We just got back last night from a trip to the Alto Alentejo, a rocky, mountainous region in the east of Portugal, towards the border with Spain. (When I described it as such earlier, Gabe corrected me to say that no, it’s actually in the center of Portugal. But really, it’s only another half hour’s drive to Spain, so that counts as close to the border, right?!)

For the sake of breaking things up a little, I’m going to split our weekend into two posts. This one is about Saturday, and you can read about Sunday’s adventures here.

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We’d been talking about doing a longer weekend trip for some time, but between one thing and another, we didn’t actually get it together until the last minute: Gabe reserved the car after we got back from the concert on Friday night, and then called the hotel for a room on Saturday morning about half an hour before we left. Usually I’m terrible at the whole spontaneity thing, but this worked out really well, and we had a great time.

We picked up the car on Saturday around noon, just in time for the weekend’s projected rain to start falling. But we didn’t care — we had a car! For the first time since September, we actually had four wheels, and could carry more than would fit in our hands or on our back. Plus we didn’t have to walk up hills! Amazing. No wonder American is having such a hard time discouraging people from driving — as Gabe said, cars represent freedom, and people are willing to pay almost any price for that privilege. I know we were, for this weekend at least.

After gleefully firing up the car and our rented GPS, we took off across the Golden Gate-type bridge on the fancy and relatively new toll motorway that is simply marked for all places “Sul.” We tooled along for about an hour, enjoying our newly regained mobility and the Portuguese countryside, until we decided it was about time for us to stop and eat the picnic lunch I’d packed that morning. It was then that we realized the price of this weekend’s mobile freedom, for it cost us almost 7 euros ($10) to exit the motorway. Slightly stunned, we quickly reprogrammed the GPS to avoid toll roads, since we weren’t in any kind of hurry to get there — wherever “there” was.

Undeterred, we continued up to a suitable detour point that we’d spotted from the road, which turned out to be the first of many small towns we visited this weekend that had a castle perched on top of a hill. We followed the signs for the castelo, which took us up and up through small, cobblestoned streets until at last we emerged at the castle walls. We were only the second car in the parking lot, and remained some of the only people on the site for almost our entire visit. It was fabulous.

We arranged our picnic on a low wall overlooking the entire valley we’d just driven through (since of course each castle was built on the highest strategic ground in the area.) Red roofs, churches, monastaries perched on the opposing hills… marvelous. Quite the lunchtime entertainment.

Refreshed by our pit stop, we wandered up into the castle proper, which was completely run down and more or less deserted, with no view whatsoever to silly things like liability laws should some unsuspecting tourist happen to fall off the exposed stone battlements. Oh, Europe, how I love thee. We walked said battlements as far as we could, awed by the stunning views they provided, and then explored the interior grounds, which included many old olive and pepper trees and an archaeological dig on the other side of the hill.

We were soon driven back to the car by the cold (or relatively so) wind at the top of the hill, and continued on our way to Evora, our destination for the day. We arrived there in the mid-afternoon and directed our GPS to the pensao where we’d be staying — except the GPS didn’t recognize that it was down a one-way street, which we realized only after much honking of horns and gesturing by nearby pedestrians. Ooops. Damn tourists.

We never did figure out how to get to our pensao by car, but instead abandoned it a few streets over and carried our few bags up the street. Once we finally found it, the place was cheap and no-frills, with an ornately decorated lobby and a small, clean room awaiting us. Not bad for one night’s stay.

After dumping our stuff in the room, we went out to explore the city. Evora is a medieval walled city, one of many in the region. Within short order of each other, you can see: the medieval walls, Moorish arches, a gigantic cathedral, Roman ruins (that are some of the best-preserved on the Iberian peninsula, mainly because they were walled up and used as a slaughterhouse in earlier years!), and a five-star pensao with views over the entire valley. Incongruous, yes, but typical of the fabulous historical and cultural mish-mash you find here.

We said hello to these requisite tourist stops, and then went off to find my special request: the chapel of bones. As soon as I’d read about it in the guidebook, I knew I had to have it. And I was not disappointed. Set in an otherwise innocuous and lovely church, the chapel of bones is entirely made from human skeletons taken from the city’s cemeteries, complete with two entire skeletons hanging on the wall by the altar. It felt like walking onto the set of the Goonies — it was absolutely fantastic.

As advertised, the chapel walls were made entirely of human bones, set with their joints facing out, with accents of skulls, pillars of femurs, and azulejo tiles somewhat incongruously lining the bottom of each wall. The inscription over the door read, “Our bones that are here wait for yours.” Ah! So macabre! I love it. Gabe laughed at me, because while the other girls in the room were remarking on how grotesque it was, I was practically squealing with delight. Easily entertained, I am — all it requires is a little death, doom, and destruction.

With that as the definite highlight of our afternoon, if not the past six months, we went on to explore the rest of the city by night, loosely structured around finding a place for dinner. We eventually settled on (if that’s the right word for it) the restaurant that the guidebook promised us had the best Alentejan cuisine in Evora — nothing but the best for us! We arrived along with the first wave of Portuguese patrons, which ensured that we got a table, despite our lack of reservations.

All of the tables were already laid out with a delicious looking array of cold appetizer plates, including bread, cheese, parma ham, and salads made of octopus, black eyed peas, sausage, potatoes, and all kinds of other (mostly non-kosher) delectables. I would’ve been perfectly content to eat just those, but we also both ordered mains — me an Alentejan fish soup, and Gabe a dish with fish of some kind, though we couldn’t quite understand what the rest of the description was.

Turned out to be another case of seafood surprise, just as I’d had in Venice. There was indeed fish on his plate, but it was also bristling with clams. Yum. Luckily he could easily pick them off and set them aside, and the fish itself was delicious. My extremely rich and hearty fish stew was also excellent, and a good thing too, because Gabe ended up eating most of that as well. After all, it was the best food in town — we couldn’t just leave it behind!

Sated and stuffed, we rolled ourselves back to the pensao, ready for an early night and more exploration in the morning.

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