fires’ smoke and flames. The next day, at the rail station in Cáceres when we filled out a reclamation form (for our fares), we learned that the train’s stoppages were due to the firefighters’ instructions – to do with allowing them clear access to the fires. The delay bothered us little, with us finding our hotel in the dark after a long walk, and we were confident the bars would still be open in order for us to assuage our thirst and hunger. Spain is good like that.

Wonder of Wonders
Cherries are being harvested here by the ton, also. Rachel bought a kilo today for the outrageous price of 1.50 Euros/kg, as a ‘room snack’.

Loose? Our travel plans. We seem barely able to plan beyond three days – we live very much ‘in the moment’. It keeps us on our toes and, hopefully, will stave off Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, where was I?

. . . Ah, yes. Our room is very good and good value at 33 Euros per night, but after a quick assessment of the small and ancient city (approx 90,000 pop.) we have extended it already for an additional three nights at 30 Euros per night.

During an initial drink in a suitable-looking bar offering a 10 Euro Menu Del Dia (to ‘test the waters’ you understand) in the Casco Viejo (olde town), we quickly elected to dine there on the results of their free tapa; it was clear we were in gourmet territory – as advertised about this city. This was not an error, the food was superb and their generosity included another appetiser (threatening our appetites) and a post-three-course-meal liquor made from acorns – yes, the acorns that make those black-footed pigs (pata negra) taste so delicious. A full bottle of local wine went with the meal – just like in the old days. Oh dear oh dear – this kind of feasting requires a lot of walking afterwards, but it is so damned hot we will have to leave that till later – if we can last the distance (we are often in bed before the Spanish hit the streets of an evening).

Lunch - Caceres Extremadura

We returned the next day (you see what a little bit of generosity can inspire, given quality product?) and discovered that the vintner of the local wine was the bar’s owner. Having expressed an interest in our enjoying his wine (yes, in Spanish, nobody there spoke English anyway – we’re getting better at it ;)) he explained his wine’s composition and answered my query about the lack of evidence of sulphides therein – he uses absolutely minimal, claiming (amongst other things) that they can cause headaches. Oh yes indeedy, tell me about it! The gentleman grows sixty hectares of Verdello, Palomino Fino, Airen, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes. The food was again delicious and the staff were generous – but to top it off, the owner gave us a bottle each of his house red (tinto) and white. Both are excellent, smooth drinking wines and he was much impressed by Rachel’s claim to find a residual flavour of almonds in the white. Err, I showed some restraint this time, and we didn’t quite finish the bottle of wine that came with the meal.

A typical free tapa

Photogenic olde Cáceres

Below: This church’s whole retablo is carved from cedar wood
Carved retablo - Caceres Spain

And a day trip to Medieval Trujillo

Neolithic Menhirs by the castle
Neolithic Menhirs - Trujillo

Ah, but these are just a tantalising taste from the photos we took – this olde Europe with all its invasions, battles, transplanting of different religions, laws, horticulture and cultures is just incredible to witness, and here in Extremadura , south eastern Spain that history is still palpable, still visible, still tangible. Not a bad trip so far.