It was finally time to take a trip to the IMT office in Beja.
Due to one thing and another – namely having no permanent address for a year, heading across the border to Spain for the summer and then having no car to drive anyway – we’d postponed swapping our UK driving licenses for longer than is strictly permitted.
Last year, there were horror stories about people waiting up to a year for their new licences – and not being able to drive in any country other than Portugal for the duration – however, post-Brexit the queuing at the IMT offices seems to have abated and waiting times have reduced dramatically. More crucially, now we own a Portuguese registered car we really should have Portuguese driving licences (which incidentally look exactly the same as the cards issued in the UK except there is a large P instead of the UK).
Our rationale for heading to Beja rather than Faro was twofold. First, we suspected the office at Faro might still be busier than one in the lower Alentejo; and secondly, we’d never actually been to Beja and thought a visit to the city might make a nice day out. Actually there was a third reason, which swayed Harri more than me. He thought it would be easier to drive into Beja; there is always so much traffic in and around Faro. Google Directions advised the journey would take one hour 20 minutes to reach Beja, roughly the same journey time. Wrong! Despite meeting hardly any traffic at all en route, it took us two hours to reach our destination.
It’s generally a pleasure to drive on Portugal’s motorway system (the tolls mean they are almost always deserted away from the large cities) and today was no different. Eventually we left the rolling hills of the Algarve and crossed into the Baixo (Lower) Alentejo, where the land flattens and vast plains stretch as far as the eye can see. Both landscapes looked enticing in the early morning sunshine and settling back happily in my seat, I could (almost) imagine myself enjoying the good life one of the numerous dilapidated homesteads we passed.
Unfortunately, as we left the Algarve behind the skies darkened and the temperature at 8.40am dropped to just 11 degrees, which basically qualifies as freezing for us nowadays. One of the reasons we chose the Algarve over the Silver Coast or other parts of this beautiful country was its wonderful climate. The Alentejo tends to be colder in the winter but temperatures can reach the 40s during the summer months (Beja is the hottest city in Portugal).
It was half past nine and there was light drizzle in the air when we eventually arrived at our destination carrying the obligatory file packed full of photocopies and original documents (we will never understand why so much paperwork is required for every single thing here in Portugal, including setting up your utilities).
We thought it best to get the business of the day done first so we could relax. Our first challenge was finding the actual IMT office in the vast building which houses all officialdom in the Beja district, including the GNR (the military police).
As someone whose public sector career was mostly spent in an ugly 1970s monstrosity (County Hall, Cwmbran) that was demolished a few years ago due to concrete cancer, I was somewhat bedazzled by the historic splendour of my surroundings.
I was only half paying attention to the occasional signage as I gazed up at beautiful curved ceilings and climbed (descended and climbed again) the ornate marble staircase. The azulejos on the walls towered above my head and I wondered how it might affect one’s mood to work in such a magnificent setting compared with my own storeroom-sized office (the space was used for storage on other floors!).
After ten minutes of aimless but enjoyable wandering through vast corridors, we relented and sought directions from a young employee who very kindly accompanied us to a deserted IMT office. Someone duly appeared to help us issue tickets for our forthcoming interviews; everything requires a ticket in this country and the challenge is choosing the correct ticket for the task in hand, Ten minutes later we were back on the orange-tree lined street, 60 euros poorer and clasping our temporary licences.
My own was a pleasant experience, dealing with a friendly official who couldn’t have been nicer. Sitting a metre away from me, Harri was less fortunate; The woman ‘serving’ him never once broke into anything resembling a smile and seemed rather aggrieved by his presence. We were both astounded when, mid interview, she pulled out a bottle of Tippex and proceeded to cover Harri’s handwriting. His apparent crime was to write too big for the tiny boxes! When the Tippex was dry, she made him write it all out again.
It was only when we were comparing notes afterwards that we realised the two women had not spoken a single word to one other during the entire exchange. This was odd considering Harri and I had needed to pass papers (and bank notes) back and fro from our shared folder. Office politics, eh?
It was 10.05am and time to explore Beja. The first thing that hit me was the faded grandeur of so many buildings. Many had tiled facades and intricate ironwork on the balconies high above. Beja even has its own pousada located in the centuries-old Convento de São Francisco where guests stay in converted cells (the Pousadas de Portugal is a chain of luxury, traditional or historical hotels).
