Luis Pedras – Elvas Portugal

Elvas Forts Portugal

Elvas is one of Portugal’s many charming villages that in a previous existence were strategic, fortified frontier posts. Small and snuggled close to the Spanish border, they have a somewhat terrifying history, but now allow the traveller a fascinating insight into Portugal’s struggle to maintain its existence. Here, especially in these small, rural towns we can also enjoy its ancient architecture, traditional culture and cuisine.

Elvas is in the Alentejo region and the town is dominated by its small but highly fortified castle. From up on its battlements you have amazing views that stretch out over the northern fortification of Forte de Graça and east over the rolling plains into Spain. Our experience of this expansive view – on one particularly sultry summer’s evening – had us entranced; Spain’s Extremadura was burning up with a series of bush fires and the whole eastern sky was aglow with a russet-pink hue.

Positioned on the highest point of the city, the Castelo de Elvas is possibly Portugal’s most battle-hardened castle, having survived numerous sieges and battles over its long and turbulent history. Constructed purely for defence, it has thick solid walls, high battlements and a solid keep. Its panoramic view over the surrounding landscape and deep into the Spanish heartland speaks volumes of its historic role.

Luis Pedras

Portugese Potter and Poet
An open door that gave access into one of the old castle’s towers beckoned, and it was here we found Luis standing outside chatting with some friends. We were curious as to what was within, secretly harbouring thoughts of encountering ancient relics from the castle’s past. But when we sought entrance into the old tower he told us it was his workshop. Clearly, we were a wee bit late for discovering ‘antiquities’. Introductions over, he explained that he was finishing up for the day but would give us a quick look around. Following that, he offered to show us his finished wares in his nearby studio-gallery.

The body of work of this talented ceramic artist is notable in that it is both eclectic and prodigious, and while his design-style is unique, it evinces Portugal’s distinctive ceramic tradition. He is also a poet of some note and a discerning collector of ethnic art; this makes a visit to his studio-gallery an interesting experience.

Besides his more interesting works of art, however, his stock and favoured item is the folksy, traditional Ronca. This musical instrument has a long association with Portugal’s past yet, interestingly, and perhaps like wine, it has travelled far. Originating in Africa to accompany sacred and secret rituals, it was also found in Cuba. And in Venezuela it is called a Furruco, in Spain a Zambomba, in southern Italy a Putipù, in Germany a Rummelpot and so on – very well-travelled. Luis actively markets and demonstrates this instrument and many a visitor to Elvas now has a Ronca on their shelf at home. Though it is a mono-tone instrument, its sound will immediately evoke in the tourist’s memory Luis Pedras, the Castelo de Elvas and this quaint little town.

Given the diverse and ancient roots of the Ronca and Luis’ interest in distant peoples and cultures, one can appreciate his abiding interest in this membranophone instrument. He, too, has travelled widely and has a fascinating collection of artefacts from exotic lands. Though they are not for sale, many can be found in his studio workshop.

We both admire ceramic artistry and have a substantial pottery collection of our own. However, like so many other travellers who are on a tight budget and who prefer to travel light, we often have to decline artists’ and artisans’ beautiful works. Luis, bless his cotton socks, in spite of our expressing this, was not at all deterred by our protestations – we ended up buying a (very transportable – and signed) little book of his poems in Spanish and Portuguese.

Do not underestimate the small town of Elvas; there is excellent local cuisine to be had, and superb Alentejo wine to accompany it. Do not leave without tasting some Ameixas d´Elvas either (just ask 😉 ). There is also much antiquity to be explored and it is surprisingly photogenic.

Cena in Elvas Portugal

Evora – Portugal

9th July 2015

I am a peacock plucker . . . . .

And a peacock plucker’s son . . . or was that a pheasant plucker hmmm?

Anyway, having settled into our comfortable accommodation conveniently situated in the heart of this olde walled city, we ranged out to fortify ourselves with some strong flavoured char grilled local meat dishes and generous amounts of excellent local wine. Soon after, well-fortified and wandering loose-footed, we found ourselves at dusk in the university grounds – quite open but, interestingly, infested by peacocks. They were calling to each other with their pleading, plaintive-yet-haunting (Portuguese?) cry of Eeeeoooowwwaaah. We were drawn, seductively, by these calls and encountered them in the most strange of places as they sought each others presence – no doubt to carry out ritual mating (well, they’re certainly prolific breeders – the buggers were everywhere). Young chicks were being fussed over by the hens while the cocks sauntered and strutted their colourful stuff, and when we climbed the crumbling steps of one of the rickety old stone watchtowers (carefully avoiding some of their eggs) there they were again, Eeeeoooowwwaaah-ing to each other in the dusk. The olde city park, and even the surrounding buildings, is alive with these free-ranging creatures and you can spot them up high on ledges as well as in the bushes.

