Friday, 30 December 2016

TENERIFE CARNIVAL: THE EUROVISION THONG CONTEST

Holidaymakers who flock to Tenerife’s southern beach resorts in February know they can wander around in shorts and T-shirts without fear of catching a chill. February is also carnival time in the island’s northern capital, Santa Cruz, where visitors in shorts and T-shirts feel distinctly over-dressed when they see the skimpy costumes many of the revellers wear. Party animals will savour every second of this sassy, sensational, fortnight-long blowout that kicks off again in a few weeks’ time, so shed your inhibitions – and as many layers as you dare – and dance the night away.

Dancers entertain scores of thousands of spectators lined 10-deep along the promenade
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to twerk we go
It’s the Pope’s round, so he leaves me in charge of the cameras and goes off to get the pints. In front of me, elbows flapping and hips swaying, half-a-dozen Snow Whites with hairy chests begin dancing in the sun to ‘Macarena!’. All around, countless zombies, Elvis Presleys and señoritas of questionable gender in flouncy flamenco frocks – red, yellow, pink with CD-sized purple polka dots – join in. The fun has most definitely begun.

As Los del Rio’s 1993 worldwide hit fades, a nearby church bell begins tolling the midday Angelus, but it’s quickly drowned out as the DJ, concealed by the crowd, segues into Ricky Martin’s ‘Living La Vida Loca’. It’s early, but Santa Cruz de Tenerife is already going carnival-crazy, with 100,000-odd – some very odd – people on the streets. Most of them appear to be queuing for drinks in the bursting-at-the-seams bars of Plaza de San Francisco, which is probably why His Holiness is tak­ing so long coming back with the beers.

Overlooking the proceedings with a fixed frown is the bronze bust of publisher Patricio Estevanez y Murphy (1850-1926), Tenerife-born but with a mammy of Irish descent. I can almost hear the life-long teeto­taller tut-tutting as revellers set down their cervezas on his stone plinth to take photos or top-up their inflatable boobs with big blasts of boozy breath.

To my left, Wonder Woman, sporting a magnificent Mexican bandido moustache, is eating the face off of a bearded Xena: Warrior Princess. It’s rude to stare, so I turn away and immediately spot Marilyn Monroe twerking with cowgirl Jessie from Toy Story (they’re fellas too). Ten minutes later in the gents’ toilet in Restaurante Plaza 18, I’m flanked at the urinals by Princess Elsa from Disney’s ‘Frozen’ and Carmen Miranda, with her – well, his – five-a-day piled high atop a pink turban. It’s mad and getting madder by the minute, and I don’t need Sherlock Holmes to tell me I’ve strayed into gay territory.

My throat’s parched, so I go looking for the pontiff, who should have returned by now. I eventually find him, sharing a plate of chorizo and Manchego cheese and talking papal bull with Count Dracula – who’s drinking my pint. At €2 a pop, I won’t be hammering a stake through his heart, but it means I’ll have to join a long queue to quench my thirst. On the other hand . . . I put down the cameras, sidle up to Patricio’s plinth and snaffle a couple of unguarded beers.

No wonder teetotaller Patricio Estevanez y Murphy looks as if he's crying. Below,
Plaza de San Francisco; and Snow White's apple hides her Adam's apple


You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady
Most carnival-goers hire their costumes from pop-up stores that open in the weeks before the celebrations begin, but many put a great deal of thought into creating their own eye-catching and highly original ensembles. Few, however, sit down at a sewing machine – that’s left to their ever-obliging mammies, grannies, aunties and sisters, for whom it’s a labour of love and a matter of fierce family pride.

Top marks for inventiveness go to the guy dressed as a bathroom shower. He’s wrapped from shoulders to fluffy pink-slippered feet in a transparent plastic curtain with blue ducks on it and has rigged up a gardener’s watering can on a pole above his head. When he tugs a cord, the can tilts and drenches him. He’s probably a plumber.

The young female TV reporter doing a vox pop has left little to the imagination in her choice of costume – a Catwoman mask, leopardskin bra, a pair of severely sawn-off Levis and cowboy boots. If she lives with her parents, she definitely didn’t leave the house this morning dressed like that – her dad would have choked on his churros.

