Coimbra, Hotel Astória, Coimbra: the faded beauty of a bygone era

Hotel Astória, Coimbra: the faded beauty of a bygone era

I had first heard of the Hotel Astória long before visiting Coimbra through a language course I was studying which was set in Coimbra. The words ‘Hotel Astória’ were among the first Portuguese words I learnt and as such had stuck in my head. So, when we decided to spend a few days in Coimbra the Hotel Astória was the natural choice. On further research I discovered that it is one the best Art Nouveau buildings in Coimbra and the decision was made.
We approached the wedge-shaped five-storey building, with a rotunda at the narrow end, from the railway station, a short walk along the riverfront road (Avenida Emídio Navarro) where it is situated. The building was designed by the architect Adães Bermudes, who included ornate balconies and Art Nouveau decorative features on the exterior walls, but the highlight is the ornate dome on the rotunda which wouldn’t look out of place on a church. The ground floor has large arched Modernist windows and a glass canopy over the entrance. Everything looked like it must have done when the hotel first opened in 1926.

After walking in through an iron and glass revolving door I felt that I had stepped back in time. We entered a beautiful lobby, designed by Francisco de Oliveira Ferreira, in grey and pink marble with wood panelling and Art Nouveau decor in wrought iron. There is a private phone booth next to the reception desk and above the small seating area is a balcony with further seating, some books to read and even writing desks.

There were also lots of black and white photos from the first half of the twentieth century on display showing this hotel and other luxurious hotels. I was particularly interested in one showing the railway running in front of the Astória.

The lounge with its beautiful parquet floor, pink marbled, wood-panelled and mirrored walls, chandeliers and plush furnishings conjures up images of a bygone age when people would write postcards or even letters on the writing desks located in the room. There is also a small balcony above the lounge with a stunning Art Deco design in wrought iron and stained glass and I wondered who would have stood up there looking down on the people below – a Jay Gatsbyesque character, perhaps. I felt decidedly underdressed.

The dining room, where the breakfast buffet is served, is a light airy space built in the rotunda so there are large windows on three sides plus wood panelling on the walls, with carved leaf patterns overlaid, and two large pillars in the middle of the room. There is another small balcony above it.

The pièce de résistance has to be the original cage lift, which has been slightly modernized, but retains the original features, including a glass and wood interior with a leather seat inside, and is still fully functional.

It’s true that our room had none of the charm of the communal areas, it was very basic with ugly wood panelling, uncomfortable functional furniture, slightly worn carpets, a CRT TV and an old-fashioned bathroom (admittedly some of these may have been original features, but they had none of the historical interest of the items downstairs),

but the views from the rooms at the front of the hotel of the River Mondego, the Santa Clara Bridge and the Santa Clara-a-Nova Convent on the opposite side of the river and from the rooms at the back, of the hilltop university, make up for that.

The Astória’s glory days may be over (it is now only a three-star hotel owned by the Alexandre de Almeida hotel group, where the average price for a standard room with breakfast is €75 per night) and it may have lost its prestigious status to the five-star Quinta das Lágrimas hotel on the other side of the river, but it remains a living monument to the Art Nouveau style of the 1920s and gives a taste of how it might have been in the days when the rich and powerful passed through its doors.

Food and drink, Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

Polvo à lagareiro (Octopus in olive oil)

I discovered how delicious octopus can be in a small restaurant in Porto. Initially I was slightly scared of the strange-looking tentacles (or arms as they should correctly be referred to) with suckers which, as a Northern European, I had never seen on a plate before, and I expected them to be rubbery. However, I had ordered polvo à lagareiro (which literally means ‘octopus à la olive presser’) in which the tentacles are boiled and then roasted in garlic and olive oil (hence the name ‘à lagareiro’) to make them very tender. They are served with batatas a murro, small potatoes baked in their skins which, at the end of the cooking time, are pressed down on to break the skin (‘murro’ literally means ‘punch’) and added to the oil that the octopus is cooking in to soak up the flavours. I have always associated this dish with summer holidays, but in the Trás-os-Montes region in the north-east of Portugal it is eaten on Christmas Eve. As with many Portuguese dishes the secret is in the freshness and quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of this recipe is testament to that fact.

