Well, we finally made it to a castle. Oh boy, what a castle.
Previously we had two failed castle tries, one to the top of the hill in the Alfama district of Lisbon when we got lost, the other up Arrabida Mountain because it’s closed for repairs. However, if we had any concerns we might miss out on castlegoing, we shouldn’t have.
One thing Portugal has in abundance is castles. Portugal has more castles than New Jersey has diners. Portugal has so many castles, other countries have asked to borrow them.
Portugal has so many castles, the White Castle hamburger chain has sued for trademark infringement.
Portugal has so many castles, Oprah Winfrey is worried George Clooney will buy one before she does.
Portugal has so many castles, Donald Trump wants to build walls around them.
The castle we went to is in a little town called Palmela. Interestingly, we didn’t hear about the Castelo do Palmela until Tony the restaurant guy told us about it after we’d already been here a month. Apparently, Portugal has so many castles, the tourist bureau can’t remember them all.
Palmela’s only a few miles up the road from Setúbal, so it seemed perfect for our first bus trip out of town. Once again, taking the bus in this country is a pretty friendly experience. The lady driver seemed delighted with the fact that we had chosen her bus to ride. She flashed a beautiful smile and chirped at us for five minutes when we asked her if we were on the right bus. Speaking in Portuguese, she was going way too fast for us to understand what she was saying; but, from her tone of voice I’d swear she was offering us a hot towel and a foot massage.
As usual, the main direction leaving the town of Setúbal is up. Any given location in Portugal starts at the water and climbs. The whole country looks down on its coastline.
A lot like California, geography-wise. The southern Algarve region is a lot like the San Diego area; Lisbon similar to San Francisco; the area in the North around Oporto like Sonoma County and Mendocino. There are winter sports in the North, the threat of wildfires in summer
Before we moved to Portugal, I said to someone that the country seemed to me like California with castles. Now that we’re here, I can confirm that.
The day was one of those clear, light filled, almost blinding afternoons we’ve come to expect here. Portugal has the brightest sun I’ve ever seen, and that’s out of forty states and seven foreign countries.
The trip from Setúbal was about six kilometers and it wasn’t long before we could see the enormous stone walls hovering above us. We were dropped off in the square of one of those small towns you see in movies, with all the features – the narrow winding streets, the rows of red-orange tile roofs and sand colored walls of plaster on stone – and headed upwards on the long hike to the castle.
The castle’s original structure was constructed by the Moors, who invaded Portugal from North Africa in the 700’s and occupied it for close to six hundred years. There are partial remains on view here of the Moorish fortifications, cisterns and storehouses.. The history of the Moorish occupation of Portugal and Spain is a patchwork of neighboring Christian and Moslem kingdoms warring against each other some of the time and collaborating against other kingdoms of either persuasion at other times. The Portuguese were about as interested in gaining independence from Spain as they were in spreading Christianity.
The main part of the castle was constructed in the 1200’s by the heirs of Afonso Henriques, the first official king of Portugal, who defeated the armies of Castile and Leon, the ruling kingdoms of Spain, and then proceeded to get rid of the Moors. He drove them out of Lisbon and environs, including Palmela and Setúbal, in 1147, although they weren’t expelled from the Algarve, Portugal’s southern tip, for another hundred years. As a reward for Afonso’s efforts, the Pope recognized Portugal as an independent country in 1178. Under the circumstances, he could hardly do otherwise.
The castle at Palmela is the fortress Afonso used as a base for fighting the Moors. It’s a real castle, not one of those froufrou things with gingerbread spires as in France and Germany that aren’t much good for anything but housing Disney princesses. It’s square, solid and forbidding, constructed of giant stone blocks laid on top of each other. Made for defense, not for fairy godmothers accompanied by fat-cheeked little songbirds to flit about waving magic wands.
In the style of fortifications of that era, it’s built atop a hill dug and mounded up entirely by hand, called a motte (not of course to be confused with the word moat, which is a trench sometimes filled with water – those came later). The walls form battlements about forty feet high, with crenels, or openings, at the top to throw rocks down on invaders. The story that they were used to dump hot water or boiling oil is a myth, in that the defenders wouldn’t have had that much spare water and oil or the means to heat it to that extent.
Rising above the battlements is the donjon or turris, the central tower where the lord of the castle lived and which served as the last line of defense if the attackers broke through. The walls of the donjon feature narrow slits for shooting arrows, which I have read were difficult and expensive to construct and so are only found on the most serious fortifications.
