What was the best part of my recent trip to Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland?
People have asked me the question, and that has to be my answer. Out of many remarkable experiences this one stands out for the majesty of the site–and for the unexpected thrill.
Imagine these towers whole. Step back 3,000 or 4,000, maybe even 5,000 years and imagine the watchful warriors of western Iberia holding power over a vast region from this lofty citadel overlooking the rolling hills and the sea north of today’s Lisbon, Portugal. Iberian characters in my series ruled here about 3,400 years ago.
Even the name sounds exotic, magical, pronounced zam´-boo-zhol.
I learned about this mysterious citadel when I was well into writing my fifth book in the series. Some of my main characters live on the south shore of Ireland, where warriors from Iberia have been stealing their children for slaves. I set up my fictional scenario in the beginning with only two tribes of Iberia being advanced enough to have seagoing ships that could reach Ireland, one on Iberia’s west coast (now in Portugal), one on the east (now in Spain). Imagine my surprise when I kept digging for information and learned that scholars believe there actually were only two city-states in the Iberian peninsula that enjoyed advanced civilizations during the period of my stories, one on the west coast, one east. When I read that I sat back in my chair. I had just made that up and it turned out to be true. Hm-m… Okay then.
The western culture was centered at Castro do Zambujal, the formidable citadel shown here. It had become a major setting for my books, and I needed to see this place. After leaving Greece this was the first research stop on my itinerary in Portugal.
I booked a room at Torres Vedras, the modern city nearest to Zambujal. Unable to find information beforehand on how to visit the site, which lay in the countryside a few miles from town, I inquired at the hotel desk soon after my arrival. The young woman at the desk said I would probably have to take a taxi out there, but she could arrange that with a young driver who spoke excellent English. She didn’t know of any tours but suggested I ask at the museum across the square.
At the museum I asked the woman at the entrance if they had any tours to Zambujal. “Oh, no!” she said. “You can’t go to Zambujal now. The archeologists are working there. You’ll have to come back in September.”
I bent toward her, insistent. “That’s not going to work. I came here all the way from the US. I can’t come back in September. I need to see it now.”
I told her about my books and that I needed to see and feel this place and its setting so I could describe it. A man stepped up and I repeated my situation to him. We began talking about the importance of the site. Somewhere in there he stepped away and returned to tell me he had phoned Sónia Cravo, the head of the archeological project there.
He said I could take a taxi out to the edge of the site, take my pictures, and leave. Sónia might be willing to see me for a moment. She might not. I agreed. At least I would see the setting.
The man, perhaps sensing my disappointment, led me into the museum to show me a model of the site and pictures and many artifacts found there–pottery, tools, weapons, gold, and more. They did have a fine exhibit on Zambujal, and he was obviously quite proud of it. He introduced himself as Carlos, and we talked about the history, sharing our enthusiasm for that.
Back at the hotel I learned that the young taxi driver who spoke English was not available. An older man would drive me out to Zambujal. He didn’t speak English but the woman at the hotel would explain everything to him before we left. We agreed on a price for him to take me there, wait a few minutes while I took pictures, then return.
Wind whipped the car, carrying droplets of mist, as he drove over the green slopes and up the steep incline to the lofty site where archeologists in bright vests scrambled over the ancient stonework.
We parked nearby and a fellow strode toward us. I got out to explain that Carlos from the museum had said I could come take a few pictures. “Could I talk to Sónia?” I asked.
He left, and soon an attractive woman in a bright vest stepped across a rocky path toward me, dark hair blowing in the steady wind. She greeted me and I told her I was researching for my books with settings at Zambujal. A young man in a vest approached and she smiled. “Fábio speaks good English. He will go with us so he can explain.” She had been concerned about her own English. That was her hesitation in seeing me.
Fábio’s face lit up when he welcomed me, introducing himself as Fábio Rocha. “Fábio means wall and Rocha means rock,” he said, “wall from the rocks. What could I be but an archeologist?”
We all laughed. They began showing me the perimeter of the site where low rocks marked the line of the outer walls, and we took pictures of each other.
The wind never stopped, although thankfully the drizzle did.
As they led me through the site, pointing out the bases of the round towers and other features, they talked about their work there and I described my stories and how I hoped to use this setting, wondering if my ideas fit into the reality of their findings. They occasionally spoke together in Portuguese, and he relayed what she was saying. I showed them a photo I had just taken of the model at the museum, and they told me how the current walls fit into that whole.
They wished they could show me the inside, which they said was the most interesting, but that seemed to be off limits. Then Sónia rushed away. Fábio said she was going to see if the local authority would allow them to take me inside. Sónia hurried back, face aglow. They could take me in. We were all excited.
By that time they had been with me for almost half an hour. I glanced occasionally at my taxi driver who was strolling back and forth by his car, but I couldn’t give this up now.
They led me through the main South Gate into the interior of Zambujal. I felt like an honored guest. The gate gave me a sense of the restrictive nature of the place with its thick high walls and narrow passageway. I imagined my antagonist strutting into his domain, and my protagonist running down a narrow corridor, buffeted between her desires and fears.
Once inside, Fábio offered me a hand. “These rocks aren’t steady,” he said. Not only had I stepped into the inner workings of the archeological project, some of the surfaces were a bit challenging. We climbed to the top of a wall–wide by the standards of most walls, but narrow when you start walking across and look down on both sides. I readily grabbed a helpful hand.
We came out on top of walls overlooking the inner sanctum where the ancient Iberians had created loopholes for archers to shoot through, still plainly visible. This would have been the citadel’s last defense, where the elites could hole up if attackers ever managed to storm the outer walls. More walls were added over the years in several phases. It was amazing to see this enclosure still so complete after thousands of years.
By the time we left the interior Sónia and Fábio had been with me almost an hour. I thanked them profusely for the time they were giving me. Fábio said, “Why do we do this work if we don’t share it with the people? This is why we do it.” I so appreciated that sentiment, and their generosity.
We exchanged contact information and they invited me to write and ask if I have any questions. When I did write to thank them they wrote me back and repeated that kind offer. I was thrilled. I gained so much in that time with them, between the feel of the place and the discussion of where my story fit in. But their warmth surrounded me as well. I felt a little sorry my Iberians were the bad guys, although Fábio laughed about that, and I assured them there would be good people there too.
The last picture on the site shows Sónia looking across the walls to the hilly countryside below–and my taxi waiting. Fábio said you could see the ocean from there on a clear day. At the time of my story the sea filled one of the valleys and formed a narrow bay that came close to Zambujal, where it might have offered shelter for ships.
I apologized to the taxi driver for my long stay and promised I would pay more than we agreed. The numbers had ticked up on his meter. Although he didn’t speak English, he understood.
Back in Torres Vedras we settled on a price that made us both happy. It had been worth every euro.
I also went back to the museum to thank Carlos for his help, and he was delighted to hear about my wonderful tour.
Zambujal shall always remain for me a magic place.
NEXT: Falling Back in Time