Journeying on the Caminhos de Santiago Alentejo e Ribatejo is a promise of adventure, of unexpected discoveries, of a history preserved in people’s memories, a story that unfurls at every stop.
Journeying on the Ways is to relive that history in the traces that the passing of time failed to erase, it is making the traveller a witness to a narrative revealed in its tangible and intangible heritage, in its lands, towns and curiosities, its cuisine, peoples and customs, those that have gone and those that continue to be, and who by taking part are unable to resist the enchantments revealed along the way.
More than a journey, it is to experience landscapes which, though different, share the fact of being unique, reverberating like echoes in our memory.
To experience the Caminhos de Santiago Alentejo e Ribatejo is more than a journey, it is an experience like no other, which marks us, and which we treasure. One we will want to repeat.
Ameixial (Algarve) Santa Cruz
“… the traces identified witness the transit of pilgrims through the old roman route which crosses the Serra do Caldeirão in Santa Cruz de Almodôvar; formerly one of the most used routes in the connection between Algarve and Alentejo, from where arrived, in 1249, D. Afonso III, at the head of his army, to conquer Faro and Albufeira.” (José António Falcão, “O Caminho e o Culto de Santiago no Alentejo Meridional”, in No Caminho sob as Estrelas – Santiago e a Peregrinação a Compostela, pp. 97-141)…”
Santa Cruz Almodôvar
“…When we leave Santa Cruz the landscape changes. In front of us lies now, far out of sight, the soft relief of the undulating plain of Baixo (Low) Alentejo. The views widen and a quiet stage is foreseen, conducive to contemplation.
Extensive crops are found in non-fenced properties, as rarely seen in the Alentejo, framed by magnificent secular holmoaks, cork-oaks and tame pine plantations…”
Almodôvar Castro Verde
“…Castro Verde was originally a small village in the immense fields of Ourique, as this part of Baixo (Low) Alentejo was known in the 13th century. The strategic location on the regional road network led to its elevation as a municipality and as a commendation of the Order of Santiago.
It was also the destination of the transhumance from distant places, such as Serra da Estrela, and considerable herds living in the vast plain extending to the south of the village of Entradas would arrive seasonally to the region…”
Castro Verde Messejana
“…In one of the poems from his work Ode to Alentejo, Miguel Torga wrote “Alentejo, Alentejo, Vastness of Portugal, Future, Continental! Plowed land that I see, being sea but without salt”. This “sea” may well be the immense territory named “Campo Branco”, called “de Ourique” in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was the destination for the winter pastures of the big flocks coming from Serra da Estrela, and therefore the phenomenon of transhumance strongly marked the county…”
Messejana Fornalhas Velhas
“…The village of Fornalhas Velhas, located in the fertile fields of Vale de Santiago, between the rivers Sado and Campilhas, was, as the name suggests, the property of the Order of Santiago. Besides, it belongs to the Vale de Santiago, a town that owes its name to the fact that this stretch of territory, initially linked to Santiago do Cacém, was also owned by the Order of Santiago…”
Fornalhas Velhas São Domingos
“…We evoke the history of Vale de Santiago, which tells us that during the crisis of 1918, the rural workers of the region united in rebellion and began the first anarchist commune there. They became vegetarians and naturists, devoted to agriculture and shoemaking. However, it didn’t last long, as they were subjected to police persecution and repression, and accused of encouraging the rural strikes that occurred after that…”
São Domingos Santiago do Cacém
“…Donated to the Order of Santiago by D. Sancho I, in 1186, Santiago do Cacém was the first advanced point of the Spatharii in the south of the country, at the time when the castle of Palmela was the headquarters of the Order. The village, which had been conquered in 1158, fell into Muslim hands at the end of the 12th century. It only became Portuguese definitive possession in 1217, after the conquest of Alcácer do Sal…”
Santiago do Cacém Roncão
“…Currently belonging to the civil parish of S. Francisco da Serra, the settlement of the village of Roncão, and all the parish dates back to the medieval period and is due to the Order of Santiago de Espada (St James with Sword). The Igreja de São Bartolomeu da Serra church lies nearby, built in the 14th century and greatly restored at the end of the 18th century, as attested by an inscription engraved on a column pinnacle…”
“…In this village, immortalized by the poet and singer Zeca Afonso in the song Grândola Vila Morena, which served as a symbolic hymn during the revolution of April 25, 1974, we can still visit the main church. But, if the weather is good, the best will be to enjoy and take a leap down to the Atlantic coast for a refreshing dip, a fantastic sunset and a nice meal of fresh fish…”
Grândola Alcácer do Sal
“…After crossing the river Sado by boat, travelers arriving in Alcácer do Sal would face the narrow line of land between the river and the castle. The strategic relevance of Alcácer’s cliff led to the submission of the locality to the Order of Santiago before 1172 and again in 1217, after the definitive conquest by the Portuguese troops…”
Alcácer do Sal Casebres
“…The human presence in the area that today composes the civil parish of São Martinho, whose headquarters is today located in the village of Casebres, dates back to the mid- Prehistory.
