Walking into Óbidos was a rather lonely affair. We had planned to catch a train, but having tired of Caldas da Rainha rather sooner than planned and facing a two-hour wait at the railway station, it seemed easier just to head off on foot.
For the first few kilometres, we could see nothing of the walled medieval town and I began to wonder if we’d somehow gone askew, but then we rounded a bend and there was Óbidos castle dominating the hilltop ahead. Our first impression was that it didn’t look at all Portuguese. In fact, with its towering grey walls and numerous turrets it looked more like a Welsh fort, albeit in a better state of repair than the majority of our own castles. Like Silves castle in the Algarve, the original fortification was built by the Moors; however, it was enlarged after the Christian conquest. The castle was badly damaged in the 1755 earthquake and remained ruined until the twentieth century when it was restored as a pousada (a small, upmarket and state-run hotel, generally located in historic properties in scenic locations).
The land around us was low-lying, agricultural land and it was difficult to imagine this lofty castle once looked down on an important port. In the late Middle Ages, the Óbidos lagoon was double the size it is today, and the town probably overlooked one of its long-disappeared branches.
For obvious reasons (the streets are narrow, cobbled and full of pedestrians), only local residents are allowed to take vehicles into the historic town (now classified as a National Monument). This means that almost all visitors arrive in cars and coaches and enter through the southern gate, Porta da Vila. We, on the contrary, stepped into Óbidos at the opposite end, having enjoyed a peaceful and scenic ascent before strolling through an high open gate displaying a sign stating ‘Please do not enter, we are preparing scenography’. The signatory was Óbidos Criativa. We glanced around furtively, half-expecting one of the cast of ‘Game of Thrones’ to materialise above us, sword in hand, but there was nobody. Just us.
Our sense of tranquillity dissipated the instant we stepped through an arched entrance in the fourteenth-century wall and descended upon the bustling Rua Direita. There’s no doubt that Óbidos is a tourist honeypot; even this early in the season it was teeming with visitors. Maybe it’s because we view ourselves as backpackers rather than tourists that we sometimes forget we’re as guilty of adding to the general congestion as everyone else.
Óbidos, with its narrow streets and historic, whitewashed properties is undeniably gorgeous, in fact, it’s almost too perfect. I doubt we were alone in thinking we’d stumbled into a Disney theme park. There must surely be a princess or two locked away in those turreted towers. If only I had a better head for heights, we might have joined the courageous souls who were strolling along those towering walls, seemingly oblivious to those unprotected drops. I felt vertiginous just watching them!
Harri was keen to locate our hotel – Casa de Thiago de Obidos – before we went exploring. The hotel had kindly emailed a location map and so we battled our way to the far end of Rua Direita. I was delighted to learn we’d be staying in one of the restored medieval properties we’d been so admiring as we walked through Óbidos. The casa is family-owned and the lady who welcomed us spoke excellent English. Our room was delightful with a shuttered window overlooking a cobbled lane leading back to the main street and tall (locked) doors leading to a Juliette balcony; the fact that it was unusually shaped with stone window seats (perfect for lining up our water bottles), beautiful old furniture and simple furnishings only added to its attraction. The only drawback was that we had to brave the full length of Rua Direita again to pay for our accommodation.
A plethora of gift shops, galleries and restaurants line Óbidos’s main street and numerous narrow lanes leading off it promise even more retail and culinary pleasures. I sometimes feel a little wistful that we aren’t able to succumb to temptation and buy that bottle of honey mead or a brightly painted ceramic bowl. At any sign of weakness Harri will remind me that anything I purchase, I will carry for the remainder of the holiday. I’ve never wanted anything so badly that I’m prepared to add several pounds to my rucksack.
About fifty miles from our home, there is a small town of barely 1,600 residents called Hay-on-Wye. Hay straddles the England-Wales border and, since the 1970s, it has been world famous for its numerous book stores (although regrettably, several have closed in recent years). While book shops may be in decline, the popularity of the Hay Literary Festival is in no doubt with big literary and political names lining up to appear each year. Until we arrived here, we had no idea that Óbidos was the Portuguese equivalent of Hay. The local council’s Óbidos Literary Town project has become so popular that more than a dozen new bookstores have opened. And here in Portugal, literary pursuits are seen as eminently compatible with an enjoyment of good food and wine. One bookshop is located in a wine cellar and a local hotel called The Literary Man has tens of thousands of books on sale. Harri modestly quipped that he would be well-suited to run a hotel of that name. I was about to agree until he added The Idiom Mangler would be a more apt epithet for any establishment I might be involved with.
There’s plenty to be said about the history of Óbidos, its various reincarnations and how King Dinis gifted the entire town to his bride on their wedding day in 1282 and Portuguese history is not my specialist subject. Strolling around the town, it was hard to believe the beautifully restored medieval buildings were dilapidated and unlived in less than a century ago.
Feeling an urge to escape the madding crowds, we left the walled part of town, and enjoyed wandering around the less touristy parts of town, taking photographs of lazy cats and enjoying a beer in the sunshine. We re-entered Óbidos proper through the Porta da Vila, the main gate through which the majority of tourists arrive (the car park is a short distance away) and which leads directly onto Rua Direita. The tiled gateway with its two low-rise entrances (to prevent a direct charge by enemies) and traditional azulejos tiles depicting the Passion of Christ was undeniably more impressive than the plain wooden gateway through which we’d arrived.
Feeling weary, we returned to our hotel only for Harri to be confronted by a very agitated Frenchman who was most upset that his own room key opened our hotel room. He even demonstrated this truism to Harri while I was sitting on our bed. How exactly had this issue come to his attention, we wondered? Was he so security-conscious that he went around trying his room key in all the hotel rooms? We felt a little bit unnerved by his behaviour, and when we left the hotel again for our evening meal, Harri carried our valuables with him.
With the last of the coaches gone and the hundreds of day visitors returned to their homes and hotels elsewhere, a hush had fallen upon the town. Now, as we wandered through silent streets, we were finally able to get some sense of what it felt like to live here … centuries ago.
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.