Named by the Romans after Salacia, the wife of Neptune and the nymph who was the goddess of salt water, Alcácer do Sal is one of those Alentejo towns that is a sight for sore eyes, yet remains hidden from the gaze of mass tourism. Finding six of the best in Alcácer do Sal required a bit of head scratching as I think of the town simply as a particularly picturesque place to spend some time, mostly just wandering around soaking up the ambience. But there’s more than enough to draw the uninitiated.
Thanks to its strategic location toward the southern end of the Sado Estuary, humans have settled the area since the Stone Age. The Romans and Moors both occupied the town, using it as a trading post to transport salt between Europe and the Mediterranean. The Romans gave the town the Sal part of its name, whereas the Alcácer bit derives from Al-Qasr, the Arabic word for palace.
It’s an area rich in produce – salt, rice, wheat, pine nuts, cork – all of which were transported downriver (the Sado is one of the few rivers in Europe that travels south to north) on special galleons, until the railroad became a more efficient way to transport goods. Alcácer do Sal’s importance as a bustling trading centre fizzled out toward the end of the 18th century and, like many similar towns, it faded from view with the loss of its status. Although its riverside façade looks immaculate, wander one street back and the downturn in its fortune becomes more evident.
Still, it remains one of my favourite places in Portugal.
The Main Attraction – The Riverside Promenade
Alcácer do Sal’s location beside the Sado River is its crowning glory. The town is as colourful and pretty as many other historic Portuguese towns, and features the almost ubiquitous Moorish castle lording it over houses which tumble down to the water’s edge below. But I can’t think of another Portuguese town where the buildings only line one side of the river it sits on. It’s a feature which means that you get an urban stroll on one side, while a short jaunt over either a footbridge, or the Iron Bridge, whose span was designed to open to make way for river boats transporting wheat and rice, takes you to Alentejo flatlands and emerald paddy fields.
Blast from the past – Santuário do Senhor dos Mártires
Thanks to its rich history, there are remnants of past occupiers to be found all around Alcácer do Sal, from megalithic burial tombs and sections of Roman road to the crypt at the Pousada. There are also numerous churches, so plenty for history lovers and fans of religious architecture. One we particularly like is the Santuário do Senhor dos Mártires. Located on the western edge of the town, it was constructed by the Knights of Santiago and is one of the oldest Christian temples in Portugal. Inside are frescoes depicting Roman occupation, but what we sets it apart for us is climbing its tower till we are on a level with nesting storks to enjoy the views across the town to the rice fields beyond.
A Serene scene – Walk in the paddy fields
I have a thing about walking through paddy fields, finding something exotic about them, even Portuguese ones. A short walk from Alcácer’s town centre takes you through glistening rice fields, into cork forests, and beneath the emerald umbrellas of stone pines, all natural features which have contributed to the town’s economy. In theory, there are specific routes you can follow from the town. In reality, these aren’t well marked, and finding your way can be confusing. We used a Portuguese military map to plot our route and still had to get creative at some points. For a far more straightforward but still highly enjoyable walk, simply explore both sides of the river.
A taste of Alcácer – Cuttlefish butty
Unsurprisingly, seafood and rice dishes are specialities in Alcácer do Sal. There are a few riverside restaurants such as A Descoberta in which to try some hearty Alentejo fare and regional offerings like various fish and seafood stews. However, my guilty pleasure in Alcácer arrives served in a roll. I was introduced to a choco frito butty the first time we visited Alcácer, and find myself yearning for that whenever I set foot in the town. For something sweet look out for pinhoadas, little diamond biscuits made from honey and pine nuts. A quaint spot for picking up local goodies is the tiny market in a boat beside the tourist office.
Away from the crowds – Scenes of the Sado
The town has two converted salt galleons, the Pinto Luísa and the Amendoeira (not dissimilar to Porto’s rabelos), which are available for half or full day sailings on the Sado. Each hold about 35 people and can be booked through the council’s website – something easier said than done unfortunately. Nearly every time we’ve visited, the two boats have been berthed in the reeds on the opposite side of the river from the town.
But there’s no real need to take to the water for in search of tranquillity in Alcácer do Sal. The place has never been busy when we’ve been there, and once you wander away from the river, there’s even fewer people.
The quirk – The legend of the seamstress
I find the chunky iron bridge somewhat of an anomaly, but the legend of the seamstress is probably quirkier. Some people claim to hear the sound of a sewing machine working non-stop, even saying they can identify its pedal being worked. One story goes, there was a seamstress making a dress for her daughter’s wedding, but she died before the wedding and her ghost continues to work at the gown, still preparing it for the big day. Another version is an abusive and alcoholic husband forced his wife to sew continually in order to make money to feed his habit. The poor woman sewed so much her spirit continued whirring away at the machine even after she died. Personally, I think it’s just the high-pitched buzz of mosquitos from nearby rice fields.
It’s incredibly easy to sum up this delightful Alentejano town in one line. Alcácer do Sal doesn’t need attractions, it is an attraction.