Portugal: Óbidos

From our apartment in Vila Nova, near Cadaval, it was about 30 minutes to Óbidos by car. The weather was lovely and so was the scenery. This part of Portugal is known for its vineyards and pear orchards. People have lived in and around Óbidos for centuries. The area was inhabited by Celts, Phoenician merchants had a trade centre here and then came the Romans. The name Óbidos is presumably from the Latin word oppidum, which means ‘fortified town’. After the Romans came the Visigoths, and after them the Moors. The first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (1139-1185) defeated the Moors in 1148 and the town has been part of Portugal ever since. It is famous for its fourteenth century walls, lovely white houses and local liqueur. Óbidos has some 11.000 inhabitants, so it can be considered a small town. Most of these live outside the historical centre, which focuses on tourists, but is by no means a tourist trap.

Panoramic view from the walls of Óbidos.

Panoramic view from the walls of Óbidos.

The Porta da Vila.

The Porta da Vila.

Although the historical centre inside the walls has of course been renovated and modernised, the town has kept a distinct medieval look and atmosphere which is very charming. It is a pleasure to stroll through the whirling streets and go up and down the hill. There is hardly any traffic. The restaurant owners and shopkeepers are allowed to use their cars in the historical centre, but others are not. You may still see some people trying to manoeuvre their station wagons through the narrow gates and getting stuck. These are certainly not people from Óbidos, who could get in and out of the town blindfolded. They are most likely tourists staying at the castle (now a poussada) or at one of the local apartments.

First impressions

We parked our car at the parking lot near the sixteenth century aqueduct, just outside the city walls, and entered the historical centre through the Porta da Vila. If you had been dropped here by parachute, you would immediately know you were in Portugal. The inside of the gate is decorated with typically Portuguese azulejos, painted and tin-glazed ceramic tiles. These were added in the eighteenth century. By then, Óbidos had already lost much of its strategic and economic importance. The town originally had strong ties to the Portuguese Kings and Queens. It had an important trading port in the Middle Ages, but when the Reconquista had been completed by 1492 and the river delta had silted up in the sixteenth century, Óbidos’ importance diminished.

Porta da Vila interior.

The Rua Direita.

The Rua Direita.

The Porta da Vila leads to the Rua Direita, the main street of the town. Expect to find most of the tourists here, frequenting the many souvenir and pastry shops. Óbidos is known for the ginja de Óbidos, which is a cherry liqueur that you can buy almost everywhere. It is usually drunk from an edible chocolate cup, no larger than a thimble. Obviously you drink the ginja first and then consume the chocolate. After buying some of this liqueur for ourselves and for the people who were babysitting our cats back home, we began to explore the historical centre. As we had arrived a bit late, most of the churches had already closed for the afternoon break, so we decided to buy some savoury pastries (try the pastéis de bacalhau – codfish pastries) and have lunch on the Praça de Santa Maria, the square just in front of the Igreja de Santa Maria, the most important church in the town. Before descending to the square, you pass a fifteenth century pelourinho or pillory.

Igreja de Santa Maria

The Santa Maria is a medieval church, constructed between 1148 and 1185 on the site of a pre-existing Visigothic church that had been turned into a mosque. It has been restored and expanded several times since its completion, and it was fortunately spared during the 1755 earthquake that damaged most of the other churches in Óbidos. It was in this church that King Afonso V, King of Portugal from 1438 until his death in 1481, married Isabella of Coimbra in 1447, who was his cousin. Both were still teenagers at that time. The interior of the church is quite impressive. The walls are fully decorated with seventeenth century azulejos. Also on the walls are several paintings by different artists. Among them is a female painter, Josefa de Óbidos (1630-1684). She was buried in another church in Óbidos, the São Pedro (see below), and some of her work is on display at the Municipal Museum. Do not forget to look up and admire the church’s painted wooden ceiling, also from the seventeenth century.

Igreja de Santa Maria.

Interior of the church.

DSCF1675 graftombe Igreja de Santa MariaThe most impressive piece of art in the Santa Maria is probably the tomb that was executed by French sculptor and architect Nicolau Chanterene (1485-1551). The tomb was made for João de Noronha, a Portuguese nobleman. The eye catching part of the tomb is an impressive Pietà in the centre (picture on the left).

City walls

It is possible to get up and walk around the walls of the town. Since you can walk the entire length of the wall, you have the opportunity to see the town from above from all sides. The walk will take between 45 minutes and one hour, depending on how often you pause to take pictures. I should warn you though: there is no safety railing! And once you get to the castle, you have to climb down and get up again on the other side. This can be a bit tricky. It was all too much for my better half, who is afraid of heights.

Santuário do Senhor Jesus da Pedra.

Santuário do Senhor Jesus da Pedra.

I on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed the walk on the walls in the warm summer sun. The view was wonderful. If you look outward into the countryside, you will notice a massive white and grey building with three red roofs. My first impression was that it was a church and my guess turned out to be correct. It is the Santuário do Senhor Jesus da Pedra, a Baroque church built in 1740. It is open to visitors. The easiest way to get there is by car. It is only a five minute drive. The ‘Pedra’ part of the name refers to an early Christian stone crucifix that is kept in the church.

Other attractions

We visited several other places of interest in Óbidos. The Municipal Museum is quite small, but interesting. It is an eighteenth century manor that used to be the residence of Eduardo Malta (1900-1967), a Portugese painter of some fame. There was supposed to be a wing in the museum dedicated to the Peninsular War (1807-1814), but apparently it had been closed down and the objects had been moved. If I am not mistaken, the lady in the museum did mention that the Duke of Wellington stayed in this manor, or at the very least in a house in Óbidos, during the war in Portugal against the forces of Napoleon’s generals.

Not far from the Santa Maria is a church whose name in English is apparently rendered as the “Almshouse church” in tourist brochures. Its official name is Igreja da Santa Casa da Misericórdia. The construction of the church was ordered by Queen Eleanor of Viseu. Eleanor was married to King João II, who was King Afonso V’s successor and who reigned from 1481 until his death in 1495. The queen survived her husband by many years and was responsible for the founding of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, a Portuguese charity. The church in Óbidos is part of the charity. Like the Santa Maria, the church has walls covered in azulejos and it has a wooden ceiling as well, although this one is mostly undecorated.

Interior of the “Almshouse Church”.

Retable in the São Pedro.

Retable in the São Pedro.

The São Pedro church – mentioned above as the final resting place of Josefa de Óbidos – is a thirteenth century church that was heavily damaged during the 1755 earthquake and had to be rebuilt. Its most prized possession is the gilded wooden retable or altarpiece. It is the only part of the church that survived the earthquake. The interior of the church is otherwise quite plain and simple. Just across the street is the Capela de São Martinho, a Gothic chapel dedicated to Saint Martin. It was built in 1331 (see the image below).

In the evening, we had dinner at O Alcaïde, a restaurant in the Rua Direita. It is famous for its veal medallions in port sauce. I tried them and they are indeed delicious. When we came in, we heard the owner speak Italian to a customer. When asked, he explained that he speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and Italian and understands German quite well. We then told him we were from Holland. The man fell silent: he did not speak Dutch, nor did he understand it. It did not matter, as our polyglot chef prepared us a wonderful meal. It was too cold to sit outside on the balcony – the restaurant is on the second floor – but if you sit there, you have a marvellous view of the Portuguese countryside. We returned to Óbidos one more time on our last day in Portugal to have lunch there. We tried the restaurant that is part of the Casa das Senhoras Rainhas hotel and were not disappointed. If you are in for something slightly adventurous, try the octopus stew. Bom apetite!

Capela de São Martinho.

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