There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 11 November 2018

The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month, 1918-2018

And so the centenary of the Great War, the War to End All Wars comes to its conclusion. This is a companion to my earlier posts, Ypres. Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate marking the start of hostilities in August 2014 and The Somme, One Hundred Years Ago Today on the 1st of July 2016.

This blog is about our travels. Lynne and I have seen great religious monuments, like Angkor Wat and the Shwedagon Pagoda, monuments to power, like the palaces of Rajasthan, and monuments to love like the Taj Mahal. But we have also seen grimmer monuments and visited places that make you stop and think; the bombed-out streets of Mostar, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the industrialised horror of Auschwitz all ask terrible questions about the nature of humanity. So does the cemetery strewn countryside of northern France.

And the Great War, the one that did not quite end all wars, has its monuments, too.

Canadian Memorial, Vimy Ridge
But the great monuments are not as moving as the graveyards which often lie beside them.

Canadian graveyard, Vimy Ridge
Throughout Britain and France and across the world there are memorials to those who died. The memorial in Harrogate bears 721 names from the Great War….

War memorial, Harrogate
…and there is even one in São Brás de Alportel in the Algarve...

Memorial plaque on the council office, Sao Bras
...bearing the names of six Portuguese soldiers, five of whom died on the Western Front. Portugal sent 50,000 troops to France after declaring war on Germany in 1916.

Memorial plaque, Sao Bras
But perhaps this is a day for a traveller to be at home. Swynnerton in Staffordshire is today a one pub, two churches, one post office village (and we are lucky to still have our pub and post office). It has some 750 residents, most of whom (myself included) live on the 1970s housing estate, or the recent additions adjacent to it. In 1918 Swynnerton was far smaller, barely more than a hamlet, but it was an important hamlet as it contained Swynnerton Hall, home to Francis Fitzherbert, the 12th Baron Stafford (and now home to Francis Fitzherbert, the 15th Baron Stafford - economising on names helps when you have a big house to run). It had the same pub and churches but rather more businesses than the present village.

It also has a war memorial, on a patch of grass outside the parish church of St Mary.
Swynnerton war memorial
Thirteen names are inscribed on the pedestal. A couple of years ago Lynne did some research on these names for a presentation on ‘Swynnerton through the Wars.’ Thanks to that research we can zoom in on two of the names.

Charles Wood

Captain Charles Wood on the Swynnerton War Memorial
Charles Wood was the younger son of Mr. and Mrs. E. J. W. Wood of Meece House, a mile outside Swynnerton. His father Edward John Wood was a successful pottery manufacturer and a distant relative of Josiah Wedgwood.

Charles had been a territorial officer since 1909 and was sent to France in 1914 with the First Battalion, Royal Welch (sic) Fusiliers. He was soon mentioned in dispatches and his battalion spent January and February 1915 dug in on the Ypres sector. They then moved just across the French border to participate in General Haig’s spring offensive. The offensive started on the 10th of March with an attack on the French village of Neuve Chappelle.

Although intelligence reports suggested Neuve Chapelle was thinly defended, taking the village required three days and cost 17,000 lives. Captain Wood died on the second day.

The attack gained less than a square mile of territory, but was hailed by banner headlines at home proclaimed it a great step on the road to victory.

Wood and his older brother had been brought up in Meece House. His father had all the trappings of commercial success; a household of loyal servants, tenant farmers on his land and a chauffeur-driven Sunbeam. The car was a familiar sight at St Mary’s where he was churchwarden. He presumably expected Charles to inherit both his pottery and his position in local and county society but any plans they had ended at Neuve Chapelle. Charles’ older brother John, who had always been in poor health, died 8 months later in November 1915.

Their grief-stricken father Edward did not survive much longer, but before he died, he and their mother placed a memorial on the road outside Meece Hall.

Wood memorial outside Swynnerton Training Camp
 Charles’ name is not mentioned; it is a memorial to all who gave their lives…

Inscription on the memorial outside Swynnerton Training Camp
…but they also placed a memorial window to both brothers in St Mary’s church.

