Exploring "the Land of Discovery"
Many Queen's alumni who live in Canada look forward to an annual vacation
in sunnier climes. Each April, for the past four years now, Joanne Hunter, Artsci'80, Ed'81, and her husband have enjoyed the sun and hospitality of one of Europe's quaintest holiday destinations.
After a busy winter operating our bed-and-breakfast business in the scenic Gatineau hills just north of Ottawa, it’s time for our annual vacation. Each April since 2006, it’s been the country of Portugal that has beckoned us.
My husband and I spend all winter anticipating that country’s gorgeous beaches, delicious seafood, welcoming faces, castles, convents & monasteries. In our fast-paced world, it no longer takes many weeks to sail across the Atlantic, as intrepid Portuguese explorers did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We can now fly directly from Toronto to Lisbon in about six hours. The time is well spent.
The spell of Portugal begins in the soft syllables of a Mediterranean language of one of Europe’s smallest and oldest countries.
On previous visits we had begun to discover Portugal, in our own humble way. The magic of the Moorish castle of Silves, wild beauty of the cliffs of Sagres, the evocative Temple of Diana in Evora, mysteries of Sintra, the palace of Estoi, (which recently has been turned into a pousada, a luxury hotel) the beauty of Queluz summer palace had invited us back to unravel more of the skein.
An ocean-view apartment in the golf resort of Praia D’el Rey is our fortress base. A small Volkswagen Polo rental car is our steed.
Off we ride to our first destination. The ancient walled town of Obidos beckons from the peak of a hill. I fall in love. It’s not just the castle, the museums, the gilded churches and chapels tiled with blue azulejos and hung with precious artwork, the red clay-tiled roofs, the cobbled narrow streets, or the fragrant wisteria and geraniums adorning walls and windows.
Obidos has been the gift of Portuguese kings to their queens. It is a queen’s dowry, straight out of a fairy tale. Obidos is also a microcosm of Portuguese history: founded by Celts, taken by Romans, then by Visigoths, and falling into Moorish hands in the 8th century. In 1148, Afonso Henriques, first King of Portugal, took Obidos from the Moors on January 11: a date still remembered each year as a municipal holiday. In 1444 the church of Santa Maria was the venue for the wedding of a 10-year-old prince to his eight-year-old princess. The couple later ruled Portugal as King Afonso V and Queen Isabel. Tourism is now the town’s trade.
We are lucky enough to experience traditional gatherings with sacred processions and concerts for Holy Week, attended by the local populace. Roman Catholicism is the religion of more than 90 per cent of the Portugese people, and religious events are well attended.
Portugal is historically known for Port wine, developed in the upper Douro area, initially for 17th-century English taste buds. These days, the country ranks sixth in the world of wine production, with more than 200 indigenous varieties of grapes, grown in diverse microclimates and soil-types.
Being in the heart of the Estramadura wine region, we visit one of the oldest estates, Quinta do Sanguinhal. In the terraced field, organically grown vines are beginning to bud. Roses planted in the vineyard act as early warning devices for pests and diseases. Back at the Quinta, we sample varieties of wines, and purchase a special variety of their aromatic red wine, aged for eight years in huge wooden casks of French oak.
There are more UNESCO World Heritage Sites per capita in Portugal than anywhere else in Europe, a proud Portuguese waiter has informed us.
We drive 100 kilometers to discover three giants of exaltation: the great Cistercian Abbey of Alcobaça, the Dominican monastery at Batalha, and the Convent of Christ at Tomar. All three sites are monumental Portuguese Gothic, with wonderful examples of Manueline architecture. Carvings of coral, shells, anchors, ships, armillary navigation spheres, twisting ropes and crosses of the Knights’ Templar leap from facades and pediments.
In the Dominican abbey at Batalha, we find the tomb of King John the First lying hand-in-hand with English-born Queen Philippa of Lancaster, and four of their children, including the intrepid explorer Henry the Navigator. The magnificent chapel sings of past glories. The incredible structures draw us into their history, tell their magical tales and leave us in awe.
To plan your own voyage of discovery to Portugal there are travel guides aplenty; Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Eye Witness are our favorites. For further in-depth understanding of a fascinating country, I recommend reading The Portuguese, The Land and its People, by Marion Kaplan, published by Carcanet.
Joanne and her husband Jim Fitzgibbons own and operate Les Trois Érables Bed & Breakfast in Wakefield, QC. You can contact Joanne, via email her at email@example.com, or visit her website at www.lestroiserables.com.
Photos courtesy of Joanne Hunter