Cacela Velha: enchanting village in the Eastern Algarve
Do you want to enjoy the best views of the Eastern Algarve? The small village of Cacela Velha is the place to go. A first description might not sound so tempting: a handful of whitewashed houses, a church, fort, cemetery and a few restaurants. Ingredients for practically every Portuguese village, right? But however insignificant this may seem, Cacela Velha is a place that should be very high on your Algarve bucket list!
Ria Formosa views
It’s all about the views in Cacela Velha. The village is situated on a hill along the Ria Formosa. This natural park is a maze of canals, islands, marshes and barrier islands connected to the Atlantic Ocean. It stretches from Garrão beach in Faro to Manta Rota beach, very close to Cacela Velha. The promenade behind the church shows the beauty of the Ria Formosa like nowhere else. The views are always changing, as winds and tides create new shapes in the water and sand.
History and culture
The reason to come to Cacela Velha might be the beautiful views, but once you’re there do not miss the opportunity to find some other surprises. It’s a village full of history and culture. Greek, Phoenicians and Romans all visited Cacela Velha before you. The Moors did not just visit, but stayed for centuries. They invaded the village in 713 and were defeated as part of the Reconquista only in 1240. The name Cacela derives from the time of Moorish occupation, when the town was called Hisn-Kastala, Qastallat Dararsh, Cacetalate ou Cacila.
It’s a joy to walk through the beautiful cobbled streets of the village, full of typical Algarve architecture: white houses with colourful accents, the famous chaminés Algarvias (Algarve chimneys) and orange clay roof tiles. The road signs in Cacela Velha have the names of poets that were inspired by the small village. The Islamic poet Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli was born in Cacela in 958. Other examples are Eugénio de Andrade, Gastão Cruz and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. The big earthquake of 1755 destroyed many of the medieval buildings, but there are still several interesting places to see.
Igreja Matriz de Cacela Velha
The most prominent building in the village is the Igreja Matriz de Cacela Velha. The white and rather sober church was built during the 16th century on the ruins of a 13th century church. Most probably the old Islamic mosque was located in the same place. The great 1775 earthquake damaged the church severely, after which it was rebuilt in 1795.
At the entrance of the church, the portal in Renaissance style shows two small heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. In the interior there’s the beautiful 18th century statue of Nossa Senhora de Assunção, to whom the church is dedicated.
Fortaleza de Cacela
Just 100 metres from the church lies the Fortaleza dos Cavaleiros de Santiago de Cacela. This fortress always played an important role in defending the Algarve coast. In Moorish times it was a castle that controlled the boats passing by on their way to Tavira and Faro. During the Reconquista it supported the logistics in the battle against Muslim strongholds like Tavira, Silves and Aljezur.
The current Fortaleza de Cacela was built between 1770 and 1794. It is trapezoid-shaped and consists of two bastions and bartizans. Late 19th century, the Guarda Fiscal took up residence in the fortress. This Portuguese special military force was tasked with the border and maritime control of people and goods. Today it’s used by the GNR, the National Republican Guard. For this reason it is not possible to visit the interior of the fortress.
Next to the church look for the cistern, where water was storaged for local use. The people of Cacela Velha drew up the water with the hand pump that’s still there. This cistern was built after the 1755 earthquake, but it’s likely that there was a water reservoir as early as the Moorish period.
A visit to a cemetery might not be the first thing that comes to mind during a holiday, but whenever I go to Cacela Velha I wander around the cemitério a bit. It’s filled with pretty colourful flowers, beautiful shrines and moving remembrances of deceased loved ones. It’s so different from many grey and grim cemeteries in other parts of the world. This cemetery was opened in 1918, because the Spanish Flu caused for too many deaths to be buried in the former burial ground. Look for the gate on the Rua de Cacela Velha to enter.
Cacela Velha beach
Why not spend some time on the beach while you’re here? In 2015 travel magazine Condé Nast Traveller named Cacela Velha Beach as one of the 15 best beaches of the world. To avoid getting wet you can walk there from Manta Rota beach or go by boat. If some shallow water is no issue, you can choose to cross the lagoon from Cacela Velha during low tide.
The Cacela Velha beach, also known as Praia do Sítio da Fábrica or Praia da Fábrica, has no facilities like life guards or restaurants, but is a beautiful long stretched beach with little tourists. Winds and tides make it look different every day, but amazing views and fine, golden sand are guaranteed.
Cacela Velha has a couple of restaurants, all with a big focus on seafood. Local fishermen bring wonderful fresh oysters, clams, prawns, baby squid and other delicacies to the restaurants. Casa da Igreja and Casa Velha are much appreciated options in the village, as well as Fábrica do Costa 1,5 km west of Cacela Velha. The rooftop terrace of Casa Azul is another place for wonderful views.
Cacela Velha is a small coastal village in the Eastern Algarve, between Tavira (11 kms) and Vila Real de Santo António (13 kms). From Faro Airport it’s a 45 minute drive.
Driving to Cacela Velha by car is by far the easiest option. Simply follow the signs and just before you reach the village, park your car on the parking area on the left side of the road. Or go by bike! The coastal area of the Eastern Algarve is very flat, so it’s easy to cycle (just know you share the road with cars most of the time).
Public transport is an option but plan it carefully, as not many buses pas.
While you’re there
Cacela Velha is small and if you’re not staying to eat, sleep or go to the beach you can easily combine it with other activities in the Eastern Algarve. Tavira and Castro Marim are really worth a visit, or just relax the rest of the day by floating in a salt pan at Spa Salino
Forget everyday hustle and bustle when floating in a Portuguese salt pan
At Quinta da Fornalha in the Algarve you can experience the Portuguese rural life. Stay the night, enjoy a meal or visit the shop and farm.
The beauty of Cabo de São Vicente lies as much in its stories as in its breathtaking views