Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Additional photos by Barbara Angelakis

Óbidos horse carriage

ÓBIDOS, PORTUGAL

When King Dinis brought his bride-to-be, Isabel, to this pretty Portuguese  town it so impressed her that he decided to present it to her as wedding gift. That was over 700 years ago and, for centuries afterwards, other  monarchs followed his example.

Óbidos

Once within Óbidos’ medieval walls, in a maze of narrow streets and  whitewashed houses with geraniums at the windows, one begins to  understand the appropriateness of the royal gesture. This is truly a  “precious little casket” as one writer put it - a gift fit for any  number of queens.

Óbidos steps

Óbidos perches on a hill about 90 kilometers north of Lisbon and only 12  kilometers from the Atlantic coast. On top of it sits the old castle,  the foundation of which is said to have been laid well before the birth  of Christ. At first a Celtic fortress, the structure evolved  with  successive occupants - Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and, finally,  Portuguese. For many centuries the castle was a favorite stopover for  Portugal’s royalty, and is now a spectacular pousada (state-owned inn).

Óbidos Pousada

A medieval-looking 5-inch key, attached to an enormous bronze plaque with a relief picture of the castle, opened the door to our pousada quarters at the top of the Dinis Tower. We were now at the highest point in  Óbidos, and, through an arrow loop - a narrow slit in the four-foot  solid stone wall - we had a limited view of the town below. A knight’s  breastplate gleamed from one corner of the room, and in the middle stood a sturdy-looking four-poster bed in dark wood with covers and curtains  in glowing red. This was an inkling of what a king’s living quarters  were like a few hundred years ago.

The castle has several ancient towers. The Moors used to communicate with  each other by means of  lighted torches; hence the name of one of them, Torre do Facho. Another is called the Barbican Tower, housing at one time a large portion of the Crown’s assets, with an  underground prison that, in 1385, held captive the Castilian chronicler  Pedro Lopes de Ayalla after he had been siezed in the battle of  Aljubarrota  - the experience is said to have produced some of his best  poetry. There is also the Well Tower, so named because it shelters an interior well. At the base of our tower is the ”Gate of Treason.” It seems that when King Afonso Hevriques overtook Óbidos in 1148, some  of his knights entered the Dinis Tower with such apparent ease that the  Moorish keeper cried treason.

Lunch  at the pousada began with the obligatory assortment of cheese, olives,  dried prunes, apricots, little hot sausages, and crusty Portuguese bred. We drank the local wine, Gaeiras, which proved to be inexpensive and  quite delicious. For starters we shared a cabbage soup and melon in  Port. Having decided on the sugesto do dia, we were then served a straightforward but perfectly satisfying Frango na Pócara, which translates into Chicken in a Saucepan. From our cozy window booth in the large dining room we had a magnificent view to the north:  battlements and the fields beyond, where Wellington fought his first  engagement against the French in August, 1808.

Óbidos view from the hilltop Barbara

Later that day we climbed to the top of the town wall and followed its  meandering path until, after about forty-five minutes of exhilarating  sightseeing, we found ourselves back at the starting point. The lofty  perspective afforded an ever-changing bird”s eye view of Óbidos and the  surrounding countryside, and the walk proved quite comfortable despite  irregular paving. It was the sort of thing bound to bring a flush of  excitement to even the most intrepid photographer.

Rua Direita is the principle street of Óbidos. It begins at the town’s  southern tip, at the main gate, and stretches all the way to the  castle-turned-pousada in the north. This is where most of the stores,  the tourist office, and many of the cafés and restaurants are. Dua  Direita also features some buildings of historic interest, notably the  Church of St. Mary, which is set off from the street by the town’s small square. St. Mary is only one of the churches in tiny Óbidos, but is the oldest and most important. Originally a temple built by the Visigoths,  it is presumed to have been a mosque before the Christians reclaimed it  in the 12th century. From here came the prior who went on to become  Portugal’s first saint (Sao Teotonio) and it was here, in 1441, that  Afonso V, aged ten, married his cousin Isabel, aged eight.

Óbidos Church of St Mary Barbara

Stepping inside the church one is met with a wealth of that Portuguese artform  called azulejos. These blue and white tile adornments became a national  passion in the 17th century and are still adding a distinct graphic  flavor to the country. Azulejos are everywhere: in official buildings,  restaurants, and on the facades of private homes. The older they are,  the better they usually hold up to artistic scrutiny and these in St.  Mary were made in 1678. The church also has a number of paintings by  Josefa d’€ Óbidos, a talented lady from the same period.

