I didn’t expect this. Covering almost all of the gable end of a house is a huge blue and red rooster made from discarded pieces of metal. Portugal seems to have a thing at the moment for oversized ‘rubbish’ animals. The rooster’s tail feathers block part of a window whilst a stray metal breast feather juts out over a door; surely there can’t be anyone living inside? It’s a mighty fine piece of urban art, but maybe not if you live in the house and have your views obscured, or risk being impaled when you step out of your door in the morning.
Beja in deepest Alentejo is proving somewhat of a surprise, in a nice way. Our landlady, Dona Catarina, had more or less dismissed it as being just ‘okay’ when we mentioned we were staying in the town for a couple of nights. It’s more interesting and prettier than we expected. But we’ve come to realise the Portuguese have a glut of jaw-dropping, picturesque towns and villages, so anywhere less than picture-postcard perfect is only okay to them. It’s exactly the same with beaches.
It initially feels like a typical, traditional Alentejo town. Quickly we realise for a smallish town there’s a livelier buzz than is usual in this region. The iron rooster reveals there is also an arty side. Graffiti on peeling white-plaster walls informs us Beja is a “cidade anti fascista” (something which earns it instant brownie points) whilst a poster on an ornate old lamp-post tells us an indie rock band will be playing in the Praça da Rebública at 6pm. We make our way through the ubiquitous cobbled streets to a narrow, neat square (rectangle) lined by trees and smart, two and three-story town houses. There are a handful of bars around the praça. At one of them, A Pracinha, a rock band is tuning up beside tables and chairs shaded by Sagres and Superbock umbrellas – it’s an intimate little scene that oozes a bohemian personality. A Pracinha is exactly the sort of joint where you’d expect to find a healthy cultural scene – part deli, part bar it’s instantly welcoming, a place we’d spend a lot of time hanging out if we lived in Beja.
It’s a sizzler of a day, weather which demands something cool and refreshing. Andy asks the waitress for a Porto tónico, a too-easy-to-drink mix of white port, tonic water, ice, lemon and maybe a sprig of mint. The name betrays it as a northern Portugal beverage; although, we were first introduced to it in Alentejo so…
The waitress hasn’t heard of it but, following Andy’s instructions, happily makes a decent effort of putting a couple together whilst we chill out in the hot shade listening to promising jazzy, funky music as the indie band tunes up. The guitar player shouts something to the band’s sax player, and a refined English accent slices through the thick Portuguese chatter rising from the other tables which separate us. Stumbling across an Indie rock band in a square in a small Alentejano town is surprising enough, discovering said band has been imported from Britain makes it feel totally surreal. Beja might only be an hour and a half from the resorts of the Algarve but this part of Alentejo feels like a starship voyage away.
Just as the band looks ready to begin their set in earnest a musical gauntlet is thrown from the northern end of the square as a harmonious choir drowns out the building guitar riffs and sexy sax notes. The Brit musicians hit the brakes as three men wearing red cloaks and carrying metal staffs appear around the corner of the praça. The trio are followed by what looks like most of the rest of the town, the ones who aren’t occupying the tables around us that is. The penny drops that today is Corpus Christi. The procession slow-motion marches its way along the praça, pausing regularly to to allow a stretched accordion of ditherers at the rear to catch up. Its progress is interminably slow. The singing might be hauntingly beautiful but we want indie rock ‘n’ roll and the clock is ticking faster than the footsteps of those in the procession. With sadistic timing the stragglers leave the square just as we have to head back to the Pousada de São Francisco to meet up with friends who’d decided to give the indie rock concert a miss. Ironically, they would have loved the procession.
Today’s the day we haven’t seen a Brit band perform in a small square in rural Alentejo. What we have seen has given us an enjoyable taster of a town we’d never have ventured near had it not been a convenient halfway house in which to meet friends staying in the Algarve.
Beja is better than just okay.