The Catwoman TV reporter gets into
the swing of things. Below, you shaved
your chest but forgot your chin; and
Robin Hood (or is it Peter Pan?) gets
a peck from her pal



Loud, a little lewd, but a load of laughs
The fortnight-long carnival isn’t exclusively for locals – visitors from the neighbouring Canary islands and the Spanish mainland plus tourists from throughout Europe and farther afield flock to Tenerife every year to get in on the act, making it a truly international affair.

With the weather being so warm (22C to 24C during my four days on Tenerife, which is normal for the so-called winter), many have chosen to dress down rather than up. There’s no shortage of men wearing only G-strings or those appalling mankini things, which makes Plaza de San Francisco look like the venue for the Eurovision Thong Contest.

People are singing, dancing, laughing, hugging, high-fiving and eating and drinking. It’s all very loud, a bit lewd, but there’s one helluva hooley going on and I’m enjoying every crazy moment. I’m mindful, however, that the big parade – tonight’s is one of many – is a good few hours away. If I hang around here stealing beer, I’ll be fit for nothing (and could get arrested) by the time the first floats set off along the seafront.

Fortunately, I’ve signed up for an afternoon excursion with tour guide Ancor Robaina, who showed me around on a previous visit to Tenerife. On that occasion, during a trip to Mount Teide – an active volcano that last blew its top in 1909 and which at 3,718 metres is Spain’s highest peak – Ancor told me in 10 seconds all I’ll ever need to know about volcanology. “It’s simple,” he said. “An active volcano is full of gas, like a can of beer. Give it a good shake, pull the ringtop and you have an eruption.” That’s the sort of science for dummies that I can understand.

As I step aboard the minibus, Ancor says we’re in for a whale of a time. Failing that, it will be a bottlenose dolphin of a time. Either way, we’re heading south for a seaborne safari and will be back in Santa Cruz an hour before the evening’s entertainment begins.

Mama, Papa and baby potatoes. Below, these friends are clearly having fun in the sun

A pitcher paints a thousand words
We arrive in Puerto Colon, where we stop briefly at some traffic lights in front of the packed terrace of a British bar. Refugees from the rain and cold of more northern climes are topping up their tans – and their glasses, from four-pint pitchers of lager costing €7, according to the chalkboard – while watching Only Fools and Horses on one big screen or the soccer match on the other.

I can’t make out who’s playing, and the team colours worn by the customers offer no clue – just about every English Premier League club is represented. I do a double-take when I spot a group of well-fed worthies in Celtic and Rangers tops, fans of the fiercest footballing rivals in the world, who are clearly relishing each other’s company. This is an extremely rare photo opp, but as I reach for my camera, decorum prevails and it remains on the seat beside me – what happens in Puerto Colon stays in Puerto Colon.

An hour later, I’m sitting at the pointy end of a yacht, tucking into tapas and sipping a San Miguel as we head out to sea in search of the whales and dolphins that will, Ancor and skipper Gonzalo assure me, put in an appearance when we reach their feeding ground three miles offshore.

A thrill for the kids on a seaborne safari off Puerto Colon as a pilot whale crosses the bow
Here’s a breathtaking spectacle if ever there was one
More than a third of the world’s 80-odd cetacean species are present year-round or pass through the waters off southwest Tenerife during their annual migrations. The resident bottlenose dolphins and around 600 short-finned pilot whales are the most frequently seen, and sperm whales are not uncommon.

Bottlenose dolphins (TV’s Flipper was one) are remarkably intelligent. They’re also remarkably friendly towards, and protective of, humans. In November 2004, four lifeguards were swimming 100 metres off the beach at Whangarei, New Zealand’s northern-most city, when they attracted the attention of a great white shark. As it perused the menu, a pod of bottlenose dolphins arrived. While some harried the shark, the others herded the lifeguards close together and surrounded them while they swam back to the safety of the beach.

