São Brás de Alportel

Our local town, only 2 minutes away from Casa Ferrobo

Sao Bras de Alportel in the AlgarveOur local town is both a bustling centre for this part of the Barrocal – the name given to the region of shale and limestone hills rising from the coastal fringe to the higher ranges and gorges of the magnificent Serra just to the north – and a marvellous historic settlement bursting with architectural and cultural heritage hidden in plain sight along the town’s memorable byways, lanes and tree-shaded squares. We’re very fond of the town and lucky to have it to-hand.

It’s nothing like an Algarve town you’ll be familiar with from travel and holiday programs. Just far enough off the tourist trail to escape rampant commercialism; it’s a dyed-in-the-wool market town with local people, character and produce at its heart, but with a grand and genuine welcome for visitors toboot. It’s laid back and unhurried; a place to unwind with a coffee and pastry treat at a pavement café (of which there are, at last count, 38!), sit on a bench below a carob tree and wonder at the timeless architecture, or window-shop for locally made leather and cork goods without the hassle you’ll find in the coastal or tourist towns nearer the coast.

No-one knows when the place was first inhabited. A superb section of Roman road – the Calcadinha – survives near the parish church and is part of a restful circuit of paths and tracks looping round to the nearby ‘Verbena’s Garden’, municipal lido and park in the grounds of the now-demolished Bishop’s Palace. The settlement was a staging point on the road linking the fertile agricultural plains of the Alentejo (the Portuguese Region north of the Algarve) to the Roman port at Faro. It’s certain that the Moors, who invaded southern Portugal and Spain from North Africa in medieval times, were here; one of the most renowned Moorish poets, Ibne Ammar, was born in Sao Bras, whilst the eye-catching architectural styles of intricately carved doors and balconies, ornate chimneypots and hidden courtyards owe everything to the southern Mediterranean style imported by these incomers.

Fast-forward a few centuries; it was the cork industry that produced the charming old town we see today. Immense fortunes were made from harvesting the bark of this species of oak tree; much of this money was invested in some fine townhouses and villas and in developing the old town with market buildings and small warehouses, workers’ housing, sanitation, chapels and tree-dappled plazas. It developed as the hub of this central part of inland Algarve, and remains such, with thriving markets; timeless, old-fashioned shops; cultural attractions and that certain lack of chutzpah which has pervaded and destroyed towns of lesser municipal pride.

Luckily; all of this survives essentially intact and little-changed. The heart of Sao Bras has been only lightly brushed by the hand of development, and contemporary elements sit comfortably with the character of past centuries. A web of cobbled alleyways and byways present a marvellous place to explore and linger at leisure. Over the last 25 years or so much effort and money has been spent renovating and restoring what had become somewhat down-at-heel properties and entire areas without spoiling the essential character of the place.

Narrow streets lined with gloriously colourful tile-fronted terraces of houses radiate from the main square. Wrought iron balconies drape the frontages; evergreen oaks shade minute stone-setted squares; tempting cafés inhabit secluded courtyards hidden off winding lanes; all of this leading seamlessly to the municipal heart centred on the beautiful, white-painted Mother Church, set on its high rocky bluff with views stretching to the distant sea.

OUR FAVOURITE BITS

Church at Sao Bras de AlportelThe covered Produce Market is a wonderful place to mooch around, investigate unfamiliar vegetables, fish and cheeses, indulge in fresh pastry and bakery treats and there are good street-side cafes here in which to take stock. For a leisurely lunch, moor-up at one of the cafes and restaurants on the Main Square, Largo Sao Sebastiao and people-watch as locals and visitors meander amidst the jet-fountains and sculptures that have re-invented this corner of the old town, where traffic now bypasses shady corners and colourful parasols catch the eye. From here, amble 300yds along the Rua Dr Jose Dias Sancho (beside the Algarve Tourist Office) to discover the Ethnology Museum Museu do Trajo do Algarve. It’s a great traditional old town museum with a marvellous mix of Victorian-age style set piece recreations of Algarvean life balanced by contemporary displays and exhibits. Hundreds of engaging exhibits, relics and ephemera all housed in one of the town’s cork-oak millionaire’s mansions, complete with marvellous tile-frontage, balustrades and hidden gardens.

Heading back towards the Square, take the 3rd left street, Rua Manuel de Arriaga. This narrow canyon of white houses, cottages and ruins still awaiting renovation heads towards the heart of the old town. Keep left 3 times to find one of the old market and commercial squares, with some marvellous architecture to savour. Keep left to find a little, tree-studded square where the splendid Casa da Barreira tapas bar has a secret shady courtyard out-back. Bag one of the few tables here beneath awnings, watch geckos skitter amongst the pot plants or butterflies taking nectar from the plant-hung walls. Marvellous!

Then take the lane opposite, which bends round to an entrance to the Verbena’s Garden park and lido (recently renovated), then past the top of the Roman Road to reach the town’s Mother Church. The trees here are a riot of purple blossom in summer. Directly opposite, take the Rua Gago Coutinho (beside the attractive Municipal Offices) to return to the main square. Along here is one of our favourite restaurants in the town, Ysconjerido. Comparatively upmarket (but still a bargain compared to British prices), it’s great for fresh-cooked meals using the best of local ingredients – think goat, boar, spiced sausages, glorious vegetables and, naturally, local wines!

Cork Industry

Cork barkThe cork industry remains significant today and Sao Bras is still the centre for Portugal’s production of this natural material. The cycle of harvesting every 10 years or so ensures the supply of raw material is self-perpetuating and supports the rural economy across the inland heart of the Algarve. Almost all of the winding, steep dirt tracks and roads in the hills are created to allow access to oak forests and stands; nowadays tractor or quad bikes replace the mules and donkeys of old. The cork oak’s thick outer bark is stripped off (by hand) and sent for processing to factories where it is steamed, graded and cut for use not only as champagne and wine corks, but also for tiles, boards and a wide variety of domestic products. A cork trail – Rota da Cortica – is signposted around the local countryside, taking you to/past every stage of the production, from tree-stripping to finished product. An interesting factory tour around the Nova Cortica works may also be available. Pop in to the Tourist Information Office in the main square for up-to-date information.