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The International Writers Magazine: Obidos - Portugal Archives

Alan Dale
The massive medieval walls suddenly overshadowed the flat farmland, chillingly suggesting their having moved when I wasn’t looking. That was nothing compared to Obidos’s next assault on my senses.


The path now rose from the plain and hugged the rearing stonework, as if wrenched from the horizontal by witchcraft. Plunged momentarily into shadow, we rounded the curve of the fortifications to face a town swallowed by a castle.
       The castle glowered over the town, surrounding it with crenellated walls that undulated with the topography, vanishing and reappearing behind the houses like a dragon’s tail. It exuded contempt for civilian trivia. The 15th century Manueline architecture, named after King Manuel I, reflected the Portuguese transition from Gothic to Renaissance. Stone carvings of ropes, surmounted by armillary spheres and the cross of the Order of Christ celebrated discovery, while acknowledging the faith.
        Disguised as cherry trees, in a real forerunner of Macbeth, Dom Alfonso Henriques’s army re-captured the castle from the Moors in 1148. It was carefully restored after extensive earthquake damage in 1755.          

Obidos The town gate or Porta de Vila, decorated with 18th century tiles, framed a shambles of whitewashed medieval buildings, climbing in all directions. The main street or “Rua Direita” lead to the main square (Praca de Santa Maria), with its refreshingly splashing fountain, 15th century pillory, town Museum and the Santa Maria Church.

This was where 10 year old Alfonso V and his 8 year old cousin Isabel were married in 1444. Eloquent in its silence, denied domination of the skyline by its military neighbour, it seemed mutely to reproach secular disregard of the spiritual. The castle Governor, Joao de Noronha, who died in 1575, is entombed here, in the unusual, totally tiled interior. The adjacent Misericordia Church boasted an imposing baroque doorway, powerfully suggestive of bygone papal authority.
      Within this royal wedding present, ( King Dinis presented Obidos to his bride Isabel of Aragon in 1282),  timeless crafts beckoned from doorways. Ceramics, whicker work and embroidery filled the ancient interiors, hushing the tourist babble. My highlight was a large, intricately rigged model galleon. “Todo a m?o” –( all hand made), whispered the raven haired shopkeeper, in her gratifying response to my nascent Portuguese.
      Re-emerging into the blinding reflections, we drank in the rippling mosaic of bougainvillia and geraniums, which dappled the white walls. Leather and donkey aromas mingled with earthy, minty hints and the sharp tang of newly worked wood.

Every corner sprung another surreal perspective on us. Terracotta roofs lurked below pathway edges, shadows from battlements suddenly draped the paths like eldritch teeth. Reeling skywards, the highest cottages staggered up to the ramparts like petrified climbers, forever roped together and regarding each other over their shoulders. Obidos

       The 12th century castle bestrode its site, in a grimness of turrets, battlements, titanic doors, arrow slits and inaccessible windows. Its extremities and outer buildings lurked disconcertingly amid houses and shops, as if, like a medieval saint, it was capable of bi-location.    
      These imaginings are enacted in the annual medieval fair, in July. Knights, witches, medieval music and theatre performances re-create revels, pageantry and romance.      

Obidos The Church of the Santuario Senhor da Pedra  (Our Lord Jesus of the Stone Sanctuary) houses 3 chapels within an unusual baroque hexagonal shell. King Joao V commissioned it in 1747, in thanks for his rescue from an accident. He attributed this divine intervention to his prayers at the stone crucifix on the Caldas de Rainha road. King Joao re-housed the effigy in the new church sanctuary, hence its title.       

There was no obvious route to the highest fortifications. We chose a path ascending between shrub- shrouded courtyard walls and Moorish porticos. Suddenly we emerged below the wall.
        Nothing prepared us for this vertiginous revelation. Far below, the miniscule roofs, windmills and cultivated fields tightened the stomach muscles, suggesting an airborne view minus the supporting aircraft. A large raptor quartered the fields below us, hinting at the falconry of antiquity.
        The castle had been converted into a magnificent poussada, or inn. We couldn’t resist lunching here, despite numerous other attractive hostleries. Entering the foyer was like arriving at a medieval court. Ancient architecture peeped from behind ornate draperies. Massive candlesticks, wine glasses and serviettes suggested impending bacchanalia.
       Our waiter, by contrast, was straight out of a 1930s French textbook. Centre parting, razor-thin moustache and bow tie complemented suave courtesy. Choosing from the elaborate list of regional fare was an anticipatory delight.
       I feasted on roast pork with mashed cauliflower and listened to Angela rhapsodising over scallop shells with apple and watercress. A bottle of fruity, regional Casa de Geiras catalysed the sumptuous blend of flavours.
        Don’t imagine that Obidos only offers summer spectaculars. March sees the chocolate festival, with Obidos becoming the world chocolate capital. “Chocaholics” can savour the unique chocolate sculptures.
       The festival of Vila Natal extends Christmas from the end of November to the start of January. Transformed by tons of fake snow into a setting worthy of Hans Christian Andersen, Obidos hosts Santa’s Toy Factory, along with his retinue of elves.

       Adults are not left out, with sledge runs, ice skating and choir recitals to enjoy. Entrance tickets cost 5 euros for children aged 5 – 12 and 3 euros for 3 –11 year olds. Vila Natal activities take place inside the fortified section of the town. This allows those who don’t fancy the festivities to explore the shops and castle walls as normal.

       Obidos is close to several other historical treasures. The Dominican Monastery of Batalha was unforgettable. Alcobaca, dominated by its 12th century abbey is within easy reach. The legendary “Portugese Romeo and Juliet”, Dom Pedro and Ines de Castro, lie in their elaborate tombs.
     The municipal museum houses some lovely paintings by Josefa de Obidos. Although Josefa was born in Seville, Baltazar Gomes Figuiera, her father was a painter from Obidos. Her first known works are the engravings of 1646. Specialising in religious subjects, portraits and still life, she was one of 17th century Portugal’s most gifted painters. She was justly acclaimed among baroque artists, as men dominated the period. A short walk from the museum, the church of Santa Maria contains her five darkly thought provoking altar- pieces.
     A short drive from Obidos took us to Batalha Monastery. The architecture had the devastating impact of hallucination. The first hint was a strip of golden light, visible from the exterior, above the colossal wooden doors. Most cathedrals have one high section of vaulting, often over the knave. We entered and beheld an entire cathedral of soaring archways, galleries and clerestories, forming a dizzying stone skyscape.
       Stonework carved with the intricacy of lace surrounded many tombs and chapels. The cloisters had the powerful silence generated by centuries of contemplative life.
        These images later melded themselves with those of the Obidos ramparts, creating a medieval burlesque. I strongly recommend a concentrated cocktail of the two sites.     

Obidos has something for all age groups, but the gradients and in particular the battlements may be beyond those with even mild walking difficulties. There have been cases of intrepid explorers needing rescue by the locals! Another tip is to watch your tanning time. Obvious these days, but this part of Portugal can be very windy, giving a falsely reduced impression of the sun’s power.

      We could have happily spent a week in Obidos, if only to try a different Poussada banquet each day! Gluttony rules OK!
© Alan Dale Jan 2011

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