Gonzalo’s walkie-talkie crackles into life and, after a brief exchange with the skipper of the yacht about 150 metres behind us, he knocks the motor into neutral. “There they are,” he says, and points. Rising and dipping like funfair carousel horses they approach, first a couple, then a dozen or so, charcoal grey and glistening – pilot whales with their bulbous brows, budgerigar beaks and stubby dorsal fins, playing peek-a-boo as they emerge briefly from the brine then slip back beneath the waves to reappear seconds later in even greater numbers.

Ever closer they come, heading straight for the stern, but experience – often propeller-inflicted painful experience – has taught them to steer clear of the business end of a boat. Left and right they veer, scores of them now passing the yacht on either side like motorcycle outriders with a pressing appointment up ahead. They’re so close that I can hear them exhaling – Pffoooooh! Pffoooooh! – as they break the surface to empty and refill their lungs. If any sight can be described as breathtaking, it’s this one. All that’s missing is the David Attenborough voiceover.

The show has no sooner begun than it ends. We bob around for a while, hoping for an encore, but that’s it – plenty of pilot whales, but no sign of dolphins. I’m a smidgen disappointed, because Flipper was a staple of my Saturday morning telly when I was a tiddler, but I’ve had the promised whale of a time – and another awaits back in Santa Cruz.

Some of the 600 resident pilot whales come up for air three miles off Puerto Colon
That’s the sway to do it
Those who take part in the city’s spectacular parades along the waterfront spend 12 months preparing and rehearsing for the highlight of their year. Community groups and social clubs provide most of the flamboyant floats that cost up to €20,000 to decorate. These mobile marvels are accompanied by march­ing bands and dancers who take nearly three hours to cover the two-kilometre course as they sashay, sway and samba their way past cheering crowds lined 10-deep on both sides of the promenade.

The carnival, which dates from the early 1600s, is ostentatious and can be outrageous, which is why the Catholic Church never missed a chance to denounce it. Diminutive despot Francisco Franco drove it underground for decades, but when he died in 1975 it bounced back with a vengeance, bigger and brasher than ever. Today, it’s second only in size and reputa­tion to the daddy of them all, in Rio de Janeiro, with which Santa Cruz is twinned. Don’t, however, say that within earshot of someone from Gran Canaria, where they believe their carnival parade makes Tenerife’s look like a funeral procession.

I get a chance before the big show begins to chat briefly with Carnival Queen Cecilia Navarro Arteaga, who’s signing autographs and posing for selfies with star struck little girls. Every niña on Tenerife dreams of one day being the Carnival Queen, so in their eyes, 25-year-old Cecilia is the biggest celebrity on the planet. She’s also refreshingly unassuming. “I had to be pushed into entering the competition,” she says shyly. “I’m just an office administrator, so being chosen as the Carnival Queen is very, very special – it allows me to be someone.”

You can be anyone or anything you want to be – even a bathroom shower – at the electrifying and sometimes shocking Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a party that the easily-offended and intolerant would be wise to avoid. This is for lovers of life lived large, a chance to dress up (or all but strip off) and revel in two weeks of unbridled and unabashed joy.

Beautiful Carnival Queen Cecilia Navarro Arteaga leads the fabulous parade of floats
Friends in high places
I spend an hour walking alongside the slow-moving floats, led by the one on which Cecilia in all her feathered finery blows kisses to the adoring crowd. When everyone halts for a breather, I go on ahead and catch up with the Pope at the hotdog stand where we’ve arranged to meet. I’m glad to see he’s changed out of his white Vatican vestments.

“I had to,” he says. “My cassock ended up all spattered with red wine and beer. It looked like I’d been playing paintball. Anyway, meet my new amigos, Andres and Paco.” He introduces two firefighters whose uniforms are too real to be carnival costumes. “Paco says we can stand on top of their fire engine and take photos of the parade.” We follow them up the ladder on the side of the truck and for the next hour enjoy unobstructed views from our elevated vantage point, thanks to the Pope having friends in high places.

The marching bands are greeted with wild enthusiasm as they batter big bass drums, snare drums, calypso drums and tom toms and blow trumpets, trombones, tubas and referees’ whistles, but the loudest cheers are for a troupe of the cutest ever tiny-tot majorettes playing yazoos and twirling batons.

