Cycling In Portugal: Alcácer do Sal

Alcácer do Sal
Ever present along my day’s journey through the vast Alentejo plains was the unsettling sight of Portugal’s version of a motorway, the A2. A reappearing menace when cycling around France a few years earlier, its autoroute was often associated with getting lost, additional kilometres, the loss of time, and the sickening resignation that no matter how much I wanted to escape into my own world, the real version is never far away.

Having travelled along Portuguese roads in the past, I’d since felt that they were far better than they’d been made out to be. After all, with a population of not much more than 10 million, it wasn’t as if I’d be riding in the midst of traffic on the Côte d'Azur. In fact, compared with safe riding along some of France’s network of roads, Portugal compares quite favourably. Most of its roads are well made, even the remote ones. They generally have a nice metre-wide verge to separate cyclists from the rest of the traffic, they are well sign-posted, and they definitely have less impatient drivers than their European neighbours further east.

Situated along the peaceful banks of the Rio Sado is the hilltop town of Alcácer do Sal. One of Europe’s oldest towns, dating back to the Mesolithic period (‘Middle Stone Age’), it was originally founded by Phoenician traders who established a thriving colony in the Mediterranean, where, with its own alphabet and currency, people flocked to exchange their wares.

A parting glimpse of the town before moving on.
The town’s two largest industries, salt and rice, have contributed significantly to Portugal’s fluctuating economy for centuries, though as with many things economic, at a heavy price. As a result of overseas expansion following its Age of Discovery, Portugal was forced to replace a significant proportion of its workers, including the Sado Basin. This came in the form of African slaves, recruited in waves during the 16th century and again two centuries later.

An even greater horror was the sea voyages transporting African slaves across the Atlantic to the Americas. Bound in chains in crammed conditions below deck, vast numbers died en-route. Many who survived the voyage, died as a result of overwork or brutality. While the United States banned the importation of slaves in 1808, the slave trade persisted for another 60 years, until President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

With only a small permanent population of less than 2,000, Alcácer do Sal has recently gained popularity as a tourist destination, along with other towns in Portugal’s Alentejo and Algarve regions. With its close proximity to the Atlantic and its own white-sand beaches along the Sado estuary, its café bars and restaurants come alive during the summer months. Beneath the shadows of its whitewashed walled buildings along its gentle waterfront, I couldn’t think of a better place to stop for lunch.

Next stop, Grandola!
Rather parched after my few hours of riding, I called into a café for a light lunch and a Portuguese beer. Zero alcohol of course, a Sagres Sem Álcool Preta, it became one of the many I found the perfect tonic to sustain me through the southern Iberian Peninsula’s sweltering heat.

Dining on my rather generous bowl of Mediterranean salad at one of the cafe’s small tables, I couldn’t help but notice the television programme on in the background. With eyes transfixed, like soldiers performing an army drill, every other person in the room seemed to!be doing the same. Spoken in Portuguese, I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said but you didn’t need a written synopsis to work out the formularised sub-plots that have played with people hearts, and minds, since soapies became real life. Bemused, in part for not being able to take my eyes off the screen, for fear of not finding out what happened next, I could clearly tell from the predictable dialogue and the exaggerated acting that went with it that some things never change, no matter where you are in the world.

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