When you’re already living in the Bronze Age and something appears to be old in the extreme, you have really fallen back in time from our perspective. One of my characters experiences that phenomenon, and when I followed her into Portugal’s interior I fell back with her.
After Zambujal I planned to spend six nights in the charming historic city of Évora in the Alentejo region of central Portugal. I had three focal points–first, the nearby megaliths with their ancient stone circle; second, the Escoural Grotto with its paleolithic cave drawings; and third, the cork oak forests that have played a significant role in the area for millennia. Vanessa, the hostess of my hotel, was arranging tours for all three.
Taking the train, I left the green coastal hills around Zambujal to enter the dryer lands of the interior. But late spring rains had kept the land unusually green for May. I soon began to see sweeping cork oak forests covering the broad plains and rolling hills, the forest floors carpeted with flowers of yellow and white and many shades of blue amid the green. An occasional boulder rose among the wide-spaced trees, reminding me of Portugal’s ancient monuments.
Cromlech of Almendres and Cork Oaks
My tour group for the megaliths met the next morning in downtown Évora, a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, the Solar de Monfalim. Our friendly guide, archeologist Mário Carvalho, welcomed six of us, Canadians, Australians, and two from the US, and we all headed out with his driver in a van. This being my main interest in the Évora vicinity, Vanessa had scheduled it first. She was still having a little trouble with the cork forest visit because another party had cancelled and I would have to pay more. As Mário chatted with us on the way to the stone circle, asking where we’d been and where we were going, I mentioned my uncertain cork forest tour.
“The megaliths are right in the middle of cork oak forests,” he said. He didn’t think I needed another tour. He turned out to be well informed about cork oak trees and harvests, as well as megaliths, and I decided to count this as two tours in one.
When I told him I had been to Zambujal, he was excited to hear about my unexpected visit with Sónia and Fábio. Mário also took an interest in my books and offered to answer any questions he could, now or after I returned home. I was thrilled to find another excellent source.
The stones of Almendres Cromlech struck me with their numbers and their dramatic setting.
This circle has 90 to 100 stones, dancing together in intertwined rings, more than I’d seen in any other stone circle. My camera frame holds only a part of them, looking off to the east. It’s an ellipsis rather than a true circle, Mário told us, and like most, it sits near the top of the slope but not quite at the crest. Besides its size, the Almendres Cromlech carries the power of its age. My character feels that, so I did, just knowing.
It’s older than Stonehenge. Almendres Cromlech dates back 6,000 to 8,000 years. The first bluestone ring of Stonehenge is a young 4,500 years old, the great sarsens even younger.
Many of these stones at Almendres Cromlech bear markings–cups, circles, half-circles, curved lines like shepherd crooks. Similar markings have been found in other archaic settings.
Mário contemplated possible meanings, the circular lines representing the moon and the shepherd crooks having to do with grasping truth in the same way a shepherd grasps his sheep. Many scholars believe the stone circles helped their builders gauge the astronomical events of the passage of the moon and sun.
The single Almendres Menhir stands out from the others, far enough that we had to drive to reach it because we couldn’t walk through the property owner’s fields.
This solitary stone was integral to the whole as it provided alignment for determining the equinoxes and solstices.
From that site we went on to the Dolmen of Zambujeiro. Curious at the name which sounds so much like Zambujal, I asked Mário its meaning. “Zambujeiro means a wild olive tree,” he said.
“So, what does Zambujal mean?”
“A group of wild olive trees.”
Ah ha! I had wondered and searched online but never found the definition. I asked if they would have had cork oaks at Zambujal at the time of my story, and he assured me they would have. I was glad to hear that because I needed a large gnarly tree for a grisly scene there.
The trunk of the above tree lies in shadow, but if you look closely at the area just above the crotch you’ll see that below a defined line the bark is darker and redder. That part has been stripped of cork. The tree remains unharmed, but can’t be harvested again for another nine years. Portugal is the primary provider of the world’s cork, so the cork in your wine bottle may well have come from a tree like this in Portugal. These mighty trees can live for a couple of hundred years and add beauty as well as value to the land.
The trees are fire resistant but owners still carefully protect them by digging fire breaks and grazing to keep the grass down. Horned spotted cattle have been grazing these lands for many years, and horses have long been a part of the Iberian culture as well.
