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Posted by portugalpress on April 13, 2017
Fortaleza de Sagres
Coat of Arms of Lisbon
Map showing the route of the atum de direito
Statue of Muhammad al-Idrisi in Ceuta
The Inspiration for this series of essays

My first article in this series described the perceptions of the Algarve by British travellers before the 20th century. The second article described the views of Italian, Spanish, German and French visitors. In this third article, I describe the views of an Arab and two Polish visitors.

Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165) was a Muslim geographer, cartographer and Egyptologist who lived in Palermo, Sicily at the court of King Roger II.

Al-Idrisi was born in Ceuta and he spent his early life travelling through North Africa and Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). His subsequent travels took him all over Europe, to the Pyrenees, Hungary, the French Atlantic coast, even to York and he also visited Portugal.

In Silves he remarked on the eloquence of the people and their ability to write good poetry. The people of Silves, he wrote, were Yemeni Arabs and other inhabitants of the city also “speak a pure Arabic dialect”.

He described Silves as a beautiful town built on a plain and surrounded by a strong wall, with many gardens and orchards. He showed that figs from the town’s fig plantations were sold throughout the Western Algarve, and he commented on the beautiful buildings and the well organised markets.

The mountains surrounding the town were covered by acres of woodland and the timber from the felled trees was widely exported. Of the people in the countryside, he said that in terms of hospitality they could not be bettered.

Al-Idrisi also visited Cape St Vincent. He recorded that there were 10 ravens nesting on the promontory, and he was informed that the ravens never left the area around the monastery church. It was impossible, he wrote, for anyone to pass the monastery without eating the food offered by the monks – “As it is a must and a known and unchanging practice that is passed down from age to age.” We may ask how it is possible to pass such a remote monastery on its promontory, seemingly at the end of the world, without the intention of making a visit to it.

The monastery made its income from donations contributed by well-wishers from all parts of the Algarve.

The Polish Nicolau de Popielovo visited Cape St Vincent about 300 years after al-Idrisi and described the story of the corpse St Vincent of Zaragoza being borne in a small boat from Catalonia to the Cape.

His followers decided to build at the Cape a monastery dedicated to the saint. “A church where great miracles were done. When pilgrims visit the Cape two crows always fly in front to show the way to the church.”

St Vincent’s body no longer rests at his eponymous Cape; in 1173, during the Christian Reconquest of the Algarve, the Almohad authorities permitted its removal to Lisbon by boat, and of course the ravens went with it. At the centre of the coat of arms of Lisbon is the funerary boat with a raven at each end.

Popielovo remarks on the huge grapes grown in the Algarve and that merchants came from as far away as Flanders to buy them. Before he arrived at Tavira, he could see only fig trees and olive trees growing so densely together that he appeared to be entering a jungle, he wrote.

Erich Lassota de Steblovo was a Pole in the service of King Philip II of Spain and he served in the Portuguese campaigns 1580-1585, as the country entered what Portuguese later referred to as their Babylonian captivity, when Portugal and Spain were joined under the rule of the Spanish king.

He describes the numerous fortresses near Cape St Vincent, and shows that they were necessary to protect the Algarvian fisherfolk, especially during the summer tuna fishing season.

Tuna used to pass the Algarve coast on their way to spawn in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas (atum direito) and they returned along the coast on their way back to the Atlantic (atum de revés). The tuna nets aimed to catch both kinds of tuna, and Moorish corsairs and Spanish pirates found it easier to rob Portuguese fishermen than to fish for the tuna themselves.

The king had the forts built and occupied for the defence of the inhabitants and for the protection of the tuna trade. This protection was not cheap, because the royal treasury took seven out of every 10 tuna caught. A tax of 70% on medieval fishermen is scarcely credible, and today such a tax would be stoutly resisted.

Published in 2005, Algarve Visto Pelos Estrangeiros (Séculos XII a XIX), edited by António Ventura, contains the comments of 30 individuals: one Arab, 11 Britons, five Frenchmen, seven Germans, one Italian, two Poles and three Spaniards, the majority from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Most visitors entered Portugal through the port of Lisbon, and visited Sintra, Batalha, Alcobaça Porto and sometimes Coimbra and Évora. The Algarve was in those days the back of beyond, even for the Portuguese, and consequently the number of visitors to the Algarve was very small.

In British terms, I often compare the Algarve of those years with the Scottish highlands and islands, which began to exert a romantic attraction only after the visit by Boswell and Johnson in 1773.

It would be interesting to survey the views of visitors to the Algarve in the 21st century.

By Lynne Booker

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association.