Eleven years ago we took Child #1 from Luxembourg to Portugal for the first time. He was barely two months old. In retrospect, a 5,000km road trip across Europe with a colicky new-born was probably a bit optimistic and the trip was… memorable (to say the least). But we eventually arrived and settled down to the simple pleasure of catching up with our Portuguese family.
One sunny morning in early autumn I took a break from the traumas of first-time fatherhood to explore the local region, where I had one of the most bizarre – and unforgettable – tourist experiences ever.
In my travel notes at the time, I scribbled the following:
Monday October 3rd, 2005
I had my first real tourist excursion this morning – a trip to the Castelo de Almourol. Despite the fact that signposts for the castle stopped once the motorway became a dirt track, I fortunately managed to find it relatively quickly. Perhaps nobody else ever does because I was the only tourist there, giving me every opportunity to peacefully admire the handsome ancient castle perched on top of a rocky island in the Rio Tejo.
Using my very best Portuguese (which Joëlle has since informed me was, in fact, Spanish), I ascertained from a nearby construction worker that the castle was open to visitors. I was shepherded towards a huge elderly man in a tight t–shirt with hooped stripes; he looked to me like a retired pirate (do pirates retire?). The man gestured towards a small boat and asked me for 75 cents, but since he didn’t have change for a 1EUR coin, I got my boat trip for the cut–price – and pocket–lightening – amount of 67 cents. Bargain! For that, I got half an hour all on my own to find my way through the island’s jungle of cacti, heroically shoulder charge open the main door to the castle, and explore every nook and cranny of it. It was a magnificent, surreal experience.
When my curiosity was satisfied, my pirate and his boat were patiently waiting to return me to the mainland and the dust track / motorway which took me back home to my wife and son. Tourism at its very best!!!
Eleven years and three more children later, it was time to return; a time for eight little feet to tread where two clumsy oversized sandals had gone before. Predictably, a lot has changed in eleven years, but it still was a great family morning excursion.
More Game of Thrones brutality than fairy-tale beauty, the 850 year old Castelo de Almourol makes up for its relatively small size by striking a particularly imposing, dominant pose, in sharp contrast to the peaceful meandering river flowing timelessly around it.
Some changes were apparent immediately upon arrival. The dirt track is now a real road (though hardly a main road yet) and the pirate was, regrettably, no longer there. In fact, as we arrived we initially thought – to our horror!! – that a bridge had been built. This would NOT have been good news because the promise of a boat trip was the one thing that motivated the kids into coming (“but we have LOADS of castles in Luxembourg, Daddy…”). Thankfully, we were wrong (it was some sort of pontoon) and very soon a small motor boat came chugging into view from behind the castle in a scene directly from a Tintin story.
Despite being early in the tourist day, a small queue of people had already tentatively formed at the quay, and we were lucky to be able to board without waiting longer (the boatman later told us that there is often serious congestion on August afternoons). Inflation and demand meant that the price had more than tripled to €2.50 per person but, frankly, this is still pretty good value when compared to other tourist attractions, and in any case our three youngest kids went free.
Arriving on the island, the cacti were (of course) still there and making valiant efforts to reclaim the island as their own. The temperature was rising rapidly, and the kids loved the novelty of playing in the cool shade of the cacti and bamboo, two plants which are not exactly abundant in the forests of Luxembourg… We almost forgot that we had a castle to visit, but eventually made our way up to the main gate (open; no shoulder charge necessary) inside which a small souvenir stall stood as a tentative response to changing times and the castle’s new status as an upcoming tourist attraction.
The children’s instinct to play amongst the cacti was probably correct; to be honest there isn’t a lot for kids to see or do inside the castle itself, other than to drink in the magnificent views and partake in a nerve-wracking walk along the battlements (which the eldest kids enjoyed greatly, much to their mother’s distress). Nevertheless, Almourol still stands as a very enjoyable tourist excursion for kids, principally due to its storybook location and the thrill of the boat-only access. But when, inevitably, the big coach tours arrive and the economics for building a bridge finally make sense, Portugal may gain another major tourist attraction, but it will have lost one of its finest tourist experiences, particularly for children.
My advice: bring back the pirate; the kids would love him.
Daisy the bus visited the Castelo de Almourol in early August 2016
(c) 2016 Jonathan Orr
PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR VISITING THE CASTELO DE ALMOUROL
- The Castelo de Almourol is located in central Portugal, about 1.5 hours north-east of Lisbon and between the towns of Entroncamento and Constância. Take exit 4 or 5 from the A23 and follow the signposts.
- Arrive early in the day; the boats to the castle are small and queues form at peak times.
- A combined boat / entrance ticket costs €2.50 per person; kids under 8 (ish…) go free (2016 prices).
- There is a small bar nearby (not in the castle itself) but, as always for mid-Portugal in summer, it is advisable to bring some drinks with you. It is HOT there!
- As a suggestion, continue your day out with a trip to nearby Tomar.