Portugal – Southern Portugal, Alemtejo And Algarve

THE mountains beyond the Tejo rarely assume the aspect of chains. For the most part they rise but little above the surrounding plateau. This region is the least attractive of all Portugal, and between the Tejo and the mountains of Algarve there are only plains, monotonous hills, woods, and naked landes. Human habitations are few and far between. The lowlands along the Tejo and the coast are covered with a thick layer of fine sand resting upon clay, and they still exhibit chumps of maritime pines and holm-oaks, the remains of the ancient forests which formerly covered the whole of the country. Farther inland we reach the great landes, or charnecas, covered with an infinite variety of’ plants. There are heaths growing sometimes to a height of six feet, rock-roses, juniper-trees, rosemary, and creeping oaks. But the general aspect of the country is dreary, in spite of the white and yellow flowers which cover it until the middle of winter, for there are hardly any cultivated fields. The hills cons’ st for the most part of micaceous schists, and are covered with a monotonous growth of labdanum-yielding rock-roses. This is a western extension of the zone of jarales, which covers so many hundred square miles of the Sierra Morena and other mountain regions of Spain.

The Serra de Silo Mamede (3,363 feet), on the confines of Portugal, between the valleys of the Tejo and Guadiana, is the highest mountain mass of Southern Portugal; but its granitic ridges, enclosing narrow valleys between them, hardly rise 1,550U feet above the general level of the plateau. A second granitic mountain mass rises to the south of the depression crossed by the railway from Lisbon to Badajoz This is the Serra dc Ossa (2,130 feet). An undulating tract of country joins it to other serras, forming steep escarpments towards the valleys of the Guadiana and Sadao, and the monotonous plain known as Campo de Beja (870 feet). The famous Campo (le Ourique (700 feet), upon which 200,000 Moors, commanded by five kings, were defeated by the Portuguese in the middle of the twelfth century, forms a southern continuation of that plain. This battle, and the massacres which succeeded it, converted the plains to the south of the Tejo into deserts.

The hills of that portion of Alemtejo which lies to the east o the Guadiana belong to the system of the Sierra Morena of Spain. The river, which separates them from the hills and plateaux of the vest, is confined in a deep and narrow gorge. At the Pulo do Lobo (” wolf’s leap “) it still descends in cataracts, and becomes navigable only at Mertola, thirty-seven miles above its mouth.

The bills of Southern Alemtejo and Algarve, to the west of the Guadiana, are at first mere swellings of the ground known as cumeadas, or ” heights of land,” but in the Serra do Malhào (1,886 feet) and the Serra da Mezquita they attain some height. A plateau, traversed by the upper affluents of the Mira, joins the range last mentioned to the Serra Caldeirio (1,272 feet), supposed to be named after some ancient crater, or “caldron.” which terminates, to the north of Cape Sines, with the Atalaya, or Sentinel (1,010 feet). The principal range continues towards the west, and in the Serra de Monehique (2,9( 3 feet), a mountain mass filling up the south-western corner of Portugal, it attains its culminating point. A steep ridge, known as Espinhaco de Cao (“dog’s back”), extends from the latter in the direction of the Capes of St. Vincent and Sagres.

The latter was selected by Henry the Navigator as the seat of the naval school founded by him, and from its heights he watched for the return of the vessels which he dispatched on exploratory expeditions. Associations such as these are tar more pleasurable than those connected with the neighbouring Cape St. Vincent, where Admiral Jervis, in 1797, destroyed a Spanish fleet.

The hills of Sagres are of volcanic origin, and the subsidence of portions of the coast of Algarve appears to prove that subterranean forces are still active. Wherever this subsidence has been observed the coast is fringed by sand-banks, thrown up by the waves of the sea, the channel separating them from the mainland being navigable for small vessels.