The reverberating rhythm thrums up through the soles of my shoes and sets my toes tapping. It isn’t long before the Pope and I are dancing, like Laurel and Hardy outside the saloon in ‘Way Out West’, only on top of a fire tender. And so the first of what will be several long nights goes on – and on.

Diamonds are clearly a girl's best friend for Cecilia's dame of honour Tamara Siverio 
The afternoon after the night before
The Pope and I meet for breakfast on the terrace of a cafe near our hotel. Actually, for breakfast read brunch (it’s 1.30pm) and for Pope read antichrist, because every time I flick over a page of the daily La Opinion he winces and asks me to keep the noise down. I vaguely recall hitting the hay at 4am; he says he turned in at seven.

Highlights of yesterday’s festivities fill the TV screen above the door. I recognise Plaza de San Francisco, with the kids swinging from the obliging branches of its willow tree; I see Disney characters behaving un-Disney-characteristically; the gorgeous Robin Hood is firing sucker-tipped arrows from her bow; and there’s . . . “Oh! Look! You’re on the telly!”

The Pope looks, and there he is in his stained white robes, skullcap askew, with two heavy artillery Canons hanging from his neck, being interviewed by Catwoman and answering her questions in highly-amusing but embarrassing Spanglish. A pun-tastic caption reads “El Papa . . . razzi”. The other customers point at the TV and laugh but fail, thank goodness, to recognise the scrubbed-up celebrity in their midst. The Pope on the screen has a twinkle in his eye; the one sitting opposite me groans and sinks his head in his hands.

“I need a beer,” he says. “Want one?” Hmm. Our wine-tasting visit to the Casa de Vino y de la Miel in El Sauzal isn’t until 4pm. The sun’s cooking my deforested scalp. There’s no bust of old misery guts Patricio to give us a dirty look. What the hell. “Yeah, go on,” I say. It’s the Pope’s round, so he leaves me in charge of the cameras and goes off to get the pints.

The Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife is as much fun for the little ones as it is for adults
FLY
Ryanair and Aer Lingus operate year-round from Dublin to Tenerife Reina Sofia airport in the south of the island. See www.ryanair.com and www.aerlingus.com

CONNECT
For independent travellers, bus service 111, which leaves from outside the arrivals hall, connects Reina Sofia airport with party capital Santa Cruz (60km). A one-way ticket costs €9.35. A taxi costs around €65.

STAY
I stayed at the five-star Grand Hotel Mencey in Santa Cruz, which is a 15-minute stroll from the seafront and has a renowned spa, one of the best-equipped hotel gyms in Europe, a pool and really nice staff. See www.grandhotelmencey.com

FURTHER INFORMATION
The 2017 Carnaval de Santa Cruz de Tenerife runs from February 22 to March 5. For further information on visiting Tenerife during the carnival or at any other time of the year see www.webtenerife.com and www.spain.info. Bear in mind that the Canary Islands will welcome an all-time record number of tourists in 2017, so book your flights and accommodation as soon as possible.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

PORTUGAL: ROLL UP FOR A MAGICAL HISTORY TOUR

A week in a beach resort or a city break in Lisbon or Porto never fail to satisfy excitement-seeking visitors to Portugal. Venture inland, however, and you’ll find a chilled-out world that’s steeped in history and where life is lived in the slow lane. The sparsely-populated Alentejo region is dotted with charming whitewashed towns whose residents welcome strangers like old friends. That said, you can avoid returning home with a broken nose by remembering when approaching a door that “puxe” means “pull”. Alentejo exerts an irresistible pull, and that’s why I can’t wait to go back.

The Chapel of Bones in Evora looks like something out of a horror movie
Flash (almost bang, wallop), what a picture
The first time I visited Portugal I accidentally gatecrashed a funeral and began taking pictures of an old man in an open coffin. I’d been photographing the tombs of long-dead bishops in the bowels of Braga Cathedral, so when I climbed some stairs and saw him laid out I thought he was another grandee. He wasn’t – he was somebody’s granddad. I might have got away with a fool’s pardon, only I hadn’t turned off the flash and nearly got lynched.