Alentejo, Twenty-four hours in Évora: the noble city with a rich history

Twenty-four hours in Évora: the noble city with a rich history

Praça do Giraldo, Évora

University of Évora: Holy Spirit College

We ran all the way from the bus station to the Colégio do Espírito Santo (Holy Spirit College), the wheels of our suitcases bouncing behind us on the cobbled streets. We had missed the bus we had intended to get from Lisbon and the next one had arrived at twenty to five. Our guidebook informed us that the famous university building closed at 6pm on Saturdays, so time was of the essence. We needn’t have rushed as the guidebook was wrong; the college closes at 8pm on Saturdays and after leaving our luggage with the porter we were able to have a leisurely look around the university building that was originally built as a Jesuit seminary in 1551 by Cardinal Henrique (who later became Cardinal-King Henrique). The Jesuit symbol IHS with a cross and three nails can still be seen on the building. The college became part of the University of Évora in 1559, the second university to be established in Portugal (the first being the University of Coimbra in 1537), however, it was closed in 1759 by the Jesuit-hating Marquês de Pombal, when he expelled the Jesuits from Portugal and for the next two centuries, although it was used for various educational purposes, it was no longer part of the university and it wasn’t until 1973 that it was reintegrated with the university. The college is built around a cloister, the Pátio dos Gerais (Generals’ Courtyard), which is bordered by Italian Renaissance-style marble columns, has a pretty fountain in the centre and is dominated on one side by an 18th-century marble portico. On the ground floor is the Sala de Atos (Great Hall), a former 17th-century Baroque chapel, which is now used for graduation ceremonies. It is an impressive room decorated with azulejo panels, stucco and at the far end are portraits of King Sebastião and Cardinal-King Henrique. Also on the ground floor are the older classrooms, each of which still has a pulpit. Each classroom also has azulejo panels on the walls which depict various themes including the Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, and scenes linked to the subjects that were taught. There is another former cloister with marble columns which is now the refectory. Upstairs, are azulejo-lined corridors, more classrooms, the library, with its early-18th-century ceiling decorated with an image of the Virgin Mary and lots cherubs, and the octagonal central intersection known as ‘The Centre of the World’, decorated in Baroque style with azulejo panels, sculptures, paintings and at the central point, a dome depicting the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. I was so happy we had made the effort to see this beautiful building, which we more or less had to ourselves at this late hour.

Roman temple

After dropping our bags off at the lovely Vitória Stone hotel,

Vitória Stone Hotel, Évora

a modern hotel on the southern outskirts of the town, and enjoying a wonderful meal in the hotel restaurant, comprising typical Alentejo dishes cooked with local ingredients, we walked to the famous Roman temple in the Largo do Conde de Vila Flor at the top of the town, which is part of the Historic Centre of Évora UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple which was built between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD is said to be one of the best preserved Roman buildings in south-west Europe. What remains of the former temple is a granite platform with 14 granite columns, whose capitals and bases are made of white marble from nearby Estremoz. Excavations have revealed that the temple would have been surrounded by water on three sides and a staircase would have led to the entrance (the remains of a staircase is still visible) and a small model of the temple as it might have looked can be seen in the Museum of Évora. The temple is erroneously known as the Temple of Diana due to a myth started in the 17th century that it was dedicated to the goddess Diana (the goddess of hunting), a myth that has been disputed by archaeologists. What isn’t under dispute is that the temple has had a chequered history: it was walled up and incorporated into Évora Castle in the Middle Ages (this largely accounts for why it survived so well); used as an execution ground during the Inquisition; and at various points in history used as an armoury, a theatre and a slaughterhouse. The temple is floodlit at night and the area takes on a mystical atmosphere.

Pousada Convento de Évora, Church of St John the Evangelist and Cadaval Palace

Also in the Largo do Conde de Vila Flor is the Pousada Convento de Évora (also known as Pousada dos Lóios) (pousadas are luxury hotels owned by the Pestana Group which are generally located in historic buildings) in the former convent of Os Lóios, which was begun in 1487 by Rodrigo de Melo (the First Count of Olivença), who was Head of the Royal Guard for King Afonso V and from whom the Duke of Cadaval line can be traced. In the current pousada the restaurant is in the former cloisters and the rooms are the former convent cells. Next door to the pousada is the Igreja de São João Evangelista (Church of Saint John the Evangelist), which was also commissioned by Rodrigo de Melo as a private church and family tomb. The church is still owned by the House of Cadaval and contains tombs of generations of Dukes of Cadaval, including one of Francisco de Melo sculpted by Nicolau Chanterene in the 16th century. The church is part of the Palácio Cadaval (Cadaval Palace), which is the family home of the current Duchess of Cadaval, although part of it is open to the public and they also hold temporary exhibitions on the first floor of the church. On the Saturday night when we were there we intrigued by the African music coming from the courtyard garden outside the palace restaurant, Cinco Quinas (named after the five shields on the Portuguese coat of arms). We entered through the big barred gate, bought two glasses of wine from the restaurant and sat at one of the tables in the courtyard to listen to the lively music in the relaxed surroundings. Soon many other people had joined us and were up dancing. It was a lovely way to end the evening.

City walls and Évora Public Park

We began the next day wandering around the old town, entering through the imposing city walls, which were originally built by the Romans and added to during the Middle Ages. These were superseded by new walls built in the 14th century which were fortified in the 17th century (in preparation for an attack by the Spanish). The previous day we had entered through one of the most famous gates, the Porta de Alconchel (to the west of the city, near the bus station)

Porta de Alconchel, Évora

and on this day we walked along the outside of the 16th-century wall with watchtowers that surround the Jardim Público de Évora (Évora Public Park). We began by walking through the park, which as well as a charming 19th-century bandstand and duck pond, also has a former palace, the Palácio de Dom Manuel (King Manuel Palace), where the royal family would come and stay throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. It originates from the late-15th century and was part of the Convent of São Francisco, however, a lot of the building was destroyed and rebuilt in the 19th century. The main part of the former palace still standing today is the early-16th-century Galeria das Damas (Ladies’ Gallery) which comprises a mixture of architectural styles, including Manueline, Gothic and Renaissance (and is most notable for its distinctive arches with what looks like a pattern of spearheads around them), built during the reign of King Manuel. It was the home of the royal court until 1580, when Cardinal-King Henrique died and King Philip II of Spain seized the throne and had no interest in coming to Évora. (The palace is now owned by the local council and used for official ceremonies and cultural events.) In the park there are also remains of a Medieval wall and a 19th-century folly known as the Ruínas Fingidas (Fake Ruins), which comprise the remains of buildings from around the city. There is a statue of José Cinnatti, the Italian designer who created the park in the late-19th century and, as it is believed that the great Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, received his commission to lead an expedition to find a sea route to India at the palace, there is a statue commemorating him in the grounds of the park which was given by the South African people to commemorate his discovery of Natal in 1497.