Evora Peacock

And there were more boids! In the late evening (about 10pm) shortly before the sun finally sets the sky becomes alive with birds – predominantly swifts/swallows – and small bats feeding on-the-wing. I should note, too, that local musical performances or events here start no earlier than 10pm – and this is during the week! They really do ‘dance to a different tune’ here around the Mediterranean.

Cork-covered bottle
Evora - cork

Main plaza
Evora - main plaza

Walk on this in your high heels will you!

All the roads within this olde walled city are laid from old basalt and marble chips. They are the roughest ancient roads we have encountered, but they would be incredibly durable. They are a challenge for us walkers, but fortunately, in this city we do not have to watch out for dog shit – which is a relief. For some reason pet dogs are not so prevalent here: but we nevertheless have to place our feet carefully.

The cuisine, not to mention the wine of The Alentejo, has been outstanding and we have indulged ourselves with some excellent dining experiences and snacks.

Upon crossing into Portugal in the bus from Spain we found ourselves riding through a bleached landscape with greatly reduced agriculture. Quarries began to dominate the landscape. They were cutting and raising massive blocks of cream, pink, grey, black and streaked marble. In other areas the blocks were being cut into fine slabs to clad walls, or to be used as flooring or stairs. The small and glaringly bright village of San Bento de Mato appeared to be constructed entirely from marble and the surrounding countryside was dotted with mountains of huge marble chunks. Considered scraps of lesser value, these piles of imperfect pieces just await buyers, as even the smallest pieces will eventually be utilised to pave roads, footpaths and praças (plazas).

Impressive, intricately carved marble in a delicious variety of assorted colours adorns all the churches throughout this region and, typical throughout Portugal, they pave the praças and footpaths with small contrasting black and white marble cubes laid in decoratively-distinct patterns as illustrated above.

The (ongoing) Crisis
A local, young and fluent-English-speaking instrument shop owner explained that the European Economic Community, upon bailing out Portugal’s big Banks and financial institutions imposed several restrictions, one of which was for it to stop producing certain crops and another, to severely reduce its fishing fleet and catch. Effectively, the country was paid not to produce – which saved the big banks but did nothing to help the unemployment problem (look out, Greece). According to our informants, backed up by our observations, their economy is getting worse every day, though the current, seasonal, tourist influx will keep some afloat for a while yet.

The Alentejo
Alentejo is an Arabic word describing the area south of the ‘Ribera Tejo’ (the Tagus River), which ends at Lisbon. This southern region and neighbouring southern Spain was conquered and occupied by the Muslims for some 9oo years, following on from its Roman occupation, which followed on from the . . . Heeesus kristo, what a history this land has.

Evora and Elvas are in the centre of the Alentejo region of Portugal and bake in sunshine nine tenths of the year, and as we head westward to Faro the flat land featuring large crops of pine trees (for pine nuts), sunflowers, cork oaks, corn and wheat gradually gives way to more mountainous coastal area of The Algarve region. And so the comfortable bus delivers us into old Faro, package holiday centre for all the northern Europeans . . . sigh . . . but it is seductive with its bountiful eateries, extensive wetlands and nearby beaches under clear blue sky. We should’a given it longer.

The Abandoned Convent in Evora
Evora Convent Portugal
Being curious (and not a bit frustrated at having been refused entry to a monumentally huge, marble-fronted Carthusian monastery on the outskirts) we skirted a small and old church-type place looking for an entry and found one that led to its garden at the back. Meandering around its paths shaded by grape vines and orange trees, we were approached by a woman who told us we shouldn’t be there. We persisted, claiming we would love to see into the buildings and she called over her male associate – another gardener/caretaker – and he relented, kindly offering to show us around. He unlocked a door and led us at first into a charming cloister replete with shady trees. It was like a magic garden. The small cloister’s surrounding building had the classic, Arabic-inspired two levels creating this cool and tranquil sanctuary. The place was, in fact, an old (now disused) convent. Then he showed us the interior, up and down, through its many little rooms: kitchen, dining room , chapel, refectory and church – all neglected but with all its original materials in place – even big marble slabs with fitted, rusting rings to lift them, under which were buried the bones of the convent’s brethren. Let the photos speak!

Evora Convent - Portugal

Ye olde beneath-the-floor bones

And a few more pics of Evora

The Church of Ossos (bones)
Evora - church of bones

Basta ya!