Passionate about Arabic culture, the guitarist Pedro Jóia went with UP to Alto Alentejo, a region rich in Islamic remains. We climbed the Serra de São Mamede to visit Castelo de Vide and Marvão, fantastic places with views over into Spain.
Usually presented as complementary tourist destinations, Castelo de Vide and Marvão in the district of Portalegre, contradict the idea that the interior of the Alentejo is only plains. Both towns tower above the landscape in the Natural Park of Serra de São Mamede. Pedro Jóia, who went there as a child, recalled their particular beauty. “I remember the Marvão castle, but I think everything here today looks cleaner and tidier. They obviously care about preserving their heritage”, he notes, as we settle into the Pousada de Santa Maria. At about 850 metres above sea level, this fortified town blends perfectly into the rocky escarpment. Inhabited since early times, it has seen Roman, Arab and Lusitanian occupation. The Muslim vizir, Abn Marwan, gave the hilltop settlement its name. From the castle you can see on a clear day as far as the Serra da Estrela mountains and Extremadura in Spain- it is the part of the Alentejo closest to heaven.
At the panoramic restaurant we dine overlooking narrow medieval streets and whitewashed houses huddled against the 13th century castle walls. Our waiter Nuno Guégués presents us with a selection of regional wines. Pedro is delighted with one of his favourites: gazpacho. “I always ask for it when I am in the Alentejo. I love it!” And he often comes here since his family has a farm in Arraiolos. “It’s our hideaway. I have two brothers and we all helped my parents build the house”. His family came from further south: “Several generations back we spent our holidays in Portimão, but as the Algarve got saturated, we started looking for somewhere calmer and nearer to Lisbon to relax”.
Pedro was born “by accident” in Belgium while his father was working there. At six months old he came to live in Lisbon, where he grew up and still lives with his wife and two children. He has also lived in Spain and Brazil, for musical reasons. His career as a concert performer has taken him around the world. With a show booked for the following night at the Casa de Cultura in Marvão, he spent the evening practising. “I have to play every day. You can’t not.”
“My parents had me studying music from the age of seven. At 15, I knew I wanted to be a guitarist. My fate was settled, without doubt. At 18, I started going to Spain to study flamenco guitar. I was used to fado, but I passed from the classical guitar to the Spanish-speaking world. There I discovered the real essence of the guitar. It was crucial for my development. I learnt to adopt the technique and attitude of the concert performer. I studied with Manolo Sanlúcar, a living legend. He taught me to manage my stage fright. Once I start playing everything disappears. I enclose myself in a bubble of concentration and only feel the music.”
The following morning, Felicidade Tavares, from the Marvão Tourist Office, guides us around the Roman ruins of Ammaia, dating from 44-45 B.C. They are the most important remains in northern Alentejo, covering some 25 hectares. However, data from daily life only exists from the reign of Lucio Vero, in 166 B.C. Pedro is interested in the local finds, now a classified National Monument. With archaeologist Bento Mota, he visits the Monograph Museum and sees part of the collection recovered from excavation since 1994. “I’m a great history fan, especially of the Iberian Peninsula”.
Up against the Spanish border, we drive as far as the dam at Apartadura, a reservoir surrounded by hill farms. We are treated to some magnificent views. Felicidade informs us that “nature tourism” is booming here and points out the quartz formations where griffon vultures nest. We go to the farm of José Silva, a Spanish doctor who is also a keen horse rider. “We do several horse trails around Marvão. It’s another way of getting to know the area, enjoying the fresh air and beautiful landscapes” – explains Pedro, who bravely gets on a mare. “It’s certainly different, but as it’s going all right I can tell my kids.”
On the 15th century bridge over the River Sever (the continuation of the Roman road that linked Cáceres to Santarém), the scenery is exhilarating. Near the stone tower which controlled access to it, there is a modern pool complex and river sports facilities. These are the main attractions at Portagem, where we have lunch at the Mil Homens restaurant with the local mayor, Victor Frutuoso, who tells us of Marvão’s aspirations to gain the status of a “World Heritage Site”. “They already regard us as one; we just don’t have the official qualification.”
We enter the town by the Porta de Rodão, and appreciate the architectural details of the gate’s history. Pedro is taken by the Gothic windows and Ogival doors. “I learned to appreciate Muslim heritage and Arabic culture. I think of our music, our blood”, he says, quoting Arabist historian Adalberto Alves, author of The Arabesque in Portuguese, one of his favourites. We have an early dinner at O Sever restaurant, then experience an unforgettable evening. There is magic in the air when the sound of the guitar virtuoso Pedro Jóia begins to echo through the streets of Marvão. When the concert is over, along with the applause and the autographs, we snack with José Manuel Pires, head of Tourism and Culture, at the O Castelo bar.
The next day is dedicated to Castelo de Vide, a town which in 1276 became a municipality. In the square next to the church of Santa Maria da Devesa, we travel back in time with Carolino Tapadejo, a well-informed tourist consultant. We climb through the town, full of flower-laden windows and doorways, the stage for numerous battles. There could be no better viewpoint over the town bathed in sunshine. In the 14th-century Jewish quarter, the oldest in Portugal, we walk through a labyrinth of streets and houses marked with strange symbols, whose inhabitants were forced to convert to become ‘New Christians’. The weight of history bears down on us inside the Synagogue-renovated along modern lines, it contains various surprises and is a must.
Another highlight is the fountain. Pedro tries the water which pours from four spouts into a tank under a verandah supported by marble columns. This completes our tour and we have lunch with the deputy mayor, António Pita. At the D. Pedro V restaurant, António reveals proudly that the Washington Post held an online vote to choose the best tourist destination in the world: “Castelo de Vide came in the top 20!”
Walking in the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park, we pass the dam at Póvoa and the viewpoint at Senhora da Penha. We stop near the Meada Menhir, dating from the Neolithic and only discovered in 1965. Four metres high and 1.25 in diameter, it weighs 15 tons; the biggest on the Iberian Peninsula. It is a monument that represents force, energy and power. Inspired by the mystical location, Pedro Jóia invokes the gods of the Alentejo. “20,000 years ago people trod the same earth as we do today, people very different from us, but who lived life as we do, ephemeral and rich at the same time. They really were our ancestors.”
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