Returning to Simplicity

Elliptical stones in granite, curved shadows tracing the movement of the sun and parading across the dusty ground, 95 monoliths up to 3.5 metres tall, in concentric circles and first arranged six thousand years before the Christian era: at the Cromlech of the Almendres, the value of simplicity shines.

Tell me of lines and radial designs, of the flat top on menhir number 8 that with the assistance of small stones may have enhanced the observation of the equinox. Tell me of a newly agrarian society, of hunter-gatherers exploring their megalithic selves. Tell me of religion and of the stars looked upon with astronomical awe; and then say something of the rocks that have faced unaided the sun and rain through the seasons of the millennia. Tell me of the megalithic wonderland in the low hills and plains just west of Evora, in Portugal, in the most rock monument-adorned region in all of the Iberian Peninsula. Tell me how it was, four and half thousand years before Stonehenge.

And I’ll tell you of a bicycle in that most popular design, the Chinese pigeon that we are all familiar with today. I’ll mention the radial spokes and wheels, pure circles; and the mechanical advantage, so clear and straightforward, of a cog set and chain. The power of the pedal, through sun and rain can take one back to the inspiration of simplicity.

In Evora the bicycles are gainfully employed, at least the ones that wait in line at that shop with a prominent street view not far from the Roman aqueduct that moulds into the buildings of the town. The bicycles are transport sector workers, though it’s not worth mentioning a wage, but they have accommodation and the health care, covering everything from puncture to rusty pedal, is comprehensive. It’s a very silent, stationary touting they do, true, but to be expected when it is well-known that bicycles have no ability of speech; and despite having a good pair of wheels neither can they move independently. Yet they beckon the tourist with a promise: ironically of independence to be realised in an alignment with the rider, in moving out to observe, in circles, the world.

The bicycle must like the prospect of an afternoon beyond the shop; and although a minor jaunt around the sites of Evora must please, for Evora is a world heritage site and one of Europe’s oldest cities, a longer journey into the countryside, with that sense of freedom from flying along a country road and off into the dirt laneways beyond the villages must be preferred. The bicycle must like the name of Cromlech of the Almendres with its promise of fresh air and fast, fulfilling, tiring pedalling. It’s a thirty kilometre round trip at the least, a good run, unless the Zambujeiro dolmen is included in the tour in which case it’s further than that.

The bicycle was used to the ways of the tourists. Often it had to stop briefly at a random grocery store before leaving town and wait for its rider to buy a few snacks and drinks for the day.

In the fields beyond the city, tell me of the cork oak, robust and stunted, wrinkled and crumpled, an old man waiting at a bus stop or an old woman too weary to share the wisdom of longevity. Tell me how the cork oaks in the grove live for up to 250 years, how the first harvest of bark will be twenty five years after its sapling age and how each subsequent harvest will be at a gap of nine to twelve years thereafter. Tell me of the harvest done with simplicity, without machinery, by hand, for the wine bottle and the cork tile and remember to include that the Mediterranean dweller, the cork oak, cannot be chopped and is protected in Portugal.

And I’ll tell you of the olive: that small elliptical fruit on its silver-grey bushes lined up across the fields. For salads it’s simple but the olive comes with a history and I’d mention that Homer’s Odysseus crawled beneath two olive shoots and Roman poet Horace included it in his diet. In the Quran it is a blessed tree. I’ll have you note it too that the olive tree can live on for two thousand years.

The bicycle liked no doubt the landscape of low hills, cork groves and olive plantations. It can be assumed it was grateful for the megalithic pathway laid out for comers to the Cromlech and relished the chance to pose for the camera, there on the little bridge, here by a menhir.  It’s not always that the bicycle kept record of its tours.

One hundred menhir stones, eight hundred tombs called dolmens and four hundred and fifty megalithic village sites: there are a lot of numbers to take in as the bicycle reaches the village of Guadalupe. There’s a lot to contemplate in the final strides along the dirt road towards the Cromlech and there’s time to be taken to take in the simple circles of curved stones. The bicycle waits for its rider to eat the few snacks.

The country west of Evora, no doubt is favoured by its megalithic jewellery which came to that place perhaps because of its potential for astronomical alignment or perhaps because it’s in that country where all the watersheds of the Alentejo region’s three rivers, the Tagus, the Sado and the Guadiana, meet. 

The bicycle does not neglect the largest menhir, 1400 metres to the northeast, standing isolated and alone, and at 4.5 metres, standing tall. The bicycle continues to the Anta Grande do Zambujeiro near Valverde village, knowing what to expect: a basic chamber, a room of rock slabs that might have had burial or religious purpose.

As the sun descends and the elliptical shadows lengthen, the bicycle has learnt its solar signal and turns its back on the cromlech and with an ever heavier turning of its wheels heads for home. It arrives at the bicycle shop bearing that weariness of the accomplished kind that actually feels good. The sort of reward for the day of the returning to simplicity is a sense of clarity brought about by circular wheels and pedalled satisfaction.

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This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Returning to Simplicity
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