Road Trip! …Just to Tie Allen’s Shoe

Johnny MnemonicWhen learning Portuguese, I use a lot of mnemonics to help me remember specific words. Mnemonics are really helpful. For instance, if –ironically– you can’t remember the word “mnemonics,” you can use the following process:

Mnemonics feeds the brain, so think of eating M&M’s. Except M&M’s aren’t all that nutritious so we have to bump it over a letter, which turns it into “M&N,” giving us an easy-to-remember first two letters of the word.

Playing a game with only two letters reminds us of Sesame Street, which has Big Bird, who is sort of like an emu, but because ignorant little kids watch it they probably spell it with an “o,” so now we have “emo,” which gives us “M-n-emo,” so far. All of that might be a little confusing, so we might want to nix it, but no! We can’t! So we just misspell “nix” a little instead, which adds “nics” to the word, and there you have it!

To be honest, some mnemonics work better than others.

Also, I’ve found that it works better with Portuguese words because no one can understand what we’re saying anyway.

Sad-Kid-on-Tying-ShoesIn any case, to me, Alentejo sounds a lot like “Allen ties his shoe.” Of course, every time I say that, Carolyn tells me to put a sock in it.

Portugal is about the size of Indiana, although it has about 11 million people compared to Indiana’s 6.6 million. I did a search on Things to Do in Indiana. Other than Indianapolis, it’s, uh, well, let’s just say there’s a lot more to see and do in Portugal. So every now and then we take a road trip to see more of it. This was just a two day/one night venture, since it’s only about a two to three hour drive from our home.

IMG_0219Alentejo is a section of Portugal, sort of like a state or county is in the US, and accounts for almost 30% of the area of Portugal while only having 5.1% of the population. That’s because it’s just a whole lot of nothing. To be fair, there are lots of rolling fields with a ton of agriculture, mostly consisting of corn, olives, grapes, and cork trees. But nothing cool, like amusement parks, grand canyons, or the world’s largest ball of twine.

However, nestled among the sparse population are some cool castles and other sites, as you’ll see below. On our short adventure, we saw the oldest thing a human eye can see, one of the oldest decorations a human being has ever created, and a whole bunch of extremely dead people.


Monsaraz is one of the oldest Portuguese settlements in southern Portugal, having been occupied since pre-history, which is usually right after English Lit. The Monsaraz Castle was an important military base due to its proximity to Spain and commanding view of the surrounding countryside. The views from there are impressive, allowing for a 360 degree field of view about as far as the eye can see.

We stayed in a charming little B&B within the village, which is surrounded by the castle walls, and watched this sunset while sipping on almond liquor.
The castle itself wasn’t particularly impressive as castles go, but with the flag this tower makes this view mighty regal.
The views are the main selling point of Monsaraz Castle.
Inside the castle was what looked like a jousting area of some kind, so Carolyn got into the spirit of things by threatening me with an old 2×4. While I was only armed with a camera, one shot was all it took to win the fight.
This used to be a river, but now is, well, dammit.
Which face doesn’t fit?


Carolyn found a little pot while there. Okay, a big pot.
The place we stayed (Dom Nuno – Turismo de Habitacao) was absolutely charming. We highly recommend it for anyone staying in Alenteju even just for a night. The village is small, so you don’t need much time, but it’s so quaint and quiet and relaxing.
This is main street, which was slated for demolition, but they misunderstood the instructions and paved it with slate instead.
Typical alleyway in the village. Carolyn’s holding up the wall because everything was so old we never knew when it might come tumbling down on top of us.
You have to fight to get the best seat on the balcony for that view. Carolyn stands proudly after having bested her opponent and thrown her off the wall, including the crutches.
The Portuguese are so thorough they even have signs telling the cats what to say.
One of the main reasons to stay in the village overnight is the opportunity to visit Lago Alqueva Observatory, which is a privately funded observatory designed to, ah, observe things. The area is world-renown for its “dark sky,” mostly because of the lack of light pollution combined with the fact that you can stay in Monsaraz, which is just a short drive away.

Andromeda_galaxyWe were shown this galaxy (Andromeda) through a telescope outside during an entertaining two-hour hands-on tutorial, although to be honest it looked more like a smudge than what you see here. We also saw the Great Globular in Hercules (aka M13), which lies 25,000 light-years from Earth and contains up to 300,000 stars.

Just to make you realize how really, really, really, really big the universe is, there are about 100,000,000,000 stars in the Milky Way, where we live. Scientists estimate that there are 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the known universe (I think scientists just like saying “one hundred billion”).

It would take you almost 32 years of continuous counting to count to one billion, and that’s without sleep. And God help you if you lose your place at 839,432,012. “Dammit! I have to start all over again!”

Accordingly, you’d have to have start counting every second of every day since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs to count every star in just our one galaxy. If you wanted to count all the stars in the universe, well, that’s about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, give or take one or two or 20 billion. This is the reason mathematicians and scientists calculate that there is virtually no chance that we have the only planet in the universe with life on it. Otherwise, that’d be like putting a guppy in an otherwise lifeless ocean and telling him to have a ball… and not to get too lonely!

While we drive in a new area, we like to stop anytime we see signs indicating a castle or any other historical monument. Sometimes they don’t pan out all that great, like this one, which was just an empty field inside the walls. Here are two of the only shots we bothered with: taking pictures of each other at the same time.

Another of these random stops featured neolithic remains of megalithic monuments. The Neolithic era began about 15,200 BC and ended somewhere between 4500 and 2000 BC, which was just a little bit before the last time Donald Trump ever read a book.

What was so genius about the people of the Neolith was their unique ability to grow rocks. They planted this entire rock garden knowing they wouldn’t reach full maturity for many thousands of years. Today, we don’t know what to do with them, so we just look at them. They probably provide some secret of the universe –or perhaps make a terrific rock soup– but now we’re too stupid to figure it out.

In the area they also had cork trees, which are harvested every 12-14 years or so, which is only marginally quicker than growing rocks.


The next day, on the way back from Monseraz, we stopped in the town of Evora, which has a historical center with some Roman ruins (currently under refurbishment so we didn’t get to see them), a castle and church, and the famous Chapel of Bones.

I’ll dispense with the usual pithy wordplay on each picture, and just show the highlight photos from that visit, followed by dem bones dem bone, dem dry bones…

The Chapel of Bones

In the 16th century, they started getting tired of using up good land to bury people. While most put them into mausoleums and the like, the monks who ran this church decided to put them on display in order to “provide a helpful place to meditate on the transience of material things in the undeniable presence of death.” This is made clear by the thought-provoking message above the chapel door: “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos,” which means: “We bones are here, waiting for yours.” We almost knew how to translate most of that on our own, although I was sort of stuck at: “Our bones are here, but yours are experiments.” I couldn’t figure out why they’d say that.

About 5,000 people contributed their skeletal remains to the project (most of them unwittingly, I presume). Barring a major calamity, I’m certain it will be the largest number of human remains either of us will ever see in our lifetimes.




From Sue Ann and Dave
We were glad to have made it home with our skeletons still firmly ensconced inside our flesh… for now anyway.



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