However, it was only after the final conquest of Alcácer do Sal that the region and the most important toponyms began to appear in the historical documentation, serving nowadays as a reference and geographical orientation for those living in and visiting this territory…..”
Casebres Vendas Novas
“…With Vendas Novas as a destination, the Way leads us to cross Cabrela. Because of its strategic relevance, it was donated to the Order of Santiago before 1220, to be an intermediate post between the peninsula of Setúbal and Alentejo. We can find there the main church, whose current configuration is the result of a 17th-century construction that replaced the temple of medieval origin, presumably located in a nearby site known as Outeiro da Igreja.
In the main façade, a discrete artistic composition integrates the Order of Santiago cross and the door bears the year of 1704, possibly the date in which the works were finalized…”
Vendas Novas Branca
“…The village of Branca belongs to the municipality of Coruche, the tenth-largest in the country, calling itself the “World Capital of Cork”. It is from here that 10% of Portugal’s cork is extracted and 5 million cork stoppers leave every day. More than half of Coruche is a mixed forest of cork oak and pine trees, ensuring not only the quality of cork, timber and pine nuts but also the ecosystem and pastures suitable for wild cattle farms…”
Branca Santo Estevão
“…Santo Estevão is a rural commune located 16 km from Benavente (County seat), with a total area of 62.41 km2 and around 2000 inhabitants, according to the 2011 Census. The territory, besides the urban agglomerate, comprises many areas of cultivation and pasture and is located on the right bank of the river Almansor. The site of Foros de Almada, an integral part of the commune, is 5 km from the village. …”
Santo Estevão Samora Correia Benavente
“…Samora Correia owes its name to D. Paio Peres Correia, conqueror of much of southern Portugal in the first half of the 13th century and Grand Master of the Order of Santiago.
The locality was a Santiago commendation since, at least, 1270. The configuration of the main church is the result of a great reconstruction campaign, begun in 1718 and completed very quickly. …”
“…The Way to Muge passes through Salvaterra de Magos where, among the obligations of its new residents, awarded with a charter by D. Dinis in 1295, was to build a main church.
The building was the object of several modernizing campaigns, one of which was in the 16th century, period to which belongs the baptismal font…”
“…In the commune of Almeirim, before arriving at Ribeira de Santarém, the Igreja de Santa Marta, in Benfica do Ribatejo, inspires a visit. It was built in the 18th century as a chapel of Quinta de Santa Marta, an extensive agricultural estate that dominated the region since the late Middle Ages.
The ensemble was fully restored in the late 20th century, as attested by the commemorative inscription placed on the main façade…”
“…José Saramago, after the journey that gave origin to the work Viagem a Portugal, said that “the end of one trip is just the beginning of another. It is necessary to see what has not been seen, to see again what has already been seen, to see in spring what was seen in summer, to see by day what was seen at night … We must return to the steps that were given, to repeat them, and to chart new ways”.
He would speak in a figurative sense and it would seem to refer to the Ways of Santiago. …”
“…Golegã is a village of the Way, not only in the literal sense but mainly because, everywhere we look, we find evidence of the presence and passage of the travelers going to Santiago de Compostela.
