Sheep roundabout in Castro Verde

Castro Verde is a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you need convincing, take a look at two of the major roundabouts in the town centre of this Portuguese town. To the north the traffic island is home to a flock of model sheep, while to the south a similar island is inhabited by half a dozen pigs. As a way of persuading people that the town of Castro Verde is worth a closer look, I think they work very well.

It’s one of those towns that many visitors pass through on their way to the beaches of the Algarve but rarely take the time to stop and have a wander. It’s a shame as there is enough to see in Castro Verde to make it a worthy place not only to break up a journey south, but also to take a day trip from the many vineyard properties of the Alentejo region. To the south of the town (near the ‘pig’ roundabout) the buildings of the town suddenly open out into a very large open space. At the far end is a fully working windmill, a stark object of beauty on a white empty expanse.

Windmill in Castro Verde

Head back into town and you’re likely to pass the incredible mansion houses that once belonged to the agricultural barons of the plains. This was an important town in the region and the wealthy landowners based themselves here, using the finest architects to live out their fantasies of grandeur. None is more impressive that the house of Alvaro Romano Colaço, which manages to blend Manueline, Gothic and Moorish styles into its turreted exterior. It’s not a place you can walk past and miss.

Home of Alvaro Romano Colaco

Perhaps the pride of place in Castro Verde goes to the Royal Basilica at the east end of town. It is one of the few churches you’re likely to enter and immediately say ‘Wow!’. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling in distinctive azulejo tiles, depicting giant battle scenes that spare nothing in gratuitous violence. Severed Moorish heads abound, and only the golden opulence of the altar takes away from the breathtaking blue and white glaze that dominates the church.

Royal Basilica

Along the road from the Royal Basilica (toward the ‘sheep’ roundabout) are a series of pleasant cafes that offer reasonably priced snacks and drinks with indoor and outdoor seating. You can sit and watch the world go by, although during the daytime you won’t see much as most locals know better and take shelter from the intense heat.

A short but very worthy excursion from Castro Verde is the chapel of Nostra Senhora de Aracelis. Head along the Mertola road for 14km before turning off for Salto. The chapel itself will probably be closed; no matter, it’s the views from this hilltop summit that make this such a special place to visit. From the terrace around the chapel you can look out in every direction across the Alentejan plains; probably the finest viewpoint in the region. You can walk up to the chapel from Salto (it will take around 30-40 minutes) although in the summer it is far more sensible to drive all the way to the car park just below the chapel steps.

View from Nossa Senhora de Aracelis