On Rua Direita I found Bar Ibn Errik Rex, a dark cellar-like tavern where a large bottle of the local wine was set on each table and with a ceiling from which hung 1,700 mini-bottles. The proprietor informed me of the  impressive number as he placed a small ceramic grill on the the table. I had asked for sausages, which I understood to be a house specialty, and was now treated  to the spectacle of seeing them prepared. Hot, spicy,  and washed down with a cold beer, they definitely hit the spot, and set  me up for another camera-lugging foray into pretty little sidestreets  which soon narrowed into what would more accurately be called walkways.

Óbidos street with bougainvillias

Most of the white-washed houses had yellow or blue stripes painted on them.  Everything was on a small, intimate scale: archways, cobblestone and, in one instance, positioned next to a blue doorpost, a broom, a cat, and a pair of well-worn shoes. Flowers abounded, as did laundry hung out to  dry.

Óbidos is not entirely bounded  by its walls. In the 16th century, when enemy attacks may no longer have been a threat, some of the inhabitants moved outside, building their  houses next to the eastern wall, where they would be protected against  the strong winds from the Atlantic. This section of town has its own  16th century church (Igreja da Terceira), a well-preserved fountain from the same century, and a couple of good hotels and restaurants.

To the traveler, Óbidos offers the added attraction of being comfortably  close to a number of other interesting little towns. We visited three:  Alcobaca, Batalha and Nazaré. The first two are dominated by great  religious structures, each erected by a king after he had won a  resounding victory in battle, and the third has often been called  Portugal’s most famous fishing village.

Nazare overlooking the beach Barbara

Honey-gold and exuberant, the facade of the Monastery of Santa Maria in the center of Alcobaca gives no clue to the Cisterian austerity of its vast  interior. Founded in 1153, it was once the country’s richest monastery,  with an abbot who lorded over thirteen towns and three ports and was the creditor of kings. In its glory days the monastery included a  spectacular kitchen, with a stream that ran right through it, providing  fresh fish for the monks. Chinese lay brothers prepared’  sharks fin and bird’s nest soup. According to an English millionaire who toured the  region in 1794, it was “the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all Europe”.€

Today the monastery is  famous mostly for the tombs of Pedro the Cruel and Ines de Castro, the  couple who supplied Portuguese history with some of its juiciest and  most morbid material. Their torrid love affair, which ended with the  assassination of Ines, had a particularly gruesome postscript two years  later. Pedro was then the king and in position to seek revenge on the  murderers. He did so by having their hearts drawn out from their living  bodies. The lovers now rest in the huge monastery in two separate tombs, foot to foot, so that when they rise on the Day of Judgment, the first  thing they will see is each other.

Abbey of Santa Maria da Vitória Barbara

What the Abbey of Santa Maria da Vitória in Batalha lacks in terms of such  sensational tales it makes up for in sheer beauty. This stunning  edifice, often described as the most beautiful Gothic building in  Portugal, was built by King John I in fulfillment of a vow he made  before the battle of Aljubarrota. I spent almost an entire afternoon  wandering around in its various rooms, and was especially taken in by  the Royal Cloister - a Thousand and One Night Manueline fantasy in which stone had been used as if it were lace.

Nazaré was our last stop. From a visit several years ago, I recall eating  a  superb whiting, drinking white wine, and watching the fishermen ride the heavy surf in their colorful boats. Now  there is a a protected harbor  built just south of town that provides safe mooring, but, at that time,  men with ropes used to pull the vessels ashore and, in even earlier  days, oxen were sometimes employed.  The great curving beach was now  largely occupied by trays of fish laid out to dry. Women in black were  rearranging the catch or putting up  nets for protection against  swooping birds.

The Atlantic, which  washes the coast of Portugal from north to south, provides some of the  best fish and shellfish in the world, and the Portuguese know how to  prepare it - with great simplicity. In a quiet back street we found a  two-table restaurant with an outdoor grill, where I had some absolutely  fresh sardines sizzled over charcoal and my wife ate ameijoas, Portuguese clams, steamed in garlic. With local bread and wine, it was all very simple, very delicious, and quite unforgettable.

For further information on Portugal see Lisbon, the heart of Portugal

 

 

 

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