We made a point of finishing our midday farm chores a little bit earlier today so we had the afternoon free to visit Sines, the biggest port in Portugal and the birth place of the great explorer Vasco da Gama.
Sines is 38 kilometres south of Grândola; however, there is so little traffic on Alentejan roads that we were there in thirty minutes. The car park overlooks the end of the longest beach in Europe, a stretch of sandy coastline that begins on the tip of the Troia peninsula and ends in Sines. We gazed down at the pristine sands below and tried to work out how long it would take to walk those miles on such tough terrain. From last weekend’s stroll along the beach at Carvalhal, we guessed the going would be painstakingly slow.
There had been a real autumnal chill in the air when we left the farm; however, we stepped out of the car into a completely different climate. I hastily changed my top (managing to put it on back to front!) and then we were off.
The first few kilometres of walking was around a rocky headland where we enjoyed the smell of the ocean and watched, fascinated, as men collecting mussels on tiny craggy islands cut off from the mainland. How was it, we wondered, that the endless expanse of unspoilt white sands came to an abrupt end here at Sines?
The landscape changed dramatically as we joined a cycle path and approached Sines. Now the ocean views were replaced by ugly refineries and endless pipelines. We recognised a name on the side of one and later discovered Galp is Portugal’s main oil refinery and accounts for 70% of the country’s refining capacity. We held our noses and carried on walking, appreciating the efforts made to enhance the approach to Sines with grassy embankments and palm trees.
We rounded a bend and left the refineries behind to be confronted with the industrial port of Sines and another overpowering smell, this time fresh fish. If first impressions count, i have to admit they weren’t great. The skyline was peppered with high cranes and industrial units lined the initial stretch of walking.
The promenade widened as we got closer to the city, but it was hard to shake off the feeling that we were on a day trip to the Portuguese equivalent of Newport docks. This being a week day and the weather somewhat changeable, the town beach was practically deserted. From our perspective, the crescent-shaped beach seemed to be hemmed in by the extensive breakwaters at either end, not to mention those cranes and the various shipping containers and tankers. Fishing boats bobbed on the water while overhead hundreds of gulls circled above them or simply settled en masse on the beach.
I tried to focus on the positives – the grandeur of the larger properties set high above the promenade – however, I was not getting good vibes from this place. When Harri asked if I’d prefer to explore the city, I jumped at the chance … until I realised the lift wasn’t working and we had to climb over 160 steps to reach it.
One of Sines’ prominent landmarks is its medieval castle, which was restored in the sixteenth century and is now the venue for the huge Festival Música do Mundo each July.
It is in the castle that Vasco da Gama, the son of the city’s mayor, is reputed to have been born in 1460. In 1498, da Gama became the first European to reach India by sea, his out and back trip around the Cape of Good Hope being the longest sea voyage ever made. It was the discovery of a sea route to India which enabled Portugal’s King John II to break into the highly profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia (previously, the dangerous journey to India had been made over land). A statue of Vasco da Gama stands in front of Sines castle and the town beach is named after him.
As we stood staring up at a statue of this great Portuguese explorer, Harri revealed his inexhaustible literary knowledge. He told me about an epic poem called Os Lusíadas (usually translated as The Lusiads) which celebrates da Gama’s discoveries in no less than 1,102 stanzas. Wow – and I thought I had a tendency to be verbose!
Our stomachs were rumbling by now so we set off to find somewhere for lunch. The first place, a microbrewery, seemed rather expensive, e.g. eight-nine euros per tapas dish, so we wandered through quiet streets and alleyways full of Vende Se signs until we came across a small restaurant with tables spilling onto the tiled street. The kebab-style food was really nice and, with two beers, our meal came to just over 15 euros.
Having eaten, neither of us was inclined to spend more time wandering around the deserted streets of Sines. Harri had worked out an alternative route back to the car which fortunately meant avoiding the oil refineries. We were just heading out of the city when I spotted the old railway station. I couldn’t resist taking a closer look at the rather grand property with its wonderful azulejos depicting the adventures of the city’s favourite son. I was in the middle of lamenting the loss of the railway in Sines and wondering what had happened to the actual railway line when I happened to glance down. We were walking along a path laid directly on top of the old sleepers with the railway lines clearly visible on either side. Duh.
I’m glad we visited Sines – it’s one of those places that is important in Portugal’s history – however, I very much doubt we’ll return here, unless we have a very good reason. There are far more interesting and beautiful cities in Portugal, many of which we have yet to visit. Porto, for example.