Praça do Giraldo

At several points during our time walking around the city we found ourselves passing through the main square, Praça do Giraldo, thought to be named after Giraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the Fearless), a Christian knight who fought in King Afonso Henriques army during the time of the reconquest of Portugal from the Moors. He is said to have climbed up the town walls on a ladder of swords and distracted (or killed) the sentries in the watchtower allowing the Christian soldiers to capture the town. The square is large with a 16th-century fountain (marking the spot where water was first brought to Évora by the aqueduct) dominating the centre; the Igreja de Santo Antão (Saint Anthony’s Church) is at one end and the Bank of Portugal is at the other end and there is a colonnaded shopping arcade on one side. It is a popular place to sit at one of the pavement cafés and watch the world go by and it is hard to believe that in the past it was the site of executions and burnings during the Inquisition.

Praça do Giraldo, Évora

Largo da Porta de Moura

Drawn like a magnet back to the historic centre, we zigzagged our way through the narrow streets of the city, passing through the Largo da Porta de Moura (Moorish Gate Square), in the centre of which is a uncharacteristically 16th-century marble fountain made up of two large rectangles with a large globe with water jets on the top. The square was the original entrance to the town and in the 15th century was a prestigious part of Évora in which to live and the former manor houses that surround it are still standing, including the Casa Cordovil with its mixture of Manueline and Moorish architectural styles.

Garden of Diana and aqueduct

We returned to the Roman temple to see it in daylight and to the pretty garden next to it named Jardim Diana (Garden of Diana) with lovely views of the famous aqueduct and the Alentejo countryside. The Aqueduto da Água de Prata (Silver Water Aqueduct) was completed in 1537 by the architect Francisco de Arruda (who also designed the Belém Tower in Lisbon) to bring water from the Ribeira do Divor (to the north of Évora) into the town (initially to the aforementioned fountain in the Praça do Giraldo). The original aqueduct was 18 kilometres in length, but it suffered damage in the 17th century during the Restoration War and now it only extends for 9 kilometres, but it is possible to walk along the top of most of it starting at Rua do Cano in Évora where houses and shops are built into the arches. The aqueduct has the honour to be mentioned in Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) by Luís Vaz de Camões (1572) in Canto III, verse 63:

Eis a nobre Cidade, certo assento
Do rebelde Sertório antigamente,
Onde ora as águas nítidas de argento
Vem sustentar de longo a terra e a gente,
Pelos arcos reais, que cento e cento
Nos ares se alevantam nobremente,
Obedeceu por meio e ousadia
De Giraldo, que medos não temia.

(Behold the noble City, the former seat
Of the rebel Sertorius,
Where now the clear silvery waters
Come from afar to sustain the earth and the people,
Through regal arches, that in their hundreds
Rise nobly in the air,
It yielded through the audacity
Of Giraldo, who had no fear of fear.)

The small Jardim Diana is dominated by a statue in homage to Francisco Barahona, a local philanthropist, by Simões de Almeida and Alfredo Costa Campos (1908), and there are also some modern sculptures dotted around the garden dating from 1981 (when the International Symposium of Stone was held in Évora).

Museum of Évora

From here it was a short stroll to the Museum of Évora, housed in a 16th-century former Bishop’s Palace. I wasn’t expecting much, having visited various Portuguese town museums which often have a random collection of broken pots and local artefacts, but I was very impressed by the large collection of art and sculpture along with Portuguese furniture and decorative arts and Roman, Moorish and medieval remains. Highlights included sculptures by Teixeira Lopes, Simões de Almeida, Bernardim Ribeiro, Alberto Nunes, Costa Mota and Aristides Fontana and paintings by Flemish and Dutch masters, the highlight of which was a late-15th-/early-16th-century polyptych depicting ‘The Life of the Virgin’, and Portuguese artists including Josefa de Óbidos, Gregório Lopes, Frei Carlos and the Mestre do Sardoal (Master of Sardoal).

