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!


Saturday was fantastic, and went a long way towards stretching out our muscles after all that driving the day before.

After breaking fast with a lovely croissant and loaf of bread that our host had brought up for us from the nearby bakery, we ventured out to explore the beaches we’d seen with our hostess the night before. They were far more crowded in the middle of the day than they had been at sunset, and as we made our way from the parking lot out to the water, we passed at least one surf school, learning how to ride “boards” made of sand before getting in the water; myriad tanned, cheerful surf bums in various states of undress; dogs, small children, elderly people with serious hiking shoes setting out for a capital-W Walk… I felt surprisingly at home, somehow. These are my people, I crowed — I know you, even if I don’t speak your language!

That feeling was increased by about tenfold when we got down onto the beach itself. Its looming volcanic cliffs, rolling waves, and long stretch of unblemished sand could’ve been Big Sur, Marin, or even Hawaii. I was instantly and irrevocably in love. We meandered as far as the beach would take us, stopping to look at jelly fish washed up on the sand or crazy rock formations (including gigantic blocks of black slate with raised, chunky stripes of white marble running through them, which looked like dead vines growing across them.)

We even spotted a tiny waterfall, which over eons of relentless dripping had worn a gigantic V into the rock above us, winning its escape at last to the sea. We saw fishermen, many more surfers in the water, and two industrially kitted out elderly people, looking as if they were prepared to hike the Applachian trail instead of take a leisurely stroll on the beach. As in California, the ocean attracts all sorts.

After having worked up our appetites, we then hopped over to another beach we’d seen the night before, where we ate our picnic lunch on a wind-whipped table looking out over the surf and sand. Yeah. Life is rough. Seriously.

Revitalized by the food and exercise, we turned down the coast to get us some Culture. First stop: Cape St. Vincent, better known as the southwestern-most point in Europe. As the guidebook pointed out, this is the last point of land that seafarers would see before setting out on their long journeys across the Atlantic — kind of depressing, really, as it was a pretty bleak little rocky point.

Fishermen stood at the cliff edges and cast their lines 50 feet down into the sea below, and a line of camper vans was pulled up in the parking lot, hawking “traditional” wares that looked suspiciously machine made in their conformity. I wasn’t sure who I felt sorrier for: the guys who had to risk their lives trying to pull a fish up the cliffs in hopes that they could sell it to a restaurant that night, or the guys who sat and hoped some tourist would take pity on them and buy their woolen shawl or polished beach rock.

It is painfully obvious that tourism is their main and perhaps only industry around here, and since it is now the lowest season possible, there is not much industry to be seen at all. Nor even people. We drove through two of the bigger towns yesterday, and both were more or less deserted. Aside from catering to tourists in some form, the only other work we’ve seen people doing has been either shepherds in the field and people fishing off the cliffs. (Both of whom fascinated me, as you can tell by the number of pictures I took of them!)

So as far as I can tell there is one single forward-looking industry, and the rest are all traditional. Both are equally fragile and susceptible to outside factors, any number of which would again leave this region impoverished and deserted. I found all of this very sad. Gabe took the viewpoint that the collapse of the old ways and the subsequent desertion has already happened, so at least tourism is giving them something to rebuild around. True. But similar to Hawaii, and even Santa Cruz in some ways, that leaves this area as a one trick pony.

What’s worse is, I doubt that any of the British, German, French, or even Portuguese tourists who flock down here in the summer have any clue as to what they’re seeing. As we continued our tour of the area yesterday, we walked around a giant fortified peninsula in Sagres, which had been the home of Henry the Navigator’s maritime think tank until it was destroyed, first by Sir Francis Drake and then the 1755 earthquake.

Clearly this was a place of great strategic significance, where many of the innovations that allowed Portuguese ships to create a global empire were first invented. And now? It’s kind of a sad old run down fort, with a few desultory tourists walking the huge winding path behind the main building. As one of the displays pointed out, Portuguese used to be the lingua franca of the civilized world — if you didn’t speak Portuguese, you were not a part of the global culture. And now, people in America don’t even know where Portugal is, much less speak the language. It’s heartbreaking to me, both as a person and a historian, as I know that the sunburned Brits who come here every summer have no clue as to the significance of what they’re seeing.

So it’s not so much that I mind the fact that this once great area has become a tourist trap. Whatever works and gets people money. What I mind is that most of the people who come here to surf, or camp, or hike, or suntan, have no idea what makes Portugal so very… Portugal.

As Gabe pointed out, I might not even have felt that way a month ago, much less three. But now, I am coming to love and embrace all the infuriating, contradictory, crazy things about this place and its culture, and since it took me four or five months of living here to do so, I know that people who come here for a weekend or five days will have no idea of how amazing it all is. Would they see the ironic beauty of a shepherd tending his flock in the shadow of massive modern windmills? Would they see the determined camaraderie of the men perching on the cliff in hopes of catching one or two small fish? I can hope so… but I fear that they would not.

Exhausted after all this learning and walking, we retreated back to our guest house for a few hours of down time, then went out for dinner at a place recommended by our hosts. We got there at the assigned hour of 7:30, and were — to no surprise — the first people there. Even so, we had a big “RESERVA” sign on our table — obviously they had had to fend people off of it. Unlike in Lisbon though, other patrons began to arrive soon after, and by 8:30 the place was full. So at least we weren’t dining alone the entire time.

We had another true dining experience, this one of a much different sort. Unlike the friendly Italian pizzeria owner from the night before, this staff was all made up of burly surfers, who were much more keen on watching the football on TV and chatting with their mates at the bar than they were on serving us. Everyone else got great service, but we were for the most part invisible. Alas. At least the food, when it came, was great — a fish for Gabe, and stewed vegetables with brown rice for me. The wine was good, and the wood burning stove in the center of the restaurant kept us warm, if slightly smoky.

For dessert, we thought we’d try something different: fig cheese with almonds. The word cheese in this sense is a total misnomer, since it was more of a fig paste with almonds chopped up in it. I liked the texture, but we both agreed that it had too much licorice flavor in it, and we didn’t do our double portion of fig cheese any kind of justice. We similarly neglected the “agua” they gave us as an accompaniment, which did in fact look like water but took off a few of my nose and eyebrow hairs when I sniffed the shot that Gabe poured me. That was enough to put me off, but Gabe gamely took a few sips, and from the look on his face, I was glad I had not partaken. Fig cheese and “agua” vita: an odd experience, but an experience nonetheless.

After we’d finally extracted both the check and then Gabe’s credit card from the waiters, we made our way home, laughing at how thoroughly the waiters had ignored us — even though we were supposed to get special treatment, since they knew we were from the Pedralva hotel. Oh well. Such is life. At least we were well-entertained and well-fed, as always.

Today holds more adventures, starting with the much-promised tour of the hard to reach beaches in about an hour. Ooh!

Vodpod videos no longer available.
Advertisements