We just got back from a long weekend in the southwest corner of Portugal, the Algarve. I wrote while I was there but we didn’t have internet access (bliss!), so I will backdate my posts, along with pictures, in chronological order. Enjoy!


I’m sitting outside on our small stone patio right now, where the sound of my keyboard (not to mention the Mac firing up!) sound distinctly incongruous against the stillness of the green hills and the morning air. Even though it is overlaid with a constant murmur of doves, chickens, magpies, and the occasional frenzied dog barking, underneath all that is the stillness of the countryside, which I miss so much from home. There would have been a beautiful sunrise, were it not tucked behind a hill and a bank of clouds, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

We’ve been in the Algarve not much longer than 12 hours, and already I find myself at home, and in love. It is much like home, in fact, causing Gabriel and I to make regular exclamations about how closely it resembles the Big Sur or Marin coastlines. Vast stretches of forested hills, green in winter but clearly dry and drab in summer. Wild winter waves colliding with the rocky, crumbling coastline, gradually wearing the cliffs away to leave behind pockets and long strips of sandy beach, their rolling waves deceptively beckoning: Jump in, the water’s fine! So much like Big Sur. It’s almost eerie.

Our drive down here yesterday revealed many more of the contradictions I have come to know and love about Portugal. After about an hour and a half of driving, we cut across to the coast, and triumphantly emerged at the sea — only to find that the city where we’d aimed to have our picnic lunch by the ocean was a drab, depressing industrial port town, with huge cranes looming on the horizon, a commercial fishing fleet, and a string of deserted beach huts offering no sustenance or, more importantly, bathrooms. But we found the coast road and turned south at last, figuring we’d stop at the next likely place that presented itself along the way.

That place was a turnout featuring a small restaurant and a deserted surf shack, located just down the road from a giant coal power plant, its twin towers looming over the dunes around it. To our relief the restaurant was open, and offered bathrooms just inside the door… which also prominently displayed a sign saying that the place was Michelin recommended. We laughed at the absurdity of finding a Michelin rated restaurant in such an unlikely place, just outside of an industrial port town and literally in the shadow of a power plant. Still laughing, we settled down to eat our lunch on a picnic table outside of the surf shack next door, the ocean lapping on the quiet beach in front of us, the incongruous restaurant to our left, the giant cranes and power station to our right. That is Portugal.

Our drive continued down the coast, cutting inland when we ran out of road. We occasionally followed the side roads back out to the coast when they looked particularly inviting, including one that promised us a lighthouse. And indeed a lighthouse we found, its keeper busy vacuuming out her car, protected by two small and fiercely barking dogs, one of whom followed us all the way out to look at the coast and then back to our car again.

On the drive back to the main road, we stopped to take pictures of some of my favorite huge cranes, which I’d seen congregating in a wet field. Further along, I thought I was hallucinating when I spotted another even larger bird in a field. We turned around and went back to check, and no, I was not hallucinating: there was an ostrich, grazing happily along with a flock of sheep. In fact I think it must have believed itself to be a sheep. It was fantastic, incongruous (there’s that word again), and oh, so Portugal.

Much amused, we continued our drive through tiny white-walled towns and achingly green countryside, white flowers dotting the fields, cows grazing. Soon we entered the wilderness preserve where we’re staying, and these pastoral vistas became more rugged, populated by different kinds of flora and fauna, mostly twisted cork trees and birds, many, many birds. Again, it felt like driving through Big Sur.

We came at last to our hotel, which is a total misnomer for where we’re staying. We have a guest house in what they call an “Active Tourism Village,” which my mom had spotted in an article in National Geographic Traveler. This village, Pedralva, is tucked up into the hills of the wilderness preserve. In the 1950s, there were 200 people living here, but by the 1990s, there were seven.

Turns out this is a common problem around here: people think that the cities embody all things good, progressive, and modern, so they abandon the countryside in droves. The inhabitants of Pedralva moved to Vila do Bispo, the slightly bigger town just down the coast, whose inhabitants in turn moved to Lagos, a big city on the southern coast, and so on, leaving the tiny villages completely abandoned and the bigger towns only slightly less so.