Wood Memorial, St Mary's Swynnerton
In the Second World War, Swynnerton became host to a huge munitions factory. The ‘Swynnerton Roses’, the 30,000 women who worked there, are commemorated in the small rose garden in front of the memorial. For a time Meece Hall, the home of a young man who died in the War to End All Wars was occupied by executives of the armaments factory as they sought ever more efficient and deadly ways to win another war just a generation later. In peacetime, the abandoned house became dilapidated and was demolished in the 1990s.

Swynnerton Roses garden and Wood memorial
George Bennett
George Bennett on the Swynnerton war memorial
George Bennett was born in Swynnerton in the spring of 1889, two doors away from the Fitzherbert Arms.

George Bennett's birthplace, Swynnerton
His family had worked on the land for generations but his father had become the local wheelwright. When George was born his mother already had by two young children, Elizabeth and John. Like many old Swynnerton families (including the aristocratic Fitzherberts) the Bennetts were Catholics and worshipped at Our Lady of the Assumption
Catholic Church, Swynnerton which also faces the war memorial
Swynnerton Hall is in the background
George trained as a wheelwright with his father…
Swynnerton's old smithy and wheelwright's shop jsut across the road from the Bennett's cottage.
Idle for many years they are waiting for someone to find a use for them.
… and became engaged to Beatrice Gosling, eldest daughter of the landlord of the Fitzherbert Arms.

The Fitzherbert Arms, Swynnerton
The extention may have come after Gerorge's time, the large windows are a very recent addition 
When war came, he joined up and served first with the Royal Horse Artillery and then with the Ammunition Column of the Royal Field Artillery. They were engaged in battles across France, but in 1917 were stationed at Poperinge in Belgium, seven miles from Ypres.

George’s job was to take ammunition to the front line, a difficult enough task without the rains that forced heavily-laden horse-drawn carts to sink to their axles.

On the 8th July 1917 George wrote to his fiancée Beatrice,

 My dear lover,

 I know you will be looking forward to hearing from me, hoping you are all well enjoying the best of health. Well Darling, the weather is broken here now having a fair amount of rain, & a fine very heavy thunder storme.

Well Darling, I’m wondering how you are getting on with the harvest, I do hope you will have good weather, & be able to get a little assistance. The crops behind the firing line lines are looking well, the heavy storme have battered the corn down badly. The crops are much the same as in Blighty not so much grazing land, a good few hops being grown here, also a little chicory which the French People use for the coffee, they don’t drink much tea, you don’t see the fireplaces like ours they have stoves, which stand out nearly in the centre of the room.

We are well behind the firing line here, but Mr Fritz sends us a few souvenirs over pretty often with his long rangers, however I am have thankful to say, he has not got the right range, I expect I shall be going up with Ammn to night, it is indeed the worst Battle Front that I have had since I been out here, however I live in hope that the one above will guide us safely through.

Well Dear, I wonder what you are doing at this present moment, you are absent in body angel, but never absent in mind, how I am longing to be with you, & to comfort to love and to cherish you, no matter how long we have to be apart, you will always have a good true lover, & God does not grant us, to be united in this world, may we be united in the next.

I could tell you a great deal, but us you know I have not the privilege, however amidst all things, I am, thankful to say I am in good health & spirits, & living in hope of returning to you. Well Darling, I am looking forward to hear from you, & to know that you are all well, also please forward me your dear Brother’s address I have not heard from him again. I don’t think he is very far away from here.

Cigs are cheaper here than in Blighty. I should have written you a few days ago only I have been waiting to get one of these envelops, we are only allowed one once a fortnight, you see dear our business is not so exposed in one of these. I am just going to write my dear Father and Mother a few lines, hoping they are well, & not worrying about me.

Well angel cheer up, I am alright, and having a good life & considering the facilities, when I hope we may all meet together again & live in happy days. In conclusion I desire you to give my kind regards to all at home, & hope to hear from you soon.

Au-soir & God bless you darling

Pray for me

Your Ever loving boy

George x x x x

With Heaps of hugs and kisses
Somewhere in France but near the border of ( )
There are fore of us in the house
One Catholic besides my self
The other are harness cleaning. It does not seem like a Sabbath day.

