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Sab | 14.05.16

7 places almost unknown in mainland Portugal


Portugal has many delightful “secrets”, some more secluded than others, many of them abandoned and many more badly in need of restoration, others maybe already in the process of disappearing. They are unique, different, special places. Places that unexpectedly appear on our way and sometimes this is the only reason why we come to know of their existence, because they are hardly ever mentioned and remain unfairly ignored, forgotten in favour of other places which are more “worth visiting” or more glamorous. These are just a few of them, mere fragments of our history and our tradition. Visit them before they disappear or become unrecognizable.

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When we cross the street in front of the Salzedas Monastery, we find one of the biggest surprises I have ever had when travelling in my country: a small medieval quarter practically unchanged, in ruins, with narrow and winding streets between houses made of stone and wood with two or three storeys. There are many porches of wood, several of them almost covering the streets, linking one house to another. Deserted and silent, wandering around this quarter feels like we are on the set of an apocalyptic movie, or perhaps in a decadent city in Game of Thrones.

There is a certain controversy around “Bairro do Quelho”, which some claim was one a Jewish quarter, a theory firmly denied by others. Whatever it may have been, now it is only the remnant of a quarter which was clearly bigger, as attested by the majority of the (inhabited) houses on the surrounding streets, which have some similar characteristics.

A quarter that is a precious asset of our heritage, but for which no hope of restoration seems to be envisaged in the short term. Regrettably.

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In the quiet village of Viana do Alentejo, halfway between Évora and Beja, there is a castle of a unique nature in Portugal, due to the “mixture” of styles that it presents: Late Gothic, Manueline and Mudéjar. Its origins date back to the reign of King Denis (13th-14th centuries). It has a slightly irregular pentagonal plan with five conical towers reminiscent of the most typical medieval castles in central Europe. One of them, the Tower of Mercy, is distinctly different from the others and houses the church bell with the same name. Inside the castle, surrounded by gardens, we can find the beautiful main church of the village.

(More details here)

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Two kilometres away from Serpa, on the top of a hill – as befits any good chapel – there is a small sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, also known as the Chapel of Altinho or St. Gens. Completely white in the middle of the green and brown landscape, offering a superb view over the plain, it is a quiet place where you can hardly hear anything other than the sounds of nature, and a privileged vantage point to view those wonderful sunsets that only the Alentejo summer is able to offer.

Thought to have been  founded before the 12th century, the history of this chapel is related to the Battle of Salado and maybe also to Christopher Columbus, this being a possible reason for the name that the navigator gave to one of the territories that he discovered.

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Escaroupim is a traditional fishermen’s village located on the banks of the River Tagus, near Salvaterra de Magos. In these villages, the houses were built on stakes to prevent them from being flooded during the frequent river overflows and painted in vivid colours, the same colours as the boats which belonged to their owners. Some of these houses have survived until today and now they are restored and dedicated to commerce. The pier on stilts, also renovated, houses the boats of the fishermen who remain active and a few more piers were built as docking places for a few modern boats, protected by awnings, which take groups of people on tours around the islets of the Tagus. A museum was created to preserve and disseminate the memory of the village. There is also a picnic park, a car park and an excellent restaurant, which is usually very busy on summer weekends.

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Fourteen is the number of windmills standing high on the hills close to the village of Gavinhos, near the towns of Penacova and Lorvão. Only one of them works from time to time, as they are all in various states of degradation or restoration, watched over by the attentive look of a religious statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The view is superb and the wind blows constantly, as if longing for sails to put in motion.

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Formerly a fishing village in the municipality of Cantanhede, near the town of Figueira da Foz, besides the beautiful long beach of the same name, Praia da Tocha has a curious settlement formed by the traditional old “straw sheds” where fishermen used to keep their fishing equipment, or that they used as storage places for salting fish. Today these constructions have a different life and have been restored essentially to serve as holiday homes, yet retaining their original features and materials. Many of them also maintain their genuine patterns with thin stripes in two colours, in cheerful contrast with the almost white shade of the sand. The designation “straw sheds” comes from the fact that originally these houses had thatched roofs. Nowadays straw has given way to tiles, but the name remains.

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One of the most mysterious monuments in my country, the origin of this ruined tower remained unknown until the 1990s. The Centum Cellas tower stands next to a road on the outskirts of Belmonte. It is now known that it will have belonged to a Roman village in the 1st century BC, owned by a family most likely engaged in agriculture and tin production, which was abundant in this region at that time. The place also has vestiges of other buildings, but only the tower remains proudly standing today, with its unique and easily recognizable configuration, guardian of the secrets and mysteries of its golden days.

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7 places almost unknown in Mainland Portugal