The forecasts were not encouraging: rain, ceaseless and violent, for 10 straight days. Unseasonable storms had been plaguing Portugal for weeks, bringing record inches (feet?) of precipitation to the country. I knew a road trip in such weather was a precarious undertaking (I considered renting an ark instead of an Opel), but the thought of a drag race between my car and Mother Nature was pretty enticing. And I was dead set on central Portugal, a region rife with olive groves, vineyards, and endless varieties of cheese. At worst, I figured, I'd be swallowed up by a puddle and wouldn't make it back to work on Monday. I packed my galoshes and a hopeful pair of sunglasses.
Mud aside, the towns along the Tagus River are worlds away from the fishing villages of the Algarve. In the Estremadura and Ribatejo provinces, hills roll down into valleys as green as Ireland; locals chat in shop doorways; and castles loom (at all times) in the foggy distance. Barren, gnarled vines paint lines along the roadside, where villagers plant vineyards on any available patch. Parking is a defensive sport, in which the driver attempts to place the vehicle into the smallest, most obstructive spot possible. My boyfriend, Colin, and I gleefully joined in the game.
For our brief trip we had the lofty goal of hitting eight castles in half as many days, looping counterclockwise from Lisbon. By the time we'd seen Ribatejo's riverside capital, Santarém, and made our way north to the 12th-century ramparts in Torres Novas, I was already having trouble telling one fortress from the next. But I was more than comfortable snaking through the towns' medieval streets, instinctively flipping in the side-view mirrors before entering narrow city gates. By our third meal, I'd stopped questioning the waiter when he brought the check bearing a cover charge of $1.50 per person (it was for the salty goat cheese and olives that preceded each meal). And I'd decided that if you pronounce Spanish with an Eastern European accent, you might fool some Portuguese into thinking you have their language down.
THE ROADS WERE DECENT ENOUGH, and although the two castles we'd seen so far bore little similarity to the palaces I'd imagined (having learned only recently that knights carouse in castles, princesses sleep fitfully in palaces), they still had intrinsic power. Or maybe that overwhelming feeling was just jet lag. Arriving at our third castle, Almoural, which guards the junction of the Tagus and Zêzere rivers, we found it locked behind dangerously rising waters, and were too exhausted to bribe the boatman to make the crossing. Over a plate of salt cod, prepared in one of 365 traditional ways, we silently hoped we'd have better luck at Castelo do Bode. Alas, despite the town's name, there was no castelo. Just outside our pousada (which was palatial, but no castle), a gargantuan open dam poured gallons of water into a gorge. Double-checking that we were in the right place, I reread the entry in my guidebook: "Perhaps a castle did stand here at one time. . . ."
Tomar was salvation; the only obstacle was the N113, a craggy, precipitous road that swoops into a valley, sidesteps farmland, and empties into the city (a behemoth by Portuguese standards, at 21,000 people). We had taken an ugly road up to Castelo do Bode, and it was very likely that the way down would be equally unpleasant. While the wipers cleared the windshield of olive-sized drops, we slowly made the downward trek, swerving one way to avoid the black holes that pocked the road, then back to miss an oncoming, speeding, honking car. Halfway down I gave in to my aggressive urges (the Opel was rented, after all), and occasionally plunked the little sedan right into a crater. The car didn't like it much. Neither did Colin.