There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 8 October 2015

The Algarve (8): Castro Marim and Vila Real do Santo António

Our annual October pilgrimage to Portugal always produces a post, sometimes two. Here is this year's contribution.

Driving east along the A22 autoroute, the Algarve and Portugal come to an end where the road crosses the River Guadiana into Spain.

Leaving the motorway before the bridge and heading south towards the coast, we soon reached Castro Marim. In some ways it is a typical Portuguese small town/large village, looking, as they all do, much tidier and more prosperous than when we first visited in 1982. The houses lining the narrow streets are freshly painted and in good repair and the town has grown several new developments, including a large and convenient car park and a neat little football stadium that might be small but could accommodate the entire population.

The Algarve with Castro Marim & Vila Real do Santo António in the extreme south west
(map borrowed from Luz Info - the guide to Praia da Luz)

Little else about Castro Marim is ordinary. The river is two hundred metres away over land criss-crossed by water channels and the town is almost encircled by salt marshes, partly used for salt production and partly as a sanctuary for wetland birdlife.

The village is built on an area of firm ground surrounding a rocky outcrop and on top of the outcrop is as dark and forbidding a castle as you could hope to see. Approaching it along a side road the view was softened by the foreground bougainvillea, but still the black curtain wall seemed to block out the sky.

Approaching the curtain wall, Castro Marim Castle
The reconquest of Portugal from the Moors started with the Battle of Ourique in 1139 but didn't reach the Algarve until the 13th century. The Moorish fort at Castro Marim was taken in 1242 and the reconquest was completed in 1247. The walls we were approaching were built on the orders of King Afonso III partly to prevent the Moors from returning but also to deter encroachment by the Kingdom of Castile just across the river.

Lynne inside the castle, Castro Marim
We followed the walkway up to the castle gate, paid the small entrance fee and strolled round the battlements.

There are views over the town of Castro Marim which grew outside the castle after the 1755 earthquake...

Castro Marim from the castle
...across the salt pans and the Guadiana to the Spanish town of Ayamonte...

Looking across the salt pans to the river and the Spanish town of Ayamonte on the far side
....and upstream to the modern bridge connecting the two countries.

The bridge connecting Spain and Portugal
Inside the walls is a smaller castle, almost a scale model of the larger fortification. This is either the original Moorish Castle that was taken in 1242 or the keep to Dom Afonso’s castle, depending on which source you read.

The inner castle, Castro Marim
As well as a clean and useful toilet, the inner castle contains a small museum which informed us that Castro Marim was an important strategic centre long before even the Moors arrived. Archaeological remains suggest the area was occupied in Neolithic times. Later a town grew that traded with the Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Then the Romans arrived and, under the name of Baesuris, Castro Marim became an important port and distribution centre for the whole of what is now south east Portugal.

During its years on the border between Christians and Moors the population dwindled, but after the reconquest the town regained some of its earlier importance. Castro Marim became the headquarters of the Order of Christ in the fourteenth century and Dom Infante Henrique (later known as Henry the Navigator) lived in the castle when he was governor of the Order.

But Castro Marim has not one but two rocky outcrops. Although the Moors had long gone, friction with Castile continued and in 1641 King João IV built the Fortress of São Sebastião on the second outcrop, linking it to the main castle.
The Fortress of São Sebastião, Castro Marim

The earthquake of 1755 destroyed the village within the walls and damaged the castle. Although the great days of castles were by then over, it was restored to stand brooding beside the new and peaceful town as a reminder of more troubled times.

Ironically, the great days of castles have returned, but as tourist attractions rather than fortifications. Castro Marim Castle is now a National Monument and it is maintained and looked after by the appropriate state agency.
On the battlements of the inner castle, Castro Marim
From the top of the castle the high rise hotels of the modern beach resort of Monte Gordo can be seen to the south, while the much lower buildings of Vila Real de Santo António crouch beside the mouth of the Guadiana.

To reach Vila Real we drove three or four kilometres along the modern road across the salt marsh. Castro Marim was settled before written history began; Vila Real by contrast is a (relatively) new town. In 1755 an earthquake estimated to have been of magnitude 8.5 – 9.0 occurred beneath the Atlantic to the south of Portugal. The quake and tsunami that followed destroyed 80% of the buildings in Lisbon and killed between a quarter and a third of the city’s population. The Algarve, with its long exposed south facing coast, was hit hard; old buildings less substantial than Castro Marim's castle are very rare in the region.

Portugal was fortunate that the Marquis of Pombal (Secretary of the State of the Kingdom of Portugal and the Algarves from 1750 to 1782 and de facto head of the government) was an energetic and capable administrator and a fully paid up member of the European Enlightenment.

