The Ameixial village used to be an important stopover for travellers in a not so distant past, due to its geographical location. It is located at the “border” between northern Algarve and southern Alentejo, and it is crossed by the National Road 2, a scenic paved road connecting north and south of Portugal. But long before that, in times that go far back to the Neolithic, there were people that chose the Ameixial as their stopping place, and as their home. Up to this day, there are evidences of occupation by several different communities, including one that had a unique kind of writing, the Writing of the Southwest, which remains undeciphered.
The Ameixial is a Parish that belongs to the Municipality of Loulé, with an area of 123.85 square kilometres and 381 inhabitants (National Statistics 2021). It has a population density of 3.1 inhabitants / sq. km.
LANDSCAPE AND NATURAL CHARACTERISTICS
The village of Ameixial sits north of Loulé, sharing its borders with the Municipality of Almodôvar, in Alentejo. It is served by Estrada Nacional 2 (National Road 2), one of the longest in Europe starting and ending in the same country, covering a total distance of 738.5 kilometres. It connects Portugal from top to bottom, from Chaves (North) to Faro (South). The parish is crossed by Ribeira do Vascão (Vascão Stream) and faces to the southwest with Salir, and Cachopo (Municipality of Tavira) and Martinlongo (Municipality of Alcoutim) to the east and Santa Cruz de Almodôvar (already in Alentejo) to the north. Predominantly, it is an area of clayey schists and greywacke, rocks that testify to the remote existence of an ocean whose bottom was compressed, giving rise to a mountain.
This story, that backs the creation of the aspiring algarvensis Geopark (in Loulé, Silves and Albufeira) started more than 350 million years ago, at the bottom of the Rheic Ocean, which separated back then the two existing big Continents, Euramerica and Gondwana. It was at the bottom of that ocean that, during the Carboniferous period (between 300 and 360 million years ago), the sediments were deposited, thus creating the rocks that we can see today at Ameixial. The deformations, folds and faults that affect metamorphic rocks testify to the huge compressive tectonic forces associated with the union of the two supercontinents and the extinction of that ancient ocean.
The earliest document references, from the 16th century, point to the name of “Machial” as a former name of the village, before the formal creation of the parish. Around 1600, it is the chronicler Henrique Fernandes Sarrão who refers in the book História do Reino do Algarve (History of the Kingdom of the Algarve) to the existence of a «parish of Santo António do Machial located five leagues (25 kms) to the north of the town of Loulé, with a hundred and twenty inhabitants». Later, in 1905, the archaeologist and writer Francisco Ataíde Oliveira (1842 – 1915) states in his Monografia do Concelho de Loulé: «I have found the word Machial in a very old manuscript from the archives of the St. Clement Parish, which indicates that apparently the Ameixial parish used to belong to that of Loulé; and ultimately it seems that it was indeed its first name, as Machial in an ancient Portuguese language form which meant a hill surrounded by bush and plants, circumstance that suits well the area in which the parish is located».
Archaeological evidence points to the occupation of this territory at least since the Neolithic period, that is from 10,000 BC until about 3000 BC, still in Prehistory. In Ameixial, the Cromlechs of Anta do Beringel and Anta da Pedra do Alagar, prehistoric megalithic monuments about 7000 years old, are of particular importance. And so are some archaeological places holding several rocks with inscriptions of the Writing of the Southwest, dating back to the Iron Age, around 2500 years ago.
The discovery of a glass jar with a trilobed mouthpiece, which is currently in the National Museum of Archaeology, points to the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD. It is seen as a Luso-Roman production which finds parallel in other pieces found at the city of Ammaia (in Alentejo, in São Salvador da Aramenha, near Marvão). Among other objects, an appliqué with a decorated body and a jug attest to occupation during the 6th-7th centuries AD, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Islamic period, embedding Byzantine and Visigoth influences.
Quickly travelling forward to the first half of the 20th century: as a point of passage and overnight stay, Ameixial had three inns, more than the regional capital, Faro. One of them had the capacity to house 80 coachmen or muleteers (people transporting goods using pack animals), as well as to receive and treat the animals. Life was linked to agriculture and livestock: the traditional pig slaughter, chicken farming and growing vegetables. People ate what nature produced, depending on the seasons. The vegetable gardens included fava beans, peas, green beans and tomatoes.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Ataíde Oliveira wrote: «It is cultivated by its inhabitants with crops of wheat, barley and rye, of which it is abundant, especially in winter years. It has several vegetable gardens, which are watered with fountains that spring from the mountains, and in them many fruits of various sorts. In addition to these, this mountain produces many acorns, with which its residents raise many pigs, sold to people coming from other lands to buy».
The description can be read in the Monografia do Concelho de Loulé, in an allusion to the holm oak forests and the raising of swine cattle, both for own consumption and for sale. Ataíde Oliveira continues: «In addition to pigs, a lot of wool and fur cattle is also raised, there’s many beehives and a lot of large and small game, in the grounds and in the air; wild boars, deers, hares, rabbits, partridges and other game. The climate is too cold in winter, and just as hot in summer. »
Back then, the Ameixial had eight active windmills and three water mills and it already had a mixed primary school. The existing cemetery had been founded shortly before, in 1871. The National Road 2 did not exist, guarantees Ataíde Oliveira: «There is no Mac-Adam road » (macadam, crushed stone compacted with beaten earth).
THE WRITING OF THE SOUTHWEST
More than 2500 years ago, during the Iron Age, in southern Portugal and Andalusia (Spain), some communities adapted the Phoenician alphabet, transforming it into the now called Writing of the Southwest. Discovered in the mountains between the Algarve and Baixo Alentejo, it appears engraved in stone blocks that were fixed to the ground (stelae). In the world, there are few examples of this writing, about 100, mostly on stelae.