Évora Cathedral

Next door to the museum is the imposing granite Gothic-style Sé Catedral de Évora (Évora Cathedral), which is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original cathedral dates from 1186, when Évora was reconquered from the Moors, but it was rebuilt in the 13th and 14th centuries and added to over the subsequent centuries, resulting in the building standing today with its crenellated walls, main portal with statues of the Apostles (thought to be sculpted by the sculptor Pêro in the 14th century), asymmetric towers, including one with blue tiles, and a pretty lantern tower decorated with six turrets which are miniature versions of the tower. Inside the cathedral there is a mixture of styles ranging from the main altar of white, pink and black marble built in the first half of the 18th-century from a design by João Frederico Ludovice (who also designed the Mafra National Palace), a Baroque side altar with a 15th century marble statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary (Nossa Senhora do Ó (Our Lady of the Oh)) facing a wooden statue of the Angel Gabriel (dating from the 16th century), the Mannerist altar in the Capela do Esporão with the eye-catching painting, Descida da Cruz (Descent from the Cross) by Pedro Nunes (1620), and a Renaissance organ. The cloisters contain marble statues of the four evangelists and tombs of former recent archbishops of Évora and there is a separate chapel which contains the tomb of Bishop Dom Pedro, who commissioned the building of the cloister in the 14th century, watched over by statues of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. A number of small stone spiral staircases lead to a terrace from which there are great views of the exterior of the cathedral, the Roman temple and the Alentejo landscape in the distance. The cathedral complex also has a Museum of Sacred Art, which is definitely worth a visit to see the two main treasures, if nothing else: the 17th-century Cruz Relicário do Santo Lenho de Évora (Reliquary Cross of Holy Wood of Évora), which is a silver box with a cross on the top decorated with 1426 gems including diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies and said to contain fragments of the cross that Christ was crucified on; and the 14th-century French ivory triptych known as the Virgem do Paraíso (Virgin of Paradise, named after the Convent of Paradise where it was housed), which is a 40cm-high statue of the Virgin Mary which opens up to reveal nine scenes from her life. The head of the statue is an incongruous wooden replacement for the original one, added in the 16th century. Another amusing statue which caught my eye, was one of St Anthony dressed as a choirboy. The building that houses the museum was formerly the Colégio dos Moços da Sé (Cathedral Choir School) and it is believed that the image of St Anthony dressed as a choirboy (from Lisbon Cathedral) became the patron saint of the Évora Cathedral choirboys.

St Francis’ Church and the Chapel of Bones

While we were in the ecclesiastical mood, there was one church that we had to visit, the Igreja de São Francisco (St Francis’ Church), which is best known for its Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). The church, which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, replaced a former church which was built in 1226 for the Order of Saint Francis. It is a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles and I was drawn to the Gothic arches at the front of the church which are not uniform in size or shape and the white cone-shaped spires with spirals, which look like Mr Whippy ice cream! Inside the church we were greeted by a vaulted nave of bare bricks, but there are elements of Renaissance and Baroque styles throughout the church, including the 18th-century Sala de Ordem Terceira de São Francisco (Secular Franciscan Order Room) which combines Neo-classical, Rococco, Baroque and Joanine styles. We also visited the small church museum, the highlight of which was a beautiful 18th-century organ built by Pascoal Caetano Oldovino (a Genoese organ builder who set up a workshop in Évora) and the exhibition of nativity scenes on the first floor of the church, from where there are lovely views of the town including the King Manuel Palace opposite the church. However, the main draw is the Chapel of Bones and as we approached the entrance to the chapel we were greeted with the grizzly reminder of our mortality, as above the door is the greeting ‘Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos’ (‘We bones that are here, await yours’) and inside the chapel there are bones, lots of bones, covering every surface. The chapel dates from the late-16th century and was built by three Franciscan monks who wanted to create a place of prayer where they could reflect on the transitoriness of life. They moved the bones of approximately 5000 deceased monks from the many cemeteries, which were taking up precious space in Évora, into this chapel and used them to decorate the walls, pillars and ceiling and despite the materials being bones and skulls, there is a beauty to the way they have been displayed. The most macabre items in the chapel are two mummified corpses of a man and a child, which are now laid to rest in glass display cases, but in the past were hanging from a wall. The legend that accompanies these corpses says that they are father and son and that the son abused his mother and the father did nothing to stop it. As she was dying, the mother put a curse on them as she cried out ‘Que a terra de vossas sepulturas não vos desfaça!’ (‘May the earth not open for your graves’) and so they were not buried. The mood is lightened slightly by a recent addition in 2015 of an azulejo panel by the artist Álvaro Siza depicting the birth of Jesus and Mary and Joseph raising the baby Jesus to Heaven. At the far end there is a small baroque altar in gold and the ceiling is painted in a baroque style, although on closer examination the decorative items in the painting are skulls.

Church of Our Lady of Grace and Chapel of St Blaise

There were two final churches to which we felt it was worth making a quick detour. The first was the renaissance Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça (Church of Our Lady of Grace), built by the architect Miguel de Arruda between 1537 and 1546, in the Largo da Graça to which we wended our way to see the wonderful Meninos da Graça  (Boys of Grace), the nickname for the statues of grotesque Atlantean figures holding globes on each corner of the church roof. They represent the four continents of the world and the universal power of King João III (who was king at the time the church was built and during whose reign the Portuguese empire increased).

Os Meninos da Graça, Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça, Évora

The second church was the 15th-century Ermida de São Brás (Chapel of St Blaise) on Avenida Dr. Francisco Barahona on the southern outskirts of Évora which we passed on the way back to our hotel. A Manueline extravaganza, it is an early work by the architect Diogo de Boitaca, who is the architect most associated with the Manueline style of architecture (he is most famous for the Jeronimos Monastery in Belém). The exterior consists of crenallated walls, cylindrical towers, conical spires and arches.

Ermida de São Brás, Évora

First World War Monument

Nearby, in the centre of a roundabout, is an impressive First Word War memorial, Monumento aos Mortos da Grande Guerra (Monument to those who died in the Great War), sculpted by João da Silva in 1933. It depicts a winged woman on the top of the pedestal holding aloft a sword in one hand and a laurel wreath in the other and at the bottom of the pedestal is the chilling sight of four bombs.

First World War monument, Évora

This marked the end of our short visit to Évora. We had a bus to catch only 24 hours after arriving, but we had seen so much that I felt that we had been there much longer than that. The small city with such a rich history had got under my skin and I promised myself I would come back and next time spend a few days, seeing Évora at the slower pace of life that the Alentejans are famous for.


