Day 12: Guarda, Belmonte, & Almeida

Today was time change day in Europe, so we got an extra hour with which to check out Guarda and the area. We started by driving into the historic center of Guarda, and by that I mean we almost drove right into the heart of it, as hardly anyone was out and about given it was Sunday. Fortunately, the TI was open and the very nice lady inside hooked us up with a map and pointed out a couple of city highlights. She seemed almost apologetic there wasn’t much to see in Guarda, but when we shared with her our sightseeing plans in the greater Guarda area for the day, she seemed relieved and pleased that we’d be able to keep ourselves busy.

Climbable Cathedral

Climbable Cathedral

We started our Guarda tour with the massive cathedral plunked into the middle (which seems to be the norm), and paid €2 apiece for the pleasure of climbing up to the rooftop. Although it was a little cloudy upstairs, we were still able to survey quite a bit of town from that perch, and a ghost town it was. The cathedral itself was pretty cool, and, of course, very quiet considering we had the run of the joint.

Guarda, population 43,000. There are 2 of them on the main square.

Main square in Guarda, the town that allegedly has a population of 43,000.

Our tour of Guarda continued up and down the streets of Old Town but there wasn’t a lot of area to cover and it had a rough- and-tumble feel so before too long we were back in the car.  This is when we had a little misunderstanding with Miss Cleo, as she was convinced a certain exit at a roundabout was two-way traffic and it wasn’t. We couldn’t take that exit, Miss Cleo, no matter how many times you had us come around to the same spot. Eventually we ironed out our differences and all moved on, headed to a town called Belmonte.

Belmonte is an interesting town with a few unique features: Pedro Alvares Cabral, the dude who “discovered” South America, was born here, and it is home to the largest Jewish community in Portugal (about 300-400). The “Belmonte Jews” have had a long and remarkable history. As is generally the case, and as I understand it, they were going along, minding their own business, when some Christians decided their religion was voo-doo and forced them to convert to Christianity. For survival purposes, the Belmonte Jews outwardly said ok, fine, but secretly continued to be Jewish behind closed doors. They survived in secret for a few centuries, passing down customs and lessons orally.

Belmonte Jewish Quarter

Belmonte Jewish Quarter

By the time we reached Belmonte, the sun was out and the area is very pretty with forested, green hills for miles. We parked just outside of the castle at the top of town (where the Cabral family lived) and went inside to have a look around. It looked very similar in structure to many of the other castles we’ve seen, and was also similar in that there were really no “off-limits” areas to visitors so you could really strut around like a king and queen. This one even had a small museum with various artifacts, although all the placards were in Portuguese so we sort of made up what the items were.

Next, we walked through the Jewish Quarter to the Bet Eliahu Synagogue, which was locked up tight, before finding a little square in which to have coffee. Belmonte is a very picturesque town, and it was fun just to wander around.

Eventually we found the Jewish Museum and went inside. I’m going to be real honest here: the Portuguese (and Spanish) have a custom that, frankly, is slightly annoying from this tourist’s perspective.  Businesses close down around noonish for a couple hours for lunch. Just close, shutter, stay out, nope, not now, all commerce is ceased. This was now the case with the museum and since we had a busy agenda we were, unfortunately, unable to tour it.

Our next destination was to the town of Almeida, which is, literally, star-shaped. It is a huge old fort built like a big star, and an entire town now carries on inside the walls. Miss Cleo tried to get us to drive right through old ramparts into Old Town, but Jim smartly left the car on the outside and we walked in.

The mean streets of Almeida

The mean streets of Almeida

With the number of castles and fortresses we’ve seen on the eastern side of Portugal, it’s hard to imagine who was fighting who. First of all, I would think the population during this time was reasonably small, and all of the would-be invaders were already preoccupied building their own castles. Then, once all the fortifications were complete, now what? You can’t leave, as you must defend your own, so you just stay and constantly and suspiciously eyeball the surrounding hills. But don’t worry; no one is coming because they are all in the next town over, sitting in their own castle and suspiciously eyeballing you.

After suspiciously eyeballing the hillside for a while, we were back in the car to Guarda, relaxed in the room, ate dinner at the hotel restaurant again, and then turned in for the night. All this endless suspicion really took it out of us.

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