After breakfast, we get a taxi into the town, Manteigas. Apparently we will be reimbursed for all the taxis, but much better than that, the pousada employees show us a far more relaxing route down the mountain. Manteigas is a pleasant little town and we wander around before starting our hike.
We’re doing the Poco do Inferno – Hell’s well – but although we get a map from the visitor center it is hard to tell whether we’re actually anywhere on or near the trail as the route meanders through the town.It passes a rubbish dump and joins a gravel road heading up the mountain. There is virtually no signposting; we presume we’re on the right track only because we’re going up. The road winds and gets steep, but we’re walking in a forest the whole way so it’s hard to comment on the views. Most of the time we’re preoccupied with whether we’re on the right path.
At the top it’s clear we are : there are a few other people, a waterfall, picnic areas, and a place to swim. We’ve brought some sandwiches so we have a relaxing lunch and I have a nice swim in the small wateringhole. We chat to a young Portuguese couple who are also staying at our Pousada and have come up by car. We take them up on their offer of a ride down as we feel we’ve seen all there is to see on the way up.
Down in the town it’s sweltering, so when we stumble upon the local municipal swimming pool, we go in and have a great swim. We aren’t sure if we’re even allowed in but nobody cares, and the place has a very holiday like atmosphere with lots of families enjoying the pool. After we’re refreshed, we walk through the town some more before heaing to the Tourist Information. Here we wait, mostly in hope rather than expectation, for another taxi that will apparently take us to get a new hire car. Without one, all our plans are up in smoke.
After what seems like an eternity he arrives and drives us to Guarda, the largest town in the immediate area and the only one where we can reasonably get another car. The driver is apparently a former motor racing champion because we reach Guarda in record time. He has no idea where to take us in Guarda so we get a long tour of a nondescript town.
Finally we do get to the car place and surprisingly a car is waiting for us, a compact Peugeot. It’s a lot like the last one, but they have the radio on to RFM, a music channel we find we thoroughly enjoy and keep on for the rest of the trip. I drive at a very leisurely pace back to Manteigas – we find we know the route pretty well from all our taxis – and we eat pizza in town while making sure to get up the mountain to our Pousada while it’s still light. We’re very relaxed and quite relieved when we get to the top.
Next morning we continue our journey. We’re driving towards Evora, but we plan several stops along the way. We go slowly, making a few mistakes, before reaching Monsanto. To reach the village, we have to drive up a steep hill, and at the top it’s complete bedlam. There are busses everywhere. Throughout our trip so far, we’ve noticed large groups of boy scouts all over; we have realized there is a big national or international gathering. But it looks like all the boy scouts of Europe have descended (ascended actually) on Monsanto at the same time as us.
After finding parking, we start climbing around. The village is completely extraordinary. It sits perched at the top of a medium sized mountain, and the houses are huddled between, on and from huge granite boulders which are everywhere. It’s really incredible. For a small village, it makes a huge impact; in fact it is breathtaking, especially in the setting of the mountain overlooking the vast plains.
Together with thousands of scouts we walk up to the top of the village/mountain to see the old castle. It’s in quite a state of ruin, but still worth the trek. In fact the whole experience is fabulous, and it’s clearly understandable why Monsanto was once voted the ‘most Portuguese village’.
We continue on to Idanha A Velha, another ‘tiny backwater ‘ (Rough Guide), as old as Monsanto , but once a great Roman city. It’s gone midday and sweltering when we get there, and there are scouts everywhere. It is so dry, hot and crowded that immediately we’re ready to leave. Other than what looks like 10,000 scouts and their transport, the village is deserted – we can’t see any non scout around. There are some very impressive Roman ruins, a bridge, walls, and a massive excavation area, but still we are somewhat puzzled by the lack of people or commerce, international scout movement notwithstanding.
Eventually the heat has conquered us so we move on. We’re heading for Evora, heart of the Alentejo. We know it will be hot there too, but the promise of a hotel swimming pool is very attractive. On the way we stop at a gas station for refreshments and gas; when we get on the road again, Liora can’t find her reading glasses – its our first setback since we somehow got out of the broken-down-car mess.
When we get to Evora and approach the incredible old city walls, we see it’s not that straightforward to get to the hotel. In fact we have no idea where to go. We ask a Portuguese woman for help and instead of giving us directions, she tells us to follow her until we can see the hotel. It’s another example of these wonderful people.
At the hotel it’s getting late so we quickly dash into town to try find new glasses. The shop is closed although the employees are inside packing up. Seeing us, looking desperate, they invite us in and are in no rush whatsoever. In fact they are eager to chat and tell us what to see. It’s yet another case of just how friendly and helpful the people are.
Buoyed by this we first look around the town, taking in the forum and some of the famous sights. It is a wonderful town for walking around, a beautiful Friday evening with the majestic old square filled with people. We eat in a very authentic place in a side street, packed like sardines table to table (although we don’t eat sardines). We’re in very good mood walking back to the hotel, and Liora will even be able to read.