Estremadura and Ribatejo Travel Guide

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Now rebranded as south Centro de Portugal and northwest Alentejo, the historic districts of Estremadura and Ribatejo have some of the most famous buildings in Portugal. The monastery at Alcobaça, the extraordinary abbey at Batalha and the headquarters of the Knights Templar in Tomar are all easily accessible, even by public transport, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the country’s tangled past. Other attractions are equally high profile, from the walled medieval town of Óbidos to the tremendous castle at Leiria, while the obscenely ornate palace-monastery of Mafra always intrigues. Heads are also turned by the shrine at Fátima, the country’s (and, indeed, one of the world’s) most important pilgrimage sites.

Along the Costa da Prata (the Silver Coast), the main resorts are the holiday fleshpots of Ericeira and Nazaré, though there are several smaller, perhaps more charming resorts – notably São Martinho do Porto – and plenty of less crowded beaches too. Ferries sail from Peniche to the remote offshore bird sanctuary of the Ilha da Berlenga, while inland, getting off the beaten track means delving into the spectacular underground caverns around Porto de Mós and viewing the amazing nearby sauropod tracks, all of which lie within the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros.

Contrasting with the fertile agricultural land and market gardens of Estremadura is the flatter plain of Northwest Alentejo (formerly Ribatejo) – the traditional bull-breeding territory that runs alongside the banks of the Rio Tejo. The river valley itself boasts some of Portugal’s richest vineyards, while Santarém, has the province’s longest history.

São Martinho do Porto

Lying 10km north of Foz do Arelho, SÃO MARTINHO DO PORTO is the main and most appealing resort between Peniche and Nazaré. Low-key and largely low-rise, it’s an easy-going place favoured by families. The reason for São Martinho’s popularity is its beach, a glorious sweep of sand that curls around an almost enclosed bay and shelves gently into the sea, making its waters wonderfully warm and calm. You could easily spend days tramping the boardwalks and dune paths around the bay, hiring a kayak or pedalo or climbing the ochre cliffs above the quayside to the lighthouse. There’s also an older part of São Martinho to explore, up the steep hill behind the more modern bay-side streets – the easiest way up is to take the ascensor, a lift departing from inside the turismo building, which whisks you to an upper square with sweeping town and bay views.

Vila Franca de Xira

The bustling west-bank city of Vila Franca de Xira, 45km downriver from Santarém, makes a rival claim to be the capital of the Ribatejo, but it’s a poor second to Santarém and only worth the effort of a visit for aficionados of the Portuguese bullfight. The rearing of bulls and horses dominates the local economy: there’s a School of Bullfighting here, and posters everywhere announcing forthcoming fights, while Vila Franca celebrates its obsession in café names and statues.

The two big annual events are the Festa do Colete Encarnado (“Red Waistcoat Festival”, which refers to the costumes of the mounted horsemen of the plains), held over several days in the first two weeks of July; and the Feira de Outubro (October Fair), in the first two weeks of the month. On both occasions there are bullfights, with the animals running through the streets chased by the bold (and drunk) – inevitably, injuries are sustained.

Without a bullfight to detain you, it’s hard to linger long in the few restored streets around the town hall; it’s nicest down at the riverside gardens by the train station, where there’s an old fisherman’s bairro with a couple of restaurants – in March and April local restaurants in town all celebrate the shad, a Tejo river fish.

Ourém

With its cosy nest of medieval lanes, a clutch of old stone houses and a church or two, the pretty town of Ourém lies 12km to the east of Fátima. From the lower new town, Vila Nova de Ourém, a winding road climbs for 2km up to Ourém castle, crowning a hill above the town. Ourém’s heyday was in the fifteenth century, when the fourth count of Ourém, Dom Afonso, built several grand monuments and converted the castle into a palace. The castle was virtually destroyed by Napoleon’s forces, but is now largely restored. You can walk around its parapet, walls and towers for a marvellous, sweeping panorama, with the basilica of Fátima visible away to the west.

Pinhal de Leiria and its beaches

One of the finest stretches of coastline in the country flanks the Pinhal de Leiria, a sprawling pine forest west of Leiria and stretching north of São Pedro de Moel. It’s what passes for an ancient forest in Portugal – the pines were first planted by farmers in the fourteenth century as a protective measure against encroaching sand dunes. Later, the trees were an essential resource when it came to fitting out ships during the Portuguese “Discoveries”. There are bike lanes and tracks throughout the forest, while beyond the dunes lie vast white-sand beaches soaking up the thundering breakers from the Atlantic. By public transport, the only realistic target is the small resort of São Pedro de Moel, though cyclists and drivers will be able to find better, more isolated spots. Expect any of the beaches near São Pedro to be packed in July and August – the straight, fast, coastal road north and south has been upgraded to cope with heavy summer traffic. Come any other time and you’ll have the sands to yourself.

