Thursday, June 10, 2010

Alcantarilha, Portugal and The Chapel of Bones

Perched on a hillside not far from the splendid beaches of southern Portugal, and not too far from the night life of Albufeira lies a small, quaint village called Alcantarilha.

Alcantarilha is not a large, glamorous or very well known town, but it has retained the charms and characteristics of centuries-old Europe amidst the rapid commercialization and touristic growth of the Portuguese coast.

Alcantarilha truly is a step back into old-school Europe. It has the feeling of a secluded town built around friendship, family and socializing, but in actuality it's located just miles away from some populated tourist destinations and only five minutes from the main southern thoroughfare, A-22, that spans across Portugal from Spain.

The streets are narrow and cobble stoned, yet vibrant and full of life, and not a street crossing lies bare of a cafe, bar, restaurant or another type of establishment that centers around socializing.

A 15th century church dominates the local landscape and, as is common for these old European towns, the church stands right in the center of the old 'downtown' area.

Granted, the town has expanded over the years, but you don't enter or leave Alcantarilha without first acknowledging the grand significance of its main structure - the main church and the soaring church bell tower.

And you didn't mess with the sanctity of the church grounds - I was idling inside my rental care right outside the front door of the church one day when an elderly lady knocked on my window with her cane. I rolled down the window to hear what she had to say - although I knew it was futile because I don't speak Portuguese - and I was greeted with a waving cane and some loud words that were ordering me to move the car up a few feet. When I did so, the elderly woman was satisfied and she crossed the road and went on her way. This woman could have walked less than two feet around the car to cross, but somewhere in the waving cane and blistering words she was probably telling me that she has crossed in that same spot every day for the last eighty years and she'll be damned if my rental car is going to keep her from crossing there today; and if that's what she was saying, then she was right.

Along the winding streets you'll find numerous cafes, a central market, a shoe smith, butcher, tailor and an old firehouse with a fire engine that looks like gerbils should be running in the wheels to make it go.

Right next to the church is a small shop that sells everything that you need - no mega-supermarket-plex full of heavily-preservatized food items - here you get what you get and you get what ever is fresh that day. Some days you'll get chicken, some days you won't - it depends on what's available. A little old lady that speaks no English stands watch of her shop, and although she doesn't speak English, you'll feel like you've known her your entire life. After a warm welcome, the kids are offered freshly made goodies - cookies or pastry of some kind - and even on days that you show up without the kids, you get a to-go box of goodies for the kids, on the house.

Across from the shop is a small bar/cafe/restaurant called 'Casa de Paz' with all the charm and warmth that you need on a relaxing vacation. The owner, an extremely friendly and generous man named Fransisco, works 16 hour days - every day - to make his business a place where both the locals and outsiders can mingle and feel at home; a place where one can get away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy coast, and where one can get so wrapped up in conversation the sharing of experiences that hours can pass by in the blink of an eye.

As an added bonus, the food and the village wine of Alcantarilha are fantastic. Whether it's a pork fillet, a piece of fresh fish, a peppered steak or a leg of lamb, the food will be fresh and the tastes will be splendid. The town boasts its own local-made wine, a wine so good that you'd pay tens of dollars for it in America, but when you drink it with the locals, you get the local price. I always laugh at the thought of how much we pay for the best wines in America - because we're trained to believe that you only get the best when you shell out loads of cash - when the best wines of the local villages around the globe are quite inexpensive - unless you drink where the tourists drink.

It's a shame that you can only bring so much wine back with you on the plane.

Back to the subject establishment, across from the main church where the food (and wine) is absolutely terrific; there's no set menu, tell Fransisco what you want, and if he has it, it means it's fresh and he'll cook it up in his very own, creative mix of spices and flavors.

On one one occasion inside this little place I caught a glimpse of 'community' that has lost for far too long in many societies today - there were four men sitting around a table in the secondary dining room of this establishment, and they were all playing cards and either sipping a scotch or drinking the Portuguese brew; the four men sitting together were the local priest, the town cop, the town pool guy and the fourth unnamed character was the guy that kept buying us all drinks, just for being guests in his town.

It took me a few moments to take it in because I was waiting for a punchline - when you repeat the scenario out loud it sounds like the set up for a good joke - but I realized that what I was observing was a fine example of what life is all about - it's about friends, family, community and enjoyment - at least it should be.

