C is for Cacela Velha

There are far more important C’s in all of Portugal than this tiny smudge on the map.  There’s Coimbra, Castelo Branco, or even famous Cascais on Lisbon’s doorstep.  I’d love to visit all of them, but for me this personal C has to be about Cacela Velha (Old Cacela).

The fortress, Cacela Velha

How does a tiny village on the cliff edge of the Algarve, Portugal’s most touristy spot, cling on to the old days and keep faith with its roots?  I’m not sure that it can be done.

When we first came to the Algarve 8 years ago I had been avidly reading any and every book I could find to seek out the best places to visit.  The Rough Guide mentioned Cacela Velha, saying I should get there quickly before it was completely ruined.  I needed no second invitation.

The location has certainly helped to keep Cacela Velha unspoiled,although the bulldozers lumber not too far away.  The nearest bus stop is on the E125, the old road along the Algarve, and a couple of kilometres walk along a twisting narrow road.  In this era of the car that is very little deterrent.  It sits above a beach which by Algarve standards is woeful.  Still you only have to see it to fall in love.  It is a photographer’s dream.

There is now proper parking where once there was scrubby grass, and a piece of “modern art” has appeared in the little square beside the castle walls.  I can live with this, but please, that’s enough!  It doesn’t need “fancification”.  It is truly beautiful in its own right.

New car park above and “artwork” below

On a grey January English morning, I can picture it so vividly and feel the peace and calm of my first visit.  Just a church on a headland and the remains of a fortress- I suppose Praia da Rocha must have been like this once, though it’s hard to imagine.  A huddle of cottages snooze sleepily together, cats seeming to outnumber people.  An old well is the focal point of the village square, the church and cemetery majestically off to one side.  The magic is there already, but when you follow the path behind the church the vista that awaits you is spectacular.

The shimmer of the water as it laps lazily at each sandspit stretches far into the distance, where sky meets sea.  A patchwork of gold and blue and green, I said that the beach is woeful but at this height it’s hard to tell.  You may be lured down the steps for a closer look and to take some photos from a different angle.  I can feel the photographers among you twitching to be there.

The beach isn’t up to much because it’s far back from the sea and you need to ferry across to Praia de Cabanas for the real thing.  I’ve never actually accomplished this as you need to catch the ferry from nearby Fabrica and parking there is increasingly difficult.  In any case, I’ve never needed to as I can more easily reach superb Cabanas beach from Cabanas itself.  If I then walk and walk and walk along the beach, in the direction of Spain, I come to a channel of water across which I can just make out the church, with fortress beyond, perched up on its cliff top.

Cacela Velha was a stopover for traders in Phoenician times and in the 10th century was, in Arabic, Medina Qast’alla Daraj, so perhaps it is not surprising that the village comes alive in July to the Festival of Enchanted Nights, Noites da Moura Encantada.  Suddenly the place is transformed and vibrating with life.  Stalls full of trinkets, oriental lamps and elaborate mosaic tables fill the tiny square and spill over into the car park.  Stools, cushions, Berber rugs and hookahs appear, and mint tea is brewed, with an array of tantalising sweets and savouries.  Bizarre but somehow not really out of place, a belly dancer gyrates beneath the fortress walls.  Oriental music and aromas drift around the narrow corners.  A camel paws the ground, while a craftsman demonstrates with his wooden lathe.

But mostly the village is its peaceful self, and happy to be so.  The fortress which once warned of invaders from the sea is now home to the local branch of the National Guard.  A couple of restaurants have come and gone, and currently Casa Velha enjoys good popularity. Despite the proximity of two golf courses, Quinta da Ria and Quinta da Cima, the protection afforded by the conservation status of the Ria Formosa is holding back the tide.  Long may it continue to do so.

So that’s my ‘C’.  Just need to link to Julie Dawn Fox’s hubsite.  You coming along on the A-Z challenge?

Festa dos Tabuleiros- a hot one!

The pretty Portuguese town of Tomar is transformed once in every 4 years by the Festa dos Tabuleiros.  Festival of what, you may ask?  Well, if I said trays or breadbaskets, you might get a clue.  I doubt, though, if you could imagine this spectacular feast of bread and flowers.  It’s a sight you need to see to understand why it only takes place every 4 years.

Melting in the heat of the crowded street, I began to seriously wonder if this was going to be worthwhile.  Down in the Algarve the gentle breezes had made 35C seem desirable, even pleasurable.  Here, in Central Portugal in July, a breeze was an unknown quantity.  Scrunched into a minute patch of shade, with still an hour to go till the promised spectacle, young and elderly alike were bonded together in a peculiarly Portuguese version of the game of Sardines.

