I'm not an especially religious person but I couldn't help but feel blessed to witness the Easter celebrations at Sao Bras, a small rural town in the Algarve, just 11 miles north of Faro
Well aware of the pageant that is Easter in major Catholic cities, and the attendant crowds that go with, I was in search of the warmth and intimacy of something smaller.
I had read of the Festa das Tochas Floridas at Sao Bras (pronounced “sow”- as in lady pig, and “brash”), but knew the town only a little, so it seemed a golden opportunity. Accordingly I roused the other half and we set off earlyish on Easter Sunday morning to get our bearings and find parking. This was fairly easy to find in the newer part of town, alongside the school. All seemed very quiet as we approached the historical centre. Well, of course - everyone was at 10.30 Mass.
Hard work goes unrewarded!
We wandered the traditional narrow streets, delighted and amazed at the effort that had gone into producing the carpet of colour woven through them. Diamonds and crosses were fashioned from lavender and many-coloured flower petals, also spelling out the Easter message Feliz Pascoa - Happy Easter! A white door with pink flowers entwined in its lacy ironwork caught my eye. We trod very carefully so as not to disturb the handiwork.
Gradually crowds began to congregate and there was a buzz of expectation. The sun was warm and we wished we’d had a friend amongst those who thronged their balconies and terraces overlooking the route. We could hear the approaching procession before we could see them. "Christ is risen - Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" Even at ground level it was a wonderful sight, as the sea of flower torches drew near. Immaculately dressed young men led the chorus. We exclaimed at the detail in the glorious flower torches, before following the crowd back to the mother church, Igreja de Matriz. A lovely aroma rose from the crushed lavender, but alas, the carpet was sadly tattered. Such inspired work, so rapidly destroyed!
The former Episcoplal Palace at Sao Bras was the summer residence of the bishop of Faro. In 1596 marauding English seamen Drake and Raleigh sacked Cadiz and then Faro. They proceeded up the cobbled road that led to Sao Bras and were beaten back by determined locals armed only with clubs and branches. They returned home to celebrate the victory, decorating their clubs with flowers for the thanksgiving mass. The origin of the Festa das Tochas.
Sao Bras at large
For many years Sao Bras was the world centre of the cork producing industry. Cork oak grows freely on the Serra do Caldeirao to the north. The Algarvean Costume and Ethnographic Museum is a collection of farm vehicles and implements in a remarkable old building that was the home of a 19th-century cork baron.
Like many others in Portugal, the church was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and later rebuilt. Interesting gravestones pave Largo da Igreja, the square in front. The views of the surrounding countryside are unexpected and superb. Not much remains of the Episcopal Palace but just beyond the gardens, another surprise- a large public open air swimming pool, extremely welcome in the hot summers.
One of the best places to eat locally is Restaurante Vila Velha, in the old town. A good selection of meat and fish dishes range from 7 euros on a lunchtime, in a traditional Portuguese setting. Rua Gago Coutinho (tel 289 098 520 www.vila-velha.com )
Mesa do Chefe in nearby Moncarapacho has been so successful that a second venture, Mesa do Chefe 2, has followed at Peral, between Sao Bras and Moncarapacho. Specialising in tapas (from 3 for 6.50 euros), the restaurants are always striving for something different. Montaditos- small bread rolls with fillings such as duck and black pepper pate, chouricao and presunto- are on offer at happy hour from 1 euro. Curry Sundays and Speciality Pie Days are also popular. You couldn’t call it typical Portuguese fare but it has certainly found a market. Rua do Carmo 15, Moncarapacho (tel 289 792 087).
A perfect base
Casa Rosa Hotel and Apartments in Moncarapacho are ideally placed for a rural Algarve experience, yet only 10 minutes from the beach. The Norwegian owners go out of their way to provide an enriching experience and are experts on birdlife and walking opportunities in the area. The pool and surrounding terraces are great for relaxation and the accommodation excellent. Breakfast and a convivial evening meal can be provided if you don’t want to cook or go out. Prices range from 210 to 550 euros per apartment.
So much more
Whatever you enjoy, you won’t be short of choice. The whole of the nature reserve of the Ria Formosa with its salt marshes and lagoons is on your doorstep. From Fuzeta you can ferry across to the island of Armona and its pristine Atlantic facing beaches. Shopping is easily accomplished just 8 miles away at Loule, at its best on Saturday mornings. The Moorish indoor market is the shopping focus whilst artesanatos produce their crafts within the castle walls. At Estoi you have Roman ruins and a very special palace. Now a pousada (state owned hotel) the original interior is simply stunning. The gardens are undergoing restoration. And of course, there’s my own stomping ground Tavira (read my guide Tempting Tavira: an Algarve gem to find out more).
Sao Bras de Alportel, to give it its full title, sits on the junction of the N2, north from Faro, and N270, which leads to Tavira in the east and Loule to the west. Travelling distances are minimal and through very lovely scenery. Faro airport is about a half hour journey - to make the most of the area you really do need a car.
The Feira da Serra is Sao Bras' other main event. This "Mountain Festival" takes place at the end of July and features food, crafts, music and horsemanship.