Leiria

The old royal castle at Leiria peers out over a charming town that comes as something of a surprise for many visitors. Surrounded by modern suburbs and a swirling one-way system, it holds no great sights save the castle itself, but the pretty old streets and squares in the centre are worth a wander. As a student town Leiria has enough good restaurants and bars to make the evenings go with a swing. The old town spreads out around the arcaded Praça Rodrigues Lobo, lined with attractive cafés and named for the statue of the local poet (1580–1622) who became one of Portugal’s most famous early writers. In fact, Leiria’s literary connections go back even further than this – in 1480, the town had one of Portugal’s first printing presses, which was run by Jews who printed in Hebrew. An antiques and crafts fair is held in the square on the second Saturday of each month. Leiria is also handily poised for the fine beaches of the Pinhal de Leiria to the west, which spread either side of the pretty resort of São Pedro de Moel.

Castelo de Leiria

Leiria’s Castelo was an early site in the battle for control of what was to become the kingdom of Portugal. Taken from the Moors by Afonso Henriques in the twelfth century, it became a royal favourite and in the fourteenth century was the main residence of Dom Dinis. It’s been much altered since (the battlements are modern reconstructions), though it’s still an impressive sight, crowning the crags above town. You can see the former royal palace within the castle walls, while inside the keep is a small museum containing displays of armour and archeological finds. There’s also the shell of the old church of Santa Maria de Penha, which dates from around 1400.

Foz do Arelho

The small village of Foz do Arelho, 8km west of Caldas da Rainha, sits 1km back from a beautiful, sheltered lagoon beach, which is overlooked by a couple of cafés. The road continues a further 500m or so to another tremendous beach where river meets ocean, and here there’s a promenade of fancier bars and restaurants. It’s not really overdeveloped – this is more a holiday-home place than a resort – and outside July and August you’ll have the wide, white sands to yourself. On the lagoon itself, the Lagoa de Óbidos, fishermen stand in the shallow waters next to their boats, attending to their nets.

Caldas da Rainha

Caldas da Rainha means “Queen’s Spa”, and was named for Dona Leonor, wife of Dom João II. She was sufficiently taken by the therapeutic powers of the bubbling waters here that she founded a hospital in 1484, around which the town gradually grew up to service the growing popularity of the spa. Its heyday was probably in the nineteenth century, although Caldas today shows little of its regal past: once through the drab modern outskirts, however, there’s a pleasant centre focused on the modern spa buildings. Pretty much everything of interest lies in, or just outside, the tranquil Parque Dom Carlos I, a lovely, extensive landscaped park with two diverting museums, a small lake and a garden café.

Caldas is also not a bad place for souvenir hunting: its embroidery has a national reputation, though it’s best known as a ceramics centre. There’s a lively outdoor fruit, vegetable and flower market every morning in the central Praça da República – Monday sees the addition of clothes, shoes and household goods.

Torres Vedras

Torres Vedras is a pleasant if fairly nondescript town, though for a short period during the Peninsular War against the French it was at the forefront of a desperate European struggle. With Lisbon judged to be under threat, the Duke of Wellington ordered the secret construction of the Linhas de Torres, the so-called “Lines of Torres Vedras”. Within a year in 1810, Wellington’s troops, plus gangs of militias and conscripted locals, built an extraordinary network of almost 150 forts and impregnable defensive positions. The British–Portuguese forces then carried out a scorched-earth policy in front of the Lines and sheltered behind them, thwarting the under-supplied French army, which was subsequently forced to retreat to Spain. Wellington’s seemingly desperate tactic was a military triumph – though the cost to the local population was severe.

There’s little evidence of this drama on display in the modern town, bar some surviving fortress ruins nearby. Still, there’s a pleasant kernel of cobbled lanes in the centre, at its best around the central Praça 25 de Abril, where an obelisk commemorates the battles. Otherwise, the castelo is the only notable sight and, after a drink at one of the cafés on the square it’s probably time to move on – Lourinhã or the local beaches to the northwest make a better overnight stop, while Alenquer and the Ribatejo wine country are just a thirty-kilometre drive to the east.

