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In search of white gold...

Walking in PortugalIt was hot, not oppressively so, but very enjoyably hot. Too hot to walk? Well, not really. We had taken our time and we’d stopped on numerous occasions to dip our feet in the sea. Nice…

As we approached Porto Covo, we noticed a low-lying island just off the coast. It had a square rock formation in the centre, which, as we got nearer, we realised was another fort.  I say ‘another’, because we’d spent an hour or so the day before exploring Vila Nova de Milfontes, where a stout fortress (now an ivy-covered mansion) once guarded the town from attack. It turned out that there are, in fact, two forts in Porto Covo, one on Pessegueiro (‘Peach Tree’) island (below) and one on the mainland opposite. “Why?” I wondered. This must have been a very important place at one time.

We sauntered down onto the harbour, seeking shade from the sun (don’t worry – I’m not complaining, especially after all the rain we’ve had at home) and a cool beer. 'Duas cervejas por favor' was beginning to sound like my catchphrase on this trip! A smartly dressed old man with a wizened face like well-worn leather was seated beside us and, on hearing our discussion about the forts and why they might have been built here, smiled and motioned us to move closer.

Walking holidays in Portugal

To stop the pirates." he said. “Barbary pirates. Many, many slaves. But not any more.” Though not particularly fluent in English, he had a commanding, yet mellifluous voice and we spent the next two hours listening attentively as he explained enthusiastically how Corsairs (or pirates) from what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya on the north coast of Africa – the Barbary Coast (i.e. ‘Coast of the Berbers’) – had once terrorised the lands of southern Europe (and beyond) for many centuries, in their quest to satisfy various sultans’ need for slave labour – 'white gold' – to build their monumental palaces in places like Fez and Marrakesh.

Such was the scale of these slave-raiding excursions that many have passed into folklore and his eyes glistened excitedly as he recounted the exploits of one captain, Murat Reais, who, in June 1631, left Algiers bound for Ireland, of all places. With a contingent of armed troops from the Ottoman Empire, he stormed ashore at the little harbour village of Baltimore in County Cork, Ireland and, meeting no resistance, he captured the entire population of the village. These unfortunate souls were unceremoniously shipped back to North Africa for a life of slavery, chained to the oars as galley slaves, locked in the scented seclusion of the harem, or labouring within the walls of the sultan’s palace. Only two of them ever saw Ireland again.

The result was the construction of coastal fortresses along the blighted European coastlines including these along the Costa Vicentina here in Portugal. The bastioned fort protecting Porto Covo at Ilha de Dentro faces one on the nearby island, while that at Vila Nova de Milfontes (below) was built after the small fishing village here was savagely sacked and raided by Corsairs in 1638.

Happily, things are a lot calmer nowadays and, for one, I have to say I love the legacy of those days as I enjoy nothing more than quietly pottering around picturesque, crumbling ruins that certainly add a touch of romance and fascination to many a walk.
Walking holidays in Portugal

Posted: 22/06/2012 15:32:26 by | with 0 comments
Filed under: heritage, islands, Portugal, slow


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