Early on a glorious morning, we had been diverted by well-meaning policemen again and again around the outskirts of Tomar– a city we knew only by reputation.  A smile glued in place, I reassured my driving husband that all would be well.  Sceptical would barely do justice to his look in response.  Yet he gamely abandoned the car, with dozens of others, in an unknown field, and set off to limp in the downhill direction pursued by those in the know (we hoped!)

The limp had been acquired the previous day, and was wholely inappropriate to a day I had been anticipating for 6 years, and which was to be spent largely…you’ve guessed it…on foot!  I’d like to say he thrives on adversity, but that wouldn’t be strictly true.  On this occasion though, like so many others, he didn’t let me down.

In fact, the foot was almost forgotten, as we absorbed the splendour that is Tomar during the Festa dos Tabuleiros.

I had a plan– of course I did, though they regularly unravel on me.  Even for me it was simple enough to find the Tourist Information Office, on Avenida Dr. Candido Madureira, though Portuguese street names are rarely simple.  In this case it was the first main street we came to.  A bright and smiling young lady issued me with some historical details, together with a map of the route for the procession, in the most beautiful old TI building.

Already wilting in the heat, we were dismayed to find that said procession was not till 4pm.  Dismay soon turned to delight, and then astonished wonderment, as we stepped into the riot of paper flowers festooning the streets of the old town.  I was no stranger to paper flowers, liberally used at small local festivals in the Algarve.  Still I found myself enchanted by the depth and variety of colour, and the imagination that had transformed these narrow streets.  Our cameras clicked, clicked and clicked again.




Floral pictures decorated most of the shops and balconies as we headed for the bridge over the River Nabao to the green shade of the Parque do Mouchao.  Needless to say we were not alone, and we collapsed onto the first available bench, clutching beer and water, to get our bearings.  It would have been an idyllic spot on most sunny days, with bright canoes moored by a tumbling weir.

Temporarily refreshed, we resumed our exploration of the old town, exclaiming and pointing as we made our way beneath petals, softly fluttering on the occasional blessed breeze.  Rua da Serpa Pinto is the main, pedestrianized shopping street, with views to the lofty Knights Templar castle. This is dominated by the 16-sided Convento do Cristo.  We had gazed in awe the previous afternoon at the elaborate Charola where the Templars had arrogantly attended mass on horseback.

Praca da Republica is the main square, a vast open space currently decked out with seating for town officials to watch the parade.  It’s overlooked by Igreja da Sao Joao Batista; cool and serene inside with a huge wedding cake of an altar.  We saunter down adjacent Rua de Sao Joao, and Michael spots a tiny sandwich bar.  We sit beneath the white and yellow flowers, with much needed water and substantial baguettes for just a few euros, watching the lady owner patiently threading fresh flowers into the door grill.



Time to find a good viewing point along the route.  We look at and discard many options- some in full sun, some too busy.  My ever practical husband thinks we should be in a position to make a quick getaway.  It all becomes too much, so we retreat into a bar for shade.

We finally decide on a spot. Elderly ladies perch on folding stools and smile wearily at me as they edge up to make room.  The endless but good natured wait begins.  I try to make light hearted conversation in my sparse Portuguese.  As the heat builds and the press of people increases, helicopters buzz overhead and ambulance sirens wail.

At last we hear the drums and trumpets heralding the approach, and finally see the tabuleiros rounding the corner.  A small miracle of endurance, 400 couples or more parade the streets.  The lady carries the 4ft high bread basket, adorned with flowers, on her head, while her partner keeps a watchful eye.  Endlessly they stream past us, the crowd quick to praise and sometimes recognise their own.

And then, it’s all over.  A quick getaway?  No, you thought not!  The intention was there, but our way was barred by cars parked end to end on the main thoroughfare.  So we joined the collective shuffling, back uphill, in the direction of our lonely field.

Was it all worthwhile?  Undoubtedly!  But maybe we’d do it differently another time.  We had opted to stay in the nearby village of Constancia, a quiet and lovely place at the junction of two rivers.  My first choice of hotel, Estalagem de Santa Iria in Tomar, had been fully booked.  It might have been better staying in Tomar, for the fireworks and night time atmosphere, and to look more closely at the Tabuleiros.  But then we would have missed meeting our genial and hard-working host at Casa Joao Chagas, and the lovely American lady we talked to at breakfast.  Not forgetting my delicious quejinhos do ceu, almond confectionry special to the area.


Maybe we’ll go back someday.  Tomar is beautiful in its own right.  But we’ll certainly never, ever forget the Festa dos Tabuleiros.