Remember these archaeologists in Portugal digging all that dirt last spring when I visited the ancient Castro do Zambujal, and Sónia Cravo and Fábio Rocha gave me that wonderful tour?
Remember Sónia, head of the project, looking over the site on the day of my May visit, seeing the tremendous amount of work yet to do?
So that was then.
This is now.
After three months of digging the archaeologists have cleared many loads of dirt to reveal what once lay buried. The citadel seems to rise into a greater semblance of its once-powerful position above the rolling hills near the western coast of the Iberian peninsula. Sónia sent me three photos taken this month by Fábio, for which he used a drone to get some perspective above the site, the photo above and two more below.
In these new photos I can see places I walked and more walls I wasn’t aware of. This helps me get a better idea of the configuration of this citadel that plays a significant role in part of my upcoming series. And look how clean the rocks are compared to the May photos. It’s a painstaking process, digging carefully, always alert to what might be found in the next scoop of dirt. They’re still working on it. But they have made impressive progress. What a change!
Sónia also sent a photo of the two of them happily waving. When I visited in May I couldn’t help noticing the camaraderie among the people working on the project. The story of my thrilling May visit is here.
I so appreciate Sónia and Fábio sharing these new photos with me and their readiness to answer questions that come up. As I work through my revisions I’m sure questions will arise and it’s good to know I have such friendly sources ready to help me.
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.
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.
I’ve just returned from a trip to research sites for my upcoming series set in Greece and Ireland and points in between and will be sharing my adventures on this trek over the next few weeks. I started in the wonderful Greek Isle of Crete where I visited the center of the first stories, the ancient ruins of Knossos.
This fabulous site was uncovered about 100 years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. The archeologist restored parts of the buildings, the unique red columns, steps, and rooms, a controversial practice not accepted by today’s archeologists. But the reconstructions do offer a sense of the place I found intriguing. It was a visit to Crete several years ago that started my whole series. When I saw Knossos I knew I wanted to write about these ancient people known today as the Minoans. So I began to write what would become my opening book in a series.
I visited Greece a couple of times before this year’s trip and Stonehenge in England, and visited Ireland a couple of times as well, but as I continue with the series, new books take my characters to different places in these lands, sites I had not seen before, and I wanted to see those places on this trip.
So, why do I go? I could try to create an entire world in my own imagination, with a little help from Google Maps. But if my setting takes the reader to a real place, I’d like to see and feel the place firsthand. Why isn’t my imagination enough? Well, for one thing the natives tend to get annoyed when you misrepresent their landscapes. But there’s more to seeing a place than getting the description right.
I believe every place has a personality that comes out of the nature of the land, the people who touch it and change it. For historicals, can I feel the echoes of people who lived there before? Echoes of events that affected their lives? Maybe. I’d like to believe so. It certainly seems to happen.
Maybe I’m only reflecting my own feelings off the land around me. But what if there’s a resonance reflecting back? I’ll reach for that. Open myself to it. Let it come in, perhaps in the moment I walk in that place, perhaps later as memory and inspiration slip into my mind.
While in Crete I also visited peaceful Fodhele Beach where a battle rages in one of my books. The water is so clear you can see the rocks in the bottom far out from the shore.
From Crete I went on to the Isle of Santorini, officially called Thera or Thira. Anglicized spellings vary in Greece due to the translations from a language with a different alphabet. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Next stop was lovely Nafplio in the Peloponnese peninsula on the Greek mainland. From there I took day trips to the ancient Mycenaean sites of Tiryns and Mycenae itself, home of the warriors who sail to Crete in about 1470 B.C. and change the island forever.
From Greece I flew to Portugal to visit the ancient citadel of Zambujal north of Lisbon and had an amazing experience I’ll talk about in a later post. It had to do with modern-day archeologists working on this site, as shown above.
More wonderful encounters awaited me near Évora in Portugal’s interior.
From Portugal I flew to London’s Heathrow Airport where I met my writer friend, Lynn Ash, who would continue the trek with me.
After a little struggle finding each other (more on that later), we took a bus to the charming town of Amesbury, which is only a couple of miles from the famous stone circle, Stonehenge.
The next day we visited those massive stones, along with a gazillion or so ravens. Caught a couple in my photo. They seemed to add to the haunting aspect of the ancient circle.
From Amesbury we traveled north to the Lake District where we were surprised by the rugged mountains and thrilled to the beauty of the lakes. I got partway up a trail above Buttermere Water, where the outlaws in one of my books hang out. The trail never got much easier than what you see below.
From the lakes we wended our way into Scotland and across to Cairnryan on the coast where we caught the ferry to Ireland, center of my later books, which intertwine with the first three. We finally reached Rosscarbery and the bay I call Golden Eagle Bay for the Golden Eagle Clan of my story whose village lies a short way above this cove.
As daylight dimmed on the bay the search for story sites came to a close. I had a much stronger impression of the places I visit in story. It will take time to absorb all I’ve seen, but already these worlds have become clearer in my mind, and I want to pass that clarity on to my readers. From this overview I’ll share the highlights on my blog in more detail in the coming weeks and hope you’ll join me on this trek from Greece to Portugal to the UK to Ireland, 37 days of reaching into the hearts of lands where my characters roam.