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Rock solid Calçada

By Helga H. Hampton [email protected]

German born Helga H. Hampton first came to the Algarve with her three children in 1972. After she and her husband retired, they became residents here and have been living in an old quinta in São Brás for 10 years. Helga has always been involved with music and was President of the Associação Amigos de Música de São Lourençco for 10 years..

Do your summer guests ever get fidgety?  Do they want a break from sun, sand and sea? Are you then stuck because there are no great cathedrals, no beautiful stately homes with gardens to take them to, no more Mesquitas left to visit?

The only Michelin-starred Algarve monument, the Church of São Lourenço – been there, done that!  (“Most of the things that were here in the olden times, perished in the great earthquake of 1755!” you say and point them in the direction of Sevilla.)

Wrong! There is more here than meets the (golfer’s) eye. Golfers think they are in paradise in the Algarve and cannot understand how people would want to be anywhere else but on the velvety greens.

However, you can spread your wings, leave the coast and the greens and drive up into the hills. There is nothing very spectacular to find, but you might be surprised just how much history and vestiges of the past have been unearthed recently and are now museum ready and on view.

Wear a pair of sturdy shoes and prepare yourself to walk on a Roman road.

Roman Road, stretch “A” today
Roman Road, stretch “A” today

All you have to do is take the leisurely drive up to the town of São Brás de Alportel.  Park your car near the Igreja Matriz (parish church) and reconnoitre the narrow alleys of the old town.

You will soon be attracted by the joyful noise emanating from the  Baroque Verbena Gardens with the municipal swimming pool, and there, on the southern slopes of the old town, Rua do Matadouro, you find the new Centro da Calçadinha, which is the information and reception centre of the Calçadinha. 

The calçadinha, or causeway, easily reached from the Centro, is an ancient path from Roman times that connected the city of Ossonoba (Faro) with the Roman centre of Pax Lulia (Beja).

It passed Roman Milreu and Vale do Joio (São Brás). Only two stretches of this cobblestone pavement, less than 1 km in total length, have been uncovered and restored, and walking on these roughly hewn stones is really like taking a hike into the distant past of the Roman province of Lusitania.

The technical characteristics and the peculiarities of construction of these roads, which had to overcome all kinds of natural obstacles in areas of accentuated slopes or grounds that were otherwise difficult to transit and also easily changed by rain water torrents, etc, are elucidated and explained with colourful illustrations in bilingual exhibits at the abovementioned Centro da Calçadinha.  

Here are also kept and exhibited some archaeological artefacts and ceramic remains dating from the end of the 1st to the end of the 4th and 5th centuries AD, that were found near and alongside the path, and it is assumed that they bear witness to the existence of a changing station (mutatio), a place used by travellers to rest and change animals and carts during long journeys.

Building a Roman Road; cross section
Building a Roman Road; cross section

The small town of São Brás has been acutely aware of its cultural heritage as documented by these remains from antiquity as well as others from pre-historic times, and continues to be conscious of this legacy by saving, studying, revealing and protecting the efforts of further archaeological activity. 

I think this Roman corner of São Brás is well worth a visit for anyone who is keen to have the imagination of past history in this erstwhile most western province of the Roman Empire stimulated.

I came away from this pleasant museum visit and rugged short walk thinking of my own  calçada which I had never really paid much attention to or given any thought as to provenance.

But there it is, my extensive calçada drive to the garage, the neat garden paths and the efficient sloping surround of the well, all paved meticulously, albeit with relatively small square granite cobbles rather than huge stones of different sizes, reliably durable and aesthetically pleasing. 

So now I know that I am surrounded by copies of one of archaeology’s most prized vestiges. For what is the calçadinha if not an example of one of the most durable human “buildings” in known history?

You find them in temples, places of cult, Inca trails, under triumphal arches and so on. They accompany us through the centuries and are even today not substantially different from antiquity – only the materials have changed over time. But they continue to rely on the human hand and human dexterity.  Cobblestone roads have been built all over (mainly) Europe in places of extreme use and great wear and tear; for they offer ecological advantages, like better drainage, frost and heat resistance, protection from mud and dust, and they are easily changed and/or repaired.

Building a Roman Road, artist’s impression.
Building a Roman Road, artist’s impression.

Even the advent of asphalt in the middle of the 19th century has not pushed them totally out of existence. 

There are European countries where the lapitador or calçadeiro or plasterer belongs to a proud craft, in fact one could call many of them stone artists, and in medieval times they belonged to one of the most powerful and important guilds.

The multi-coloured pavements in many a Czech, Polish or, yes, Portuguese town to this day are veritable works of art. The combined use of white marble, black basalt and red porphyry, all natural stones, allow creations of unlimited and ever imaginative design.              

My advice:  if and when you are building your house, do insist that the part of your most used outdoor areas be paved with cobblestones, i.e. calçada.

Yes, it might be initially more expensive, but in the long run you will benefit from durability, lack of damage/repair and you will always like the looks of this work of human effort. You have learned from antiquity and are building for posterity.