ALJEZUR – The home of the Sweet Potato


ALJEZUR – The home of the Sweet Potato

Artist and author Alyson Sheldrake and her husband Dave moved from a bustling beachside spot facing Portimao to the calm and quiet of a village on the west coast. Here she takes us on a tour of the places she has come to love

“You’re moving where?”
“You can’t go and live there. We’ll never see you again!”

We received some amusing reactions from our friends when my husband and I told them we were relocating from the fishing village of Ferragudo to the small market town of Aljezur. We had owned a house in Ferragudo for over 12 years, moving out here to live permanently in 2011. But after many happy years there, we felt ready for a change. The previously quiet little village had become much busier, especially in the summer months, and we longed for somewhere more rural and peaceful. Aljezur fitted the bill, and we were delighted to discover a modern property for sale on the edge of the town, in a tiny hamlet of about 30 houses. The bonus? All our new neighbours would be Portuguese.

We have been living here now for over three years and think we have found a little piece of paradise on the western Algarve coast, almost on the border with the Alentejo region. So come with me as I show you around, and you can discover for yourself why this place is so special.

Aljezur is a traditional market town that sits in the landscape of the ‘O Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincente’ and is surrounded by a host of beautiful beaches.

The town nestles into a series of gently rolling hills, topped by the imposing remains of its castle. A river meanders through the centre, with the older dwellings on the seaward side, and the new Igreja Nova development stretching across to the fields on the other side of the water.

The Muslims built the castle in the 10th century and they constructed a large port under the base of the hill. By the 16th century, ships up to 150 tons in size could navigate the river all the way to the castle, until the 1755 earthquake.

The walk up to the castle is steep, but worth it. Or you can cheat and drive there. The view from the top is spectacular, stretching across the town and out to Monchique. In the other direction, you can see the river finds its way through the fields to Amoreira beach and the Atlantic Ocean.

So much to see
There is so much history to enjoy in the town, including four museums that can be visited on one combined daily pass. The Aljezur Municipal Museum houses exhibits of archaeological remains from the area dating back to the Neolithic period. They often have art exhibitions here too. The Museum de Arte Sacra displays various religious artifacts.

The Casa Museu Pintor José Cercas was the former residence of this locally born artist and some of his work, along with paintings by other Portuguese artists, are on display in this tiny traditional house. The fourth museum is the Museu Antoniano which is dedicated to St. Anthony, and displays medals, coins, books, and artwork about the saint.

Also, check out the Associação de Defesa do Património Histórico e Arqueológico de Aljezur building. Here you will find original pieces of a German fighter plane that crashed here in 1943. Portugal was neutral during the Second World War; however, a little-known fact is that they saw aerial combat over the skies around Aljezur. Seven German airmen were killed, and their graves are in the local cemetery.

For even more history, you can view an ancient ribat on the cliffs near to Arrifana beach. The partially excavated ruins give a tantalising glimpse of what must have once been an impressive site. You can also visit the nearby fort at Arrifana, which has fared better and is a great place to watch the sunset.
Two small rivers, the river Alfambres and the river Cercal, join at Aljezur. The walk along the riverbank is a delight. You can see a host of wildlife and birds, including white storks, grey herons, turtles, and water moles. Go to the old bridge near the market and see if you can spot an otter. Or have fun feeding the ducks. And watch out for the resident Greylag Goose husband and wife team.

Time to eat
The Tasquinha dos Borralhos café nearby is a great place for a coffee. (Ask Paulo at the café if you can watch him hand-feed the mother goose!)

For lunch, head up to the square at Igreja Nova and admire the church. Watch out for the clock which chimes every fifteen minutes—it’s so loud it will make you jump! Midday is always fun…

The Taberna do Largo restaurant in the square does a fantastic plate of traditional food at a very reasonable price. Their porco preto is fabulous, and it’s a lovely place to sit outside and watch the world pass by. For dinner, try the atmospheric Várzea bistro restaurant with its charming outdoor garden, or head to Arrifana and O Paulo’s for a special meal overlooking the sea.

Sweet thoughts
Aljezur is the home of the sweet potato, and they are rightly proud of this fact. Seen as a delicacy in parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, legend has it that King Henry VIII of England loved eating sweet potatoes. Maybe he had heard the rumour they were an aphrodisiac. In the 18th century, during the reign of King John V, the sweet potato entered the Portuguese royal cookbooks. Before that, in Portugal, it was food fed only to animals and slaves.

The Aljezur region is famous for its lyra variety of sweet potato, which is grown only in this area. They harvest an incredible 8,000 tonnes of the lyra potato annually. The local climate and soil produce the most wonderful potato, which has a much sweeter and softer centre. If you eat it raw, it tastes like chestnuts, and it also makes the most amazing mash. My favourite variety, however, is not the lyra, but the batata doce roxa, which has an unusual, purple-coloured flesh.

It stays purple even after you have cooked it and makes a fantastic brightly coloured mash.

And every year, at the end of November, there is an entire festival dedicated to the humble sweet potato in Aljezur. The event draws crowds of over 40,000 people, and they serve an incredible 35 tonnes of sweet potatoes in one weekend. They are sold in cakes and sweets, as fried slices or chips, or served with sugar and cinnamon. You can even sample sweet potato liquor or taste them roasted in a wood-fired oven.

No trip to Aljezur would be complete without a walk on one of the local beaches. Enjoy the beauty of Monte Clérigo beach, which is spectacular at low tide, or head to the unspoilt river beach at Amoreira. Arrifana is also a delight, with its little harbour and fabulous black rocks.

Somewhere special to stay
If you want to stay somewhere different and off the beaten track, then head for Pedralva. In 2006, a high-flying executive from Lisbon fell in love with a run-down and dilapidated village. He promptly sold up everything he owned, took early retirement, and bought virtually the entire village. Aldeia de Pedralva is now a thriving eco-resort, where you can stay in a renovated house and experience life as a local villager.

We absolutely love our home here in Aljezur, made even more special by the wonderful way our Portuguese neighbours have embraced us and welcomed us into this local community. Thank goodness we ignored the cries of our friends when we moved here—and at the end of the day; we are still only 35 minutes away from Ferragudo!

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