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Evora, Bones and All

February 17, 2002

Dear Friends and Families,

It was hard to leave our beach town, but we now had appointments. I managed to get some work in Kiev, so we had to plan an intermission in our Road Trip. Planning was complicated by the fact that we needed a safe and secure place to park the car for a month. Trying to figure this out in Lisbon seemed too complicated and potentially quite expensive. Instead, we headed toward Evora (emphasis on the first syllable), a smaller city but close enough to Lisbon to have good bus or train connections.

We took backroads from Salema toward Evora. We've noticed that, at least in Portugal, backroad quality can vary widely and often sections just a few kilometers apart are quite different. That's the way this road was with a starting section that was skinny and bumpy. Later, it was either skinny or bumpy and still later it was relatively wide and smooth. That's the best order because we have had occasions where the progression was negative to the point of turning us around!

On the way, we came to the town, village really, of Beja and even from a distance we could see a classic set of fortress walls running around Beja's hilltop. Naturally there were churches and a village square so this village qualified as "a place" and we stopped by. From the outside, this fort looked as imposing and strong as any we'd run across, but inside there were only ruins. I walked all around the ramparts and, looking outward, was treated to a marvelous panorama of the village and surrounding farms. Looking inward reminded me of how temporary even castles and princes can be.

In no time at all, we hit Evora, another walled community but much larger and more famous. The buildings in the center of Evora are also older than almost anywhere else in the country, primarily because the city was spared destruction in the 1755 earthquake and fires. Our hotel, the Residencial Polycarpo, was one of those old buildings, dating from the 16th Century. Inside, it was mid-20th Century, not new but what can you expect for 38 euros, about 35 dollars?

We spent our first day wandering the streets, getting a sense for the old town. Mostly, our feet got sore sensing the granite cobblestones we had to walk on. These things have been in continuous use for a couple thousand years and they aren't smooth even yet.

We had to start our second day with necessary chores. First, we walked over to the one public, underground garage. It seemed OK, not as personal as Jean-Pierre's place back in Lyon but with a choice of one, what could we do. After that, it was a hike down to the train station to see if the train was a viable way to get to Lisbon. It wasn't. It seems trains are infrequent and don't go to Lisbon in any event but rather to a ferry terminal across the river. Taxi-to-train-to-ferry-to-taxi-to-airport sounded way too complicated. After another walk, we found the bus station and here the story was different. Plenty of departures everyday and the bus does manage to get across a bridge into Lisbon. Even though we would only travel in a couple days, we bought our tickets, so we could say that our chores were definitely over.

Chores over, we went to one of the prime attractions of Evora, St. Francis' Church. The church itself was a pleasant example of Alentejo late-Gothic architecture, whatever that is. Like I said, pleasant, but nothing to write home about. The real attraction, the one that costs a euro to get in and another euro to photograph, is the chapel on the right side of St. Francis' Church. This one is not pleasant, just weird.

Over the door is a sign that, roughly translated, says: "Here, my bones wait for yours." Bones indeed. Zillions of them, lining every wall and pillar. 5,000 skulls staring back. Hanging among this is one whole skeleton with its clothes hanging in shreds. At least I hope it's clothes. This is the weirdest place we have seen on our Road trip. Hands down. I can't understand why this didn't chase all the locals back to Islam.

After this stop, we were hungry. Both the local tourist bureau and our own trusty guidebook had recommended the same "adega". It was Saturday, so we ordered the traditional Brazilian Saturday lunch, "feijoada". The bean dish was very different here in Portugal but still traditional and tasty. The house wine was also good, and cheap. The food was salty and we were still discussing the relative merits of tranquil mosques vs bone-lined chapels when the first bottle ran out and we moved to our second. After this meal, we barely had the energy to make it back to the Polycarpo for a well-deserved "sieta". We did manage to end the day with yet another walk over the granite cobblestones and it's safe to say that I ached from head to toe.