George was killed the following day at the age of 28

During her research Lynne made contact with Gabrielle, who now lives in Buckinghamshire but is the grand-daughter of Beatrice Gosling and her husband John Bennett, George’s elder brother whom she married in 1922. Gabrielle showed Lynne a copy of the letter and kindly allowed it to be used in 'Swynnerton through the Wars' and has agreed to its use here. The typescript reproduces the spelling, punctuation and little slips of George’s handwritten original.

On the 9th of July 1924, Beatrice Bennett, née Gosling. gave birth to a son – Gabrielle’s father - whom they named George. Sadly, John Bennett died of head injuries in 1926 after a bicycle accident. Beatrice never remarried but she brought up her son, enjoyed her grandchildren and attended mass regularly. She died in 1990 aged 99.

War is not about politicians, generals and armies, it is about people. Without fear or favour it kills the rich and well-connected as easily as the humble wheelwright - and it destroys families.

The Great War killed 10 million soldiers on all sides and 8 million civilians. Each one deserves to be remembered like Charles Wood and George Bennett.

Would it have been worth it had been the War to End All War? Perhaps, but it wasn’t.

 Never again

One final thought: it is easy to blame politicians for wars, but when war was declared in 1914 people across Europe were out on the streets cheering. The nationalism that caused the wars of 1914 and 1939 is on the rise again, in Russia and the USA, in Hungary, Italy, Germany and other European countries, including here, at home. Never again is up to us, all of us.

WW1 Centenary Posts

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Silves, Former Capital of the Algarve

The old city of Silves sits on a hill above the Rio Arade, 10km inland from the Algarve coast. It was once of great importance, the capital of the Algarve and seat of the bishop, but it was long ago overtaken by Faro as a religious and administrative centre, Portimão as a commercial centre, and in the last few decades by a host of coastal settlements that have burgeoned into sizeable towns as the tide of tourism has swept the coast.

The Algarve, Portugal's southernmost region, with Silves ringed in red
With 11,000 inhabitants Silves is now something of a backwater, but visitors washed here by tourististic tidal eddies find a city of quiet charm and well-preserved history.

Arriving from the south gives an impressive view of the Moorish Castle and Gothic Cathedral, side by side above the town which tumbles down the hillside to the river. The road offers no opportunity to stop and a drive-by snapping loses the river valley and much of the height, but it gives an idea.

Approaching Silves
We have visited Silves several times over the years, crossing the modern bridge over the Arade into the town. The medieval bridge 100m downstream is now pedestrian only.

Mediavel bridge over the Arade, Silves
Then it should be a matter of taking any uphill road…

Traditional houses painted in the traditional blue and yellow below the castle, Silves
… but the narrow streets and one-way system usually lead us round the castle and we park in one of the residential streets climbing the northern flank of the hill.

One of the residential streets climbing the northern flank of the hill, Silves
Silves Castle

Whatever fortifications the Visigoths had were overrun by the Moors around 716 and the city known by the Romans as Cilpes became the Moorish Şilb.  I had always lazily assumed that Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula was monolithic and unchanging, but of course it is more complicated (who’d have guessed it?). Şilb was ruled by the Damascus based Umayyad Caliphate (716-756) The Emirate (later Caliphate) of Córdoba (756-1030), the Almoravid Empire (1030-1147) and the Almohad Empire (1147-1242).

The castle’s basic structure dates from the Córdoba period, most of the refinements from the Almohad days.

The massive castle walls, Silves
From 1027 to 1063, as the Córboda Caliphate disintegrated and before the Almoravids had full control. Şilb became the capital of the Taifa of Şilb, a petty kingdom ruling the western Algarve.

On the castle walls, Silves
The castle was attacked and taken several times during the Reconquista. In 1160 Ferdinand I of León and Castile sacked the city but it was quickly taken back by the Moors.

The interior of Silves Castle
The Cisterna Grande was probably built in response to this incident. A remarkable feat of Almohad engineering, it could supply water for 12,000 people and remained in use until the 1920s. It is also known as the Cisterna da Moura Encantada (Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl). According to legend an enchanted Moorish princess appears in the cistern at midnight on the festival of St John in a silver boat with golden oars looking for the prince who can break the spell. That would be midnight on the 23rd of June, should you be a relevant prince.

The roof of the Cisterna Grande, Silves Castle
The interior of the cistern is now an exhibition space.