For those four men on that day, it was the good life, and I'm glad I got a glimpse into their world - and a blessing from the priest.

The pool guy had me laughing, though. This little guy didn't speak a lick of English but he would talk away as if I understood everything he was saying, but funny enough, I somehow always knew what he was talking about. He cleaned pools for a living, but sometimes I got the impression that he would just run home and change shirts before coming back to Fransisco's. I wasn't buying the 'cleaning pools' bit all the time, although I do know he got the job done when he needed to.

The pool guy also had to get put in check at times, regarding his bar tab. This guy, like everyone we met in Alcantarilha, wanted to buy every single round, but we all suspected that he couldn't afford it. We knew that Fransisco probably had an ongoing bar tab for this guy that might have gotten paid from time to time, but not really. Kind of like Sam had for Norm in Cheers.

That was a running theme in Fransisco's, however. Everyone would have a fairly hefty tab by the end of the night, but no one bought a drink for themselves - everyone would buy for everyone else and somehow it all worked out.

This establishment quickly became the cornerstone of our evenings during our vacation. You could spend hours in this place chatting away with the locals abd talking about the things that mattered most - friends, family and experiences. If an argument got heated, it was most likely about one of the local football (soccer) teams, but never did the argument end without laughter and another beer.

Back to the main attraction, the bell-tower church. A soaring sight, that towered over the other structures in the town. What makes this church unique, however, is the well-known 'Capela dos Ossos,' or 'The Chapel of Bones,' to us English-speaking types.

According to the history lessons I received from the locals, followed up with a brief google search, the church was built in the 16th century on the grounds of an old cemetery. Not wanting the bones of those who were buried in the sacred ground to go unprotected once the bones were removed, the 'Chapel of Bones' was created to house the remains. However, rather than locking the many sculls and bones away in an above-ground coffin, it was decided that they would adorn the walls and the ceiling of the small chapel, protected by a crucifix of Jesus Christ that looked down on all from high up on the back wall.

It should have been an eerie experience, seeing all those skulls on the wall, but it was actually a somewhat soothing and peaceful experience; the chapel was a small room of Alcantarilhan locals, living in eternity together, probably enjoying the same peace that they may have felt while sitting across the street during their time; at a place similar to Fransisco's where today's locals gathered.

As I stood there gazing at the centuries-old sculls, I thought of the stories that they might tell if they were still alive. Would they tell me about the history and charms of Alcantarilha, like the residents of the town had so often done? Would they tell me about their families and experiences over a glass of village wine?

Then something dawned on me; those 500 year-old skulls were not silent, they were sharing their stories with me and with everyone else who made the time to pass through Alcantarilha.

Their stories were told when the locals gathered in Fransisco's, and they were told when the women stepped onto the cobble stone streets to gossip throughout the day.

They were told when the Priest, the cop and pool guy played cards together, and they were told when the town tailor spent hours stitching a hole in a jacket to perfection.

They were told when the elderly lady made me move my car from the only spot that she knows to cross the street.

Their stories were being told every day, and although left to stand bare in 'The Chapel of Bones' in the year 2010, they would live for eternity in Alcantarilha; because if this little town, seemingly miles from anything modern, could retain its charm through the ages, then those housed in that Chapel would never truly perish.

I pondered that thought as I turned and walked out of the 'Capela dos Ossos,' and just then I was enthusiastically greeted by the little old lady from the shop across the way, and in her hand she had a small bag of goodies wrapped up and ready for me to take back to my children. She glanced towards the Capela and then looked back at me, handed me the bag of goodies and with a bright smile whisked me away back to my family.

I thought about everything that I had experienced, about the Capela and about my last encounter with the woman from the shop and I found it ironic, that somehow this town is so much alive because of those who are kept housed in the 'Capela dos Ossos'; those that are now standing an everlasting watch over the town.

For the 'Chapel of Bones,' a room seemingly filled with death, brings life to Alcantarilha.

The times have changed, the developments have come and the tourists have flocked, but this little town perched on a hillside not far from the splendid beaches of southern Portugal, is a remnant of the past that is sure to withstand time.

If you find yourself along A-22, and you pass the exit for Alcantarilha, take a journey into the past and experience the feel of old Europe; you'll be met with warmth, friendliness and the assurance that there's simply no life, like the good life.


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