Colégio do Espírito Santo, University of Évora, Largo dos Colégiais. Open Monday to Saturday (excluding public holidays) 9am-8pm; entrance (as of 2018) €3

Museu de Évora, Largo do Conde de Vila Flor. Open Tuesday to Sunday 9.30am-5.30pm (November to March); 10am-6pm (April to October); entrance (as of 2018) €3

Évora Cathedral, Largo do Marquês de Marialva. Open daily 9am-5pm; entrance: cathedral and cloister €2.50; cathedral, cloister and tower €3.50; cathedral, cloister and Museum of Sacred Art €4.50

Igreja de São Francisco, Praça 1˚ de Maio. Open daily (except 1 January, Easter Sunday, 24 December (afternoon) and 25 December): 1 June to 30 September 9am-6.30pm; 1 October to 31 May 9am-5pm; entrance (as of 2018) €4

Vitória Stone Hotel, Rua Diana de Lis. We paid €83 for a double room (including a lovely breakfast) for one night in June 2018.

5amêndoas Restaurant (located in the Vitória Stone Hotel)


Train: the train station is located 1km south-east of the town. Trains run from Lisbon and Beja.

Bus: the bus station is located to the west of the city (outside the city walls). Buses run from several places, including Lisbon, Beja and Faro.

Art, The art of Joana Vasconcelos: out of the commonplace into the rare

The art of Joana Vasconcelos: out of the commonplace into the rare

A Noiva (2001-2005)

Joana Vasconcelos (born in 1971) is one of Portugal’s best-known contemporary artists and is widely exhibited internationally as well as within Portugal. You may not know her name, but it is likely that you have seen some of her art, as it is hard to miss! She takes everyday objects and transforms them into something else in a surprising, funny or shocking way. Her most famous work is A Noiva (The Bride, 2001-2005) which put her on the international scene in 2005 when she exhibited it in the 51st Venice Biennale. It is an enormous five-metre high white chandelier that goes from ceiling to floor over two floors and from a distance it looks like it is made up of thousands of white beads, but close up I was shocked to see that it is made entirely of tampons.

A Noiva (2001-2005) (close-up)

Other commonplace objects that she has used include green wine bottles which she has used to create two giant candlesticks in Néctar (Nectar, 2006). I have seen this on display in the Buddha Eden sculpture park in Bombarral and in the formal garden of the Serralves Park in Porto and in both settings they were graceful structures that looked like they belonged in the beautiful grounds.

Néctar (2006)

Another sculpture where functional objects are used to create something surprisingly elegant is the seven-metre high engagement ring called Solitário (Solitaire, 2018) which is made up of gold-coloured alloy wheels with a diamond on the top created from crystal whisky glasses. (It’s not surprising to learn that Vasconcelos studied jewellery design as part of her art course at the Centro de Arte e Comunicação in Lisbon.) The ring merges seamlessly the stereotype of what men and women are seen to desire (fast cars and whiskey for men and a diamond ring for women). (Unfortunately on the day I visited the exhibition at Serralves they were dismantling this exhibit and were about to remove the ‘diamond’ when I took the photograph below.)

Solitário (2018)

The two giant silver stilettos in the work named Marilyn (2011) caught my eye from a long way away and made me laugh when I realised they were made of saucepans and saucepan lids! There is a clear feminist message in this work, where the symbol of a woman’s domestic role (the saucepan) is used to create the symbol of artificial beauty (the stiletto): both of which could been seen as images of women’s oppression.

Marilyn (2011)

My favourite work of Joana Vasconcelos has to be the large-scale teapot with its intricate wrought ironwork, Casa de Chá (Tea House, 2015), which I discovered unexpectedly in the grounds of Portugal dos Pequenitos in Coimbra.

Casa de Chá (2015)

In contrast the final work that I am including from a vast and varied catalogue doesn’t have the intricacy of the teapot, but is unmissable wherever it is positioned; it is a full-size swimming pool in the shape of the outline of Portugal and named Portugal a Banhos (Portugal Swimming, 2010). When I first saw it it was placed upright on a roundabout outside the grounds of the Serralves Park and I initially thought it was an advertisement for a swimming pool supplier, until I realised what the shape of the pool was and, like most of her work, it left me with a smile on my face.

Portugal a Banhos (2010)
Óbidos: a picture-perfect town fit for a queen, Centro region

Óbidos: a picture-perfect town fit for a queen

Óbidos is a picture-perfect Portuguese town located at the top of a hill and completely enclosed within preserved town walls. It was fittingly given as a wedding present from each king of Portugal to the future queen from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a tradition begun in 1282 when King Dinis gave the town to Queen Isabel and as a result it is nicknamed ‘Vila das Rainhas’ (‘Queens’ Town’) or ‘Presente das Rainhas’ (‘Queens’ Present’). We approached it on a warm September morning from the small pretty railway station at the bottom of the hill.

Óbidos station

After dropping our bags off at our hotel located just outside the town walls, we entered through one of two town gates built into the walls, the eastern gate, Porta do Vale (also known as Porta de Nossa Senhora da Graça, after the small chapel to Our Lady of Grace, originating from the 12th or 13th century and renovated in the 1720s by a man in memory of his daughter who was said to have died of a broken heart).