Being a smaller and quieter village than Santarém, it facilitates the relations between people of different nationalities and generations who arrive at a continuous rhythm, so services targeted to pilgrims appeared…”
Vila Franca de Xira (Lisboa) Azambuja
“…The origin of Azambuja possibly dates back to the 3rd century BC, when the Romans invaded the Iberian Peninsula.
At the time, they called it Oleastrum (olive tree oil), probably for being very rich in olive oil and having a strong production of it.Later, inhabited by the Arabs, it was named Azzabuja, meaning wild olive grove, which leads us to think that perhaps the “Roman” olive trees no longer existed…”
“…In Santarém, a city of great importance to the Order of Santiago, you must visit the Marvila Church, built by the Templars in 1147, with rents offered by the Bishop of Lisbon. Enriched in the 17th century by D. Manuel, its walls are a testimonial of azulejo panels decorative art. Take time to admire the symbolic-cultural richness, the armillary sphere, the Christ cross, the fleurs-de-lys, and the heraldic weapons…”
Flavours and traditions
When we talk about Intangible Cultural Heritage, we mean the cultural expressions that are part of the social and cultural history of the communities found in the Alentejo and Ribatejo. These canmanifest themselves as flavours, the traditions and the life experiences from which they arose, or the handicrafts, the festivals and religious processions, art and customs. It is a rich heritage, at once diverse and authentic, that the visitor encounters on these Ways, a journey forged on the contact with manifestations of a symbolic value that is recognised worldwide, which grants us an experience both stimulating and memorable.
The Alentejo and Ribatejo’s intangible cultural heritage has on four separate occasions been recognised by UNESCO, which included them on a comprehensive list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, that travellers can see for themselves by taking these Ways.Such as ‘Cante Alentejano’, the traditional Alentejo song, which needs no introduction. A kind of musical expression which, more than simply music, is a sharing of feelings, from nostalgic saudade (missing something or someone) to love, where irony and humour are also present, and where voices come together in melancholic harmony, drawing in all those who listen.Found across almost the entire Alentejo, this art form is most typical of the districts of Serpa and Beja.
From cowbells to falconry
Most common in the district of Alcáçovas in Viana do Alentejo, cowbells are still being produced, or more accurately manufactured, an art UNESCO felt deserving of the status of intangible heritage, in recognition of the precariousness and challenges it faces to keep going versus encroaching globalisation.
Used to warn us of approaching cattle, this rural melody refuses to be silenced by the brute force of modernity, intent on rendering it obsolete.In the Ribatejo, the beating heart of the art of falconry is found in Salvaterra de Magos, taking us back to a time when the Portuguese royal family used to spend long periods hunting there.Opening onto the natural habitat of the Tejo estuary, here we now find an educational and environmental interpretation centre, besides the ‘river museum’ Cais da Vala.
Hewn from clay, the figurative Festas, Feiras e Romarias ceramics of Estremoz also earned the recognition of UNESCO first as national intangible cultural heritage and subsequently of Humanity. A technique that stretches back more than 300 years, many are the handmade clay figures to have emerged from the kiln to be colourfully decorated, and so it continues today. We can see them for ourselves in Estremoz, either at the Municipal Museum or at the shops and ateliers that sell them.
Festivals, Fairs and Processions
The festive calendar of the Alentejo and Ribatejo is rich. Rich in things to do, in music and in local colour.
The streets spruced up and decorated for the occasion, stages readied to welcome the music that plays such an integral part, the Ways grant visitors an opportunity to enjoy festive traditions that astonish for their sheer diversityand scale, and which involve and mobilise entire communities, through traditional dances starting with the fandangos of the Ribatejo and Alentejo, and the characteristic skirts and puppetry of the Alentejo.
Take for example the Feira de São João (St John Festival) in Évora, which is 500 years old, the procession of the Romaria a Nossa Senhora da Graça in Nisa, or the Golegã Horse Fair that goes back to the 16th century.
