Évora: Monsaraz, Baths, Wandering

An Évora street
An Évora street

Today was a relaxing day. I took a tour to Monsaraz and then came back to Évora, where I visited the town hall and did some more wandering around.

I had planned to visit a couple of other sights: another church and an attached palace that serves as a museum. The guidebook I’m using said both open daily.

The guidebook was out of date or it lied. I’m willing to believe either. I like to think the best of people. I’m just not very good at it.

The upshot is, both were closed today, my last day in Évora.

The guidebook also said the University of Évora, the second-oldest university in Portugal, behind Coimbra’s, is worth a look. I went and tried to find the entrance to the spots it said to check out, but couldn’t find it. There was some construction happening at the university. It’s possible that’s why I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I gave up and did some wandering around the city, including adding visiting the town hall to my activities for the day.

Tour to Monsaraz

When I read in the tour operator’s online Monsaraz tour description that UNESCO designated the whole village of Monsaraz as a World Heritage Site, how could I possibly not go? I mean, really. A UNESCO World Heritage Site is not something one can possibly miss if one has an opportunity to visit it, is it?

Note to tourist sights that want, but don’t yet have a UNESCO World Heritage designation: Admit it. You’re not really trying, are you? You can barely turn around in this world without bumping into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I jest above. Nevertheless, I’m glad I took the tour. Monsaraz is a picturesque medieval hilltop town in a stunning setting. The tour stopped along the way at a hand-made-pottery business and a cork forest.

A medieval dog in Monsaraz. (I passed it a couple times but it never moved from his spot. His head moved, so I know he was alive.)
A medieval dog in Monsaraz. (I passed it a couple times but he never moved from his spot. His head moved, so I know he was alive.)

Before I get into all that, a quick note. When I said “tour operator” above, in this case, the tour operator was basically one guy, João, with a van. His van can fit, I think, seven customers. Today, he had three, a couple from New York and me.

João was very personable and informative. That is, I think he was very informative. He seemed trustworthy, but I always worry that tour guides just make stuff up. If I were already an expert on the subject matter I probably wouldn’t book that tour. So how would I know if a tour guide spewed poppycock?

All of the “facts” (as opposed to my opinions) below about the stops on the tour came from João. As I said, I think he is trustworthy, but I have no way to verify that. When you couple that with the fact that most of what I write here is filtered through my memory, well, all I’ll say is, don’t bet the farm on what I write here being one hundred percent accurate. And, because you probably don’t own a farm, don’t buy a farm and then immediately bet it on my accuracy.

With that said, I’ll plow on.

(The plow/farm pun was not intended until I reviewed this entry before publishing it and noticed it. Now, the pun is totally intended and always was. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

São Pedro do Corval Pottery Business

Unglazed potter drying in the sun
Unglazed potter drying in the sun

According to João, the village of São Pedro do Corval specializes in pottery. A single family runs the businesses we stopped at. The site consists of two complete, but separate pottery making facilities and stores.

Pottery in one of the shops
Pottery in one of the shops

Apparently, there used to be only one. The family includes a brother and a sister. The sister got a boyfriend. But the in-laws didn’t get along. So, to solve the problem, they split the business in two, physically side by side. Both businesses do exactly the same thing, although they produce different designs.

If you want to purchase pottery from both shops, you have to buy the items separately in each store. So, boys and girls, the moral of the story is, if you’re going to have a family business, choose your spouses carefully. Or stay single. Or better yet, totally ignore everything I say.

Cork Forest

João next stopped at a cork forest, where he explained the processes of growing and harvesting cork.

Another note here. João called the people who harvest cork “cork men.” I prefer a gender-neutral term, so I’ll coin one. Or maybe, unbeknownst to me, it’s already used in this sense. I’ll call them “corkers.” (Yeah, yeah. I know. Never mind that.)

A cork tree
A cork tree

One of the conclusions I drew from his explanation of the cork growing and harvesting processes was that if you want to get rich quick, choose something other than cork farming. You might be able to get rich slowly. I don’t know. But you’re certainly not going to do it quickly.

Here’s the problem. A cork farmer must wait thirty years after they plant a cork tree until the corker can first harvest it. But, the first harvest isn’t dense enough to be used as cork. So it’s discarded. A corker has to wait about nine years between harvests. Otherwise, it damages the tree.