I’m reminded of that near-death experience when, on my return to Portugal, I wander into a chapel whose walls and pillars are plastered from floor to ceiling with the ornamentally arranged skulls, femurs, tibias and vertebrae of more than 5,000 medieval skeletons.

The 16th century Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in the 15th century Church of Sao Francisco in Evora is a macabre magnet for tourists visiting this ancient city in the middle of Alentejo. It’s the work of a monk who persuaded the parochial powers-that-be that the 42 local monastic cemeteries were occupying a lot of land that could be put to better use. Having obtained permission to open the graves, he had the chapel built and then called in the decorators and told them to get busy with the bones. His name is not recorded, but he was probably known to his fellow Franciscans as Creepy Felipe.

Job done, he then reminded visitors that none of us is long for this world by having the words “Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos” (“Respect each mouldering bone, this sacred cell awaits thine own”) inscribed above the chapel entrance. As might be expected in a place barnacled with bones, there’s a sign that reads “Cães não permitidos” (“No dogs allowed”).

Above, the Chapel of Bones. Below, the pousada in Beja


Sao far, sao good
My mid-October visit to Alentejo is blessed with fine weather – at least 22C every afternoon (40C-plus isn’t unusual in high summer) – and begins with a scenic drive from Lisbon to Beja, where I’ll dine and sleep in the Pousada Sao Francisco. This former convent joined the state-owned but privately-run pousadas chain in 1992, though it dates from 1268.

The convent acquired a chapel dedicated to Saint Louis in 1304. It was the gift of a grateful King Dinis who, the year before, almost met a grisly  better make that grizzly – end when a bear took exception to being hit in the backside by one of his arrows. As the ferocious beast set about making a meal of the monarch, Dinis cried out to the saint, whose intervention allowed him to kill it and live to hunt another day.

The 34-room Sao Francisco is one of nine pousadas in Alentejo and 35 nationwide, each occupying a centuries-old former convent, monastery, palace or castle. They’re great value, as is everything in Portugal, as an after-dinner visit to the late-night Country Bar in town confirms. We’re six, and I buy the first round of four pints of lager, a bottle of cider and a gin and tonic, which in Dublin would cost €35. In Beja I pay €15.

Sao Francisco is the first of five pousadas I’ll visit. If the accommodation, food and staff in the others prove to be anywhere near as good, I’ll be struggling for suitable superlatives.

Cork trees stripped bare of their bark are to be seen everywhere in Alentejo
Shuttle missions and shuttlecocks
The road from Beja to Evora passes the former’s redundant airport, which was for many years on NASA’s list of emergency landing places for the space shuttle, thanks to its 3.5km runway. Aspiring astronauts (and their dads) went to bed each night during shuttle missions praying that a minor mishap would bring the orbiter to town, but it wasn’t to be. That’s a pity, because the runway is in the parish of Cuba, which would have made for some memorable headlines.

Wherever you drive in Alentejo, which occupies one-third of Portugal but is home to only 7pc of the population, it won’t be long before you see vast expanses of cork oak forests, the tree trunks from the branches down denuded of bark (it grows back) and rust-coloured, as if tanned by long exposure to the sun. Portugal is the world’s biggest cork producer, accounting for half of the 200,000 tonnes harvested globally each year, and most of the trees are in Alentejo.

Every autumn, tens of thousands of black-footed porco preto pigs from all over Portugal and neighbouring Spain are trucked to these forests to feast and grow fat on the acorns that fall from the trees. These are the pigs from which comes the super-expensive dry-cured presunto ham that’s carved in wafer-thin slices from hind legs that can cost €500 each.

From centuries of experience the Portuguese have become experts in processing cork, to the point where it can be used as the raw material for a multitude of the most unlikely products. Visit a souvenir shop and you’ll see cork postcards (there was a special issue of cork postage stamps a few years ago), cork slippers, cork baseball caps, cork umbrellas and even cork wedding dresses.

