September 17, 2012

After breakfast this morning, my dad and I took off to explore the castle at the top of the hill while my mom went swimming in the pool. We made our circuitous way upwards, walking the narrow streets as they spiraled ever higher, and eventually found our way among the ruins.

In the US, anything of any historical significance sits behind ropes and stanchions, guardrails and Plexiglas. If there is any risk involved, these barriers increase tenfold, lest anyone injure themselves and then sue the institution. It has been my experience in Europe that artifacts are much more accessible to visitors, and that safety standards are WAY below OSHA’s guidelines. Case in point, when my dad and I found ourselves among the ruins of the castle, we were surprised to discover that we could just explore… no entry fees, no educational plaques… just a bunch of ancient rooms with trees growing through the windows, staircases that lead nowhere, rooms with collapsed ceilings, and holes in the floor that dropped down twenty feet. Needless to say, IT WAS AWESOME. I scampered around while my dad moved ponderously from room to room, his chin in his hand, making guesses as to what happened in each place. I eventually found a ramp that lead down a tunnel, and so I climbed into the passageway and began making my way downward. It was magical to come upon set of crumbling stone steps at the end of the passageway, which I descended with help from light from my cell phone (hello, anachronism). Seeing light at the end of the tunnel, I eventually came to a small door that opened out onto a promontory over the village. Duuuuuuude.

We eventually left Óurem and made our way toward Tomar. Something you should know about my dad: he has an impeccable sense of direction. (He can point to north without a moment’s hesitation even in the basement of a building, after having walking through a labyrinth of hallways. He once told me that someone showed him north when he was a kid, and he’s just always remembered his location in relation to that point.) Something else you should know about my dad: he’s obsessed with GoogleEarth. Like, obsessed. He has, believe it or not, “driven” down every road that we are taking in Portugal. What’s more, he has memorized all of the routes and landmarks. So, as we drive, it is not uncommon for my dad — WHO HAS NEVER BEEN TO THIS COUNTRY — to say “oh, yes, this looks familiar; we just need to continue on past the water tower and then take a right onto the A3.” He’s a savant.

We spent the early afternoon exploring Tomar, which was the medieval stronghold for the Knights Templar, and built around 1160. If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code or seen the movie or even heard of the book or the movie, then the Order of the Knights Templar is probably on your radar. According to Dan Brown, the Knights Templar were the guardians of the Holy Grail. (Most scholars agree that, though the Knights Templar likely did have many important religious relics in their possession, the Grail was not one of them.) Historically, the Knights Templar are known by their white mantles and red crosses, fearless fighting of the Moors, and active participants in the Crusades.

After the Order of the Knights Templar was dissolved in 1312 (due to King Philip IV of France being a real jerkface and burning a bunch of them at the stake after accusing them of anti-Christian beliefs just to get out of a debt… jerk…) Tomar was taken over by the Order of Christ. (Those are the guys who, under Prince Henry the Navigator, mapped large parts of the unchartered seas and found seaward routes to many foreign lands.)

It was really fun to wander through the whole stronghold, going from cloisters to cell to refectory to chapel to practice fields and a thousand other places. My mother, father, and I all got lost several times, only to spot one another on another level and yell and wave and try to find each other again.

My dad then wanted to see Batalha, a very large and very architecturally impressive church and monastery that was relatively close-by, but my mom and I were monastery’d out, so we admired the building from the outside and ate ice cream while my dad explored.

We then drove south to Évora, which had us in the car for about three hours, during which time we all got a little punchy. Highlights include my father singing “That’s My Tractor” to the tune of “It’s My Party” and the following dialogue between my parents:

Dad: Are you awake, Peggy?
Mom: Yeah, I’m awake.
Dad: I miss you!
Mom: I miss you too. But I didn’t miss you last night. We’re gonna stop and get some BreatheRight strips and then you’re gonna shove ‘em up your nose and up your ass before you go to bed.”

We're spending the night in another Pousada, this one an old convent (we’re in Cell 5). It’s a pretty classy joint and we are… not so classy… so we had a very silly dinner in which a waiter poured my mother’s 7-Up like it was an expensive bottle of wine, our water bottle was kept in the champagne stand, and we used all of the wrong silverware. Also, since we have been eating dinner so much earlier than most people here, we were the only ones in the restaurant, which meant that we were waited on by three people, all of whom stayed within ten feet of our table for our entire dinner. Yeah, that was awkward. And led to lots of giggling.

There was some function at the Pousada for which they brought in entertainment, so we snuck out onto the patio after dinner to watch. Évora is a university town, so a bunch of college guys had come to sing traditional Portuguese songs.

Tomorrow: exploring Évora and then Meia Praia!