Castles, Museums and a Wealth of Nature
More than just rest stops, the different stages of the Caminhos de Santiago Alentejo e Ribatejo are opportunities to discover towns and cities, the secrets they hide, the architecture, museums and their history. At each stop, take the opportunity to visit its points of interest. The dilemma is which to choose.
In the Alentejo
The Central Way passes through Santa Cruz, where the Parish Church, built in the 16th century, is home to a rather unusual icon of Jesus in the Garden, where one can see represented the sweat turning into blood.
Further ahead, in the medieval town of Almodôvar, the riverine landscape invites us to savour the crystal-clear waters of Ribeira do Vascão, stream located within the Special Protected Area of the Guadiana valley, dotted with watermills and weirs. If you pay close attention, with a little luck you may spot a few rare wildlife specimens.
In the town, the Museum of Southern Writing (Escrita do Sudoeste) reveals to us the immense archaeological richness of the district and, in particular, the singular destiny of a people which invented its own written language between the 7th and 5th centuries BC.
Because the Ways to Santiago are much more than simply hiking trips, the dam of Campilhas, built in 1954 in Santiago de Cacém, offers the chance to try out all kinds of non-motorised water sports and recreational fishing.
The Way continues, passing through Alcácer do Sal, which has one of the most important examples of Renaissance architecture in the country: Capela das Onze Mil Virgens (the Chapel of the Eleven Thousand Virgins). In white marble, with a dome covered in translucent jasper that captures the sun’s rays, colour bathes the sculpted forms, attributed to António Rodrigues, an architect during the reign of King D. Sebastião, who was influenced by the Italian master Michelangelo. A city where one can also learn about the Lenda da Costureirinha (Legend of the Little Seamstress), told over much of the Baixo (Low) Alentejo region, where many are those who claim to have heard the sound of a sewing machine that never stops.
According to legend it is seamstress who sews for all eternity, after having made a wedding dress for her daughter who died before the marriage.
Journeying through Ribatejo
For nature lovers, the journey through Benavente is a chance to do some serious birdwatching and in the meadow and wheat fields see scarcer, less common species that typically make their home in such habitats.
The alluvial valleys that open onto the Tagus, Sorraia and Almansor rivers are like genuine islands interspersed among the characteristic dryness of the highlands. The shore lands that embraces the Tagus and all waterlogged areas offer far greater biodiversity, where European migrating waterfowl and others from southern climes can be spotted, such as the Black-winged stilt and reed warbler.
In Santarém, Misericórdia church, built in the mid-16th century (1559) is worth a visit. This is a perfect example of a hall church with three naves and rib-vaulted ceilings illuminated by six rectangular windows. Within is found the shallow grave of Nuno Velho Pereira, one of the most significant figures of the period of Portuguese imperial expansion, a captain of India and a patron of the almshouses of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia.
There one can also see a pipe organ from 1818 that was restored in 2008.It is here in the Ribatejan capital that the gateway of Porta de Santiago is found, the main entrance to Santarém castle, where one can see a coat of arms of the Fernandinos of Portugal, as well as the Portas do Sol, nowadays a panoramic viewpoint built on city walls with three turrets.
The Ways, just like history itself, are full of tales that are yet to be confirmed and since became legend, such as that of Torre das Cabaças tower, which tells that during the reign of King D. Manuel, since Santarém was lacking a clock tower, the monarch was asked to make this a reality. A sum was donated to pay for its construction, which eight local councilmen were nominated to ‘oversee’. But once it was complete, rather than being satisfied with the result, the king was sorely displeased, considering the public money poorly spent.
And so, at the tower’s summit on the iron structure supporting the bell, the King ordered 8 ‘cabaças’, or gourds, to be placed there, symbolising the heads of the 8 men responsible for its construction.
As the Central Way draws to a close, we arrive to Golegã, a place to stop and rest ever since the nation’s early days, where once there was an inn belongingto a woman from Galicia, knownas Venda Galega, which later gave its name to the town. A land of knights and their steeds, the Equuspolis Cultural Centre with its equestrian library is worth a look, as is the Fórum Manuel Fernandes or the Mestre Martins Correia Municipal Museum.