After excitedly announcing that I would be devoting the blog to travelling with teens the whole world went into lockdown, borders began closing and the furthest thing from my mind was travel of any sort. Our family has been incredibly fortunate to be riding out the storm in rural Portugal whilst taking care of a farm, four horses and an energetic farm dog called Jake.
As handling of the crises goes worldwide, I feel the Portuguese government has done a superb job. The current government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Antonio Costa and with the full support of the opposition (who agreed to put differences aside for the sake of providing a united front in a time of crisis) have been clear and concise in addressing the public. Their main priorities- protecting their citizens, their NHS and their country. The Portuguese public, in turn, have accepted the imposed restrictions and, for the most part, life has continued comfortably in this ‘new normal’.
So when the Prime Minister announced on Monday that now was the time for the people to resume ‘ their life in freedom, overcome fears with confidence but always with caution’ our family felt confident in trusting his judgement and decided to head out and see what living with Covid-19 would mean for travel and tourism in Portugal.
For the kids this was the first time they had left the farm since the beginning of March. For Warren and myself it was the first time, since lockdown was imposed, that we had ventured further than our closest Intermarché in the village of Arraiolos.
Armed with five disposable face masks, SPF 50 and a packet of wet wipes (I didn’t have hand sanitiser) we piled into the car and set off for the city of Évora.
Évora is the capital city of the Alentejo region of Portugal. This historic city with it’s white washed walls and clay tiled roofs is situated within medieval stone walls and is home to a Roman temple and countless monuments and museums.
We parked the car in a free car park just outside the walls of the old city, applied our sunscreen, had a drink of water and ventured into the unknown. At first glance nothing appeared out of the ordinary but the further we strode down the cobbled streets the more visible the small changes became. Notices in the store windows announcing, in both Portuguese and English, the requirements and conditions of entry- mask, 2m social distance and application of hand sanitiser. As we approached the usually bustling city centre the scenes were very different from before. The cafés and restaurants which overflowed onto the streets and consumed much of the walkway were a mere shadow of their former selves. The Instagram crew, who fashionably adorn the fountain in Giraldo Square and the endless tour groups playing follow my leader were also noticeably absent. As we advanced we noticed more and more people wearing face masks on the streets. It was at this point that our 14 year old son, Aiden, suggested we put ours on (more as a courtesy to others than because he felt the need to) and we all agreed that that was the right thing to do.
The main purpose of our visit was to stop by the Capella dos Ossos (Chapel of bones) and do our bit to support local tourism. The sight that greeted us on approaching the entrance was very different to a year ago when we first visited. Gone was the lady with the wild blonde hair peddling trinkets and nougat to the many hundreds of tourists who passed through the doors each day, gone was the jumble of accents and the constant click, click, click of Canon, Nikon and Pentax, gone was the pulse of this lively city.
We entered the building, read the Covid-19 board, applied hand sanitiser and made our way to the ticket booth. Here we were greeted, from behind a perspex barrier, by a friendly lady who continuously chatted whilst desperately trying to get the card machine to work. She explained that reception was really bad because of the thick, stone walls or at least I think that’s what she said, the language is a little more tricky to understand from behind a mask.
Tickets purchased, a second sanitising of hands and we were ready to explore. We walked down a short hallway, turned left and there it was, the Chapel of Bones. Just outside was a sign: Maximo 10 pessoas. In we went. The chapel was said to have been built entirely by a Franciscan monk and an estimated 5000 corpses were exhumed to embellish the walls.
I believe these chapels are quite common throughout Europe but this was our first experience of one. Exclamations of ‘gross’ and ‘Why would you do that?’ were quickly replaced with ‘Look at the skulls on the ceiling and the vertebrae around the windows’. We had the entire chapel to ourselves and took our time to read the various poems and anecdotes whilst marvelling at this somewhat dark and grisly piece of architecture. After leaving the chapel we perused the artwork on the first floor which mainly focused on St.Francis and lastly headed to the third floor and roof terrace where we enjoyed an exhibition of nativity scenes from around the world. During our visit we only ran into one other small group and I must say it was quite lovely to be able to enjoy such a beautiful space free of the usual crowds.
We rounded off the day with cold beverages and toasted sandwiches at a local café (18.50€ for 2 beers, 3 Cokes, 5 toasted sandwiches and a coffee) and Ella insisted on a quick detour to Pull and Bear to take a look at the latest summer fashion.
Overall the day was a huge success. Each establishment we visited had measures in place to make us feel safe. We were welcomed with smiling eyes and hospitality second to none. In the coming days, weeks and months we hope to continue supporting tourism, sharing our experiences and when it it is safe to do so, encouraging people to visit this extraordinary country.