Inisde the Cisterna Grande - exhibition on the reintroduction of the Iberian Lynx into the Algarve
In 1189 King Sancho I of Portugal took the castle after a long siege and got a statue for his pains. As many as 30,000 took refuge in the castle - too many for even the Cisterna Grande – and as water supplies dwindled the defenders negotiated. Sancho agreed all would be spared provided he got his castle. Unfortunately, a large part of his army were north European crusaders, co-opted by the promise of booty and making contradictory promises to two different groups means one will be disappointed. The Crusaders knew what they were due, good Christians as they were, and a day of murder, rape and looting ensued.

A more than life-size Afonso III guards the entrance to Silves Castle. His is a flawed hero, but Lynne seemed to like him.
It was all to no avail. Şilb was retaken by the Moors in 1191.

The Arade estuary is deep enough for cruise ships to dock at Portimão, but immediately north of the city the modern river becomes a series of tidal lagoons, the haunt of storks, egrets and occasionally flamingos. In medieval times it was navigable as far as Silves and the port of Şilb linked the interior of Portugal to the outside world. With fifty years of stability, this link brought prosperity to such an extent that Şilb became known as the Baghdad of the west (a compliment in those days!).

The castle was strengthened, and also made more liveable. The Balcony of the Poets was built and a small part has been reconstructed showing how it might have looked.

A reconstructed part of the Balcony of the Poets, Silves Castle
After the false starts in 1160 and 1189 the Reconquista finally came to Şilb in 1249 when the castle was taken for Afonso III, grandson of Sancho I. Later that year Faro fell, the Reconquista was over and Afonso styled himself King of Portugal and the Algarves (why Algarves, there is only one of them?).

In Spain, where the Emirate of Granada continued until 1492, the Reconquista took longer - and is still controversial after the concept was hijacked by the Franco regime and later Spanish Nationalists. In Portugal it is just a bit of history.

The view from a castle is usually as good a reason for visiting as the castle itself. Silves sits at the northern edge of the coastal plain surrounded by orange groves (a fruit introduced by the Moors) but these peter out as the land rises. Two dams in the hills provide water for irrigation. Some claim they are responsible for the low water levels in the river, and maybe they are but the Arade looks to my inexpert eye like a river than can silt up with very little human assistance.

Looking north from Silves Castle
You can also look down on the town – I always enjoy a roofscape - ….

The roofs of Silves
….and at the nearby Cathedral.

Silves Cathedral from the castle
Silves Cathedral

When we first visited, in 1982, the Carnation Revolution was only 8 years old and although Portugal had stabilized into the liberal democracy it is today, signs of earlier unrest were still abundant. Outlines of Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara were stencilled onto any available surface and Morte aos Padres (Death to the Priests) was daubed on the Cathedral wall. I would deplore the killing of priests (or anyone else) but I rather admired the vigour of the political discourse.

The cathedral occupies the site of a former Almohad mosque. Building started in the mid-13th century (probably) and took a long time (definitely). The 1352 earthquake did not help, but that is hardly an excuse for not finishing until the early 16th century – by comparison Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia (started 1882, projected finishing date 2032) has been thrown together.

The Gothic façade is plain and the doorway largely devoid of decoration.

Silves Cathedral door
Directly opposite - behind the photographer’s back - is the portal of the Igreja da Misericórdia, considered among the finest surviving Manueline doors in the Algarve.

Manueline portal, Igreja da Misericordia, Silves
Manueline was a peculiarly Portuguese style in vogue during the reign of King Manuel I (1495-1521). It features multiple columns and pillars, sometimes twisted like rope, and motifs inspired by the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Pedro Cabral. Visitors enter the Cathedral through its Manueline door, which is round the side.

Manueline doorway, Silves Cathedral

The church, in the shape of a Latin cross, has a three-aisled nave. There is little decoration, but the contrast between whitewashed walls and the red sandstone pillars is effective. Part of the nave collapsed in the Great Earthquake of 1755 and repair work resulted in a rococo make-over in the tastes of the time. 20th century restoration returned it to a more medieval look.