In one shop in Evora there’s a mannequin with a magnifying glass in one hand and a curly pipe in the other. On its head is a deerstalker, and covering the body from shoulders to mid-shins is an overcoat-cum-cape, both fashioned from fabric-thin cork – a Sherlock Holmes outfit. It’s hard to decide which is crazier – that someone has spent many hours making this ensemble or that a customer might pay €600 for it, because that’s the price on the label.

On a smaller scale, the best shuttlecock tips are made of cork, and cork plugs are used by Scotsmen to check for leaks in their bagpipes and to muffle them while practising late at night.

The Pousada dos Loios in Evora, outside and in. Photos: Luis Seco

You win some, you Loios some
There’s great excitement in Evora’s 36-room Pousada dos Loios, a converted 15th century convent. Somebody in Portugal has won 190 million (and will have to surrender €38 million of it in tax) in the EuroMillions draw, and a young waiter is sent scurrying off to check the staff syndicate’s ticket. It’s not long before he returns. Unfortunately, the record jackpot will be banked 145km away in Castelo Branco. Fortunately, the chef and his colleagues won’t be resigning on the spot and drinking the town dry, so I’ll get some lunch.

Every pousada has a posh but reasonably-priced restaurant that’s open to guests and non-residents. All pride themselves on local specialities, and each chef has his or her own way of preparing and serving the ubiquitous bacalhau – salted and air-dried north Atlantic cod that’s imported mainly from Norway. You’d think that having eaten bacalhau for centuries the Portuguese would be fed up with it by now, but no – they get through more salt cod than any other nation.

It’s said there are 350-odd bacalhau recipes, but cooks will scoff and tell you there are many times more. Future settlers on Mars, where a year lasts 687 days, could tuck in to a different version of bacalhau for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day from one Hogmanay to the next and they still wouldn’t have tried them all. I’ve eaten salt cod several times and enjoyed it, but when it appears on every menu at every meal there comes a point when you start to yearn for double egg and chips.

On a wall close to the Dos Loios reception desk there’s a big hand-crafted carpet that took three years to make and is valued at €50,000, which would explain why it’s not on the floor. It’s impressive, but nowhere near as impressive as the ruins of the Roman temple dating from the second century AD that sits right outside the pousada’s front door.

The Roman temple right outside the Pousada dos Loios
That’f eafy for you to fay
I’m tempted to wax lyrical about the temple and its 14 granite columns and Corinthian capitals, but for entertainment value, Cork-born architect James Cavanah Murphy (1760 to 1814) can’t be beaten. In his book, Travels In Portugal In The Years 1789 And 1790, published in London in 1795, Murphy – who had either a speech impediment or a tipsy typesetter – writes:

“This ftructure is faid to be the remains of a temple dedicated to Diana. The bafe is Attic. The entablature is entirely deftroyed. The reft of the work is in a degree of prefervation fcarcely credible for a monument of itf age. The elegance difplayed has led many to conjecture that the architect was Greek, from a fuppofition that Rome had no artifts competent to defign fo polifhed a fabric. It is the moft eftimable ftructure in Portugal, yet I am forry to add that the ftate of neglect redounds little to the difcernment of the people of Evora.”

This is the same fella who wrote of the Chapel of Bones: “The vifitant is ftruck with furprize, mixed with terror. The walls are lined with human fkulls and bones, fet in a hard cement. The obfcurity of the place, and the proftrate pofture of the pious fupplicants, render the whole a fcene truly awful.”

Murphy’s entitled to his opinion of the temple, which served as an abattoir when he visited, but today it’s a Unesco-protected structure and I think it’s abfolutely fplendid.

The Pousada Jaoa IV in Vila Vicosa, also below


You have been warrened
With a belly full of bacalhau, I bid farewell to Evora and head for Vila Vicosa and the 39-room Pousada Jaoa IV – the 16th century former Convento Real das Chagas de Cristo, or Royal Convent of Christ’s Wounds – whose restaurant serves the weirdest dessert.