All of this is pretty scary when you’re looking down at it all, imagining a couple thousand guys below you wanting to get to you to pull your guts out of your midsection. It brings home the truth of the famous line by Thomas Hobbes that life in those days was “nasty, brutish and short.”
The area inside and adjacent to the castle walls was rebuilt in the 1400’s to include two churches and a convent. If there’s one thing Portugal has more of than castles, it’s convents. There are so many convents in Portugal, they have their own soccer league. There are so many convents in Portugal, they have to compete to attract new nuns. They’ve had to change the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to suggestions. The Sisters of Charity have been accused of recruiting violations by the Sisters of Mercy.
For the record, I can make jokes about convents because I was baptized a Catholic and spent eight years in school under the tutelage of nuns. I still wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares about losing my homework, although I now realize nuns are mostly very nice people.
In modern times, the convent has been turned into a pousada or hotel. These are lodgings housed in historic buildings and run by the Portuguese government. Nice place to spend a weekend.
It could be said that the Castelo do Palmela had the same attraction in the eighth century it does today – the view. The mountain it sits on crowns a plain between two of the country’s main rivers, the Tagus to the North, the Sado to the South. Lisbon is at the mouth of the Tagus, Setúbal the mouth of the Sado, the two about 40 km apart. Both rivers and both cities are in clear view from the castle; and the view in both directions stretches a considerable distance farther.
All told, the view from the castle covers about a fourth of the country. Medieval occupants could see invading armies or Viking raiders in plenty of time to plan their defenses. For the modern tourist, it’s a glorious panorama of olive groves, vineyards, charming villages and, oh yeah, one of Europe’s major cities.
The castle also contains a little restaurant where we had lunch. The proprietors are a young couple; she does the cooking, he runs the front of the house. When we asked him for a recommendation, he insisted we have the Queijo do Azeitou – “the best cheese in the world!” – and of course the local wine which is required to wash down the cheese. He also pushed the daily special, pizza.
The order was three pizzas with different toppings worthy of Wolfgang Puck’s best efforts. At the end of the meal, the lady chef came out to ask how we liked it. When we assured her it was delicious, she went back in the kitchen and brought out another entire order for us to eat. As she walked away from delivering it, she called over her shoulder, “You have to get fat in Portugal.”
So, after gorging ourselves on two lunches for the price of one, we tried to work it off by crawling over the castle some more, climbing a narrow circular stairway carved out of a nook in the walls. I reached the main room in the keep and took a look, then came back down, thinking Barbara was right behind me.
I waited for her down on the main battlement, started to worry after several minutes went by. I began to wonder if she hadn’t fallen down or something. Just as I was about to go back in and look for her, I heard a noise above me. She was looking down at me from the highest point in the tower, which I hadn’t realized was even accessible.
“How’d you get up there?” I called.
She answered me in a very strange tone of voice, speaking in Portuguese but a weird kind of Portuguese. It sounded something like, “Speak to your queen like that at risk of your tongue, lowly subject!”
At first, I didn’t think this particularly strange; Barbara says this kind of thing to me all the time. But as my vision adjusted to the sight of her, it looked like she had some kind of shimmery aura about her. I figured it was the sun’s reflection, but she appeared to be wearing armor.
“What’s that you’re wearing?”
“Just the standard cocktail hour battle dress. What’s it to you, worm?”
Suddenly, it hit me. In my imagination, Barbara had been transformed into the image of Teresa, the mad queen mother of King Afonso. Teresa had taken a series of lovers to whom her son objected, and the two eventually went to war against each other with their respective armies. Naturally, I recognized her from her ancient publicity portraits.
“How’d you get up there, anyway?” I asked again.
“The secret passageway.”
“It’s a secret, you ninny.”
Clearly, I had to take action here. I looked around and saw a siege ladder lying conveniently nearby. It still had the IKEA tag on it. I recognized it from the Medieval Fortress Collection section of the catalog.
Throwing it against the wall, I scaled it in an instant, hopped over the wall, and tossed aside the defenders as though they were blades of grass. I confronted The Queen/Teresa/Barbara, whereupon she summoned up a great battle axe and cleaved me upon the head.
When I came to, she was standing over me, but she seemed to have lost the suit of armor and thankfully, the weaponry.
“Did you hear me? I said we need to leave.”
“Did we drive out the invaders?”
“I thought we were taking the bus.”
“I feel cleaved upon the head.”
“ The pizza’s kind of acting on me, too.”
“Let’s get outta here.”
We found our way back down the tower, and I saw there was indeed a hidden staircase in the walls, which I had missed but Barbara had climbed to the top. The trip back to Setúbal was uneventful.
But I had this really terrible headache the rest of the afternoon.