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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.