We were so long enamored of Spain that moving on to Portugal was difficult, and it didn’t start well. We crossed the border on a cold rainy day and went on in the gathering darkness to a campground close by the border. It was the worst we encountered all winter, and was absolutely packed with well over 150 caravans and motorhomes. Many of them were clearly there for the entire season and still in the throes of full territorial land grab squabbles. There were no toilet facilities other than a hole in the ground to empty onboard toilets, and we hoped it led to a septic tank instead of to the ocean, but a breakwall away.
But worst of all, it was one enormous landscape of mud puddles, many almost deep enough to swim in. Narrow passages sometimes existed between vast brown lakes, and avoiding the deepest puddles was mostly about not flooding our air intake and killing the engine mid crossing. By the next day all was changed. The lakes had begun to dry sufficiently to allow careful escape, the sun was out, and the road ahead led to the famed Algarve, that sun-filled paradise of fine sand beaches and the scent of suntan lotion riding on the smell of the sea.
The history of the people of what is now Portugal is a long story of conquest. Romans, Visagoths, Moors, Spaniards–all have ruled these people at one time or another. But it was when Portugal emerged as the great explorer nation that ultimately brought it the wealth to become a significant European power. By the mid 1400’s Portugal had fielded a fleet of navigators who pushed European knowledge down the west coast of Africa, and then the sea routes to India and beyond, founding trading enclaves and fortress cities as they pushed into the ‘unknown.’ This brought spices, minerals and slaves to Portugal, but it was Brazil where Portugal found its real wealth, first with minerals and timber, later with gold and diamonds. With these resources, Portugal became a true world power.
All went reasonably well for a couple of centuries, but it all came tumbling down on a November night in 1755 when Portugal was hit by the largest earthquake ever in Europe, estimated to be between 8.5 and 9.o on the Richter Scale and followed by an enormous tsunami. Lisbon and most of the significant buildings across the entire country were destroyed, and the rebuilding process was long and painful. Thus one rarely ever sees a structure older than 1755 in the entire country.
Now that we have the mudhole and history behind us, lets have a look at the Algarve, that most southern of Portugal’s regions. It is most famous for its beaches and the resorts associated with them, making it one of Europe’s renowned vacation destinations. We are not really ‘beach people,’ but we are ‘ocean people’ and love the roar and smell of the sea and the sense of limitless horizon that drew us to spending six years on a sailboat in the Mediterranean. And the Algarve delivers the ocean in a most dramatic fashion.
Faro is the capital of the region and its airport funnels millions of tourists, particularly Europeans, onto the beaches in summer. But even as we camped in a free area next to the airport in mid March, the planes seemed to be constantly taking off and landing. Aside from some wonderful company and home cooked meals with our friends Jill and Fernando who have long lived in Faro, we didn’t spend a great deal of time in that part of the Algarve. We headed west and found an amazing coastline of high limestone bluffs interspersed with tight, lovely coves and crowned with delightful hiking trails that ran for miles.
And after plunging into the vegetation for a period, this is what we were led to.
Over and over the coast revealed naturally formed arches and caves, often from a height of considerably more than 100 feet. And the beaches in the coves were lovely as well, this one holding a restaurant.
After a couple of days hiking the trails, we became even more drawn to the caves we had heard and read about which were down at water level in the sides of the cliffs. Once we looked down into one cave that had broken through its roof, we were hooked. So we headed to the harbor in Portimao, a fishing community dating from Roman times, and signed on to a ‘pirate ship.’ It skirts along the coast, its pirate flag in full view, and provides entry to a number of the caves in small outboard motor equipped skiffs. Here she is, lurking while we were in closer exploring caves.
And they turned out to be absolutely spectacular. Larger, taller, deeper than we had anticipated, it was exciting to enter and twist around in them, awed by their dimensions, the beauty of the stratified limestone, and the coolness and blue of their waters.
Here is the one that hooked us when we were hiking above and could look down into it.
Among the many attractive fishing villages which are scattered along the western end of the Algarve is little Salema, at the mouth of a long valley which follows a river down to the sea. As was true everywhere on this coast, it was off season and as a result was bereft of the tourists who would normally be crowding the beaches. We found Salema particularly attractive for its narrow cobbled streets
and the many murals on building walls, this one in particular!
When finally finished with exploring most of the Algarve’s southern coastline, we jumped on a motorway and made our way to Lisbon, the capital and certainly the most important city in Portugal. For a city of its size, it is both commanding and particularly interesting. Climbing several hills as it does and summited by Castelo de Sao Jorge, it is a study in white walls and red rooftops.
On our first day in the city we took a lift up to the Castelo and explored the fortifications which surround its summit, then spent the rest of the day descending through the Alfama neighborhood with its narrow staircases and occasional streets, enjoying all as we made our way toward the bay at the bottom. On the descent we became submerged in the color and diversity.
Sometimes there were areas which were close to destruction yet filled with both graffiti and music.
Other times we were led through elegantly formal courtyards holding serious art.
The lower part of the city has a different kind of charm, but is nevertheless captivating. First of all, there are the trolleys, often so old that the streetcars on Market Street in San Francisco appear to be starkly new and modern. Yet they still manage to climb the steep streets through the Alfama to the fortress at the summit under their own power.
The great square close to the harbor front is the Praca do Comercio, and through the grand Arco da Rua Augusta lies the Rua itself.
Stately, without vehicles of any kind, and covered with mosaic tiles its entire length, it is as grand a pedestrian avenue as any we have seen anywhere in Europe.
Near its end are several smaller plazas, and in one we found the Mistress of Pigeons, feeding them, holding them in her hands, even enjoying them sitting atop her head.
Before leaving the Lisbon area, we took a couple of days to visit the town of Sintra. Most famous for its Palacio Nacional, the oldest surviving palace in Portugal and long the summer residence of the royals, Sintra has also been home to many distinguished writers and artists. In fact, on one of the days we were there it was announced that Madonna had purchased a mansion and intended to move to Sintra from New York with her younger children who will commute to a spiffy private school in Lisbon.
It is beautifully green with old growth trees lining much of the town, and interspersed with three hills which dominate and give the whole area a wonderful forested flavor. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is home to some truly fascinating structures. Here is a view from the palace across to the center of town.
Most of the Palacio Nacional dates from the reign of Dom Joao I who ruled from 1385 to 1433 and is particularly famous for the Sala das Brasoes. Its walls are covered with the blue and white tiled images that Portugal is famous for, and the ceiling is inlayed with the 72 coats of arms of the Portuguese nobility.
We also managed to visit several interesting palaces and estates, the most colorful being the Palacio da Pena, built in the mid nineteenth century for a German Baron.
Above is an inner courtyard, but its front entrance is gargoyle-like and almost frightening.
However it was the Quinta da Regaleira that really got to us. A UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own, it is an elaborate estate designed by an Italian theatrical set designer and architect at the beginning of the twentieth century for a thoroughly eccentric rich landowner. Most spectacular and fanciful–even Harry Potter-esque–are the gardens. They climb the hillside through lakes, terraces, waterfalls, caverns, and tunnels and culminate in the Initiation Well. It was inspired by the rituals of the Knights Templar and Freemasons and is entered at the top through a revolving stone door.
We went down and down the spiral staircase unti we reached the bottom, site of the strange rites performed in the prior century, and finally escaped through a tunnel out to the serene if fanciful gardens below.
There is still so much more to Portugal. If we were to pick a particular area of a country to return to in winter, it would be the western coast of Portugal, the subject of the next post.