If a traveller ascend one of the culminating points of the mountains of Algarve, he cannot fail to he struck with the remarkable contrast existing between the districts to the north and south of him. On the one side he looks down upon vast solitudes resembling deserts ; on the other he perceives forests of chestnut-trees, numerous villages, towns bordering the seashore, and fleets of fishing-boats rocking upon the blue waves. The contrasts between the inhabitants of these two districts are scarcely less striking. The inhabitants of Atemtejo are the most solemn of Portuguese, and even object to dancing. Very thinly scattered over the landes which they inhabit, they either engage in agriculture or follow their herds of pigs and sheep into the forests of holm-oaks and thickets of rock-roses. In summer they cross the Tejo with their pigs, and pasture them in the mountains of Beira. The population of Algarve, on the other hand, is thrice as dense as that of Alemtejo, and not only are fields, vineyards, and orchards carefully tended, but the sea likewise is nude to yield a portion of its food. The contrast between the two provinces is partly accounted for by the fact that most of the great battles were fought on the undulating plains of Alemtejo. When the Romans held the country Alemtejo supported a numerous population, as is proved by the large number of inscriptions found.

Differences of altitude and geographical position sufficiently account for the differences of climate existing between the two provinces. Alemtejo, with its monotonous plains and stunted vegetation, is almost African in its aspect, whilst Algarve, with its forests of olive-trees, groves of date-palms, agaves, and prickly cacti, presents us s ith tropical features. The mean temperature near the coast is probably no less than 68° F. The Serra de Monchique bars the cool winds of the north, whilst the sandy islands fringing a portion of the coast keep off refreshing sea breezes. The hottest wind of all is that which blows from the east. It is often laden with fever-breeding miasmata, and a proverb says, De Espanha nem bom vento nem bom casamento : “Neither good winds nor good weddings are bred in Spain.”

Villanova de Portimâo, to the south of the Serra de Monchique, has long been looked upon as the hottest place in Europe; there are, however, several localities in Spain which rival it in that respect. Thus much is certain, that Algarve, with the lower valley of the Guadalquivir and the southern coasts of Andalusia and Murcia, constitutes the most torrid portion of Europe. The Arabs were quite right when they designated Southern Lusitania and the opposite shore of Morocco by the same name of “el Gharb ; ” that is, the two Algarves, or eastern districts.” Portuguese Algarve, in spite of the conversion of’ its inhabitants to Christianity, has retained its ancient Moorish name, and the Berber and Semitic blood is very conspicuous there.

In Upper Alemtejo there are but few towns, and these would be altogether insignificant if it were not for the overland commerce carried on with Spain. Grato, which is the most considerable station on the railway which joins the Tejo to the Guadiana, and its neighbour Portalegre, were formerly important stages on the great overland route. Elvas, farther to the south, is surrounded by orchards, and defended by forts which were looked upon in the last century as masterpieces of military architecture. It faces the Spanish fortress of Badajoz, as well as Olivenca, which was assigned to Portugal by the treaty of Vienna, but never surrendered by Spain. Estremoz, on a spur of the Serra de Ossa, is famous throughout Portugal for its ‘ huearos—elegantly modelled earthen jars which diffuse a sweet odour. Montemor looks down from its hill upon vast landes and monotonous woods. Evora, likewise built on a hill, commands an extensive plain. It was a populous place during the dominion of the Romans, and in the Middle Ages became the second residence of the Kings of Portugal. There exist now only a Roman aqueduct, the ruins of a temple of Venus, Corinthian columns, and the remains of mediaeval castles to remind us of its ancient splendours.

Beja, the ancient Pax Julia or Colonia Pacansis of the Romans, has likewise lost its former importance, but Minas de Sao Domingos, on the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Guadiana and the Chanza, is rapidly increasing, thanks to its mines of pyrites of copper and other minerals, which are being worked by an English company. The ore is conveyed by rail to Pomarao, on the Guadiana, and thence on barges to Villa Real de Santo Antonio, at its mouth, formerly a mere fishing village, but now a buss port. Castro Marim, where the expeditions against the Moors used to be fitted out, is close to it.

Silves, the ancient Moorish capital of Algarve, lies in the interior of the country, far removed from the present highways of commerce. Faro, the modern capital, has the advantage of lying on the seashore, and of possessing a secure harbour, whence small coasters are able to export fruit, tunny-fish, sardines, and oysters. Tavira possesses the same advantages, and exports the same articles : it is said to be the prettiest town of Algarve. Loulé, in a delightful inland valley, is a pretty place, and, when invalids have learnt the road to Algarve, may obtain some importance as a winter resort. The Caldas (« arm baths) de Monchique (GOO feet) enjoy a world-wide reputation even now, not only because of their efficacy, but also on account of the delicious climate and charming environs. This district is said to produce the best oranges in Portugal.