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fig tree of the wines

The charms of your local tiny town can be easily trampled underfoot while pursuing the routine errands of an ordinary Thursday.  But if you do stop to look, you might be lucky enough to find a town as mildly amusing as Figueiró dos Vinhos.

Fig Tree of the Wines (adhering to the regional tradition of meaningless place names; see Chestnut Tree of the Pear) has forever been some sort of village, probably owing to the confluence of rivers, good soil and happy climate. It has had the Fig-something name since the 13th century, making it almost as old as Portugal itself. It had something of a boom during the 17th century, when it was a iron smelting centre. The remains of the smelters (check out this excellent collection of old pics) along the banks of the Foz de Alge are still there, drowned in the risen waters of dammed junction of the Rivers Zêzere and Alge.

foz-de-alge

The villages around the Foz de Alge look like they haven’t changed since then. Apart from a few specs of ugly modern development, this is still a very remote and poor place. It’s surprising that this was a hub of industry even up until the 20th century. The iron business in Portugal was introduced by the Muslims, who invented the geared and hydropowered mills that were needed to hammer the metal from one form to another. Here at the Foz de Alge and at the fishing spot of Machuca (in the north of the Concelho) there was both the flow of water and the forest of trees required to make charcoal for the iron’s furnaces. You can still see the wealth of iron ore in the earth when passing the magenta-coloured roadworks for the new IC2.

jose-malhoa

Figueiró (pronounced Figaro, of Marriage and Mozart fame) briefly became an art-world mecca in the 20th century when painter José Malhoa brought his entourage and set up a Naturalist school in town. Despite the style having already peaked in Paris just as he was getting started,  Malhoa nonetheless had been famous in Portugal for about 20 years before settling in the Fig de Vin. His school sheltered a small bunch of widely known and respected artists, by Portuguese standards anyway. He left behind the fanciest house in town.

A better museum to the era in my mind anyway is a little tiled cafe-bar that’s now for sale. I went there once, on the day I bought my house. My head was reeling and I drank a couple of ports and chatted to the owners. The pastoral azulejos and timber furniture are so classic Portuguese that I hate to think what will happen to the place if it goes to the wrong people. Tea room, someone?

cafeforsale

The Estado Novo was good to Figueiró Vinhos. It developed during the mid 20th century, probably in the wake of Castanheira de Pera, where the factories were closing and the money going elsewhere. Typically of Central Portugal, people left in droves during the 70’s, and despite the influx of foreigners here to lap up the calm, the quiet and the cheap, the population of Figueiró decreases a little every year.

But not on market days. Figueiró has the best market around. It’s huge, and properly balanced between home-grown-free-range and festa de polyester. I like the 50 metre strip devoted to older locals and their farmyard produce. And wookie likes the all the chicks and ducklings.

figueiro-dos-vinhos

Probably I like Figueiró dos Vinhos because it does good cake. There’s a old factory devoted to the worship of Pão de Ló, which… I’ve never tried. Tsk. But it’s a very serious looking little side street establishment that only the locals would know and therefore their sponge cake must be out of this world. Every year Figueiró has a cake-fest held in the town’s closed-silent-poor-and-shoeless carmelite convent, the church of which is unbelievably gorgeous. The cloister is also remarkable having been sliced on the diagonal by a ginormous wall in a sell-up of half the convent’s property. Tsk. On the final matter of cake, my favourite place in Figueiró is still the paved courtyard behind the câmara and in front of an unassuming little cafe called Pingo Doce. The pastéis de nata there are the best outside of Belém.

Your local tiny town will never engraciate itself to you unless it has a couple of decent places to eat. We have three. Which is a lot when you consider how bored we are with the monoculture of Portuguese food and that this here really is, to coin the Australian term, the boonies. Restaurant number one is the restaurant at the prize pony Schist village Casal de São Simão, A Varanda. It is great. Local and seasonal, authentic but not predictable, it’s a really nice space and not overpriced. Number two is your family-run fluoro lights and TV type place which serves massive helpings fast and the bill always looks like there’s been a mistake in your favour. Except here the food is way better than you expect and their specialty is a superb prawn curry. It’s called A Tricana. The third fav is Restaurante Paris and is half way between the two, with standards done well in a nice enough environment. It’s not pretending to be fancy, just like Figueiró itself.

