It’s a bright early-spring morning as we head east along the A2 motorway. When it curves south for the Algarve, we take the A6 towards Évora and Spain. Straight away, things feel different. The traffic is light as we take it more slowly across the green, tree-covered plains of central Alentejo, and when we stop for coffee and a bite to eat, the plentiful staff in the service-station cafeteria are jaw-droppingly slow and disorganised. Opposite the counter, so many alentejano products are on sale that it is difficult to get about without knocking something over. There are maps and hats and sheepskin gloves and the usual tourist tat, but also wine, cheese, olives, conserves, big dry-cured hams, and a huge variety of items made from cork. One is a beautiful, well-made umbrella, which I seriously consider buying until I find the price-tag.
After ten minutes back on the motorway we take exit 5 for the N114 and Évora, and almost straight away we turn right again for the village of Guadelupe. Now we really are in the Alentejo. I slow down and lower my window, and the others do the same. We are with my brother Mick and my sister-in-law Jane, who are visiting from England. We are going to visit three of the neolithic sites to be found in the region of Évora, which is as good a pretext as any for spending a day in the Alentejo in early Spring, my favourite time of year to be there.
This little road is a pleasant drive on such a sunny morning. On either side is gently rolling pasture, thinly-grassed and so well-cropped it is a surprise to see not sheep but small-statured, square-rumped cattle grazing among the olive trees, or beneath the broad bushy crowns of cork-oaks. At the foot of some of the trees are picturesque piles of whitish-grey boulders, some the size of small cars, which must (somehow) have been put there long ago when the ground was cleared. The undulating terrain, cropped grass and widely-spaced trees are park-like in the warm yellow sunlight, the quietly grazing cattle the final Capability Brown touch.
In Guadelupe we turn right, following the sign for the cromeleque dos Almendres. We are now on a dirt road, which will take us to two of the three sites. The road is very uneven but by no means impassable. We go cautiously, and after two or three lurching kilometres come to a wider place where we park under a cork-oak. There is a track, and a sign indicating that it leads to the menhir of Almendres, our first destination.
We make our way down the narrow path in single file. Just beyond arm’s reach on each side are paige-wire fences on stumpy wooden posts, ubiquitous in the Alentejo. It is one of those tracks which double as a watercourse in wet weather. A deep irregular gulley has been scoured in the sandy earth, so that we are forced either to straddle the gap and work along splay-legged, or mince slowly down the middle, placing one foot in front of the other like a model on a cat-walk. At first I adopt the latter method but keep losing my balance, half-falling to one side or the other. Soon my hands and the knees of my trousers are smeared by the damp pinkish-brown earth, and I go the rest of the way in a wide-legged waddle. Beyond the fence it is mixed alentejano woodland: olive trees, cork-oaks and bramble-bushes, with the ground smothered in the bright green and astringent yellow of Bermuda buttercups, which run riot at this time of year but fortunately have the good taste to die down when the indigenous spring flowers begin.
All around is the piping chatter of chaffinches, attracted by the dusty-pink quinces on leafless trees, which remind us that the menhir is within a long stone’s throw of farm-buildings, on private land – though it still feels odd to read later, on the Evora Tourism website, that having fallen in 1964 it was put up again by its owner. It doesn’t seem quite right for possession of farmland to confer private ownership of a stone raised sixty or seventy centuries ago, though when pressed I can’t explain why.
After a couple of hundred yards we reach the menhir, in the middle of a circular, fenced clearing like the frying-pan to the path’s handle. It is three or four metres high, of pitted grey granite speckled with yellow and ochre lichen. In writings about standing-stones, the word ‘phallic’ is used freely, but this looks more like the top two sections of a giant forefinger, fingernail and all. A small tourist-information notice informs us that there is a shallow-relief carving of a shepherd’s crook high up – crosiers are a frequent motif for animal-herding Neolithics. We peer at the stone from all angles, but none of us can find it. I run my hand over the cool pitted surface of the menhir, while my brother rolls and lights a cigarette. On the other side of the stone, I catch the first fragrant whiff as tobacco smoke drifts by. It is a quiet, still, pleasant spot amongst the olive trees, and the gentle sunlight is warm. We stand gazing for a time, but there is nowhere to sit. After a while we return to the car and drive on to the Almendres cromlech.
The road is now still more uneven, and brown puddles of uncertain depth oblige us to go very slowly, but after two or three kilometres it ends at a rough-and-ready car-park, also with its complement of puddles. Four or five cars are already parked there. We park, get out and walk the remaining hundred yards or so along a broad track which runs through an olive-grove, emerging to find ourselves at the top of a spacious, east-facing clearing on gently sloping ground. Standing on this bare slope are scores of rough, generally egg-shaped stones, each about the height of a person, arranged in two approximate concentric circles. Like the menhir, the stones are of granite.
This is the largest stone circle in the Iberian peninsula, a more famous site than the menhir and far more beautiful and impressive than I was expecting. It is also much busier. There is a large, detailed tourist-information board, and close to a dozen people wander about as if not sure why they have come nor what they are expected to do. It is now mid-afternoon, and this is the post-Sunday-lunch drive and stroll, soon to be followed by a stop for coffee somewhere and possibly a pastry. In the meantime, and without much else to do, young people are taking photographs of themselves and each other, adopting seductive poses or smiling winningly beside the seven-thousand-year-old stones.*
We do much the same for half-an-hour, enjoy the long eastward view, then head back to the car for a sandwich. Our next stop will be the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro. (To be continued).
* Not everyone takes the cromlech so casually for granted. It is much pored-over by enthusiasts of prehistoric astronomy, who have discovered among other things that a line traced from the cromlech to the Almendres menhir points towards the sunrise in the winter solstice (or the summer solstice, depending on your source).
The site Neolithic Studies adds that it is ‘very popular today with New Agers, Pagans, neo-Druids and neo-shamans’. Unsure what Pagan means in this context, I look the word up. Merriam-Webster offers ‘one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods’, but that doesn’t sound quite right. It’s hard to see this person lasting more than two minutes at the cromlech (I am reminded a little of the young people I saw this afternoon). The dictionary.com site has ‘a member of a religious, spiritual or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth.’ This definitely seems to be on the right track, but I feel I haven’t got there yet. It is not until I try the ever-enjoyable Urban Dictionary that I feel I have a really clear picture: ‘a group of religions made up by silly white guys in the Romantic period when they were playing at being wizards and druids and shit. They all claim to have a really old history but they’re lying cuntbags like any religious group.’ So that’s Pagans.
If like me you are now wondering with some misgivings what neo-shamans might be, I am given a clue by Neolithic Studies with the following report, delivered without irony: ‘A menhir on the south edge of the enclosure has been carved with a large semi-circular cupmark. A local neo-shaman respondent claimed that she and her students (sic) have experienced visionary journeys when they placed their head inside this indentation’.
That probably sums up neo-shamans, but anyone keen to know more would probably enjoy a visit to the http://www.reconnections site below, which is as nutty as they come. I add two other sites I looked at.