As we drove away from Evora, we tried to glimpse megaliths in the surrounding fields and wished we had more time to explore. Not this time though-Katherine was booked on an 1145 flight from Lisbon, and would soon be winging her way back to Toronto. The car seemed very empty after we dropped her off, but Christopher took over the navigator's seat and we headed for Sintra- another World Heritage site on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Arriving in Sintra is like stepping into a picture from one of your old fairy tale books. This charming town is set in a lush wooded area on the slopes of the Serra de Sintra, and was once a summering-place for Portugal's kings. Palaces, mansions and an old Moorish castle can be glimpsed through the woods from various viewpoints. Our first stop was the "Palacio Nacional de Sintra". This site dates back to the Moors, but the existing building was repeatedly enlarged and redecorated by a succession of Portugal's kings. There are beautiful "azulejos" (tiles) and sumptuous furnishings throughout the palace, and the views from the windows are stunning. After visiting the palace, we had lunch at a small caf� in the town and then drove up the steep winding road to the site of an old Moorish castle.
Now THIS was a castle! Clearly built with defense in mind, it sits on a promontory some 1,300 feet above sea level, and the walks to the tops of the two battlements are decidedly not for the faint of heart. As we inched our way along the steep stone staircases with no guard rails, it occurred to me that our paternalistic Canadian bureaucracy would likely never allow free public access to a site like this. From the top, we could see the surrounding countryside, the city of Lisbon, and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The peaks of the "Palacio Nacional de Pena" were visible through the trees, looking just like Sleeping Beauty's castle. Unfortunately, all three of us have a mild distaste for heights. By the time we made it back to the bottom, we were sweating profusely, and not just from the heat.
Our guidebook describes the Pena palace as "ludicrous and magical"and we probably should have gone to visit it. But by 3 p.m. we were all tired, thirsty and ready to stop. The drive back to Ayamonte seemed long- perhaps partly because we took a small detour to make one last visit to a Portuguese supermercado. We arrived back at Aisling around 9 p.m., and found that everything in our freezer had thawed. Oh well, it was a good thing we had been to the supermercado- and we'd had a great road trip!
There aren't many places in Europe whose history dates back further than Evora's. The landscape around the town is teeming with prehistoric megaliths, and the town itself is somewhat of a miracle. Despite Evora's proximity to Lisbon, its medieval city walls, Roman temple and ancient buildings survived the 1755 earthquake almost unscathed.
Our first order of business was to find a hotel, and we made our way though the city's narrow streets to the historic "Residential Policarpo", which had very comfortable rooms for 57 euros/night, including parking and breakfast. Then we headed for the town square to have lunch and to develop a plan of attack for seeing the sites. Evora felt even hotter than Seville, and we wondered what it would be like to visit at the height of summer.
Evora has an impressive Gothic cathedral, a 16th century aqueduct and many historic buildings inside the city walls. The most incredible site, though, was the Roman temple, which dates from somewhere between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. This temple is amazingly intact, due to the fact that it was walled up as a fortress some time during the middle ages, and used as a slaughterhouse before being rediscovered late in the 19th century. Fourteen of the temple's columns have survived, and the sight was awe-inspiring by day and truly magical by night.
Equally unforgettable (and undoubtedly the stuff of nightmares) was the creepy "Chapel of Bones" in the Igreja de Sao Francisco. The walls and pillars of this small chapel are lined with the bones and skulls of thousands of people- apparently taken from overflowing church graveyards. Who knows why the monks decided to create art from human bones- but the inscription over the door "Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossus esperamos" ("We bones here await yours") gives some insight into their macabre outlook.
After an afternoon of intense sightseeing, we wandered through a few of the shops and Christopher found himself an Indiana-Jones style suede hat. We shared a jug of sangria in the square, and chose a small traditional restaurant for dinner. The meal was typical Portuguese fare- lamb and chips, duck with rice and a Portuguese omlette (all in the 9-12 euro range) accompanied by a nice bottle of chilled vino verde. After dinner, we returned to view the Roman temple by night- a very special end to our last family evening in Portugal. As we walked through the narrow streets on the way back to the hotel, we caught glimpses into the tiny front rooms of houses that opened onto the sidewalks. In one, three elderly Portuguese sat in a darkened room staring fixedly at the brightly-coloured screen of a huge TV-an interesting contrast to the antiquity around us.
The next day we were up early and on the road for Lisbon airport, sad that our wonderful family vacation was drawing to a close