Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Portugal Day 5 - Unpopular stones & a chapel of bones

Rose to a rather dismal morning that, with the usual turn of events, manifested itself into a rather dismal day, weather wise. Today we were heading to Évora, with its wonderfully preserved monuments and buildings of public interest that led UNESCO to protect it as a World Heritage Site in 1996.

Each age has left its trace on Évora. It was the Celts who named it Ebora and the Romans gave it its most famous landmark, the Temple of Diana. Dating from the 2nd century, it is one of the Iberian Peninsula's best preserved Roman monuments, raised on a 3m high stone platform, with 14 of the original 18 granite Corinthian columns still standing. While the whitewashed houses, arches, and twisting alleyways that characterise the town reflect the Moorish presence.

But before we got there, we were making a scheduled stop at The Cromlech of Almendres, scheduled because I had scheduled it, much to the dismay of everyone else, the philistines that they are. Dating from the Neolithic period, somewhere between 4000 and 2000 B.C they have been called "the Portuguese Stonehenge" and are the most important megalithic group in the Iberian Peninsula. Consisting of a huge oval of almost one hundred rounded granite monoliths, some engraved with symbolic markings, it is believed, due to its elevated location and orientation with regards to the cyclic movement of the sun and moon, to be a sacred place, although what its actual use was is still a matter of some discussion.

But before we even got there though we made another stop, this time of the unscheduled variety, because the road to the stones passed through a cork plantation, and these trees had been freshly harvested, so still had the deep red under-flesh, no idea if that is the correct term for the part of the tree that is beneath the bark, but it’s the term I’m using. The rich, red ochre of the under-flesh chiming perfectly with the green foliage of the canopies meant these were the cork trees I had been searching for, so I ordered a complete halt and I was soon out capturing them in all their glory.

Freshly harvested cork trees and their lovely under-flesh
More trees from this striking stand
After that, as I continued to impress upon everyone else in the car how interesting these stones were and what a worthwhile photographic endeavour we were on, our laborious journey over the rock strewn road to the stones themselves continued. Once arriving I took a couple of pictures but couldn’t really get anything I was happy with, partly because I had trouble finding the right vantage point and partly because of the overabundance of people, many of them greedily enjoying these monoliths from close up, so ruining any atmosphere that might have been created and depriving me of a suitable image.

As we left I unwisely mentioned that I hadn’t really got anything worthwhile, and from out of nowhere an atmosphere did indeed descend, and in fact continued for some distance beyond.

I converted to black & white to minimise the intrusion of the people and their garish clothes
But once we were enclosed in the mighty walls of Évora and seated in a rustic restaurant ready to meet the pork of black pig in a battle that could ever only have one winner, all thoughts of amply proportioned stones were soon washed away on the bounteous ocean of vino tinto.

We then proceeded to Igreja de São Francisco (Church of St. Francis), a huge Gothic styled construction built between 1475 and the 1550’s to replace an earlier Romanesque church of 1226. Its vast interior is richly decorated with architectural fancies and vast paintings depicting the usual scenes, as you would imagine, for a church. I always find these representations very evocative in bringing to life, no pun intended, the human rather than the spiritual history. As for me, that’s what religion is, once you get past the celestial overtones, a history of the human race, and it’s only a shame I was never once consulted about how this whole sorry mess should have been run.

I don’t exactly have the same fondness for the various mannequins they use though, I had a similar problem in South East Asia, where they love an eccentrically positioned mannequin depicting some religious event or another like nowhere else, but to my untrained eye I’m afraid they just look tacky. I guess if your believers are fervent enough you can get away with anything.

Next to the church was Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bones, the chapel was the creation of the 16th century Franciscan monks as a practical solution to a problem. Space in the city was taken up by 42 cemeteries, so the monks decided to move all the bones from the cemeteries to one consecrated chapel, line the walls with them and top it off with a welcoming little line above the door which reads – ‘nos ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos’ which translates to ‘Our bones that are here, wait for yours’.

Wall of bones
This chap has obviously been hanging around a while.
Chortle, solid gold, every one.
Who says a wall of skulls has to be creepy?
It’s been estimated that there are somewhere in the region of 5,000 skeletons in the Chapel. According to legend, the bones are those of soldiers from some major battle – unnamed – or victims of a plague. But the reality is more likely to be that they are just ordinary people who lived in the area and were buried in Évora’s cemeteries. Still, it's not everyday you get to become textured wallpaper, so I'm guessing they're not unhappy about it.

Next up was a quick visit to the Templo de Diana, whose solid construction has seen it through the era when Évora was an important Roman military centre, through to the Middle Ages where it served as a place of execution during the Inquisition and then as a slaughterhouse up until 1870. These remarkably well preserved ruins are traditionally associated with the goddess Diana, although there is no real evidence for this, with the more likely alternative being Jupiter.

Roman ruins and a big patch of flowers
After that the Cathedral of Évora was up. The original, much more modest, church was built here between 1184 and 1204 thanks mainly to the tireless efforts of that ever reliable warrior, Gerald the Fearless who wrested the area from Arab hands only a few years previously. Now it is the largest of the medieval cathedrals in Portugal and there is quite a lot to see, but to be honest, by this time I was quite weary, there is something about walking slowly, and boy did everyone else in our little crowd walk slowly, that tires me out no end.

A few shots from my phone of the Cathedral. In case you're wondering, that ethereal
blue glow in the bottom right image is vending machine.
I much prefer to zip from one historically important site to another, akin to a butterfly that’s been set alight, flitting and flapping and flopping from one historically important flower to the next, until finally diving to the ground in a fiery bundle, kaleidoscopic wings fizzing and popping under the marching line of blistering heat, before yet again metamorphosing one final time, into a pile of grey smouldering ash.

Not totally sure what that was all about, but anyway, I prefer to walk quite fast, and by now my little legs were getting weary.

Looking out over Évora
All that was left for us to do after that was amble back to the car, load up on essentials from the local supermercado, namely bread and wine, and head back to the house for one final banquet, as tomorrow we would be departing Portugal, leaving the beaches, the rice fields, the cork trees and the dolphins behind and heading back to the unreasonable climes of Blighty.

A quick snap of Comporta with one of those
stork nests

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