Day three started with a hotel breakfast, included in the 38-euro price, and planning for a serious touring day. Our feet (and heads) seemed to be recovered and our Rick Steves guidebook had spelled out "an hour or so walk". Never trust a Norwegian from Seattle. (That's Ricky, not me.) Maybe he was running but not walking. But it was fun and here's what we saw:

We started at the main square, named after Giraldo the Fearless who kicked the Moors out of town in 1165. A block or two off the square, we came to a section of the old Roman wall, built a thousand years before Mr. Fearless did his thing. We followed our guidebook's instructions and walked along this street, with remains of the original aqueduct on our left side until we came to the remaining gate from the original Roman wall. From here it was up a hill to our last Roman stop, the remains of a temple. I am impressed with all this Roman stuff. California doesn't have any.

To one side of the temple square there is the Pousada Loios, a 15th Century monastery that has been converted into a very nice hotel. More than 38 euros. Much more. Off on another side is the city museum with more shards and other old broken things. We toured because we're professionals but, trust me, seen one shard or tomb piece, seen 'em all.

Across from the museum is a pleasant-looking white building that was the home to the Inquisition Tribunal. Here thousands of people were tried and found guilty. Upon conviction, they were immediately marched down to Mr. Fearless's square and burned. Chapels lined with bones and Inquisition monuments should make us cautious about self-righteous condemnation of others. Condemn, perhaps, but remember our own European history too.

On that note, we left the temple square and wandered down Vasco da Gama Street. The famous explorer would live at house number 15 when he was not out finding new worlds. Around the corner was the Evora Cathedral with its mix of Romanesque and Gothic towers and styles. For me, the highlight was when the bells started to ring with the uneven pace of a real, human, bell ringer. It seemed so fitting to the old and historic town and a nice close to our more-than-one-hour walking tour.

That evening, we packed our bags and put what we would not need in Kiev back into the car. We drove to our underground parking lot and found it almost empty on a Sunday evening. In our best mixture of pantomime, sign language and bad Portuguese, we explained to Luiz, the attendant, that we would be back in a month. We asked him to please take good care of our car. We think he said he would.

The next morning we left for Lisbon on an express bus. It was a nice ride and the entrance to the city is spectacular as the road is carried by the dramatic Vasco da Gama bridge across the very wide Tagus River. Our Lisbon visit was limited to a taxi ride to the airport to locate a hotel and another taxi ride to our selection. We went to bed early because we had to wake up at 3:00am in order to make our 6:00am flight.

The wakeup call really was early but we struggled out of bed, into and out of showers, and down to our taxi. We even made the 4:00 am check-in time that had been recommended by the airline. However, after that, we had to kill almost two hours in an airport where the only distraction was the pair of armed guards wandering through the empty halls. But, at least we got to leave; the poor guards are still there.

Our itinerary was first a three-hour flight to Amsterdam and then a two-an-a-half hour flight over to Kiev. Any traveler to Kiev understands that getting there is seldom convenient.

Most of the first flight was uneventful. Toward the end, there were a few bumps. About then, the pilot spoke up and said that the airport had ordered flights to delay landings for about 15 minutes while a storm passed by the airport. So, after circling over the North Sea for the required time, our pilot pointed us back toward the airport, or at least to where his instruments said the airport should be. We were bouncing along in very dark clouds. The plane kept getting lower and rougher. By the time we broke below the clouds, the ride was as rough as any I've had in the million-plus miles I've logged. The engines were going from full throttle to idle and back again as the pilot tried to deal with the winds. A couple hundred feet above the runway a gust hit us and the front of the plane turned sharply to the left and the pilot, thankfully, gave up trying to land. However, riding with a pilot who is trying, in a storm, to put space between his plane and the earth, is not my idea of fun.

But, planes don't fly forever so our intrepid pilot circled around for another try. By now, the very visible storm front had moved another half-mile or so to the left and the landing was rough but successful. Old line: If everyone walks away, the landing was successful.

Fortunately, by the time of our connecting flight, the weather had improved and this time, the flight was uneventful, beginning to end. In Kiev Borispol International Airport, we did the usual: immigration line; wait for bags; customs line; out to a greeting by our driver, Yuri. Yuri's greeting says we're home, at least for a little while.

That's it for now. We hope you walk away from all landings.

John and Marianne

















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Created March 2, 2002

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