Wandering through the city’s narrow cobbled streets, we had a real sense of history. One of the nicest things about Portugal’s cities is that there is such a propensity of independent shops and Beja is no different. We browsed in several, including a wonderful eclectic clothes shop.
Breakfast had been earlier than usual and by mid-morning we were getting hungry. We stopped in a traditional cafe/cake shop, where we shared two very small but delicious iced cakes. When we bit into our respective halves, we realised they weren’t really ‘cakes’ or at least not in the Victorian sponge/Madeira cake kind of way. One was a mound of marzipan covered with chocolate, while the second the other seemed to be fios de ovos (threaded sweet eggs) encased in thick icing. Harri and I agreed both offerings were too sweet by far, but somehow we managed to devour every last crumb in minutes. And the bill? Just 4,30 euros for two hot drinks and two cakes (obviously we left a decent tip!).
In the Praça da República, we got chatting to a friendly local man who spoke good English. He told us he’d once lived in California and had returned to Beja after losing family members in 9/11. Nearly twenty years on, his tragic story silenced us for a while.
The weather wasn’t really conducive to strolling but we soldiered on, stopping briefly at the impressive Igreja da Misericórdia Church, Intriguingly, this elegant sixteenth-century building – inspired by the famous loggia of Florence – was not originally built for religious reasons but to host the local butcheries. Thank goodness it was eventually considered too fine for that purpose and it became a church or it might not have survived. It is now listed as a National Monument.
Our next stop was Beja castle, the city’s main attraction. As often seems to be the case on our winter jaunts, the area in front of the castle was being dug up. The castle itself looked impressive, however, so we ploughed on. Having been undecided on whether to pay go inside or not (it closed for lunch at 12pm and it was now 11.30am), we were amazed to learn there was no entry fee. Incredibly, the biggest tourist attraction in Beja was free to everyone.
Perhaps I should mention that as you approach the city you are gradually climbing. Despite the general flatness of Baixo Alentejo, Beja itself is located atop a 277m (909ft) hill. This means the views from the castle tower would usually stretch for miles … I say usually because unfortunately the mist was fast closing in over the surrounding plains.
Harri climbed the stone steps to the ramparts enthusiastically, with me trailing behind reluctantly. I admit to finding the Portuguese (and Spanish) approach to health and safety rather relaxed to say the least. Here in Beja, for example, there was only a low wall to stop people falling to the courtyard below.
The castelo de Beja was built by King Dinis in 1310 on the site of Roman fortifications, but like the majority of historic buildings here on the Iberian peninsula it has been rebuilt and added to over the centuries. When the castle was classified as a National Monument in 1910, it became the subject of significant restoration work, including the 1938 reconstruction of the impressive Roman arch.
Having done a circuit of the ramparts, Harri was already heading across the courtyard to climb the 183-step spiral staircase of the imposing Torre de Menagem. As you climb, there are three rooms of varying size inside the restored tower, each with distinctive gothic features.
Our favourite was the room on the second floor. More spacious than the ground floor, it had mullioned windows and a huge domed roof creating a star design.
The room at the top (great name for a novel!) was the smallest and least impressive. We ventured out onto the ramparts and were immediately buffeted by the wind. We were just agreeing how terrifying it must have been to fight on these ramparts, when two cleaners turned up. The two of them had apparently climbed 183 steps to remind us the castle was closing in a few minutes (the opening hours may be different in season but at the beginning of March it was closed between 12pm and 2pm).
We were actually really lucky we could climb the tower. Apparently, a section of the balcony collapsed in November 2014, necessitating the need for major renovations lasting almost two years.
It’s difficult to judge a place on just one visit, especially when that visit is on a damp, misty day. I think returning to Beja on a warm, sunny day is a must … if only to see those far-reaching views across the Alentejo for myself.
PLEASE NOTE, THIS TRIP WAS TAKEN BEFORE THE CORONAVIRUS REACHED PORTUGAL. WE ARE NOW ISOLATING OURSELVES FROM OTHERS AS PER GOVERNMENT ADVICE.