Porta de Nossa Senhora da Graça, Óbidos

Lunch was calling and we were attracted by a sign at the entrance to an archway advertising a medieval bar called Arco da Cadeia (Arch of the Prison). I love a building with history and this definitely had that, with original gothic archictecture that may have been part of a prison in the 15th century. The current owners have embraced the medieval theme and decorated it throughout with heraldry and weaponry from that period; thankfully my toasted tuna sandwich and orange juice didn’t date back that far.

Arco da Cadeia bar, Óbidos

After a quick lunch we were ready to explore, but before exploring the town we decided to visit the nearby sculpture park and wine estate of Buddha Eden in Bombarral, a taxi ride away from Óbidos, which I have written about separately. We returned to Óbidos later in the afternoon and as the town is so compact, we still had time to see the main sights. Just outside the town gate is the church of São João Baptista, one of the oldest churches in Óbidos, which was founded by Queen Isabel in 1308 or 1309 and is believed to have been part of a leper colony during the Middle Ages. She also ordered houses to be built around the church for people suffering from leprosy to live in. The church was rebuilt in the sixteenth century and again after the earthquake of 1755, when the ornate bell tower was added, and it now houses the Parish Museum.

São João Baptista Church, Óbidos

This time we re-entered the town through the southern gate, Porta da Vila (Town Gate), which dates from around 1380 and contains the shrine of Nossa Senhora da Piedade (Our Lady of Mercy) decorated with eighteenth-century azulejo tiles and a Baroque balcony. We were even greeted by a medieval knight in full armour!

Just after the Porta da Vila is a monument dedicated to Portugal’s most famous 16th-century writer, Luís Vaz de Camões, designed by the architect Raúl Lino in 1932 which consists of a stone column with the coat of arms of King Afonso Henriques topped by a castle and an inscription ‘Já lhe obedece toda a Estremadura, Óbidos’ (‘All Estremadura, including Óbidos, was now under his (King Afonso Henriques) control’), which is a line from Camões’ most famous work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads) (in Canto 3) where he celebrates King Afonso Henriques’ victory over the Moors. There is also a memorial to this, dating from the 15th century, outside the town walls, next to the big car park.

Monument to Camões, Óbidos

We climbed one of the four staircases that lead to a sentry path along the top of the town walls, which were originally built during Moorish rule and later restored in the late 18th century (after the 1755 earthquake), and from here got wonderful views of the town below, the railway station, the distinctive hexagonal, solitary and slightly neglected-looking, 18th-century Santuário do Senhor da Pedra (Sanctuary of Our Lord of Stone), and the surrounding countryside, but the walls are not for the faint-hearted, as the path is quite narrow, there are no handrails and at some points the drop is up to 13 metres. I was surprised to learn that Óbidos had been an important port up to the 16th century, when the river silted up, as nowadays there is no water in sight. From the 16th century water was brought to the town via a three kilometre-long aqueduct, which is still standing, and which fed into the fountains of the town.

The full circuit of the walls is 1560 metres, but we exited the walls at the castle, an impressive medieval structure which retains features from the ninth century with added Manueline features (as on the windows) from the 16th century, when it was a royal palace. It is now a pousada (luxury hotels owned by the Pestana Group which are generally located in historic buildings). There is something quite fairy-tale-like about it.

As we left the castle my eye was drawn to a church that was full of books. I knew that Óbidos had been named the UNESCO City of Literature in 2015, so I wasn’t completely surprised to learn that the former church of São Tiago (St James) has been transformed into a bookshop, the Livraria de Santiago. The exterior of the building retains the appearance of the original church, which dates from the 12th century (although rebuilt after the aforementioned earthquake), and inside there are still original features, including the altar, and the hushed tones inside make it a natural place to have a bookshop.

From here it was a short walk to two churches that are still in use, the Igreja de Santa Maria and the Igreja de São Pedro. Firstly we walked down the main shopping street, Rua Direita, a cobbled street dating from the 13th or 14th century with whitewashed buildings which house souvenir shops and ginjinha stands and which runs from the castle to the Porta da Vila, until we came to the Praça de Santa Maria. The square is charming and at this late hour of the afternoon was relatively free of tourists. We were able to enter the church of Santa Maria, which contains works by Josefa de Óbidos, Óbidos’ most famous artist: to the right of the main altar there is a panel with five paintings from c.1661 which refer to the life of Saint Catherine and it is also thought that the paintings depicting the Baptism of Christ and the Ascension of Christ at the top of each side of the nave are by Josefa de Óbidos. Another noteworthy piece of art in the church is a Renaissance tomb sculpted in the 16th century by João de Rouão and Nicolau Chanterene, which includes a bas-relief of the Assumption of the Virgin above it and on the tomb is a wonderful sculpture depicting the Deposition of Christ in the tomb and not surprisingly it has been classified as a National Monument. The church also has azulejo tiles dating from the 17th century and an eye-catching Renaissance portal showing the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels. It is also widely reputed to be the church where King Afonso V married his cousin, Isabel, in the 1440s. The square also contains one of the aforementioned fountains and a Manueline granite pillory dating from the 15th century decorated with the royal coat of arms and a fishing net, a symbol which is associated with Queen Leonor (wife of King João II) whose son, Prince Afonso, died in a horse-riding accident in 1491 and whose body was brought back in a fishing net. The queen came to Óbidos to grieve.