After nine years, they do another harvest of that tree. But that harvest too isn’t dense enough and is thrown away.

It isn’t until the third harvest that the farmer gets sellable cork. So, farmers must wait 57 years after planting new trees until they get their first revenues from them. In essence, cork farmers plant trees for their grandkids.

The cork trees in the forest we visited had numbers painted on them. The numbers were the last digit of the year the tree was last harvested. That way, the corkers can tell when it’s time to harvest the tree again.

Corkers can harvest cork only at a specific time in the year. I forget why. I think it has something to do the new layer of bark starting to lift away from the tree naturally.

Corkers harvest manually with an axe. Apparently, it’s a job that requires tremendous expertise and experience. Corkers make a cut with the blade, then peel off the cork with the tapered handle of the axe.

A cork and holm oak forest
A cork and holm oak forest

But, first they make a single cut. From that, they can see if it’s time to do the harvest. If not, they wait a few days and try again, or, depending on what they see from that first cut, perhaps put off the harvest of the tree for another year.

It sounds to me like a business that requires a lot of patience. If I were a cork farmer, a week after planting a cork tree I’d be out in the forest shouting at it, “Nu? Are you ready yet? What’s taking you so long? I’m going broke here while you sit there rather than growing your cork.”

They don’t grow only cork trees in the cork forest. The forest we were in also grew holm oak trees, as well as cereal crops between the trees. Although there weren’t any when we were there, they set pigs loose in the forest to fatten up on the cereal crops and acorns from the cork and holm oak trees. Humans can eat the fruit from the holm oak acorns, but not the cork acorns. Pigs eat both.


The Monsaraz castle
The Monsaraz castle

Monsaraz is a walled village that perches atop a hill. Its construction dates from medieval time. The village emptied out in, I think João said the 19th century, when an epidemic wiped out most of the population. Because of that, and because of hthe difficulty of getting supplies—water, groceries, etc.—up to the hilltop, the municipal seat moved from Monsaraz to Vila Nova de Reguengos.

Today, only about 30 people live in Monsaraz.

One of the Monsaraz churches
One of the Monsaraz churches

At one time, Monsaraz had a thriving Jewish community. The Inquisition came to Portugal about 50 years after it came to Spain. A lot of Spanish Jews fled to Monsaraz and set up businesses there. Then the Catholic Church took the Inquisition show on the road to Portugal. End of story.

The village consists of three not terribly long parallel streets and some cross streets. Within its walls sits a castle and at least two churches. The other buildings that line the streets are low rise and white washed. Today, a few serve as restaurants and shops, I assume for us tourists.

One of the churches now serves as the village’s health centre, which opens only a few days of the week and not all day because there are so few residents there. The other was closed for restoration work when I was there.

Inside the Monsaraz wall
Inside the Monsaraz wall

The ruins of the castle are open to wander around, including climbing up to the top of its walls. The wall-tops provide great views of the environs.

At least two of Monsaraz’s buildings house museums. One is a fresco museum. The other is Casa da Inquisitionção. According to the English translation provided on the sign out front, it is an “Interactive Jewish History Center in Monsaraz.” Both of the museums are open six days a week. They close Mondays. Today is Monday.

Considering that one of the closed museums is a Jewish history centre, I think a hearty “my mazel” is particularly appropriate here.

A Monsaraz street
A Monsaraz street

Monsaraz looks down on the largest artificial lake in Europe.

Obviously, when I say “artificial” I mean the lake, not the water in it. The water in the lake is real, not artificial. The lake didn’t occur naturally, but resulted from the damning of the Guadiana River. And, when I say “looks down on,” I don’t mean that village considers the lake to be beneath it socio-economically. Just that the village is up high and the lake is down below.

All of that was, no doubt, obvious to you. I’m just rambling. Don’t mock me for rambling. It’s probably a sickness on my part. Don’t laugh at sick people.

The artificial lake
The artificial lake

In the accompanying picture, the lake probably doesn’t look like it could possibly be the largest artificial lake in Europe. That might be because it stretches out quite a ways along the valley, with a few islands in it. I couldn’t get all of the lake in the picture.