The Writing of the Southwest has 27 signs in total, including vowels, consonants and syllabic characters, part of them with apparent equivalence to some letters of our alphabet. It used to be written in an arc form, from bottom to top and from right to left. This unique manifestation of writing in the Iberian Peninsula remains indecipherable and mysterious. Since the discovery of the first stele, in 1897, other 15 stelae have been found in the Municipality of Loulé, divided into two sets: Benafim/Salir and Ameixial.
The ten stelae of Ameixial are located along the Ribeira do Vascão (Vascão Stream) and its tributaries. The first news of “stones with letters” are from the above mentioned Ataíde Oliveira. In 1928, the stele of Monte dos Vermelhos was “brought to daylight” by the ethnologist José Leite de Vasconcellos, upon information from the “Prior” (the Priest) of Salir. Five years later, the same researcher writes about a new stele, that of Monte da Portela, found by José Rosa Madeira (1890-1941), a native of Ameixial and a collector of archaeological pieces offered to the museums of Faro and Lisbon. In 2008, the ESTELA Project identified new archaeological sites, including a necropolis where the Corte Pinheiro stele was found. This set of the Ameixial is one with the most stelae and it is of the greatest importance for the study and knowledge of this ancient writing.
RIBEIRA DO VASCÃO
The Ribeira do Vascão, (Vascão Stream) a tributary of the Guadiana River, divides the Alentejo and the Algarve regions. It has a torrential regime, with renewed flows in winter and very low streaming in summer. The Vascão’s hydrographic basin, with 455 sq. km, is home to a wide variety of species, many of which are exclusive, protected by various European Union directives.
It is considered to be the longest Portuguese watercourse without dams or other artificial barriers. The stream and the surrounding area are classified as a Ramsar Site, that is, protected by the Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty adopted on February 2, 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar.
According to Adalberto Alves, in his Dicionário de Arabismos da Língua Portuguesa, the name Vascão comes from the Arabic word basqa, that is, “stony area”. According to other scholars, the Arabic word “basqa” would mean “zone of black stones”.
CHROMLECHS OF BERINGEL AND PEDRA DO ALAGAR
ST. ANTHONY’S MOTHER CHURCH
IGREJA MATRIZ DE SANTO ANTÓNIO
The first written references to the Igreja Matriz do Ameixial appear in 1747, by Father Luís Cardoso, in his Dicionário Geográfico. In the book, the priest describes the church as a single-nave building, dedicated to Santo António. On the main altar there was the image of the patron saint and on the secondary altars – dedicated to Nossa Sra.do Rosário, o Jesus Crucificado, São Pedro O Apóstolo e São Luís Bispo – there were images of the respective patron saints. In 1758, the priest makes a new description, including a report on the “considerable” damage caused by the earthquake of 1755.
Inside, there is a 16th – century baptismal font worth mentioning, as well as the arch of the old side chapel of Senhor Jesus, decorated with flutings and dentures, probably from the 17th century. Outside, on the door of one of the houses attached to the church, there is a stone plaque with the date of 1624, which points to the existence of the Church already at that time.
Hermitage of SÃo SebastiÃo
The current building is from the 20th century, with no signs of antiquity, hence it seems that the previous hermitage structure was completely destroyed. The chapel of São Sebastião is a single house, with a ridged roof and concrete ceiling. It has a bell steeple. Inside there is only one niche, made of masonry, where the figure of the patron saint is, leaning against a trunk and pierced by metal arrows. It is supposed to be the same image that Father Cardoso referred to in the mid-18th century.
SHALE BARNS WITH THATCH ROOFS
OTHER POINTS OF INTEREST
SEICEIRA RIVER BEACH
FROM HERE FEEL WHAT YOU SEE
“The Guardian of Memories” is a virtual dance and music installation integrated in the Daqui, Sente o que Vês (From here, feel what you see) project, which also exists in Querença and Alte. At Ameixial, this piece of digital art – accessible via a QR Code – is right next to Anta do Beringel. It involves a contemporary dance choreography created by Filipa Rodrigues, performed by Sara Calaça to the sound of classical music. All filmed on location, by the director Henrique Prudêncio.
FESTIVALS AND RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS
Also: Walking Festival Ameixial (April) attracting people connected to nature and hiking from all over the country; Festa de Santo António, patron saint, on the 15th of August; Festa de São Luís (variable date); Ameixial Summer Fest, mid-August; Filmes com Estrelas (Films with Stars), open-air movie sessions in the summer; Festa de Verão (Summer Party), also in August; Barreira Fair (December); Annual festival – May / August / December; and the Ameixial Monthly Market (1st Thursday of each month).
Local heritage gains particular importance in villages most affected by the erosion of time and the aging of populations, as it is the case of Ameixial. Initiatives such as the Walking Festival Ameixial have been mobilizing young people in order to preserve traditions and to ensure ancient knowledge doesn’t get lost. This is an event that goes way beyond hiking. It is an inclusive, multicultural and accessible festival, bringing together areas such as Nature Tourism, Ecotourism, Cultural Tourism and the development of the inlands.
This type of activities work against the progressive abandonment of agriculture and livestock, given the growing supply of services on the Algarve coastline.
Game dishes, such as rabbit, partridge and wild boar and others based on pork, are a “must” for anyone who wants to taste the cuisine of Ameixial. Sausages such as chorizo, linguiça or paio (pork sausages) are favourites. Traditional bread is the raw material for “Sopas” (soaked bread) and goes along with fava beans with chorizo and fried meat, depending on the season. Lamb stew, pork secretos (special cut pork steaks) and chickpea stew also form part of the “Sierra menu”.