August Braga

Braga Composit

Walking in Braga, a beautiful city in the north of Portugal, is like taking a journey from ancient times to the present. The city flourished during the Roman era when emperor Augustus honored it with the name Bracara Augusta. But, with the demise of the Roman empire, Braga fell on hard times. The city emerged again in the 11th century, when the king of Castile and Léon offered it as a wedding present to his daughter Teresa. Her son, Dom Afonso Henriques, became the first king of Portugal.

In the early years of Portugal as a nation, the archbishop of Braga, Pedro Julião, became pope John XXI. Perhaps that is why the city has as many reflections of spiritual power (convents and churches) as temporal power (defensive towers, palaces, and manor houses).

In his book “The Design of Cities,” published in 1967, Edmund Bacon writes that: “Throughout history, architects have lavished much of their tenderest care on the part of the building which meets the sky.” Braga provides many wonderful examples of what Bacon has in mind. Its monuments are made of heavy granite but they strive to reach heaven.

First impressions of Lisbon

Composit LisboaFirst impressions are important, so we recommend for your first stop in Lisbon the top of the Rua Augusta arch. More than a century in the making (from 1759 to 1875), the arch is a symbol of the reconstruction of the city after the devastating 1755 earthquake.

The three statues on top of the arch (glory, valor, and genius) remind us of what Portugal at its best can do. The two statues on the sides, which personify the Douro and Tagus rivers, are symbols of the country’s natural beauty. The remaining four statues represent important historical figures: Viriato, a military leader who resisted the Roman invasion, Nuno Alvares Pereira, the hero of a key medieval battle against Castile, Vasco da Gama, the famous navigator, and the Marquis of Pombal, who oversaw the efforts to rebuild Lisbon after the earthquake.

You can reach the top of the arch by elevator. The views are breathtaking. On the North side, you see St. Jorge’s castle, the ancient cathedral, and the spacious, orderly downtown district that replaced, after the earthquake, the narrow, irregular medieval streets. On the South side, you see Terreiro do Paço, the entry hall of the city, adorned by the Tagus river. And so you’ll meet Lisbon, a city that is rich and poor, extroverted and mysterious, an aristocratic old lady full of youthful charm.

On top of the world in Marvão

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Some people climb the Kilimanjaro, others struggle to conquer the Himalayas. But you can feel on top of the world without hiring sherpas or buying oxygen masks. Simply drive to Marvão, a village on the São Mamede mountain, 834 km above sea level.

We spent the morning exploring the ancient castle and walking the beautiful narrow streets. After working up an healthy appetite, we walked to the Pousada for lunch. The view from the dining room is absolutely stunning.

The Pousada has some wonderful signature dishes, including codfish Santa Maria, partridge with 14 (partridge cooked with 14 ingredients), and shrimp Alentejo style. We asked chef Conceição Lourenço why codfish Santa Maria tastes so wonderfully unique. Her eyes smiled brightly for this is one of the culinary secrets she has guarded in her three decades as a chef. She confided that: “the codfish is cooked with flour made from a local mushroom; but that’s all I can say.”

We stayed for quite a while at the table mesmerized by the view. Seen from Marvão, the world below looks harmonious and the skies above divine.

 

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Marvão.

The allure of Monsaraz

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Monsaraz, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

Monsaraz is a medieval village perched on a hill in Alentejo. Squint at the landscape and you see an abstract painting of white and pink shapes. Open your eyes and you see a world of peace and tranquility. Faint are the echoes of the battle in which Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the fearless) first conquered the town from the moors in the 12th century. Gone are the busy years, early in the 14th century, when king D. Dinis built a castle to ensure that this strategic hill would forever remain Portuguese. The soldiers who kept watch from the castle towers were replaced by photographers who shoot with their cameras the majestic view.

Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet who wrote the lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, recorded his feelings about this Alentejo village: “Thank you, Monsaraz, but I do not want to see you ever again because, if I do, I will stay forever inside your white walls amidst your men and women with eyes full of honesty.”

Amalia’s beach

AmaliaBeach

The great fado singer Amalia Rodrigues built a beautiful house on a cliff with an expansive view of the ocean. The adjacent beach is called Amalia in her honor.

To visit this magical place, you need to drive to Brejão, a village on the southern tip of the Alentejo coast. Stop in one of the coffee shops and ask for directions to the beach (you have to follow a hidden path alongside a small brook).

This secluded beach is a perfect setting for declarations of love. The spirit of the place will inspire you. But if words fail you, you can always say: this beach was named after Amalia, a singer who sang about the joy of love and the pain of loss. I brought you here because I love you and I never want to lose you.

 

Few people know that you can rent Amalia’s house by emailing the Foundation Amalia Rodrigues (secretariado@amaliarodrigues.pt). But now you do!

The serene beauty of Flor da Rosa

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On the way to Flor da Rosa, a medieval castle converted into an historical hotel, we traveled through small villages lost in time and fields of cork and olive trees. Nothing prepared us for the sight of the castle standing proudly on the Alentejo plain.

The hotel has 24 rooms with beautiful views of the countryside and a swimming pool that overlooks the castle. The space is designed to offer guests great privacy. And the staff is so attentive that they made us feel like royalty.

The next morning, we woke up in luxurious silence, far from the cacophony of modern life. We relaxed by the pool until it was time for lunch. We then headed to the restaurant where we tried some wonderful renditions of the local gastronomy: purslane soup, fish in coriander sauce, and marinated rabbit. These courses were followed by cheese from Nisa and Serpa. Our taste buds were celebrating these amazing gifts from the shepherds of Alentejo when a sampling of desserts arrived. They had uncommon names like “sericaia” and “encharcada,” and rightly so for everyday words cannot begin to describe these sweet creations.

We had a great time sightseeing around Crato, the village where the hotel is located. In the late afternoon, the church bell reminded us that the sun would soon retire and that it was time to return to the castle. As we crossed the vaulted arches, we heard birds singing. These are the same sounds that were heard in the castle during the middle ages. Flor da Rosa is a precious time capsule that preserves the beauty of an age gone by.

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.

Alcobaça

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Alcobaça, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

To understand Portugal, you have to visit Alcobaça. It was here that the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, founded a monastery in thanksgiving for his conquests. He laid the first stone in 1148 on a beautiful valley irrigated by two rivers, Alcoa and Baça.

Alcobaça became a center of agricultural research with a vast library that included volumes printed by Gutenberg. The monastery served as a luxury hotel for the royal family and their guests, but it also baked bread to feed the poor. The kitchen of the monastery was famous throughout the kingdom. Water from the river Alcoa runs through the kitchen, providing water for cleaning and cooking.

Built in an early gothic style, the monastery was expanded and renovated throughout the centuries. King Dom Pedro erected sumptuous tombs to celebrate his eternal love for Inês de Castro. Henry the Navigator, who was the abbot of Alcobaça, built a palace inside the abbey. Every stone of the Alcobaça monastery is a page of the history of Portugal.