Sunday, December 24, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Other times. Different places.

On the Tuesday, we left at about 10.30 to go to Evora where, according to the information, it was Market Day. The day had dawned dull and cold and there had been rain in the night. I was achy and cranky when we parked the car just outside the walls. No sign of a market, just a few stalls selling pots. We went in through the Parc (1866, it said, set in the black and white paving tiles that are everywhere). The Mercado Municipal, too, was closed for restoration. Evora is a superb, intact, old city – enclosed by walls in an area about a mile across. A great 12th century gothic cathedral sits on top of the hill in the middle and there is a 16th century university as well as many more fine ancient churches and buildings among the steep warren of cobbled streets. There’s even a Roman Temple of Diana, so far back does the continuous inhabitation of this town go.

At one end of the main square, there's a marble fountain in front of a big church and at the other, a grandiose bank. In between are four-story, white painted buildings, mostly small shops, with filigree ironwork balconies and painted mouldings. The north side is arcaded with heavy stone arches to shade the shop-windows and whenever we've been here before, we’ve always gone into the Café Arcada.

Inside the doorway, on the left, it had a tabacaria and news-vendor. Facing that was a counter selling cakes and sweets to the noisy families, the students, the lovers and the daydreamers who would take their time over a coffee at the tables which stretched half-way down the deep interior. Further inside, steaming urns of soup stood on a long zinc bar which ran down the left-hand wall over glass-cabinets holding soft drinks, beer, fruit and sandwiches. In this part of the café, in the gloom, old men would pass their afternoons with a glass of wine while they talked and argued together or idly turned to watch television. The only decorations were enlarged black and white photographs of forties-style tuxedoed musicians playing behind music stands with the script ‘Orchestre Arcadia’ written on them – memories of bygone glories, perhaps. In the evenings, we ate simple meals there, brought by a waiter in an open-necked white shirt, black waistcoat, scruffy shoes and a tea-towel tucked into the waistband of his sagging trousers. It was one of our favourite places in Portugal. Now, it has changed. Now, it has become a symbol of all I loathe, despise and detest about modern life. Now, it sells lifestyle.

Gone is the tabacaria, replaced by a stone wall of mock-neolithic art. The cake counter is still there but now no-one lingers over their coffee – sharp-eyed waitresses make sure business stays brisk. Inside, after you pass a sign saying ‘Please wait to be seated’, you don’t find the zinc bar or the shambling waiter any more. The photographs are still there, surrounded now by smart tables where American tourists can eat - safe in the knowledge that the food will be as wholesome and familiar as it is in Kansas City. Gone, too, to who-knows-where, are the old men.

Why DO tourists stand out so? They wander bewilderedly. They carry maps, their wives walk two paces behind, wear silly holiday clothes and carry all their money, credit cards and passports in pouches strung over their bellies. They can't help that, by their very presence, they must change the nature of a place. But why must they turn them into what they left behind at home?

We drank a quick espresso there, paid the euro for it and left in a hurry. We had lunch in a café in a nearby street. The waiter was friendly, the rest of the customers (all men) were noisy Alentejans and the food was good, simple and cheap (grilled fish, salad, boiled potatoes, red wine, bottled water – about 17€). Didn’t drink any wine but felt picked up by then.

Back at the casa, we hadn’t been there long before there was a knock at the door and the owners had arrived to visit. Clare was first through the door, small, dark hair, green waterproofs, brown riding boots. Her husband, Anthony, tall, grey, red sweater, followed carrying gifts for us of two jars, one of home-made jam, the other of home-grown honey. They are both frightfully, terribly, posh and Clare told us her family owned this farm. They say they spend about a third of the year here and, when in England, are from Wiltshire. Judging by their accents, they are probably from most of it. They will be back on Thursday bringing a chap who wants a long-term let on this place – once he’s checked for ‘light pollution’ – he’s an astronomer. After they’d left, Salvatore, Maria and Chico’s son, brought us in a basket of logs – no doubt on La Pincent’s orders. Mme. soon lit a bright fire and we spent the evening reading and eating the rest of the cheese.

Wednesday, walked the dogs down over the dam again, lost them as usual as they chased rabbits through the garden of the other cottage that stands over there – the one we’d like to buy. After lunch, (omelette, fried potatoes, salad, white wine), drove through Igreginha (Little Church) around to Vimiero and back over heathland with hawks, buzzards and shrikes through Vale de Periero. Houses for sale in each but neither are what we’re looking for. Be nice to find out what they are worth, though.

The sun is setting spectacularly as I write this on the terrace with a glass of Licor Beira next to me. Overhead, ragged clouds are tinged with rose and violet against a dulling blue sky. Then, a swathe of heavy purple and below to the west, ribbons of orange and gold lighting the far distance. The bent old shepherd and his black dog collected the sheep about half an hour ago. Now, all there is to be heard of them is just an occasional call of a ewe or a lamb and the gentle ringing of a collar bell. The first cricket has begun whirring and one or other of the dogs barks from time to time. Evora’s lights have begun to sparkle on the horizon and there is the faint smell of wood smoke. Supper of salami, olives, bread and red wine and then an early night.