The dish is called Manjar das Chagas, which translates as Chagas Delicacy and sounds innocent enough. Its familiar constituents are almonds, eggs, sugar, cinnamon and stringy pumpkin pulp and it’s presented in little cocktail sausage shapes. Those partaking are never told in advance what the ‘secret’ sixth ingredient is, but vegetarians are discreetly advised to order ice cream. Guesses range from marzipan to pineapple to chocolate to cheese, which all are wildly wide of the mark. The secret ingredient is rabbit.

Vila Vicosa’s hedgerows and nearby hills were overrun with rabbits in the days of King Jaoa, and hunters were forever dropping off a brace or two at the convent on their way home. The nuns of the enclosed order were too polite to refuse donations of fresh meat, but when they were being gifted umpteen bags of bunnies every day, it’s unlikely their response was: “Another six dozen rabbits! Our prayers have been answered!” The only thing they were praying for was an outbreak of myxomatosis.

Rabbits weren’t the only cute little creatures deposited in the compartmented revolving drum set sideways in the wall by the convent’s main door, which ensured the nuns had no contact with the outside world. Sometimes, in the dead of night, an unfortunate unmarried young woman or a mother-of-many who couldn’t afford to feed another mouth would leave a newborn baby in the drum. It’s a sad scenario, but the mums no doubt took some solace from knowing that their little one would be cared for by the sisters.

Today, small children in Vila Vicosa are among the best-behaved in Portugal because, at the first sign of a tantrum, the threat of being left in the drum works wonders.

The drum depository in the pousada in Vila Vicosa. Below, the marble quarry

A holey terrifying experience
Saddam Hussein never visited Vila Vicosa. He didn’t have to, because a sizeable chunk of Vila Vicosa went to him in the form of thousands of tons of white, pink, black and green marble that were extracted from the quarry just outside of town.

The late Iraqi despot, whose favourite wine was Portugal’s famous Mateus Rosé, had a penchant for palaces and splurged untold billions of dollars on building 100 of them all over the country he ruled for 24 years. No expense was spared, especially on marble. As far as Saddam’s architects were concerned, the best in the world came from Vila Vicosa, and for several years he was the quarry’s best customer. It’s now Italian-owned, and the Saudis buy more than half of its annual output.

Peering over the edge of the massive, 120-metre-deep hole is at once exciting and terrifying – those giant yellow tipper trucks with tyres twice as tall as the tallest basketball player look like tiny toys as they move around on the bottom. The best way to view them is with a trusty friend gripping the back of your trousers while you lean forward for a look.

The pousada in Estremoz and, below, the elegant interior. Photos: Luis Seco


For cheese a jolly good fellow
Estremoz, which is a 20-minute drive from Vila Vicosa, is also famed for its marble – there’s such an abundance locally that it’s used for everything from kerbs, cobbles and paving stones to ornamental fountains and the doorsteps and window sills of modest homes. Even the whitewash that covers most walls is made from powdered marble.

This eye-candy market town, which is home to 14,000 people, is also home to the imposing Pousada de Santa Rheina Isabel, the former palace of King Dinis and Queen Isabel, which sits on a hill skirted by star-shaped ramparts.

Talking of skirts, Isabel was revered for her kindness to the poor, which she kept secret from the king. She was forever giving them food from the palace kitchens, which she concealed within her voluminous skirts that could comfortably accommodate half-a-dozen loaves and a couple of big cheeses.

One day, however, she loaded a bit too much from the larder and buckled at the knees, like an over-ambitious weightlifter. The suspicious Dinis demanded to know what his queen was hiding beneath her dress. When she reluctantly lifted the hem, as if by magic there was nothing but roses, and for that she was later elevated to the sainthood.

The Santa Rheina Isabel is one of the most magnificent pousadas, with four-poster beds and antique furniture in each of the 33 rooms, including a royal suite, and an elegant restaurant whose tables are festooned with fresh flowers and candelabras. Liberace would have been in his element.

Up the creek with a paddle: kayaking on the River Seda
Wetsuits are the work of the Devil
The quickest way to slip into a wetsuit without your face – and the air – turning blue is to smear yourself from head to toe with olive oil. In the absence of a gallon of extra virgin and an extra-long shoehorn, a wetsuit is as infuriatingly difficult to get into as (I imagine) a straitjacket is to get out of. This I learn as I prepare for an afternoon of kayaking on the River Seda, en route from Estremoz to the Pousada Flor da Rosa in Crato.