The Ribatejo wine routes

Wine has been produced on the banks of the Tejo for around two thousand years and, while it’s long had a reputation for quantity rather than quality, the offerings of some new producers have recently begun to acquire an international profile. Many vineyards offer tours and tastings.

The N118 marks the most attractive route north of Santarém, taking in several small towns and quintas en route to Chamusca, 28km away. There’s nothing much to stop for in Almeirim (once the site of a royal summer palace), Alpiarça or Chamusca, but local wine producers line the road at intervals, open for sales to the public; look for signs saying “vinho do produtor”.

South of Santarém, the N3 towards Vila Franca and Lisbon is a great road if you’re not in a hurry. The drive can occupy half a day, with stops at the interesting Museu Rural e do Vinho in Cartaxo and the historical sites around Azambuja, plus a detour for lunch in one of the pretty towns of Alenquer or Arruda dos Vinhos.

Santarém

Strategically sited SANTARÉM, set on a plateau on the banks of the Rio Tejo, already had a long history before Portugal was ever an independent nation. An important Roman trading city was sited here, and from the eighth to the twelfth centuries Shantarin was one of the most cultured Moorish cities on the Iberian peninsula. Accordingly, its conquest in 1147 by Afonso Henriques was hugely significant and in later medieval times Santarém became a royal favourite, decorated with grand Gothic buildings and hosting regular meetings of the Cortes (Parliament). There’s little if nothing left of Roman or Moorish times but, with its two exquisite churches and surviving old-town alleys and squares, modern Santarém remains a pleasant place to visit – not least for the unrivalled view across the plains from the Portas do Sol, the former site of the Moorish citadel and Reconquista castle.

Santarém’s festivals and markets

For two weeks in June (starting the first Friday of the month) Santarém’s Feira Nacional da Agricultura celebrates all things rural and agricultural, with displays of bullfighting, folk dancing, local arts and crafts, and country traditions. The town also hosts an annual Festival de Gastronomia (third and fourth week of October), where you can taste all sorts of regional specialities. In addition, a large market sprawls around the bullring on the second and fourth Sunday of every month.

Golegã

GOLEGÃ, on the west bank of the Rio Tejo, midway between Tomar and Santarém, is a pleasant riverside town which calls itself “Capital of the Horse”, a claim it backs up with black-horse silhouettes hanging outside virtually every business. It is best known for its Feira Nacional do Cavalo (National Horse Fair), held during the first two weeks of November. The fair incorporates celebrations for St Martin’s Day on November 11, when there’s a running of the bulls and a grand parade of red-waistcoated grooms. Other than during the feira, Golegã makes for a brief visit: the sixteenth-century Igreja Matriz flanks its main square, a couple of cafés put out tables under the trees, while the old market has been turned into a small shopping complex.

Bulls and wine – a scenic drive

Golegã is one of the main crossing points to the east bank of the Rio Tejo – a bull-breeding and vine-growing territory of rich plains and riverside marshes. The N118 marks the most attractive route along the river, taking in several small towns and quintas en route to Santarém, 45km away. There’s nothing much to stop for in Chamusca, Alpiarça or Almeirim – the latter once the site of a royal summer palace – but local wine producers line the road at intervals, open for sales to the public; look for signs saying “vinho do produtor”.

East along the Rio Tejo

Following the Tejo valley to the east, you will pass the remarkable castle at Almourol and, at the confluence of the Rio Tejo and Rio Zêzere, the pretty town of Constância. There’s another historic castle at Abrantes, 12km further east, and an even more extraordinary one at Belver, east of Abrantes, on the north bank of the Tejo. The whole route is an enjoyable approach to the towns of the northern Alentejo or the Beira Baixa, and it’s covered by train (the Lisbon–Covilhã service), but drivers are going to have the best of it since you’re unlikely to want to stop anywhere for long.

Porto de Mós and around

Eight kilometres south of Batalha lies the small riverside town of Porto de Mós, with its distinctive castle. Further south and east extends the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, a mix of rugged limestone hills, crags and upland farmland divided by ancient stone walls. There are walking trails in both the Aire and Candeeiros ranges, but the park is best known for its fabulous underground caves, which all lie in a rough triangle between Porto de Mós and Fátima, on the west side of the A1 motorway. Meanwhile, across the motorway on the east side of the Serra de Aire, Portugal has its own Jurassic Park where you can walk with dinosaurs at the Pegadas dos Dinossáurios.