Iberian horses play a large role in several stories of my series, so I couldn’t resist photographing this beauty.
Our morning with Mário was wonderful. We had a compatible group and he was a great guide, never rushing us, always happy to answer our many questions. A delightful and informative tour. The experience gave me an excellent sense of the place I’m writing about.
For Mário’s sake, I do want to pass along his concern. The ground under the stone circle is weathering away. The stones may fall. The roads to the site are in terrible repair. Yet no one has authority to care for the site or the roads. It’s private property. He hopes one day the government will take it over and preserve it before too much damage occurs to this world treasure. I hope so too.
Vanessa scheduled a tour for me the next day to see the ancient cave drawings at the Escoural Grotto. Since there was no public transportation available she arranged for a taxi. The driver asked if he could bring his daughter. She had never seen the grotto and wanted to take this opportunity. That worked out well, because this 20-year-old daughter spoke excellent English and his was limited. The grotto was a 17-mile drive one way, so I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but I had just saved a lot of money by cancelling the cork forest tour.
The cave mouth opens against a steep slope embedded with limestone boulders. A small enclosure covers the opening. Our guide led the three of us in–the taxi driver, his daughter, and me–and gave us hardhats. I was glad for that hat more than once. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so I must offer word pictures.
It’s a small cave, intimate.
We worked our way through the cramped space down wooden steps and walkways. My hardhat bounced off hovering rock overhead. A few bats clung to the higher walls. The electric lighting may have added a yellow hue, but the cave walls looked golden compared to the gray rock outside. I had the impression of thick butterscotch frosting, whipped in wild swirls, hardened and broken off in places to reveal flat nubbly cuts that melted back a little, softening over time. On some of these flat slabs thin ridges ran down like rivulets of water that had turned rigid.
I didn’t see the pictures until our guide turned a light onto them. Then I saw the black charcoal outline of a horse with a deep belly. It looked pregnant, and I mentioned that. She believed the figure represented fertility. Only the lines between the rivulets remained. We went farther below and had to bend down to look at a slab slanted inward. On that slab scratches had been cut into the rock surface creating the outlines of several horses with heads raised, active, alert. Another drawing represented a horned animal.
The depth of time resonated. Into this ancient place of artistic expression my character felt herself falling back tens of thousands of years. And I did, knowing that.
I had one more place I needed to see. The town of Escoural itself. Just three more miles up the road from the grotto. When we left the cave site my taxi driver started to turn toward Évora. “I still need to see Escoural,” I told him.
He wrinkled his brow. “Is nothing there.”
I explained that it was a significant place in one of my books and I needed to see it. His daughter tried to explain. He hesitated but finally turned toward Escoural. The meter was rising. It would soon hit our agreed price and we still had to go all the way back, but I had many chapters in that location. I had seen it on Google Maps, but I really wanted to see the land. Not the town. There was no town back then, but there was a knoll where I wanted to put a fictional village. And I wanted to see the land around it.
We drove into a town whose sleepy streets I had traveled virtually and it all looked familiar. He turned to me. “See? There’s nothing here.”
That’s the idea, I told him. It’s the middle of nowhere. Exactly what I want.
About that time I saw my knoll and got excited. “There! Please turn that way.” His daughter had to convince him. And when we came away from the houses and I had a full view of the knoll I asked him to stop so I could get out and snap a picture. It took him a moment to respond and I asked again. I’m sure he was thinking, What is the matter with this crazy lady wanting to stop and look at nothing? He stopped. I got out and took my picture. And a few more. Laughing, I told his daughter, “Escoural hasn’t had this much enthusiasm in years.”
The rest of my time in Évora I explored the town. I checked out the Roman temple and the museum and the bone chapel and found Vasco da Gama’s house. But much of the time I sat on the lovely balcony of my hotel and took notes and sorted out my thoughts about all I had seen, fitting some changes into the excerpts I’d brought while the memories of my experiences were fresh.
Portugal had been good to me. Alone, I had felt the raw edge of a culture where communication often confounded me. But that taught me something too, which will work its way into my stories. Most of all I thrilled to ancient wonders and the warmth of people who so willingly shared those with me.
NEXT: Shadows in the Stones