Obidos, Portugal’s most picturesque town…
Surprise! The wide arch through which you enter the parking lot of Obidos turns out to be part of a 3-km long stone-mortar aqueduct. The rough queue of inverted U’s that make up the ancient structure seem to shorten in height as they stretch far into the distance, farther than your eye can see. You raise an eyebrow and purse your lips, impressed by the impeccable condition of the 16th-century marvel built to transport water to the town.
As you pan to the left, where the stone ramparts peek from behind thick foliage, this thought comes to mind. A fortified town with such a dramatic introduction would be anything but ordinary. Suddenly you’re a drone, soaring high, tracing the outline of the trapezoid-shaped fort enclosing a medieval town perched on a hill rising over endless plains. Can’t wait to lay your hands (oops, feet) on this oh-so-pretty Portuguese town trapped in the past, can you?
Nothing proclaims the authenticity of Obidos like its double-arched main entrance gate. The Porta da Vila flaunts the entire spectrum of vivid blues in its traditional azulejos tiles that depict the Passion of Christ. You can’t decide whether the colors enrapture you more or the delicacy of the patterns. And while you’re still oscillating with that decision, chew on the town’s illustrious legacy.
Obidos (Latin for citadel) changed hands from ancient Roman settlement to 5th-century Visigoth territory to 8th-century Moorish town before it finally became Portuguese land in the 12th-century. In the 13th-century, King Dinis gifted it to the object of his affection, Queen Isabel de Aragon and then onwards, the Queen’s Town has always been the property of Portugal queens. Some wedding gift, huh?
Straight into the ‘thick’ of things (if you can call it that) on the narrow main thoroughfare, Rua Direita. The uneven cobblestoned street is divided into two halves by a smooth walking strip right in the middle. Neat! Whitewashed houses lining either side sport vivid yellow and blue paint borders. Can’t go wrong with that colour combo. Terracotta planters suspending from iron rings adorn the sides of windows. Lush cascades of hot-pink bougainvillea drape corners of stone walls. And charming iron lamps add to the old-world charm. All the right elements.
Dainty cafe chairs facing the street still offer leg room, despite the moving crowd of passersby. Storekeepers stand in their doorways, inviting tourists with welcoming smiles. Pousadas advertise availability of homely rooms in multiple languages. Curious travellers poke into stores that announce ‘Artesenato Portugues’. Traditional local crafts like cork, handmade lace, brightly painted ceramic and wooden roosters liven up the shelves and windows all along the Rua Direita. Even if its a ‘tourist trap’, be the good guy, take the bait. Pick up a local souvenir, keep their craft alive, let them earn their livelihood.
Stop by at a store or a makeshift stall that sells the famous liqueur of the region, Ginjinha (Ginja). The finest Ginja in all of Portugal is produced right here…it would be a sin to give it a pass. Its either that, or the next best thing (for dessert-crazed humans of the world like me). Small chocolate cups of delight filled with Ginja. Devour the cup shamelessly. Allow the sweet, robust, cherry-flavoured brandy liqueur to slowly glide down your throat and you’re in palate paradise! Shopping cart full of Ginja bottles or Ginja chocolate bars or Ginja chocolate nuggets? Inevitable. Irresistible. Give in.
Coming to the story. The homemade Ginja tradition was born when the Romans planted Morello cherry (ginja) trees here, nuns started using cherries in desserts, and a friar made the liqueur concoction as we know it today. (Monk-and-beer saga of Munich come to mind?) Top tip for ginja seekers…Bar Ibn Errik Rex. This former antiques shop, where ginja was given free with every purchase, turned into a liqueur bar years back. One-in-a-million marketing gimmick gone right. Talk about freebie fishing in the fame!
Dig into the back alleys for the real treasures. Away from the cheerful shops and unwitting photo-bombers, deep into the labyrinth that criss-crosses the main street. Up and down the broad steps of the sloping stone streets. Where there’s not a soul in sight. Where the buzz of conversation slowly fades away, and the moving figures dissolve into emptiness. Where ladles stir in simmering pots on kitchens stoves. Where fresh herbs fill the gardens with fragrance. Where lace curtains adorn pretty windows and ivy creepers cling to blank white walls. Get drawn to the mellow light of the evening sun warming up the curves of a church dome, making a statement against the blue cloud- speckled sky. Study the fading, chipped bits of red brick tiles that drape over roofs like thick patchwork rugs. Run your eyes over the errant sprays of flowers that sprout from rooftops and ledges…free and unrestrained. Toss back your head and breathe in the freshness. Its all real.
A little boy in a striped tee rolls a toys outside his blue-white home. An elderly lady walks to the local market to pick up fresh custard tarts. Do all the 3000 residents know each other by face or by name, you wonder. Do they come together like one big, happy family during the Medieval Fair in July-Aug? What a transformation…when the ancient streets are filled with festive flags and banners, locals in medieval costumes replaying the past, as if it were the present again. Ah, the fruits of relentless aimless wandering! Walk the 1.5 km long circuit of the walls for fabulous views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Not as dramatic as Dubrovnik or Lucca, but serenely stunning in its own way.
Where the main street ends, you land at a dead-end of sorts. Peek into the renaissance-style Igreja de Santiago, which now harbours an atmospheric bookstore. Catch glimpses of the Manueline-style castle that crowns the town in its reincarnation as a luxurious Pousada. And let your curiosity lead you through the giant arch in the Castle walls, just adjacent to the church, where a surprising spectacle await you. A small patch of garden beyond the castle wall, one roped-safety rail, shadows of thick trees, and infinite expanses of vineyards, stretching over the horizon! Time has frozen and you have turned invisible. Peace has a new name. But try to wrench yourself back into reality now. Because there’s not a soul in sight and you can be part of a live portrait, right here, right now. A portrait which will be the pride of your mantelpiece forever!
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