The caves

There are three sets of caves open to the public in the natural park (and a fourth, Moeda, off the N356 road between Batalha and Fátima), but unless you are a real fan, a visit to one will probably suffice. The largest and most spectacular are the Grutas de Mira de Aire, 13km southeast of Porto de Mós. There’s parking right outside, or it’s a signposted one-kilometre walk from the town bus stop. The 45-minute guided tour ends up at a natural lake filled with fountains 110m below the surface, taking in a galaxy of stalactites, stalagmites and oddly shaped rock formations with curious names – “Octopus Gallery”, the “Organ”, the “Conch” – en route. To exit, you take the lift up and emerge beside the Parque Aquático water park (summer only), which is a great place to cool off – there are half-day and full-day tickets available for this, and you can visit independently of the caves. Outside on the road, several cafés and restaurants cater for the crowds.

Pegadas dos Dinossáurios

In a quarry around 10km south of Fátima, paleontologists made an extraordinary discovery in 1994 – namely the oldest and longest set of preserved sauropod tracks found anywhere in the world. The tracks date back 175 million years, and were made as the large herbivores plodded through a shallow lagoon, later preserved as limestone. They are now on display in situ at the excellent Monumental Natural das Pegadas dos Dinossáurios, where a gravel walkway circles the site on high before dropping down to the quarry floor. You can clearly see the footprints (pegadas) – hundreds of them, exceptionally well preserved – and follow their route across the stone. By the spacing, paleontologists reckon that some of the sauropods were up to 30m long. There’s an explanatory film (in Portuguese) shown at the ticket office, though it’s hard to resist the temptation to make straight for the tracks.

Pass the salt

Of all the things uncovered in the Aire e Candeeiros natural park over the years (stalactites, Roman cobblestones, dinosaur footprints), the oddest is surely salt – mined here since ancient times. It’s still produced near the town of Rio Maior, at the foot of the Serra dos Candeeiros, where a wide bed of concrete-lined salt pans (marinhas do sal) exploits the bed of rock salt under the local mountains. Workers at the cooperatively owned Salinas Naturais de Rio Maior pump salty water from a well and then subject it to various concentration and evaporation techniques in the tanks and pans on view. It’s a process that has been going on, in some shape or form, since the twelfth century. There’s most activity between June and September, but you can see something at most times of the year since many of the old wooden salt sheds have been turned into craft stores, salt shops and rustic taverns, and there are even a couple of restaurants where you’ll get a good grill-lunch with the salt workers. The sheds themselves are curious works, with weathered boards, gnarled olive-wood posts and ancient wooden locks. The salt pans lie 3km north of Rio Maior (off the IC2/N1), but signposting is patchy. Coming into the town centre, follow scant signs for “Marinhas do Sal” and “Salinas” (on the Alcobertas road); you’re there when you see the Wild West-style wooden buildings overlooking the salt-beds.

Alcobaça

The vast Cistercian monastery at ALCOBAÇA was founded in 1153 by the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henrique, to celebrate his decisive victory over the Moors at Santarém six years earlier. Building started soon after and – with royal patronage assured – by the end of the thirteenth century it was the wealthiest and most powerful monastery in the country. Nearly a thousand monks and lay-brothers lived here running a veritable business empire based on market-gardening, farming, fishing, forestry and trading. Notorious tales of the lavish lifestyle at Alcobaça were a staple of the writings of early travellers, who found the monastic excesses shocking and titillating in equal measure. The dissolution of the Portuguese monasteries in 1834 put an end to all this, but the buildings still stand as an extraordinary monument to another age.

A visit to the monastery can comfortably occupy a couple of hours. Alcobaça itself is a small and fairly unremarkable town, though the Rio Baça winds attractively through the few remaining old-town streets. The ruined hilltop castle provides the best overall view of the monastery, while down below in town there’s a large market building (the market is held on Monday) and attractive public gardens.

Mosteiro de Alcobaça

For centuries a centre of study, contemplation and religious doctrine, the Mosteiro de Alcobaça still possesses an overwhelming power that’s also at least partly related to its historic and architectural significance. Founded in the very early years of the Portuguese kingdom, its overall construction took centuries, with major expansions and additions mirroring each notable era of Portuguese imperial might. In particular, Alcobaça stands as the first great early-Gothic building in Portugal – both abbey church and medieval cloister are the largest of their types in the country, while the church is also the burial place of Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro, whose story echoes down through the ages as one of enduring love. The monastery has had multiple uses since Portugal’s religious orders were dissolved in 1834 – from prison and barracks to school and nursing home. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989, today it’s effectively a museum, owned and run by the state.

