Portugal: The delightful medieval castle town of Obidos is an easy day trip from Lisbon

 

We are on our way back from a perilous walk along the crenellated wall of the medieval castle town of Obidos, about 90 kilometres north of Lisbon. As the weak winter sun retreats, the temperature plunges and the souvenir shops selling gaudy ceramics, medieval wooden swords, jousting outfits and jester hats, close their shutters.

The town, including the castle, the Pousada do Castelo, was a wedding present from King D. Dinis I to Queen Santa Isabel in the 13th century. In the 1950s the castle became the first state-run heritage Pousada – luxury historic accommodation. Pousadas are now run by a luxury hotel chain. As we are not guests, we cannot linger at the castle for a drink.

We are cold and hungry. One of us will bleat or whine soon if we don't find a warm refuge. We are drawn to a glowing little hole in the wall called Bar Ibn Erik Rex. The rustic, no-nonsense menu of sausages, cheese and bread invites serious carb loading.

Small but big on atmosphere, it's like a quirky film set that just needs a few displaced extras hanging around for their call: a Knight Templar in a baronial chair and a stranded, hooded invader downing an ale in the corner beneath wall mounted weapons; against the wall, a young woman frocked up in vintage '50s gear who has strayed from the mural – a vista of columns and archways overlooking the Atlantic. In reality, however, we are the only customers here.

We are greeted by convivial owner Bruno, who fleshes out the menu and some wine options. The snag dish is called Chourico assado. The Portuguese chourico is not as spicy as Spanish chorizo. It is grilled over flaming alcohol in a ceramic dish called an assador de barro and accompanied by cubed Ilha cheese speared with toothpicks. The cheese has been produced in the Azores since the 16th century and Bruno says there are more cows than people in the area.  The bread is from the local bakery. The snag pyre is like a little campfire and we instinctively warm our hands by the flame. The local red wine is a perfect accompaniment. The combination is like a meal you could make around a campfire if you were mad enough to be camping in Portugal in winter.

Bar Ibn Errik Rex is the Arab name for the first king of Portugal. Bruno is now king of this bar and the only staff are family. The building is centuries old but the bar dates back to the 1950s and nothing has really changed since, except the till has been computerised.

Obidos is a strategic settlement not far from the Atlantic, fought over by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians. In 2015, the town became a designated UNESCO Creative City of Literature. It is a place for story telling that has many tales of its own. We settle in, turning the snags, and Bruno tells us the story of his historic bar.

Bruno was born in 1974, the year of the bloodless Carnation Revolution, and 10 months before his father took over the bar from Mr Montez, the original owner. Mr Montez was smitten with a beautiful woman who opened an antique shop in the village. In order to woo her, he opened his own antique shop so they could trade and he could win her heart. He started giving away cherry brandy, Ginga, in the shop he made on the side and discovered he could make more money selling alcohol than antiques. The story goes that his overall strategy worked –  the pair married and lived happily ever after. I'll drink to that and order another round of the sausages, cheese, bread and wine. In this climate, there's nothing quite like tasty guilt-free fat, salt and sugar.

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It was Bruno's father who started the miniature liquor bottle collection in 1975. Bottles hang from the ceiling, catching the fractured light from candles and lamps. There's close to 2000 bottles, some crammed into cabinets and along walls not adorned by the original 1950s mural and an antique weapons collection.

Bruno still lives a stride away across the narrow cobbled street in the house where he was born – possibly one of the traditional white-washed houses with a blue-and-yellow trim and a flower box. In the '70s, Bruno says, about 2000 people lived in the town. Now, many of the generation who inherited property have sold their homes to wealthy people or investors. Now, he says, there are only 50 people living in the old town and they all support each other. Of those, only four are teenagers and there are no children. No wonder it's so quiet here at night. Young families live in the village outside the Porta da Vila, the main gate, which is lined with Azulejos tiles depicting the Passion of Christ.

We are shown a very large glass jar with a fermenting magic potion of sugar, local sour cherries and brandy. Bruno says that until EU rules changed a few decades ago, every household used to make their own liquor, to their own recipe. He hands us a glass of his brandy made from Mr Montez's secret recipe, which came with the sale of the bar. The brandy is very warming with a touch of cinnamon. Bruno's family makes about 10,000 litres of it a year at a secret location about two kilometres from the town. It is only sold in Bar Erik. It's made from wild sour cherries, called ginja, which are too tart to eat. Traditionally, women made the liquors and men, the wines and brandy. Bruno says it is a dying tradition and only country people make it now.

I ask Bruno about the little shops selling shots of ginja in chocolate cups from window sills to tourists. He says it's not traditional, but someone made the connection with a well-known Italian chocolate filled with Portuguese cherry brandy. Bruno is a purist and thinks the chocolate changes the flavour of the brandy. A jolly group of tourists, however, rush in with their guide, seeking warmth and readily down a brandy shot in chocolate cups.

The entrance wall inside Bar Ibn Errik Rex, started by Mr Montez, is a mosaic of pieces of Portuguese ceramic cabbage leaves, vegetables and fish plates. The ceramics are still produced in nearby Caldas da Rainha, the old royal spa town. National treasure, political satirist and cartoonist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, well known for his ceramic everyman caricatures, branched out into ceramic fruit and vegetables 150 years ago and the designs have not changed since.

Bruno recommends Restaurante Acaide just up the cobbled street, where he eats a steak most nights. We are reluctant to leave as it's freezing outside and the temperature will drop below zero tonight. The cherry brandy, however, has warmed our cheeks.

As we leave Bruno asks my friend to sit at a particular booth near a mural and lift up a flap of painted column on the 1950s mural. It reveals Mr Montez's secret longing 60 years ago – a drawing of his naked love interest and later wife. It's charming in it's naive depiction and '50s schoolboy deception. But I think she needs some thermals.

It is a natural end to Bruno's story on how Mr Montez got the girl, Bruno and his father got the bar and we got a great yarn. We raise our glasses to love, family, flaming snags and sour cherries on a winter's night.

TRIP NOTES

Lesley Holden travelled at her own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/portugal

visitportugal.com/en

FLY

Major airlines including Etihad, British Airways and Emirates fly from Australia to Lisbon via hubs in Britain, Europe or the Middle East. See britishairways.com etihad.com emirates.com There are regular Rapida Verde (Green Express) buses from Lisbon's Campo Grande bus station to Obidos. For timetables, see rodotejo.pt

DRINK

Bar Ibn Errik Rex, Rua Direita 100, Obidos, Portugal. Its hours vary depending on the season but are typically 11am to 1am.

STAY

Rooms at Pousada do Castelo Obidos start from about €240 (about $390), see pousadas.pt

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