by David Allan-Petale
Hit the twisting highway north from Lisbon and you’ll find yourself in a landscape a little like the mid-west region of Western Australia. The bleached yellow sunlight beats down on undulating land pocked with little settlements and green bursts of forest and scrub. There are rows and rows of towering eucalyptus trees lining the road giving off that unforgettable scent. So you could be forgiven for thinking you were Down Under. But every so often you’ll see a stark reminder that you are in Portugal; the unmistakeable silhouette of a Moorish castle perched atop a hill.
Obidos is a tiny town dominated by the fortifications built by its Islamic African rulers a frightfully long time ago. The Moors were kicked out in 1148 by a fellow named Afonso Henriques; Portugal’s first king and a living legend to this day. He restored the castle and Obidos prospered, becoming a very rich port until its river silted up and became what it is now; a well preserved town revered for its beauty.
The streets are quite tight so Carmen and I ditched our hire car near the entrance gates and set off on foot. The long stone walls stretch around the town and there is only one entrance, the Porta da Vila. We padded our way up carefully (the cobbled stones are very smooth and slippery) and made our way to the main street.
Obidos is very narrow and very long with the main drag, Rua Diretia, stretching arrow-straight through the entire town. Carmen and I ran the gauntlet of shops on either side of the street which sell everything from cheap knick-knacks for unimaginative tourists to really, really expensive fine art for tourists with fat wallets.
We’re neither, but quickly browsing through a few shops we found some very interesting things; my favourite was a place that sold bags, shoes and clothing made from cork (yes, the stuff that normally keeps your wine safe). We also tried a nip of cherry liqueur served in a tiny chocolate cup, something of a local delicacy.
By this time the blazing sun was over the yard arm and we’d worked up a thirst so a cool drink at a little outdoor cafe was required. Sitting under a beautiful canopy made by a troop of ancient trees I sampled a cool Super Bock beer while Carmen sipped a fruity white wine. We pulled out our sketch books and spent half an hour or so drawing an ornate door that caught our eyes. Rested and relaxed we decided to make one last push and get up to the castle.
The view from the top was well worth the climb. The main building is inaccessible but we managed to find a little side street that led to a path where you can get onto the walls. The view of the town below is breathtaking, with a panorama of whitewashed houses smeared with the vivid purple flowers of bougainvillea trees. We had a marvellous time bounding along the ancient defences, imagining what it must have been like to be a poor soldier endlessly walking across the treacherous heights. There’s no safety barrier so you must keep your wits about, and when the exit came we were glad to be back on ground level.
Obidos is a brilliant little town, with the best bits of Portugal wrapped up in a neat package. Perhaps it is a little touristy, but it retains enough character and nonchalance about its popularity to make a visit worthwhile.