If I was a literal sort of person I’d probably have been disappointed by the Vale Figueira which, not unreasonably, I’d assumed we’d be passing through en route to the Praia de Vale Figueira. As we drove down the dusty dirt track towards the coast, it quickly became apparent that there weren’t any fig trees, and the valley was pretty disappointing as well. Honestly, if you can’t trust the brown tourist signs pointing you towards hidden delights what can you trust in life?
Luckily the Praia de Vale Figueira makes up for the missing figs trees. This out of the way (for the Algarve) beach is what beaches should be all about: a dramatically located, vast expanse of golden sand without a single other human being in sight. In a part of the world where beaches come with strong associations of swathes of tanning flesh, Praia de Vale Figueira is a real blast of fresh air.
We were on our way up Portugal’s west coast, bound for a wonderful rural retreat just outside of the village of Odeceixe on the final leg of our Portuguese journey. We’d been given some good tips for the road trip from Sagres, including the best place to have lunch in the small town of Aljezur, and taking a break from the rigours of driving through Portugal’s beautiful countryside at Praia de Vale Figueira.
The beach is supposed to be popular with surfers, never a recommendation in my experience, but the day we were there it was blissfully empty. We strolled for a while with the warm sand beneath our feet taking in the vast, hazy vista as large Atlantic breakers rolled in before deciding that we should definitely check out our lunch recommendation. Next stop Aljezur and grilled fresh squid.
If you find yourself thinking, “Aljezur? Doesn’t sound very Portuguese.” You’d be right. Aljezur was founded in the 10th century by North African Moors, who controlled this region for the next three centuries, until the Christian conquest. The dramatically situated castle is the site of fortifications dating back to pre-history, but much of what we see today is built upon the old Moorish castle foundations.
Aljezur is one of many names in this region with North African roots, but it resonates with a special force. Aljezur wasn’t conquered until 1249, the same year that Moorish forces were finally defeated and Portugal, the nation we know today, was unified. The fate of Aljezur echoes that of the Crusader states in the Middle East, holding out against Christian conquest while hoping for aid from ‘abroad’ in North Africa. Eventually it fell to 13th Century geopolitical realities. Aljezur is the Krak des Chevaliers of Moorish Portugal.
While the town is many centuries old, today much of it largely dates from the mid-18th Century. The state of the castle gives a hint of the disaster that struck Aljezur in 1755. This region is awash in perfectly preserved castles, so why is this one in ruins? The answer is the gigantic earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755. This 9.0 magnitude earthquake levelled most of Lisbon and, even this far south, had a terrifying impact on Aljezur, destroying the castle and most of the original town.
It is a lovely town, quintessentially Portuguese. Narrow streets weave their way up the steep hill to the castle, which commands stunning views over a green countryside dotted with whitewashed villages. I wish we hadn’t left the exploring of the town until after lunch, the streets are viciously steep and the heat and strength of the mid-afternoon sun was all a bit much. Apparently the castle is only 88 metres up from the town, but under these conditions if felt much, much further.