Silves was originally the seat of the Bishop of the Algarve but economically the 15th and 16th centuries were difficult in Silves and successive bishops spent more and more time in Faro. In 1577 the move became permanent though Silves remains a co-cathedral in what is now the Diocese of Faro.

Inside Silves Cathedral
The cathedral contains the tombs of a number of notable former citizens including Dom Fernando Coutinho, bishop of Silves 1502-38. He was part of the Portuguese negotiating team at the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) when Spain and Portugal carved up ownership of all the world’s newly discovered lands without reference to any other European powers (never mind the people who lived there.)

The tomb of Dom Fernando Coutinho, Silves Cathedral
Silves Archeological Museum

We only discovered the museum this year, though it has been open since 1990.

The museum was constructed around an Almohad (12th/13th Century) well discovered during archeological investigations in the 1980s.

Almohad Well, Silves Museum
Silves sits on of the sizable Querença-Silves Aquifer, so although the well was dug on the top of a hill, they were sure to strike water if they kept digging. The well is 18m deep and 4m wide with a spiral staircase winding around it. The staircase is roped off, but a virtual descent is possible by the short film (available in Portuguese and English) at the wellhead.

Almohad Well, Silves Museum
Using the well as a centre-piece, finds from Silves and the surrounding countryside are laid out in chronological order telling the story of Silves from its earliest inhabitants….

The Algarve's ealriest inhabitants liked a monolith!

….through the Moorish period - the largest group of finds come from Silves’ Almohad golden age brought to an abrupt end by the Reconquista in 1249 -…

Silves is 10km from the sea on a river that is no longer navigable - this is a reminder that it used to be a port
Silves Museum
…and up to the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of the 16th century pottery looks exactly like the pottery produced today throughout the Algarve.

16th Century pottery, Silves Museum.
The design on the plate would not look out of place in any modern Algarve pottery
The museum is well laid out, the lighting is excellent and the comprehensive captions are in Portuguese and English – it is one of the best museums of its type we have encountered.

That completes the major sites of Silves but there are more, smaller places of interest that can be sought out, and it is a pleasant place just to wander around. History may have manoeuvred Silves into a backwater, but it is a backwater well worth investigating.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Beja: Capital of Baixo Alentejo


The small city of Beja sits on a low hill in the southern Alentejo plain. Driving down the relatively new (and hence relatively straight) IP2 from Castro Verde, the gleaming white city can be seen 20km away.

Beja in the centre of Portugal's Baixo Alentejo
The Pousada Convento, Beja

It is, though, a small hill on a flat, parched plain, the final climb being almost imperceptible. With a little difficulty we located the Pousada Convento and on our way to reception, passed two soldiers filling sandbags. Even our notoriously insular press would have reported a civil war in Portugal (probably on page 18) and as flooding seemed improbable a sensible explanation eluded us.

The Pousada Convento, Beja - apparently defended by artillery
This was our first stay in a pousada, a hotel chain set up in 1941 modelled on the Spanish paradors. Government run until subcontracted to the Pestana Group in 2003, pousadas exist to provide comfortable accommodation in historic buildings and promote local gastronomy.

We were soon settled in a monk's cell in the former Convent of São Francisco (and the obvious error in that sentence isn’t an error). The convent was founded in 1268 for the Franciscan Order of the Friars Minor.

A corridor full of upgraded monk's cells, Pousada Covento, Beja
Monks live in monasteries, worshipping God within their (often well-funded) communities. Friars take the same vows of obedience, chastity and poverty - they originally lived by begging – but remain involved with the world, preaching or ministering to the sick. They live together in looser communities traditionally called ‘convents.’ Only in the 19th century, having lost touch with their Catholic roots, did English speakers start using ‘convent’ specifically for nunneries. I enjoy visiting foreign countries to learn English.

Our cell had been upgraded since the monks left, being now unsuitable for those who have taken a vow of poverty.

It had been a long day - we had risen at 4 for an early flight – and, in Portugal at least, exceedingly hot. Leaving the convent we found a café, sat in the shade and rehydrated (ie we drank beer). At 5 pm the temperature, according to the pharmacy across the road, was 33°. Beja is one of Portugal’s warmest cities, but even here such temperatures in late September are a talking point.

