The sun is already burning on this June morning as fourteen people pile into the minibus parked in the Praça de Londres Park in Lisbon, close to the home of Saramago. The last ones to board are José Saramago himself and his wife Pilar del Rio. She is the president of the foundation named after him and the organiser of the trip.

Pilar addresses the group “we are going to be the first ones to follow Salomon’s Journey”. It is the start of a pioneering adventure, similar to that of the Camino de Santiago or Don Quixote. “We have no idea what lies ahead”, warns Pilar, but her husband immediately pipes up “but we’re going to see some wonderful things”.

As there is no record of Saloman's actual journey, the writer decided not to mention places names, thus creating the desired aura of mystery in the pages of his latest novel. Only two locations are recorded in the book: the departure point and the arrival point. Given as a wedding present to her cousin Maximilian, Archduke of Austria by Catherine of Austria, wife of King João III, Salomon the elephant's journey starts at Belém, near Lisbon, as he sets off towards Vienna. The Portuguese leg of his journey ends at Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo on the Spanish border.

“The elephant in the story enjoyed his trip. Although the places on the route we have chosen do not relate directly to what the elephant experienced”, was how the author introduced this trip on his blog, “O Caderno de Saramago” (Saramago's notebook). The reason for the journey: “The old villages must be reivindicated, they are alive!” Pilar del Rio explains that the task that the José Saramago Foundation proposes to link up these villages in a "Camino" or route to revitalise them. She adds that contact had already been made with Ministry of Culture in order to launch this project.

The tragic fate of the elephant who crossed the Alps

Constância is our first stop. The minibus door had hardly opened when a draught of hot air made us want to follow the elephant’s footsteps to one of the rivers, the Zêzere or the Tagus, which converge here in an embrace. In front of Jerónimos Abbey, Saramago asks us to "cast our imagination to the 16th century. The place would have been a mudflat swarming with the elephant near the water accompanied by its mahout." At a function in his honour, Saramago compares the extremely difficult journey undertaken by Salomon and his entourage centuries ago, to our modern ways “we have got too used to air conditioning, heating …”. He also laments the disrespect with which Salomon was treated after his death "they cut off his feet and made hat stands with them. This should never have been done to an elephant that had walked across the Alps from Lisbon …”.

His listeners are moved, just as they are during a very special recitation from of a passage about their town from “Viagem a Portugal” (Journey to Portugal), published thirty years ago.

Castelo Novo is one of the most moving memories of the traveller. It is a small place, but even so was the scene of confusion that irritates the writer. He insists on pointing out that the large square of the Municipal Council House is not the square with he Manueline pillory and fountain erected on the orders of King João V, refered to in his “Viagem a Portugal”. “Would I have written so much if this were the square in question?!” he argues.

When we finally find the real pillory, it was time to hear another reading from what the Nobel prizewinner wrote so long ago. At the end of the day in Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo with the Rodrigo Castle overlooking, the scene is set for the writer to bid farewell to Salomon where the elephant crossed into Spain on its way to Valladolid. There is a final curious twist: just as Salomon went on to Valladolid, so too does Saramago, on his way to give a talk. The writer was pleased that the elephant seemed to have come to life again, and that it has become the link capable of creating a route through the historical villages and towns in the country.