Esparto mats, Alte, Loulé, Algarve, Portugal. Photography by Julie Dawn Fox

The charmingly rural village of Alte makes for a very pleasant day trip in the Algarve. As well as a riverside picnic area, cobbled streets and architecture with character, it also has a rich heritage of traditional crafts, especially those involving esparto grass.

You’ll see evidence of local ceramic and pottery work in the street signs and wall panels, as well as in the few souvenir shops. What you should also look out for are the themed routes that will help you learn about Alte’s past lifestyles and the crafts that thrived less than a century ago but are in danger of dying out now.

Esparto route in Alte

The esparto trail is a true grass roots endeavour, if you’ll pardon the pun.

This coarse grass grows wild in and around the village and makes durable mats. When I visited, there was an exhibition at the small museum space otherwise dedicated to local poet, Cândido Guerreiro. Two local ladies were busy weaving esparto grass and there were plenty of examples of what you can make with such material.

I spoke to Maya, a German artist who has been living in Alte for decades and is working with the local community to develop these craft-related routes.

She painted the information panels that depict each stage of the process of preparing and weaving esparto. In four languages, there’s enough information here to help the majority of visitors appreciate the hard work and skill involved in the craft.

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After the exhibition, the plan was for the panels to be placed on doorways at strategic points along the route to lead you though the village and surrounds. I hope that has since happened.

Esparto is the first planned route, but Maya is certain it won’t be the last, “We are working on a similar route for palm weaving and hope to develop others in the future.”

The route is bound to pass the azulejo panel painted by local ceramicist, Vitor Cassanheira, and take you to the river, where the local women would soak then pound the grass with a heavy block of wood to make it soft and pliable enough to weave.

I’ve been trying to get hold of a useful leaflet but this is the best I could find online – ask at the museum to see if they have a better one.

Handpainted ceramic panel depicting a woman beating esparto grass on a stone in Alte, Algarve, Portugal
Woman beating esparto grass on a stone

Learn to weave esparto grass

I was lucky enough to take part in one of the creative workshops arranged by Loulé Criativo. Local expert craftswoman, Dona Aldegundes Gomes, tried her best to show me how to plait the softened grass and use the strands to make something useful. I didn’t get very far.

Weaving esparto grass, Algarve, Portugal. Photography by Julie Dawn Fox
Weaving esparto grass

See my tips for finding the best place to stay in the Algarve.

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