It’s been quite some time since H and I went to Portugal even though we love it there. After skirting around the southern Alentejo, years ago, we’d promised ourselves we’d visit the area properly one day and this year we finally got around to it. I rarely write about the places we stay but the lovely Monte da Fornalha is so idyllic it deserves a sentence or two. Its gorgeous garden alone, full off artfully placed divans and comfortable seats in which to lounge, lit by lamps and candles at night, would be enough mark it out as special but the rooms – both public and private – are absolutely delightful, too, decorated with originality and flair. The overall effect is of casual, boho elegance thrown together with ease although a great deal of careful thought has clearly gone into it. Breakfasts were a treat, too. There’s nothing like being offered a persimmon ripe off the tree, carefully chosen by Fornalha ‘s generous owner, Orlanda. A blissful place.
Just as well as with temperatures in the low 30s on the first day we weren’t up for anything much beyond loafing, reading and a slow amble through cork and olive groves, looking at the fading vines whose fruit went into the delicious wines we drank with supper. I’ve always loved Portuguese wines but they’re hard to track down in the UK.
Our nearest town was Borba, the smallest of the three marble towns as they’re known. Marble is mined in the area and, despite its lack of grandeur, Borba is almost entirely built from the stuff. Even the kerbing stones are made of it. Close by is a second marble town – Estremoz, whose Saturday market we visited before nipping up to its pousada which incorporates the castle’s marble keep. For those who don’t know Portugal, pousadas are hotels sited in historic buildings, usually quite grand but happy for nosy tourists like us to enjoy a coffee which we did in the lovely cloistered garden. Vila Viçosa is the third marble town. Its palace, built by Jaime IV, Duke of Bragança in the sixteenth century but now a pousada, is quite breath taking in its splendour for what is essentially a small mining town, although its grand facade fronts a building just one room deep.
We did manage to drag ourselves away from Orlanda’s beautiful garden for a few days out further afield., My favourite was a trip to the pretty spa town of Castelo de Vide, its hill crowned with a carefully restored castle as are so many in this area close to the border with Spain. It’s also home to the oldest synagogue in Portugal, deep in the maze of streets of the medieval town, now a beautifully presented museum. After a steep climb up to the old city walls, we were rewarded with impressive panoramic views. At the much smaller and even prettier Marvão the views were just as spectacular, well worth the scramble up to the top. We drove back to the guesthouse through back roads, many lined with trees sporting autumn colours against a background of green, very different from the parched countryside surrounding the marble towns.
My other favourite day out was spent in Évora, a substantial hill town, topped by the remains of a Roman temple, quite busy with tourists like us but nevertheless unspoilt. Close to the temple, the Sao Joao Evangelista church has a magnificent tiled interior, mostly blue and white, some arranged to tell biblical stories but, interestingly, those close to the altar were more abstract, suggesting a Moorish influence. We wandered around the cobbled streets then into a park filled with peahens and their chicks. On the drive back to what I was beginning to think of as home, I spotted some black pigs rooting around in a cork grove no doubt looking for acorns.
And the books? More reading than usual on this holiday, but only two really stood out for me. I first spotted Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn on Naomi’s blog, Consumed By Ink. It’s the occasionally funny, often poignant story of the ups and many downs in a seventy-year marriage which begins just before the Second World War when Harry goes off to the North African front leaving Evelyn in London. It reminded me of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is also about a relationship, both different and similar to Harry and Evelyn’s. Rather like Conversations with Friends, I began it unsure whether I’d like it, not least because it kept popping up on almost every prize list going, but I grew to love this story of two young people from very different backgrounds whose on-again off-again relationship begins when they’re at school. Both Connell and Marianne seem as incapable of leaving each other alone as they are of articulating their feelings to the other.
It was raining the day we left the lovely Monte de Fornalha which made our departure a whole lot easier not to mention preparing us for real life back home here in the UK. No more persimmons for breakfast for us. It’s back to muesli.