24-25 October 2019
A few kilometres outside Estremoz at the end of 3 miles of dusty, bumpy track is the Cromleque Os Almendres, the Iberian peninsula’s largest stone circle. This Megalithic monument was built around 7000 years ago, 92 standing stones arranged down the hillside with great views across the plain to the eastern horizon.
Thought to be astronomical in purpose as it is aligned with the equinoxes, some of the stones still display the remains of carvings slowly dissolving in millennia of rain – circles, serpentine shapes, cup marks and croziers whose meaning can only be guessed at.
An atmospheric place in the midst of classic montado country.
The montado here was lovely with a lot of old trees – holm oaks with long, pointed edible acorns and bare-trunked cork oaks, their under-storey and acorns grazed by indigenous Alantejan and Mertolenga horned cattle and the famous black pigs which provide the Pata Negra air-cured hams, the fat made sweet and tasty by the acorns. Birds flitted amongst the branches, taunting us with songs but remaining elusive.
On the hill before the Cromleque is an olive grove and a fenced path leading up to a single 3 metre tall standing stone, the Menhir dos Almendres, which aligns with the Cromleque on the next hill on sunrise of the summer solstice. Amazing!
Moving on we headed for Estremoz passing the picturesque fortified village of Evoramonte on the way.
Estremoz’ Saturday market is one of the best in Portugal according to our Rough Guide and we could park the night before right next to it, on the lower town’s huge main square.
We had plenty of time to wander up into the cobbled streets of the old, walled part of the town perched on the hill. Being so close to the Spanish border it seems every hill has a fortified town. This one has a medieval palace on the top built from the local white marble which is now a Pousada – or a posh hotel to you and me. In this castle in 1487 the King gave Vasco de Gama the fleet he would lead to ‘discover’ India. Strange given that it is about as far from the sea that you can get in Portugal.
We checked out the small town museum where for €1.60 we were able to wander round the rooms of an old hospice and see the crafts of the area. Cork carvings and horn carvings, and lots of examples of Estremoz pottery,
and the hand-painted clay figurines called ‘Bonecos de Estremoz’, unique to the town, doing almost everything from slaughtering pigs, making black pudding and riding horses to enjoying carnival.
It only took us half an hour but was interesting and a nice break from religious artefacts.
Back at the square we settled in with some flat-capped old boys for a glass of wine – it was Friday after all – then somehow managed to find the only bar in town where the local Portugese barman was an Irish whiskey devotee with an extensive range he wanted to share with us. He spent his summer holiday touring Irish distilleries and had only disdain for Scotch whisky. How do we do it???
The market started early but the effects of the whiskey delayed us slightly, as we had not been drinking for a couple of weeks, and we emerged, blinking, into the grey morning just after 8 (am). The area was transformed. Rows of tables set with produce, but not the food we had been expecting — there was everything bric-a-brac laid out – antiques, farm implements, Russian military hats, Bakelite dial-telephones, ancient radios, toys, street lamps, musical instruments and furniture. A fascinating array.
Further over there were food stalls, but in-between was the livestock – chickens, quail, guinea fowl and rabbits – and the baby veg ready for planting. The baby veg were the least traumatised.
The produce itself, local and seasonal of course, with squash, pumpkins, potatoes, onions and lots of different types of goat and sheep cheeses. Plenty of nuts too – particularly walnuts which we couldn’t resist.
Old men in flat-caps (de-rigeur it seems although Danny won’t wear one) and old ladies buy and selling testified to the healthy lifestyle in these parts.
Breakfast was Farturas – we joined a huge queue for the big coils of freshly fried donut-like batter which were snipped into lengths, tossed in cinnamon sugar and wrapped in paper so we could wander round eating it hot. Absolutely delicious.
All that was left to do was to say farewell to our Irish-loving friend over a coffee before heading on.