The region uses the water in the lake for irrigation. On the drive from Évora to Monsaraz and back we passed a lot of almond groves, vineyards, and cereal grain fields. They also grow olives in the region, but I don’t remember seeing any. All of those crops need irrigation.

Wine Tasting in Monsaraz

A local winery has a wine shop in Monsaraz. Before leaving the village, João took us in for a wine tasting that was included in the tour. We tasted five wines: Two whites, two reds, and another sweeter, smoother, more full-bodied white.

With the first two white wines, the winery representative served us one tasting, he told us a little about the wine, we drank it, and then we told him what we thought of it. Then he did the same with the second white wine.

This sort of thing makes me very uncomfortable because I’m not a wine aficionado. What I know about wine is approximately nothing. And my taste-discernment ability is roughly zero as well.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I made a complete fool of myself. Maybe 98.74% of a fool. But there was more to come, so I still had time to make up the other 1.26%.

The tastings of the two red wines went a little differently. He poured tastings of each into two side-by-side glasses in front of each of us.

Then he told us to smell and then taste each of them, and then tell him which burst upon the palate fasted, which had a taste that lasted longer in the mouth, and which we preferred.

Only two of us did the tasting because the wife in the New York couple didn’t drink and João had to be in shape to drive us back.

The winery representative asked me for my answers first. After I gave them, he said, “exactly right.” The New York husband gave answers that didn’t match mine for all three questions. The winery representative didn’t respond “exactly right” to him.

Then, the representative told us that they were both the same wine. I spent a few seconds thinking myself to be a complete idiot for distinguishing clearly between the two wines despite them being the same wine,

But then the representative told us, “they are the same wine, but they were aged differently.” One was aged normally. The other was aged for I forget how long, then bottled, corked and sealed with wax, and then aged further under water in the lake for, again, I forget how long.

Basically, they throw the bottles in the lake for the requisite time then haul them up, label them, and sell them. That gave the two very different tastes.

Spoiler: I thought the regularly age wine popped first, but I thought the taste of the water-aged wine lasted longer and I preferred it.

We didn’t have the third white wine in the tasting room. Instead, we took it up to a table on a rooftop patio with a view. João joined us in drinking that wine. We sipped it slowly while chatting, primarily about Portuguese politics, economics, and life.

It was all very enjoyable. The tour was advertised as being three to four hours, but it lasted almost five, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 in the afternoon. However, it went very quickly. I hardly noticed not having had lunch. The wine helped. Although, I did quickly find a place to have a sandwich when I got back to Évora.

Évora Town Hall

Inside Evora town hall
Inside Evora town hall

The Évora town hall is a handsome, but not spectacular white building situated beside a public square. When I first stepped inside, I thought, “well, that staircase with what looks like a wrought iron railing is visually appealing and interesting, especially how it splits off in two near the next level up, but it’s still not spectacular.” However, that’s not why I went in.

At the back and to one side of the foyer there’s a railing. Immediately behind that railing and down maybe the equivalent of a floor is an old Roman bath. Not a replica. An in situ old Roman bath. It’s just sitting there for people like me to gawk at, although I was the only one doing so when I visited. The city uncovered the Roman bath when it was doing repairs to the building.

The Roman baths
The Roman baths

Imagine that. In my hometown, Toronto, if they want to do some construction in the oldest section of the city and they think there might be a 200-year-old drainage pipe underground from a building that was there before, the City will order an archaeological excavation to search for it. Here in Évora, they find centuries-old Roman baths when they repair buildings. Ho hum.

That’s quite a difference in timescale and historical significance, wouldn’t you say?


Another Évora street
Another Évora street

Having some time on my hands as a result of not being able to do some of my planned activities (see the introduction to this entry), I spent time wandering around aimlessly. Évora is a great spot for that. As I alluded to yesterday, it is a clean, charming, old city.

When I arrived a couple of days ago and had only a decidedly uninteresting walk between the train station and my hotel to go on, my thought was, “Crap! Why the hell did I schedule three nights here and only two nights in Coimbra?”

I leave Évora tomorrow morning, late enough that I don’t have to rush, but too early to do much, if anything, before heading to the train station. Now that I’ve had time to explore the lovely old section of Évora, I wish I’d scheduled more time in both Coimbra and Évora.


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