The Marquis of Pombal in the square named after him in Lisbon (photo 2005)
Vila Real de Santo António is a creation of Pombal. A town was needed, he decided, by the mouth of the Guadiana to emphasise that this was Portuguese territory. It was not primarily a military installation, though soldiers were stationed here, but more a statement about the new civil Portugal he intended to raise from the ruins.

With the opportunity to build from scratch he set about producing an urban design to the highest standards of the age. Like Pombal’s restored areas of Lisbon, but unlike anywhere else in Portugal, Vila Real is built on a grid pattern with two main axes, one containing the church to show the might of God, the other with the barracks and government offices to show the might of the state.

We found a car park, not included on Pombal's original plans, and walked through the town to the riverside. The eighteenth century buildings which lined Pombal's streets have largely been replaced over the years, but some survive including the surprisingly exuberant barracks.
The former barracks, Vila Real do Santo António
Building for an age of pack animals, handcarts and the occasional horse drawn vehicle Pombal, unsurprisingly, failed to foresee the coming of the motor car. When we first visited in 1982, pedestrians and cars were struggling for supremacy. That struggle is now over and the town's central area has been pedestrianised allowing the tables of cafés and restaurants to colonise the streets.

Vila Real do Santo António
We walked through the town to the riverfront. Commercially Vila Real was a fishing port and grew wealthy on tuna and sardines; politically it was a frontier town, eyeballing the Spanish town of Ayamonte, two hundred metres away across the River Guadiana.

After negotiating a route through the street market setting up on the corniche, we reached the river beside the busy marina. With the fishing industry struggling and frontier towns being of little importance within the European Union, Vila Real makes its living from tourism, as represented by these boats, the playthings of, if not the rich, at least the comfortably off.
The marina, Vila Real do Santo António

In 1982 when there was no A22 and no bridge, ferries connected the two towns. Beyond the marina we were surprised to find the ferry port was still there and the boats still running. In 1982 we had travelled across to Ayamonte for no other reason than because we could. There was little going on there - we arrived in the middle of the afternoon and Spain, particularly in the south, closes down from 2pm to 5.

But of course people still want to cross the river. There are no car ferries now - it is a short drive up to the bridge - but there are still plenty of foot passengers, and many cyclists, mostly tourists. In 1982 we took our passports on the ferry and they were examined on both sides and the Portuguese (but not the Spanish) stamped us out and stamped us back in. Today there are no formalities, if you drive over the bridge the only indication that it is an international frontier is a sign saying ‘Bienvenido a España’- though you still have to remember to put you watch forward an hour.
The ferry to Ayamonte, Vila Real do Santo António
1982 was eight years after the Carnation Revolution had put an end to the right wing dictatorship of António Salazar and his protégé Marcello Caetano. In those heady days of new found freedom Portuguese politics wobbled from right to left before settling on the parliamentary democracy the country has now enjoyed for thirty five years. In those early years stencil portraits of Lenin, Mao, Trotsky and others could be found on walls all over the Algarve. I particularly remember the fine collection adorning the ferry terminal. They have all gone now, the terminal is a functional if rather dull building, free of stencils, posters and graffiti.

Ferry terminal, Vila Real do Santo António
I almost regret the change. Modern democracy is so often devoid of idealism and we are ruled by technocrats; we do not vote out a government because of the desire of a mass movement of people to change society, but in the (usually vain) hope that the new government will do much the same things, only better. I was delighted, then, to see, just round the corner from the ferry terminal, this poster for the Portuguese Communist Party...

Communist party poster, Vila Real do Santo António

…and, a short walk away this picture.

Che, Vila Real do Santo António

I know they were there in the wake of the weekend’s election which, when the horse trading is over, will probably result in a continuation of the economic orthodoxy supposedly steering Portugal safely if painfully through its debt crisis, but at least they indicate that youthful idealism is not entirely dead. I applaud it, even while not entirely agreeing with it. It seemed appropriate in Vila Real, built by a man who had a dream of the future and a desire to improve the way people lived. The Marquis of Pombal, despite his relatively humble beginning, was a man of the establishment, not of the yet to be born left, but at least he built with a vision.

We paused at a café for a snack lunch - a cheese and ham toastie and a small (20cl!) beer - within sight of the public baths, an original and innovative benefit to the public when it was built, though, of course, a benefit Roman citizens would have taken for granted fifteen hundred years earlier.

Public baths, Vila Real do Santo António
Pombal’s vision has not made it intact through 250 years; there have been changes he could not foresee or even imagine, and Vila Real do Santo António has had to reinvent itself, most recently as a tourist resort, but something of that vision still remains at the heart of this small but very pleasant riverside town.
Algarve Posts

Eating the Algarve (2011)

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