Sines – fishing for treasures on the Alentejo Coast:
Visit Sines on the Alentejo Coast today and at first glance you’ll find a small seaside town that is home to one of Portugal’s largest fish markets, a statue of Vasco da Gama, a castle and churches. Nothing too remarkable at first glance. Search a little further though and prepare to be amazed.
You may, as we did, wake at dawn and watch the fishermen unloading their haul as the sun rises. You may even be able to get permission to watch the now automated auction where fish is sold by boxes, roughly 28kg per box and you may see the packers stacking the fish on ice to be transported daily across the Country to retail markets and supermarket chains.
Just 15 or so workers are employed by the market itself, the remainder hired by owners of the fishing-boats; the work is relentless and physically demanding.
Wander up into the town to find hints of the special place in history of Sines. The castle houses a museum that pays tribute to a broader timeline, with an exhibition demonstrating how Palaeolithic man found the rocks around Sines formed a natural trap for seafood, how the Romans populated the area making pottery amphora and salting fish and how the area was ruled first by the Visigoths and then by the Moors, until Alfonso III of Portugal drove out the moors in the thirteenth century.
And, there are treasures found nearby originating from ancient Eygypt, Greece and Syria indicating that the town was an important trading centre, some of the remains of the Visigoth buildings and a more recent social history exhibit, with artifacts and photos from when the town had a major sardine canning business.
It is Vasco da Gama though who made this town a landmark in Portugal and on the top floor there’s a timeline and exhibition celebrating some of his achievements.
The castle, where some claim he was born, was built during the first half of the 15th century to defend the property of the King and of local merchants from Moorish pirates who continued to plague the coastline. Certainly it has a wonderful vista – looking out from the tower you can see in all directions with little interruption.
The young Vasco da Gama left Sines and his family to study at Evora before joining the Order of Santiago, led by the future King of Portugal, John II. He went on to become one of the most famous explorers of his time. His discovery of new routes to Asia and India enabled the Portuguese Empire to dominate Europe through its commercial monopoly and the King rewarded him handsomely for his achievements.
However, Portuguese politics at the time was a complicated network of relationships and although Vasco da Gama was given Sines as a hereditary fief, by the sucessor to the Portuguese throne, King Manuel I, it already belonged to the Order of Santiago. Jorge de Lencastre, the master of the order, refused to endorse the gift, believing that to do so would grant the Monarch free reign to continue gifting away property that was not his. Undaunted, Vasco da Gama started work building a new Church, three times larger than the original 14th century chapel already on the site, in gratitude to God for his success finding the route to India. But, with Vasco da Gama expelled from Sines in 1507, when the church was nearly finished, construction was halted and the Church was ultimately completed in 1529, some 5 years after his death.
Despite the hiccups in its construction, the Church is stunning. Outside, the stunning portal is in Manueline style with two pillars and a mantle attempting to recreate the Temple of Solomon. Close to the main door, a plaque is engraved with the words ‘This house of Nossa Senhora das Salas was built by the most magnificent Dom Vasco da Gama’. On the other side, the Coat of Arms of the da Gama family surrounds the Royal Coat of Arms.
Inside, the walls are lined with azulejos tiles telling the story of the life of Mary overshadowed only by the 17th century ornate gold carved altar with an image of Nossa Senhora das Salas.
While the Church itself is a hidden gem, it is also home to some amazing treasure. Like the dressing-room of some wealthy Princess and her family, intricately embroidered dresses and fine jewellery fill the chapel and its tiny vault. Everything scaled down, everything in miniature.
Gifts from local people, legend says a tradition that started with Vasco da Gama’s own mother.
Given in thanks to Our Lady for keeping the menfolk of the town safe at sea, they comprise costumes for the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. Besides the lavishly embroidered dresses, there are tiny pairs of silver and gold shoes, crowns and fine jewellery.
While for most of the year, she presides over the church from her ornate, gold and blue home above the altar, every year, on 15th August Nossa Senhora des Salhas is dressed in her finest costume and jewellery and taken to sea in a convoy of local fishing boats and vessels. By all accounts it’s a remarkable event.
Once again I’ve been stunned by the beauty of Portugal and by its hidden treasures. And I thank those whose passion and enthusiasm for their Country makes these trips so very special.
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932 www.flytap.com) flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon
- For more information on Alentejo, Portugal visit: www.visitalentejo.pt
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com
I could have written about so many places that I’ve visited in Portugal this year – but my visit to Sines was just two weeks ago and so I’ve chosen to share this particular place rather than one of the others I’ve already written about. Memorable experiences in Portugal this year include visiting the rock engravings at Foz Coa, standing at the top of Serra d’Estrela and looking out at the world and seeing the Flintstonesque village in the rocks at Monsanto. And there’s more to come.
This article has been written to recognise the author’s contribution to travel and tourism by Avis Car Hire on the A-List Awards 2013