Logically, the zip on a wetsuit should run from the navel to the throat, but most zip up the back, which would have been handy to know before I stepped into the changing room. After 10 minutes of grunting, cursing, hopping around on one leg while bent double and falling over, I emerge to howls of laughter and pointing fingers.

Nevertheless, the pleasing thought of paddling three kilometres along a lazy river in beautiful surroundings acts as an antidote to the cruel ridicule. The sun is high in a cloudless sky, kingfishers skim the water like kamikaze pilots on their first (and last) torpedo run and a pair of playful otters frolic on the sandbanks; and then expedition leader Luis Lucas drops the bombshell that we’re going upstream and, what’s more, we’ll be hauling our kayaks up three waterfalls.

Halfway up the second, it dawns on me where I’ve seen this sort of crazy carry-on before – in the 1986 Oscar-winning movie The Mission. Robert De Niro is mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza who, as penance for killing his younger half-brother, drags a net containing his heavy armour and sword through the Amazon jungle and up the Iguaza Falls. I know how he must have felt.

Luis runs the Azenhas da Seda adventure centre (www.azenhasdaseda.com), which provides a range of outdoor activities for daredevils of varying levels of physical ability, most of which will leave you soaked to the skin and exhausted but are great fun.

The historical Pousada Flor da Rosa, my favourite
Aches and plains
The Pousada Flor da Rosa, which sits on an agricultural plain just outside Crato, is a sight for sore eyes, to go with my sore legs, back, neck and arms and screaming calves after the day’s exertions on the river. Dating from 1340 when it was the Portuguese headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, who are better known today as the Knights of Malta, Flor da Rosa has been a monastery, fortress and palace and became a top-class hotel in 1995.

The 24-room pousada is a brawny but beautiful building with thick walls of smoked salmon-coloured stone that look as if cannonballs would bounce off them. If those walls could speak, they’d say: “Ssshh. There are people in here being pampered.”

Dinner is a dream come true, and later in the bar I introduce my fellow kayaking casualties to a drink I first came across while hiding from the lynch mob after that unfortunate photo opp with somebody’s late grandpop. Portugal’s tawny port wine is loved the world over (except by gout sufferers), but the Douro Valley also produces a clear version known as white port. Order a generous measure over ice with tonic and a slice of lime and you’ll never drink G&T again.

Above and below, bedrooms in Pousada Flor da Rosa

No longer a secret
Like Beja’s redundant airport, Alentejo is off the radar, but it isn’t off limits. Fly to Lisbon or Faro, hire a car and, before you know it, you’ll be motoring ever deeper into not so much a land that time forget as one that nobody has bothered much to promote. That’s changing, with the regional tourism board and the pousadas chain working together to put Alentejo on the map.

If you’re up for a magical history tour that delivers big-time on seductive scenery, affordable accommodation, fabulous food and first-class local wines, plan your itinerary around dinner, bed and breakfast in pousadas (none is more than two hours’ drive from another).

We’ve all experienced that weird feeling on arriving somewhere for the first time that we’ve been there before. After four hugely enjoyable days in Alentejo, I’m left wondering why the hell I haven’t been there before. It’s a new phenomenon called Beja vu.

FLY
Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly year-round from Dublin to Lisbon and Faro and seasonally from Cork to Faro. See www.aerlingus.com and www.ryanair.com

STAY
Prices vary from one pousada to another, from around €100 to €200-plus for bed and breakfast for two people sharing. Half-board will add about €50 to the B&B rate. For the best prices (there are special rates for over-55s and a 10pc discount for pre-paid early bookings) deal directly with www.pousadas.pt

For more information see www.visitalentejo.pt and www.visitportugal.pt

I’m grateful to Luis Seco (@VisitEvoraEng) for very kindly providing several of the photos above. Luis is based in Evora and is a great tourism ambassador for his home town and for Alentejo. Check out his website, www.visitevora.net/en/