Eight Days in Portugal and Two Books

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.

35 thoughts on “Eight Days in Portugal and Two Books”

  1. Some of those place names bring back memories – we did a driving holiday in the region back in the late 80s. Never got to the marble towns but I do remember staying in Evora. Like you we enjoyed the wine but it was definitely meant to be drunk in situ. It just didn’t marry well with the food back home. Still, its a good excuse for a holiday isn’t it

    1. Ha! That’s true, although I’ve enjoyed the Portuguese wine I’ve been able to get my hands on here. The late lamented Oddbins were a good source. It’s a great region to explore, isn’t it? I wonder how much things have changed since the ’80s.

    1. I wonder if we were there on the same day! Our visit was last Wednesday. It’s a lovely town, isn’t it. I was struck by how unspoiled it is and not nearly as crowded as Bath where I live whatever the season. I hope you enjoy your explorations!

      1. We stopped off at lunchtime on Sunday on our way to Salamanca from the Algarve. it was packed with tourist coach trips. When we stayed in Evora 2 years ago it was late August, extremely hot but not so busy.

  2. You had me at “slow amble through cork and olive groves” (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cork tree…)

    I loved Normal People and I reckon all the praise is well-deserved.

    1. They are strangely beautiful, Kate. Quite gothic in the evening light. I hadn’t realised they were a type of oak until I noticed the acorns.

      It absolutely did deserve all that praise!

  3. What a lovely treat of a holiday for you. I have never been to Portugal but you make it look delightful and enticing. And I love the sound of ‘artfully placed divans and comfortable seats in which to lounge’ – surely the mark of a perfect holiday! I have not been able to get on with Sally Rooney’s books, but the Page sounds really interesting.

      1. Thanks Susan – you are right about the quality of Naomi’s review – and I was pleased also to get hooked in to her ‘literary wives’ meme. Always nice to find a new book blog friend!

  4. I love Portugal, too: have only visited the southern Algarve – near the Spanish border, not so much the high-rise area, which is gorgeous. And Porto a year or so back, then Lisbon, both lovely cities. I’m afraid I didn’t care for the Sally Rooney novel very much; I have the other one waiting, so might give a go at some point.

    1. Lisbon is one of my favourite cities. I’ve only been to Porto once but loved it, too. I also have a soft spot for Tavira on the Algarve which you may have visited.

      I hope you enjoy Dear Evelyn.

  5. Portugal seems to be a popular place to visit around here, and I can see why. Sounds wonderful!

    I’m so glad you got a chance to read Dear Evelyn. I still miss Harry – I hope he was good company!

  6. As I’ve said before, I quite enjoy the kinds of photographs you share from your travels: a great combo to admire! And I, like Naomi, am glad you got to spend time with Dear Evelyn. Such a moving story. Like you, I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy/admire Normal People, as much as everyone else seemed too, and that might be true, but I did enjoy it more than I’d expected to and, as you’ve said, I found the two of them grew on me, and I did want to read on and see how things went (more admiring the fact that things weren’t perfect and in many ways unresolved).

    1. Thank you! The photos are all H’s work. Oddly enough, reading first Dear Evelyn then Normal People I found the two common omplemented each other. Both of Rooney’s novels have been slow-burners for me but both proved to be well worth sticking with.

    1. Thank you, Ali. I’ll pass that on to H who’s the photographer. I hope you enjoy Normal People. I seem to remember Jacqui thought it was a slow-burner, too, but grew to love it.

  7. I love the sound of your holiday, and Monte da Fornalha looks particularly gorgeous – I’ve made a note of it just in case I ever get an opportunity to visit the region in the future. Did you hire a car when you got there or was it relatively easy to get around by public transport?

    1. We hired a car, Jacqui. I’m not sure about public transport. I think the Portuguese railway network suffered a similar fate to ours in the ’60s and we didn’t see many buses. Fornalha was such a treat but Orlanda has it on the market so best be quick! Btw, since our Twitter exchange I’ve joined the Wine Society. Thanks for the tip.

  8. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation - From Normal People to Meet Me at the Museum | A life in books

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