We returned to the convent for a nap before dinner, passing The Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, by Jorge Vieira who donated it to the city in 1994. Vieira (1933-98) spent his later years in Beja and is highly respected within Portugal, though little known internationally.

The Unknown Political Prisoner by Jorge Vieira, Beja
Seated on the Pousada’s terrace we dined on Alentejo specialities. A rain shower came from nowhere, though the temperature never dropped. Unmoved beneath an umbrella more used to keeping off sun than rain we waited, confident that it would pass, and indeed it did; long before we had finished eating all had dried up. Lynne's grilled porco negro, from free-range Iberian black pigs, was excellent and her portion of migas, the traditional accompaniment of bread mashed with olive oil and (in this case) asparagus was mercifully small - it is very filling. My favourite bochechas - pork cheeks stewed in red wine - were also delicious. The chef had popped a pear on the plate, perhaps attempting to elevate 'peasant food' to something it is not. It would have been a poor idea even if the pear had not been cinnamon-ed to inedibility. Our dinner could have been eaten in many local restaurants, but pousadas must justify their higher prices with extra touches, sometimes misjudged. Traditional dishes should not be messed with, there is a reason why they are as they are. We also enjoyed a bottle of Bacalhoa's fine Tinto da Anfora, maybe even worth its steep mark-up.

Dinner at the Pousada Convento, Beja

Commemorating World War One, Beja

Apart from filling sandbags, servicemen had spent yesterday setting out the Pousada’s former church, usually a lounge, for a memorial service. The convent closed in the 19th century and the building was used by the military; they had returned as part of the 1918 centenary commemorations.

The former church of the Pousada Convento, Beja, set out for a commemorative service
After breakfast we discovered the exhibition in the cloister, which finally made sense of the sandbags. Germany declared war on Portugal in 1916, though skirmishes in Portugal’s African territories predated this.

Mock WWI machine gun emplacement, Pousada Convento, Beja
In addition to further fighting in Africa, it is not widely known that Portugal deployed 55,000 soldiers to the trenches in France.

Portuguese troops in France 1917 or 18
Photo from exhibition, Pousada Convento, Beja
Suitably enlightened we set off to explore Beja.

Roman Beja

The pousada is just outside the city walls so we entered through the remains of the Mértola Gate before turning left in search of Beja's oldest vestiges.

Into old Beja through the Mertola Gate
Today, Beja, with 22,000 inhabitants is the largest population centre and administrative capital of Baixo Alentejo (Lower Alentejo), a subdivision of Portugal’s vast but sparsely populated Alentejo region. Similarly, Roman Beja, known as Pax Julia after Julius Caesar conquered concluded a peace with the Lusitanian tribes, was the capital of Southern Lusitania.

Street art near the Nucleo Museologico
At first glance the 'nucleo museologico' is a modern building full of empty space….

The Nucleo Museologico, Beja

…but a small part of Roman Beja lies beneath the glass floor. Over a metre below current ground level Roman wells, walkways and hypocausts have been carefully excavated.

Beneath the floor at the Nucleo Museoligico, Beja
Around the perimeter is a display of finds from every period of Beja’s history starting with the stone tools of the region’s first inhabitants.

Roman bowl, Nucleo Museologico, Beja
I have no idea how they used this, but it has a certain charm
We left the 'nucleo' past more public art - I am not sure I see the point of this one.

Public art, Beja
Around 30BC, during the reign of Augustus, the municipium was renamed Pax Augusta, and so things remained for over 400 years. Around 410, when the Visigoths were sacking Rome, the Vandals, Alans and Suebi crossed the Pyrenees.  Last year, when we were slightly further east in Mértola, the arrival of the Alans led to 300 years of decline, Beja may have been luckier. The Vandals and Alans were soon pushed into North Africa by the Visigoths who expanded their kingdom in southern France until they ruled the whole Iberian Peninsula.

Visigothic Beja

We visited the Museu Visigotico after lunch but I will follow the history of Beja rather than the history of our visit.

The museum is at the north end of town, beyond the castle and outside the wall. We exited past the Roman arch at the Évora Gate, not through it, as the modern road exploits a far larger gap in the wall. I wonder if the arch can properly be called Roman, it has disappeared and been rebuilt several times since antiquity.