Sala dos Reis

The ticket desk for the monastery is immediately inside the church, on the left, by the entrance to the Sala dos Reis (Hall of Kings). The monarchs in question are those who ruled Portugal for its first six hundred years, from founder Afonso Henrique to Dom José I, who died in 1777 and under whom the final additions and alterations were made to the monastery. Their statues are all on display, along with vivid eighteenth-century azulejos that tell the story of the founding of the monastery.

Claustro do Silencio

From the Sala dos Reis you enter the heart of the monastery, the Claustro do Silencio (Cloister of Silence), off which are located the wider monastic quarters. It was built in the reign of Dom Dinis (probably finished in around 1311) and is a beautiful space – indeed, it’s one of the largest cloisters in Europe. In the sixteenth century a Manueline upper storey was added by notable architect João de Castilho, giving the medieval Gothic cloister a renewed grace and elegance. There’s also a beautiful hexagonal lavabo with Renaissance fountain, which was where the monks washed before entering the refectory.

Refectory and kitchen

The monks took their meals in the refectory, but the celebrated feasting at Alcobaça came with an attached duty – as they ate, the Scriptures were read to the assembled brothers from the elegant stone pulpit. The medieval kitchen was lost to renovations in the seventeenth century. By the time awed travellers were enjoying monastic hospitality a century later, the food was prepared in the vast, arcaded “new” eighteenth-century kitchen, whose scale still retains the power to impress. An enormous central chimney rests on wrought-iron legs, with water brought into the building via a hydraulic canal system – the size of the water-basin set into the floor gives you an idea of just how much pot-boiling and pan-scrubbing went on here.

Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro

The two extraordinary, carved, fourteenth-century tombs in the abbey church at Alcobaça shine a light on a doomed medieval romance. Prince Pedro (1320–1367), son of Afonso IV and heir to the Portuguese throne, was married to Constance of Castile, but fell in love with her maid, Inês de Castro (1320–1355), who was from a noble Galician (ie Spanish) family. The two continued an affair, despite the disapproval of the king, who feared a creeping Spanish influence in the Portuguese court. Following Constance’s death in 1345, Afonso IV banished Inês and forbade her marriage to Pedro, but the pair wed in secret in Bragança in the far north of the country. With Inês’s brothers and other Spanish nobles favoured by Pedro, and Afonso in danger of losing control of his court, the king moved to more radical measures, and ordered his daughter-in-law’s murder. She was killed in Coimbra in 1355, sparking a revolt by Pedro against his own father. Afonso died two years later, and when Pedro succeeded to the throne in 1357 he assuaged his grief with the commissioning of two elaborate tombs, which he placed foot to foot in the abbey church – allegedly, so that they could see each other when they rose again. Inês’ corpse was transferred here from Coimbra and ceremonially reinterred – not before, according to gory legend, Pedro placed her rotting body on the throne and insisted the court honour his lost queen by kissing her hand.

Alcobaça festivals

The middle of November every year sees the Mostra de Doces Conventuais, a weekend of feasting on conventual sweets and pastries and fruit liqueurs from convents, monasteries and cake shops in Portugal, Spain and France. During the Cister Música festival in May or June you can catch concerts in the abbey and elsewhere.

Ilha da Berlenga

The craggy, ocean-ravaged Ilha da Berlenga lies 10km offshore from Peniche – it’s usually visible from Cabo Carvoeiro. Taking up just two-and-a-half square kilometres, the island is uninhabited except for a few fishermen, because the island has been declared a natural reserve, home to thousands upon thousands of sea birds, including gulls, puffins and cormorants. The birds are entirely dominant – visitors, you get the feeling, are just about tolerated as long as they don’t venture into the ubiquitous perching and roosting areas.

At the main landing dock, with its small fleet of fishing boats, there’s a tiny sandy beach that’s a mere golden notch in the cliffs. This gets ridiculously busy in summer, though you’re unlikely to come to Berlenga just for the beach. The water is lovely however, and fantastic for snorkelling. The only buildings on the island are a few huts and concrete houses above the harbour, a lighthouse on the heights and – across one shoulder of the island, reached by the only track – the highly romantic seventeenth-century Forte de São João Baptista, on a rocky islet the other side of a stone bridge. Striding out across the island seems like an attractive idea, but be warned – there’s no shade, and the ever-present screeching, swooping birds make a restful picnic unlikely.

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Mani Ramaswamy
8/29/2020
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