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.
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.
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?
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.
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.