From the Praça de Santa Maria it was a short walk along the Rua Direita to the Largo de São Pedro, passing the Municipal Museum, a former manor house dating from the 18th century, which contains works of art by, among others, Josefa de Óbidos, including the renowned portrait of ‘Beneficiado Faustino das Neves’ (c.1670). Unfortunately the museum was just closing as we approached, so I will have to leave that painting until another time. The Church of São Pedro in the Largo de São Pedro is distinctive by its bulbous bell tower. Although the church dates from the 13th or 14th century it was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake destroyed it and inside the church the late-17th/early-18th-century Baroque giltwood altar dominates. To the side of the altar is a painting of Christ giving Saint Peter the keys to heaven painted by another local painter, João da Costa, in the late-17th or early-18th century. Josefa de Óbidos is believed to be buried in this church, but there seems to be doubt about where. Opposite the church of São Pedro is the Capela de São Martinho (St Martin’s Chapel), a Gothic-style private tomb chapel built in the early 14th century, which contains three tombs and is remarkable for withstanding the 1755 earthquake.

The light was starting to fade and we were in need to some refreshment, so we made our way back to the Rua Direita and bought two ginjinhas de Óbidos, a local speciality of Óbidos, which is a shot of cherry liquor served in a small chocolate cup and can be bought from one of the many stalls on the Rua Direita.

We then winded our way through the narrow streets of pretty whitewashed houses with blue and yellow borders back to our hotel, the Casa do Relógio, a former 18th-century manor house, named after the original sun dial on the wall beneath the terrace. There we enjoyed a glass of wine and the view of a small square below which contains the Hotel Real d’Óbidos in a nicely restored 14th-century building, the (appropriately named) Literary Man Óbidos Hotel located in a former convent and another of Óbidos’ fountains, while the sun set over the fields in the distance.

We finished the day at the cosy Muralhas Restaurant and Pizzeria, whose menu had a mixture of Portuguese food and pizzas. The walls were lined with azulejo tiles, the food and wine was good and the bill reasonable. We walked back to our hotel through the atmospheric deserted dark streets and it was hard to believe it was the same town as in daylight, but it was nice to have Óbidos to ourselves even for a short while.


Lunch: Bar Arco da Cadeia, Rua do Hospital, Óbidos
Dinner: Muralhas Restaurant and Pizzeria, Rua D. João Ornelas, Óbidos
Hotel: Casa do Relógio, Rua Porta do Vale, Óbidos. One night, including breakfast, cost €55 (as of 2017)

Getting there: Buses from Lisbon, Caldas da Rainha, Nazaré and Peniche stop outside the Porta da Vila. Trains from Caldas da Rainha and Valado dos Frades stop at the railway below the town. It is also possible to get to Lisbon by train from here, but it takes at least an hour longer than the bus.
It’s a bit of an uphill climb from the station to the town, especially with a suitcase, so allow 20 minutes.

1st May in Portugal: A day of workers’ rights and springtime rites, Festivals

1st May in Portugal: a day of workers’ rights and springtime rites

As in many countries around the world Portugal celebrates Dia do Trabalhador (Worker’s Day) on 1st May. It is a public holiday that is marked by parades and rallies by left-wing political parties and trade unions. These demonstrations for workers’ rights began in the late-nineteenth century, when 1st of May was named as International Workers’ Day, and continued into the early-twentieth century. It was renamed Festa do Trabalho Nacional (National Celebration of Work) during the oppressive right-wing dictatorship of Salazar and, later, Caetano, when any form of demonstration was violently quashed, and any celebrations on this day were organized and controlled by the State. Worker’s Day was reinstated in May 1974, a week after the Carnation Revolution that had overthrown the dictatorship, and over half a million people gathered in Lisbon to welcome the return of Mário Soares, the secretary-general of the Socialist Party, and Álvaro Cunhal, the secretary-general of the Communist Party, who had both been in exile, and to celebrate the freedoms of democracy denied during the dictatorship, such as freedom of speech and the freedom to gather in public. Nowadays, two of the largest rallies, organized by one of the main unions, the Confederaçāo Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses-Intersindical Nacional (CGTP-IN) (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-National Inter-union), are held in Lisbon and Porto. In Lisbon they gather in the Praça Martim Moniz and march to Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques and in Porto the rally is held in the Avenida dos Aliados.

Long before it was named ‘Worker’s Day’, 1st May has had significance as a springtime festival which goes back to Pagan times and throughout the country, but particularly in the Douro, Beira-Alta and Minho regions in the north, is symbolized by the giesta bush (Cytisus striatus or hairy-fruited broom) with its yellow flowers known as Maias which are abundant in late April and early May.

Sprigs or garlands of yellow broom or other flowers are placed in door and window frames, on balconies and even on cars, agricultural machinery and animal sheds before midnight on the night of 30th April to bring prosperity, health, fertility and to ward off the evil spirit known variously, depending on the region, as Maio (May), Carrapato (Tick), Burro (Donkey), Bruxa (Witch) or Mau olhado (Evil eye). During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church banned pagan celebrations, including this tradition of placing flowers on the doors and windows, however, people got around this ban by giving it religious significance and the yellow broom became associated with the Bible story of the flight of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus into Egypt. It was said that in one village where the Holy Family was hiding an informer agreed to put some yellow broom on the house that was sheltering them so that Herod’s soldiers could find them, but when the soldiers arrived the next morning all the houses in the village were displaying yellow broom and the soldiers were unable to find them. In the Trás-os-Montes and Beiras regions chestnuts were seen as a way of keeping the evil spirit at bay, following a proverb: ‘Quem nāo come castanhas no 1˚ de Maio, monta-o o burro’ (‘Whoever doesn’t eat chestnuts on 1st May, will be ridden by the “donkey”.’).