The so-called Roman arch, Evora Gate, Beja
The Museu Visigotico is housed in the former church of Santo Amaro, itself said to be a rare Visigothic survivor, but again redesigned and rebuilt so often that little of the original remains.

Apparently, I have underrated the Visigoths. While our forebears built with wood and thatch as the remains of Roman civilisation decayed around them, the museum showed the Visigoths as sophisticated builders and stonemasons.

 Stonework, Beja Visigothic Museum
In 507 the Visigoths lost their Gaulish lands to the Franks but continued to rule most of Iberia. Around 590 they abandoned Arianism, became mainstream Christians and gradually assimilated with their Romano-Iberian subjects.

Column, Beja Visigothic Museum
All went well until the Moors arrived in the early 8th century. They would rule most of Iberia for the next 500 years.

Pax Augusta had become Paca under the Visigoth, and as Arabic makes no distinction between P and B it is easy to see how it became Beja under the Moors. Little else remains from the centuries of Moorish rule

Medieval Beja

The Reconquista reached Beja in 1162 when Fernão Gonçalves took the city for King Afonso I. The Moors fought back and the Fronteira-Mor (Frontier Captain) Gonçalo Mendes da Maia, a veteran warrior known as O Lidador (The Hard-Working), was killed in battle in 1170 allegedly aged 90, becoming a hero in both his home town of Maia (now a suburb of Porto) and Beja. The city was retaken by the Moors in 1175 and remained in Muslim hands until being finally retaken by King Sancho II in 1234.

The consequence of being so long on the front line were dire and the depopulated city took several centuries to recover, though on the plus side, their fort was developed into a full-blown castle. A tower was built on the wall in 1307, and then a keep, though that took 40 years to complete.

Beja castle wall and keep
 We walked round the walls, enjoying a good view of Beja’s 16th century cathedral...

Beja Cathedral
….before entering the keep, guarded by a modern statue of O Lidador.

O Lidador stands guard in the keep, Beja castle
From here a spiral staircase leads up the tower. Medieval staircases usually turn clockwise, so that a (right-handed) defender’s sword arm is unencumbered by the central pillar. Beja Castle has a rare anti-clockwise staircase.

Anti-clockwise spiral staircase, Beja castle keep
The stairs took us to an octagonal upper room with an impressively vaulted ceiling.

A finely vaulted octagonal room in Beja keep
(what do you mean I should have kept my head out of the way?)
The balcony outside has many machicolations, holes in the floor through which crossbows could be shot or attackers pelted with stones or drenched in boiling oil. ‘Machicolations’ derives from the Old French for ‘wound-neck’ while the superficially similar Portuguese ‘mata-cães’ means ‘dog-killer', an unflattering reference to their foes. We were surrounded by much new stone. The castle was closed for eighteen months in 2014/5 after a balcony collapsed and we were undoubtedly standing on a new balcony with machicolations no-one ever expects to use.

Further non-spiral (so presumably later) stairs took us to the roof. The castle stands at the highest point of Beja's small hill and if you then climb a 37m tower you have commanding views over the old town...

Old Beja from the top of the castle keep
...and over the newer districts and the countryside beyond. Despite the long, hot, dry summers the soil is fertile and Baixa Alentejo is the breadbasket of Portugal so the town is surrounded by grain silos, the towers like an outer defensive ring beyond the city wall.

Outer Beja and the countryside beyond.
Half a turn to the left and I would have made my point with a line of grain silos, but here there is only one block

Lunch by the Pillory, Beja

Perhaps we should break for lunch here.

We ate in the Praça da República, in the centre of the old city at a café near the pillory. We usually think of a pillory as a ‘stand-up stocks’, but this is just a pillar to which those deemed worthy of ritual humiliating could be attached. It is a grand pillar, a wooden post would function just as well, but the quality and decorations remind everyone who had the power and the wealth.

Pillory, Praca da Republica, Beja
At one of the tables in the picture above we chose the lunchtime deal: chicken salad and a beer for €4.95. They seemed a little confused about the difference between a salad and a fruit salad - lettuce, tomato, pineapple, apple and mango made an unusual combination - but we enjoyed it. And it had been a hot morning so we had another beer, not for pleasure, obviously, but because hydration is so important.

