We started our cold and very rainy day on a tour of area prehistory, run by a charming young archaeologist. The countryside here has a rich trove of neolithic sites, some of which date back 7,000 years. It was also one of last holdouts of the Neanderthals. We could relate Newgrange in Ireland, and the later Stonehenge site to what we saw today.
In Portugal, particularly this section, there are very large ancestral land holdings, primarily used as cork fields and for cattle raising. The problem is that these landholders are not inclined to give over these prehistoric sites to the government, though they must allow access if a site has been declared a national monument. So tourists can get to the sites, but the owner of the land does not have to provide a good road or path to access it. On a day like today, that was a particular problem.
We first saw the Cromeleque dos Amendres. It is a complex of about 95 granite monoliths, deposited in small groups. Ninety-two of the menhirs (man-made upright stones) form two parts, which were oriented to different directions associated with the equinox, forming a lunar/solar calendar. The stones are on a slope facing east and some of them feature carvings of crescent moons, shepherds’ crooks, and lances.
Next, we went to the standing stone of Menhir dos Almendres, which is near as the crow flies and related to the Cromeleque by indicating the location of the sunrise on the summer solstice. While it is a very impressive stone- about 11.5 feet high – as we are not crows, getting to it involved walking, slipping, sliding and crawling a quarter-mile through a very nasty eroded ditch surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. Tourists are such a hardy lot!
Our last site of the trip involved no crawling, and a bit less rain. The Zambujeiro burial mound dates from the 4th millennium BC, and had the misfortune to be discovered by a well-meaning but poorly informed archaeologist in the 1960’s. He chose to strip the mound down to its stone skeleton and to dynamite its stone cap to access the tomb, thus insuring its decay and jeopardizing the entire structure. Worse, our guide pointed out, is the covering over the tomb, which is too small and has the effect of channeling water directly into the structure, thus further eroding the stones.
The problem is a lack of resources to deal with properly with all the issues surrounding sites like these, and the fact that the government does not own the land on which they sit. Modern history in Portugal did not provide landowners with a warm feeling toward their governments, and that is unlikely to change. And the perennial problem all sites like this face from New Agers and general vandalism only speeds the process of loss.
We did learn some interesting things about cork today. It’s one of Portugal’s primary exports, providing half of the world’s supply. Cork trees take 25 years to mature enough for the bark to be harvested. Then the bark can only be peeled every nine years. It takes that long for the bark to reach a thickness appropriate for fashioning wine bottle stoppers — the most common use for cork. After the tree bark is harvested, a single digit is spray-painted onto the bare tree, indicating the year the bark was last harvested. Some of the trees we saw today were quite old. The Portuguese saying is: “Plant a vineyard for yourself, an olive grove for your children, and cork trees for your grandchildren.” Cork farmers have to be in it for the long haul…
Don’s Food Corner
After walking around prehistoric sites in the pouring rain and then spending a few hours in the laundromat, we were ready for a hot, substantial lunch. Because all this morning’s activities took us past the normal lunch closing hour of 3pm, we ventured into one of the few places open, which turned out to be an unpretentious little place on the main square serving tourists who just don’t understand the idea of restaurant closings between the hours of 3pm and 7:30pm.
At the recommendation of the waiter who was trying to steer us to regional specialties, I went for migas alentejanas, which features a kind of bread porridge pulverized and fried with garlic and olive oil and, as is the classic preparation, meant to be served as an accompaniment to pork — either pieces of roasted pork or pork sausages. In the version I had today, the bread porridge had pieces of asparagus in it. While it was interesting and seemed to all go together, I can see why this dish has not entered the list of staples of international cuisine, like, for example, coq au vin.
Jo decided not to go regional and ordered lasagna that turned out to be a style of lasagna we have never seen before in any country we have ever visited. Curiously, the lasagna was served with a side of French fries. Seeing starch on starch is not uncommon in Portugal. Often you will see a piece of meat served with both French fries (or potato chips or mashed potatoes) with rice. Maybe they consider rice a vegetable. (I remember years ago going to a pizza place in London — the now-closed landmark Pizza on the Park — and being served a slice of pizza with a baked potato. When I questioned this combination the waitress told me: “You need your veg.” Oh, OK.) I passed on sampling this lasagna, so I can’t comment on how it actually tasted, but Jo finished almost all of it so it must have passed her standards for these things.
She started with the ubiquitous “soup of the day,” which is always a pureed vegetable soup and always looks the same. Today’s serving, which came in a large serving bowl from which the soup was to be ladled into a soup bowl for eating, actually had flecks of some type of unidentified vegetable floating around. Although these soups almost always look exactly the same, there are some slight variations in flavor but never one that could suggest any specific dominant vegetable ingredient. But it is always rather good.
Afterward we stopped at another place for some tea and sweets. The selection process for these things can be difficult if you don’t know what you are going to get. But we’re suckers for powdered sugar sprinkled on top of things, so we pointed to the largest of the choices. One was filled with a combination of pineapple and coconut; the other was filled with a dense and sweet filling that I think was some type of ground almond preparation. Neither will become as popular as the pastels of Belém.