jardim-figueiro

14 Comments

  1. Vern September 9, 2012 3:14 pm Reply

    This was great Emma,
    Your best post to date as far as I’m concerned. I love to read about descriptions of quaint villages in deserted Portugal, what goes on in the village, and your experiences in the field of cafes in such exquisite surroundings.
    Your vivid details of what’s available makes my mouth water.
    I still believe that continental Europe has the best food and cafes in the world, especially the atmosphere and style of dining.
    Do you ever go to Lisbon and sample dining after 10.00pm which I believe is the normal time that Spanish and Portuguese people venture out to dine.
    To eat, chat and listen to Fado singers strumming guitars until 3.00am would be my type of heaven. I picked up the habit of long periods of dining – 3 – 4 hours whilst living in France.
    Here in Australia I often partake in this wonderful dining at home with others. Fast food American style revolts me.
    I can only speak of France as I often spent time dancing in the early hours to local bands, drinking only a small amount of wine, and trying to solve the problems of the world.
    This is what is required in Australia to stop the excessive drinking culture. I would like to see every poker machine in Australia destroyed and bring the local pubs back to a real lifestyle of culture, well beyond alcohol and gambling.
    Do you have any stories of simple bed sits in Portugal? Not everyone wishes to stay in fancy hotels and be surrounded by foreigners.
    When I am travelling I adore being surrounded by the locals babbling in the local tongue, and hearing not one word of English. Using sign language can be tremendous fun, so can trying to speak the local dialect.

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  2. Steve September 9, 2012 4:01 pm Reply

    Many years ago I was a pastry chef on Crusie ships that sailed out of England to the Med and west Indies to Australia. Lisbon was my favourite place – No, not the custard tarts, or the friendly people, the cheap wine but the Texas Bar and I believe it’s still there…in the Bairro Alto district of the city which used to be buzzing with ‘fun’

    Memories, ok back to reality

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    http://www.counsellingqueensland.com

  3. Claudia Sofia September 9, 2012 8:15 pm Reply

    Ohhh Emma, thank you, thank you, thank you!! My dad is natural from Figueiro dos Vinhos, we lived in Lisbon, but in my childhood I used to spend my Summer holidays and Christmas holidays with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and loads of cousind in Figueiro dos Vinhos. So many good memories of that time, with no concerns, just us and the nature. The famous Market on Saturdays and the Pao de Lo, if you never tried, please you have to, so light and it melts in your mouth. The Park, used to have 2 Playgrounds, I don’t know if they still exist!.
    Thank you for make me remind those good old days. xxx

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    Emma   Reply: September 9th, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    that’s great, glad you enjoyed it, Claudia.

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  4. Cyril September 9, 2012 11:54 pm Reply

    Love it! Madly deeply… The poignancy, how can you bear to be away? Noticed the reply above Sept 9th at 8:24pm; Has Aus moved?

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  5. Johanna Bradley September 10, 2012 1:36 am Reply

    Nice guide Emma. Love small town Portugal.

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    http://www.restlessjo.wordpress.com

  6. Ana September 10, 2012 2:20 am Reply

    Thank you Emma. Really enjoy reading about this part of Portugal. I’m from Fig dos Vinhos, living in Durban. I need to spend more time there…

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  7. Kathleen September 18, 2012 5:16 pm Reply

    Of all places, Figueiró dos Vinhos! Last year my husband and I stayed for three weeks in an english ladies’ house in Altardo, and Figueiró dos Vinhos was ‘the’ place for shopping, internet, cakes and coffee. Very charming small town indeed. You make me miss Portugal once again, Emma! Thank you, love your blog 😉

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  8. Maxine November 22, 2012 3:54 pm Reply

    Wonderful article. You really gave a tour of the place. Wonderful images. Loved it!

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  9. Colin February 18, 2013 7:47 am Reply

    I bought an old farmhouse outside Figueiro about 2 years ago and still don’t know why this quaint town is not more popular. I’d LOVE to buy the ‘Terrabella’! It’s at the base of an empty 1930’s hotel.
    There’s a very old large, derelict estate on the south side of town that’s fenced and gated – anyone know anything about it?

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  10. shiralee June 4, 2013 10:26 am Reply

    Hi Emma, we must have passed each other in the air. Left Melbourne for Figueiró dos Vinhos in November — and have spent every day since working harder than I ever believed possible. If anyone ever sells you a farmhouse cum ruin promising that it only needs ‘cosmetic renovations’ don’t believe them! Hope all goes really really well for you in au — and that you make it back here safe and sound 😉

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    Colin   Reply: June 12th, 2013 at 2:27 am

    Hi @shiralee,
    Please contact me. I’ll be in Figueiro in July – it’d be great to meet.

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    shiralee   Reply: June 12th, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Hi @Colin, that woud be great. Are you on Facebook or Google+? I don’t really want to leave my email publicly here but you can contact me through either of those sites by searching for me — my last name is Saul

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  11. shiralee June 12, 2013 10:32 am Reply

    Hi @Colin, that woud be great. Are you on Facebook or Google+? I don’t really want to leave my email publicly here but you can contact me through either of those sites by searching for me — my last name is Saul

    [Reply to comment]

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