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Castles in Portugal

Max Kim-Bee

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

With umbrellas in hand and galoshes on feet, we surveyed the cobblestoned streets of Tomar, and peeked into the two-story houses that looked no bigger than my one-story (make that one-room) New York apartment. At the western end of town, past the main square, we parked in a spot where the car would hinder oncoming traffic (as a guard had told us to do) and entered the Convento de Cristo. It was ours alone thanks to the weather, which also supplied a gray halo over the gaudy, Gothic entranceway. Tiny staircases led to vacant floors; massive archways funneled us into a gilded oratory; secret passages led to unlit marble rooms. Barnacles, anchors, and seaweed were carved in the florid Manueline style on doors and windows (including the Convento's famous stained-glass window), while stone ropes and cables encrusted moldings and walkways. The Templar monks who lived here, from the 12th to the 17th century, were also knights, and a ruined castle still guards the cloisters. Weak from the detail we'd digested, we refueled with plates of steamed clams, scabbard fish, and three buttons of goat cheese.

Castle, castle, fortress, castle. Was the last one we saw the one with the Italianate detail, or was it the Celtic one with green, cone-shaped turrets?They were all a blur. More vivid was the near-death experience of driving up a switchback to our pousada in Ourém on night two, the car stalling as Colin drove over mudslides, us praying that we wouldn't be suffocated by the fumes from the smoldering brake pads. I admit I'm a bit of a back-seat driver, and I was screaming at the poor guy to give the car some gas, but we were literally sliding down a mountain, moving backward almost as much as forward. When we reached the village—a white cloud of medieval buildings atop the peak—the helpful concierge parked our car, sold us a sturdy $25 umbrella, and ushered us into a guest room.

ANY TRAVELER WILL GET EXCITED about a hotel when the weather is oppressive, but we were giddy from the English channels on the television, the blond-wood furniture and Modernist paintings, and the bottle of champagne in our room. Dinner was an indulgence, too, as we greedily helped ourselves to the cheese buffet, salt bream in cherry brandy sauce, and the dessert selections (twice). All dressed up in dry clothes, we took the concierge's advice and stopped at the Taberna de Ginjinha next door, where the only drink offered was a syrupy, blood-red brandy, which he had described as "an uncle of the raspberry, with a stone." (Could he have meant cherry?)

We saved the walled town of Ôbidos—which King Dinis gave to his bride on their wedding night in 1282—as our parting gift. After a vertigo-inducing walk along the ramparts, we lunched at the Pousada do Castelo, located inside the nearly thousand-year-old castle. Seated on a tiny banquette overlooking a manicured courtyard, Colin raced through his cod while I took occasional steps away from mine to admire the suit of armor and cast-iron chandeliers in the anteroom. With 14th-century crenellated ramparts defending a real palace, and a village of whitewashed houses trimmed in blue and yellow below, the castelo in îbidos at last fulfilled my regal fantasies. Finally, we pulled ourselves away and settled into a rented quinta just outside town (the pousada was fully booked). I made Colin call me Lady Heidi while we dined on duck prepared by a staff of three.

Even on our last morning the sun refused to play. When I complained to our hostess that it had been raining biblically for ages, she disagreed, saying that Portugal had been under siege for only four months. Finally, Colin directed the little Opel to our last castle, in Torres Vedras. It seemed more like a condemned 13th-century inner-city apartment building than a castle, a hollowed-out relic of antiquated construction methods. But it was our final stronghold before returning to Manhattan (an island of no real castles), and its few remaining walls did offer a sense of closure. I climbed over the rubble, jumping into miniature ponds of dirty rainwater, while a strong wind rustled through the bougainvillea along the castle walls, and moaned as it rolled over the landscape. Colin and I walked arm in arm through what was once the entrance to the castle and down the tree-lined path. I reached into my raincoat pocket just as the first hint of gold peeked from behind a gray blanket, and by the time the sky was a midday shade of cornflower blue, my shades were on my face, reflecting the sun back at itself.

But as soon as we hit the highway headed for Lisbon, drops began to fall like stones and streak the windshield. My willfulness had taken us to all eight castles, but in the end, Mother Nature still won.

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