Cue the owners of what is now the hotel, who at the time lived up in Lisbon. They bought one house and fixed it up, then another. Pretty soon they were hunting down the owners of all the houses in the village, buying the deeds, and fixing them up as well. That process took them about a year and a half, after which the abandoned village turned into a tourism village. They now own 31 houses, a good half of the village, with the remaining few still owned (and sometimes even inhabited) by the locals. In the middle of their village is the reception and a small market for the guests, where you can buy milk, sausage, canned goods, a few gourmet souvenir foods, and coffee pods for the Nespresso machine featured in every guest house. (Which I have been dying to try ever since seeing the one our friends had!)

Being winter though, Pedralva is still something of a ghost town, and it turned out that we are the only guests in the whole place. We not only got a guest house for the weekend, we got a whole village to ourselves! So we got what we are told is the best guest house for a couple, which I believe. It’s a small building that looks like it might once have been a barn, with high ceilings, a sleeping loft in the rafters, and a small kitchenette tucked underneath. The bathroom, which is in a small external shed tacked on to the outside, still smells faintly like hay, further enforcing my belief that this was once a stable or barn of some sort. Just outside the door, there is a small stone patio, with a table and a small barbeque, which I doubt we be using during this visit.

The whole thing is immaculately designed and appointed, with very modern touches in a pleasingly rustic setting. Just the thing a discerning “active” tourist would want, and a far cry from the rest of the hotels in the Algarve, which are definitely aimed at the more “passive” tourist: cookie cutter condos with bright blue swimming pools.

However, my favorite part is the view from our patio. There are green hills and a beautiful sunrise, yes, but there is also a chaos of weeds, plants, tools, sheds, and other detritus spilling out from the backyards of the people who still live here. Just through the thin bamboo screen surrounding the patio, you can see the tumbledown remnants of the houses next to us, and a trailer with the same bamboo screening around it (presumably to prevent it from violating the sensibilities of the people staying here.) Again, the beautiful contradictions of life here, with modern tourist village and ancient village huts nestled right up against each other. Marvelous.

Of course along with the village we get all the staff to go with it, who are thrilled to have guests to show around and arrange activities for. After arriving, we got a personal tour from one of the owners, who drove us to the best nearby beaches in her beat up old Land Rover, gesturing wildly as we careened down tiny winding roads to secluded, barren, beautiful stretches of sand hugged by immense, jagged chunks of rock. She also showed us the grocery store, the gas station (the only one for miles, which was only put in about three years ago), and the best restaurants, all of which feature a full panoply of shellfish and pork, it seems. (Apparently barnacles are quite the delicacy around here, although I’m still not quite sure which part of them one is supposed to eat.)

We arrived back from our tour well after dark, but after having spent the entire day in the car, we didn’t feel like getting back in our own to go to one of the restaurants she’d showed us. So we decided instead to walk ten feet to the pizza parlor in the middle of our village, which we were promised has the best pizza in Portugal.

We fully expected to be the only customers in an otherwise sad, quiet little place, especially as we were there at 7:30 — quite early by Lisboan standards. But people kept coming in during the course of our surprisingly excellent dinner (pizza and salad for Gabe, tuna salad for me), and by the time we left, every table was occupied. The owner, an Italian man who moved here with his German wife, greeted each new set of customers as if they were long lost friends, which they might indeed have been. It was clear that people came up here from all around the area just to have their pizza — or else the entire population of Pedralva as well as all of their closest friends and relatives were all in that room at once. Unlikely.

So we ate, bemused at this bustling center of activity in the middle of an otherwise deserted town, and listened to an increasingly odd selection of music, starting with country covers of AC/DC songs. The music was really the icing on the cake of a totally surreal experience, which in turn was the ultimate incongruity on a day full of them. Like the castle in Sintra, Portugal itself is a crazy fairy tale patchwork of contradictions — old and new, modern and ancient, progressive and backward — all jammed into one crazy creation that seems absurd but in fact makes some strange kind of beauty and sense.

And now we must be off, to eat the croissants fetched by the man who works here on his way through the village, perhaps followed by a tour of the beaches that are only accessible by four wheel drive. Or perhaps a retreat back up into our lovely warm loft to finish my book. Either way: excellent.

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