Late Medieval Beja

Just because Beja was now in Christian Portugal it did not mean its Moorish (and Jewish) populations disappeared.

There is still an area known as the 'Moorish Quarter' just inside the city wall near the Moura Gate (named because it faces the city of Moura).

City wall near the Moura Gate, Beja
 It is a few streets of small, well-maintained, whitewashed cottages with colourful hanging baskets.

Moorish quarter, Beja
One doorway has a Moorish look, but that could have constructed last week for all I know.

Moorish style doorway, Moorish quarter, Beja
Just north of the Moorish Quarter is a fine old gentleman’s town house. When we first came to Portugal in the 1980s these so often looked sad and neglected. They are beautiful buildings and it is good to see their owners can now afford to take pride in them.

Gentleman's town house, Beja
All Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Under pressure from his Spanish wife, Isabella of Aragon (sister of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife) King Manuel I decreed in 1497 that all Jews and Moors must convert to Catholicism or leave Portugal without their children. Those who did convert were often treated with suspicion. Allegedly some Jews marked their houses with signs showing they still secretly followed Judaism. If any of that can still be seen in the old Jewish Quarter below the castle wall, we missed it.

Jewish quarter, Beja
Early Modern Beja

The other side of the castle is the medieval chapel of Nossa Senhora de Piedade. The building is 13th century, the friendly and talkative guardian told us, but not the contents.  When the Pousada Convento was taken over by the military, the interior of the church – the one we had seen set out for a memorial service this morning - was moved here. 13th century frescoes hide behind this baroque overcoat.

The contents of the church of the Convent of Sao Fransicso
Nossa Senhora ds Piedade, Beja
We now arrive at the last stop in this tour through Beja's history, though a much earlier one in our day, and it features more fussy baroque. The Convent of Our Lady of the Conception was founded in 1456, but since 1927 has housed the Beja Regional Museum. It was formerly the home of the 'Poor Clares', a female part of the Franciscan order, but a glance at the contents suggest they may have interpreted 'poor' in a way few would understand. The carved wood, gold leaf and inlaid marble altar (all impossible to dust, which is why nobody has for a century of so) are 17th and 18th centuries.

Church of Our Lady of the Conception, Beja Regional Museum
There are some fine 17th century Azulejos, this one, according the brochure shows the birth, life and death of John the Baptist, though I cannot quite see it….

Azulejo life of John the Baptist, Beja Regional Museum
…and two opulent silver plinths for ferrying saints through the streets.

Silver saint transporter, Beja Regional Museum
We ambled round the cloister, viewing the exhibits in the rooms off. The extensive collection of Portuguese, Spanish and Flemish oil paintings seem, to my amateur eye, to be of variable quality.....

Spanish and Portuguese oil paintings, Beja Regional Museum
....but the chapter house was impressive.

Chapter House, Beja Regional Museum
Upstairs is an exhibition of the finds of archaeologist Fernando Nunes Ribeiro and a window.

I am unsure if the window is the original or a replica but it is a literary cause célèbre. In 1665(ish) 25-year old nun Mariana Alcoforado caught sight of French officer Noël Bouton, later Marquis of Chamilly through this window (or the original) and fell in love with him. She wrote a series of passionate love letters first published in Paris 1669 and in print ever since. The nun and her innamorato were undoubtedly real people, and although many nuns had vocations, convents were also used for parking surplus girls or taming wild ones. Published in French rather than Portuguese the letters are widely believed to be a work of fiction by Gabriel-Joseph de la Vergne, though in 2006 Canadian writer Myriam Cyr published a book arguing that Mariana Alcoforado was indeed the author. Had I had known all this at the time I would have photographed the window.

And so ended our exploration of Beja, a small, friendly, relaxed city with no major sights, but more than enough of interest to keep us occupied for a day.

An aperitif before dinner

That evening we dined at a small. cheap restaurant. Though far from the sea, by Portuguese standards, Lynne said her dorada was excellent, but my pork Alentejo-style was disappointing, there were too few clams, and too much chew in the meat, but it was cheap and I suppose you get what you pay for!

Next day we headed south to the Algarve and a fortnight's holiday.

Other Alentejo Posts

Évora (2016)