Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Favorite Spot in Portugal

My favorite part of our trip to Portugal was the visit to Obidos, late on December 30th. Until the 15th century, Obidos stood on the coast. (The coast has now shifted about 14 miles west to where Peniche currently is.) It contains a 10th century castle and ramparts that encircle the entire village. (Thus the name “Obidos” from the Latin oppidum for walled in city or fortress.) Until the middle of the 12th century it was the property of the Moors. In 1148, as part of the Reconquista going on in Portugal and Spain, Christians took it. Beginning in the 13th century, Obidos became the traditional wedding gift given by Portuguese kings to their queens.

The town is surrounded by farmland, vineyards, and (though it was twilight as we arrived) I think I even saw an old fashioned windmill or two. Inside the walls are narrow, cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses with the traditional terracotta roofs we saw in most villages we explored. Several of the houses seemed to be lined with the beautiful tiles of the 17th and 18th centuries, though the crowds made it impossible to stop and look carefully at any of them.

As you approach Obidos during the Christmas season, you notice that the castle and ramparts are all encircled in lights. The main street which cuts through the town, goes through the praca that houses the Igreja de Santa Maria, and ends at the castle, has strings lights suspended overhead, huge varieties of decorated Christmas trees along its way, and periodically other types of Christmas decorations. When we arrived, the police were directing vehicles away from the town, which was packed to overflowing. But, because so many people wanted to see the special decorations and be part of the Christmas-New Year’s celebration, they were parking along the main roads outside of the town and hiking into the area. We were pretty sure that all we were going to get to see was the outside of the lit village walls but Joachim, our driver, told the police that we were Americans who had traveled to Portugal specifically to see Obidos during this special event. We were not only allowed through the barricades but allowed to park right next to the beginning of the “celebration walk” down the main street. Go figure!

We entered the city through the Porta de Vila, the southern town gate which was decorated with tiles. Along with the rest of the jostling crowd, we moved quickly through the lit main street, glancing at the decorations as we went and enjoying the smell of the roasting chestnuts coming from several venders’ booths along the way.

At one point we all paused because Becca wasn’t with us anymore. I made my way back a block or two and found her stopped as one of the turns in the road, shopping and talking in a combination of French and Spanish with a local man who made some earrings she was interested in buying.

We continued toward the castle, stopping along the way for the traditional Christmas drink of "Ginjinha de Obidos" (a liqueur similar to sherry made with Ginja berry), which is served in cups made of chocolate.

A little later, we arrived at the Igreja de Santa Maria, which was outlined in white lights and a large nativity scene set up in the praca.

Because it was getting late, rather than continuing through the main street to the castle, we decided to cut through side streets—in the process seeing a little of the rest of the village that wasn’t decorated for the holidays—and circle back to the car.

While I enjoyed the rest of my time in Portugal, Obidos will be what I will most remember about the trip. Being there gave me more of a sense of the history of the area than I felt in any of the places more formally set up to “capture” history—the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the winding streets of the Alfama, the Abbey at Batalha, or the Palacio Nacional de Queluz. And being in a crowd that was 99% Portuguese—who hadn’t come to the place as tourists, but to stand in this ongoing Portuguese tradition and celebrate the holidays together—also added to the special feeling of the place.

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