Hopping from fortress to fortress in central Portugal — never mind the weather
Max Kim-Bee
| Credit: Max Kim-Bee

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.

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.
Day 1 Start in Lisbon, heading north on the A1. Stop at Santarém; then continue to Torres Novas and Tancos via the N3. Have bacalhau for lunch at Sol Tejo (2260 Vila Nova da Barquinha; 351-249/710-231; lunch for two $19), overlooking the Almoural Castle. Take the N110 north to Tomar and check into the Pousada de São Pedro (Castelo do Bode, 2300 Tomar; 351-249/381-159, fax 351-249/381-176; doubles from $88).

Day 2 Many visitors make pilgrimages to the religious sites of Batalha, Alcobaça, and Fàtima, but if your time is limited, continue west along the N113 past Ourém to Leiria. Visit the 14th-century castle in Leiria, have lunch in one of the cafés at its base, and circle back to Ourém. Spend the night at the stark-white Pousada de Conde de Ourém, a former hospital that's now a minimalist hotel (2490 Ourém; 351-249/540-920, fax 351-249/542-955; doubles from $153).

Day 3 Drive southwest on the N356 to the N362 south, stopping to see the Moorish castle in Porto de Mós. Continue on the N362 through the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, turning west at Rio Maior to hit the IP6. Have all your meals at the fabulous Pousada do Castelo in Ôbidos, and spend the night if possible (2510 Ôbidos; 351-262/959-105, fax 351-262/959-148; doubles from $164; lunch for two $36). International Chapters also rents the Quinta de Sant'Ana cottages south of town (866/493-8340; from $870 per week).

Day 4 Head south on the A8, stopping to see the ramparts at Torres Vedras. You're just one hour from Lisbon.