 In the past it was common to venerate a May Queen on 1st May, which, depending on the region, was a variation on the theme of a young girl dressed in white wearing a crown of flowers on her head (symbolizing purity and personifying spring). She may have been seated on a throne around which other children danced and sang May songs, she may have walked around the village greeting the local inhabitants or, as in the Trás-os-Montes, rather than being a May Queen, may have been a Maio-Moço (May-Lad), who was a young boy dressed from head to foot in yellow broom whom the girls of the village danced around in a ritual meant to scare away the evil spirits. In Beja (in the Alentejo) a May Queen ritual has been revived in which very young girls dressed in white and with flower garlands on their head are seated on thrones, with small baskets in front of them, who are venerated by song and dance. The baskets relate to a tradition of asking for ‘Uma moedinha (or um tostāozinho) para a Maia que nāo tem saia’ (‘A penny for the Maia who does not have a skirt’). The name ‘Maia’ is thought to originate from Maia, the Roman goddess of spring and growth but the entreaty dates back to the mid-twentieth century when people did not have much money and had to beg for money to buy the basic necessities.

In the Algarve region it is common to see a display of life-size figures filled with straw, rags and newspaper, dressed in traditional clothes, doing everyday activities and accompanied by flowers and satirical verses. It is believed that this is based on an ancient Pagan tradition where people danced around a straw doll, known as a Maia, on 1st May, most probably as a fertility dance. The life-size figures appear at dawn on 1st May and can be seen outside houses or in the street in various places in the Algarve including Lagos and along the side of the main EN125 road between Marim and Alfandanga, near Olhāo. It is clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into making these figures and there is now a competitive element as a prize is awarded to the best ones.

As this is a public holiday, banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres, shops and restaurants in tourist areas should be open as usual.

Portuguese cinema, The Murmuring Coast (2004)

The Murmuring Coast (2004)

The Murmuring Coast (A Costa dos Murmúrios) is a film version of the 1988 novel of the same name by one of Portugal’s most respected novelists, Lídia Jorge. It is set in Mozambique in the early 1970s, during the Colonial War when the Portuguese armed forces were fighting to suppress independence movements that were gaining momentum in the Portuguese African colonies. The central character is a young Portuguese woman, Evita (Beatriz Batarda), who arrives in Lourenço Marques to marry her fiancé Luís (Filipe Duarte), a lieutenant in the army and throughout the film we see events through her eyes. On the wedding day she notices a change in her husband, a former mathematician who while at university in Lisbon had discovered a new formula and liked to be called Evaristo Galois. He now no longer wants to talk about maths or be referred to by that name, however, the most significant change is in his patriarchal attitude towards her, telling her to ‘change the way you are. You don’t need to go around showing everyone what you think’. He is particularly angered by the way she voices her political opinions in favour of African independence to his misogynistic captain, Jaime Forza Leal (Adriano Luz), a man that he hero-worships and whom he emulates to the point that when Luís goes away to the front he asks Evita to stay in the room of the hotel without stepping a foot outside until he returns, just as Forza Leal’s wife, Helena (Mónica Calle), does.

The fighting at the front is never shown but we learn about the horrors through a series of photographs that Helena shows Evita. Photographs depicting the Portuguese soldiers, including Luís, committing atrocities on the indigenous people which Forza Leal has kept as proof of his commitment to the cause and that he can show to the relevant people when Portugal wins the war, as he believes it will. The reality is that things are not going well for the Portuguese armed forces and on his return from the front Luís is a broken man and he can no longer convince himself that the Portuguese will be victorious. Meanwhile Evita has taken on her own battle after discovering some suspicious-looking wine bottles on the beach that she believes are connected to the poisoning of hundreds of local indigenous people. Through this she becomes involved with a local journalist, Álvaro Sabino (Luís Sarmento), a man with whom she begins a dangerous affair; dangerous because it mirrors an affair Helena had which ended with Forza Leal killing the man in a game of Russian roulette. Álvaro is a complex character, as he is a white Mozambican and has strong roots in the country, including fathering several children with both white and black women, but who writes for the official Portuguese newspaper. However, he reveals his true allegiance to African independence in a poem that he manages to get published in a little read column of the newspaper, in which he speaks of Africa shaking off Europe and impaling her and, significantly, after Luís finds outs about Álvaro’s affair with Evita it is the Portuguese man who dies, not the Mozambican.

The dichotomies between those who conform and those who question the system and the belief in colonialism and the desire for independence, as well as the dehumanising effects of war, are represented by the four main characters who are convincingly portrayed, particularly by Beatriz Batarda as the outsider Evita and Adriano Luz as the menacing Jaime Forza Leal. Lídia Jorge’s lyrical style does not easily lend itself to adaptation into other genres, but the director, Margarida Cardoso, has sensitively created a cinematic version of the story without losing the essence of the novel. The Murmuring Coast provides some context to the Carnation Revolution of 1974 when a group of army officers, disillusioned by having to fight a colonial war in Africa that they no longer believed in, peacefully overthrew the right-wing dictatorship. The film slots neatly between Tabu (2012), which is partly set in Mozambique in the years just before the colonial war and April Captains (2000), which depicts the unfolding of the events of the Carnation Revolution on 25th April 1974.