The Powerful Pull of Portugal’s Algarve

After a week in Europe, the first rain of my trip came on the day I was driving from Lisbon to the Algarve region in the southwestern part of Portugal. It was the perfect day to be in a car, as I could only imagine myself slipping and sliding up and down Lisbon’s precarious hills on slick, unevenly tiled sidewalks.

I had a notably positive experience with the Sixt Rental Car folks at the airport, getting a virtually new Mitsubishi Space Star (never even heard of this model before, but it was a great car!). I opted for the toll transponder package; for a mere $2 a day I could roll through the Via Verde lanes on the toll roads without having to even stop and would be billed for the tolls later. In the US, rental car companies charge around $15 a day to use a toll transponder plus the added tolls, so I was greatly relieved to be able to have this convenience at such a great price, and it really did make driving around the country very easy.

I crossed the long and stately Vasco De Gama Bridge, which in contrast to Lisbon’s other famous bridge, a Golden Gate lookalike, seems like a hybrid between Boston’s Zakim Bridge at its start and then resembles the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia, as it flattens out into a 10 mile long, causeway-like structure for the remainder of the crossing. As I drove south, I decided to head over toward the central coast and have a seafood lunch in the town of Sines (which sounds like sinESH; the S in Portuguese carries an sh sound, so Lisboa is LISHboa…).

I went to a place I found on Trip Advisor called Cais da Estação. As I entered the restaurant, a waiter approached me and led me to a table, and I did a triple-take because this guy bore such a striking resemblance to actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Through much of my lunch I pondered whether perhaps Jake was here doing research for a new film role, playing a Portuguese waiter and wondered whether I should ask for an autograph. But he was clever, and he never let his guard down once, his heavy Portuguese accent as convincing as the Boston accent he used in the film Stronger. He deserves a Golden Globe for this performance! Meanwhile, I feasted on the restaurant’s signature dish, Arroz de Lingueirão com Choco Frito, a seafood rice dish similar to paella, with a side of deep fried cuttlefish. It was all excellent, and I left Jake, er, my waiter, a good tip.

For the next two hours I took secondary roads along the coast and then inland through a beautiful countryside that reminded me a bit of Italy, though not so dramatic. Still, the beaches I saw were nothing short of breath-taking, and I  crossed some beautiful mountainous areas as well. One of my favorite experiences was a wide valley that featured three or four dozen grazing cattle. Each and every one of them was wearing a cow bell, and so imagine an entire valley just alive with the sound of bells every time any one of the cows moved. It was hypnotic. I also passed quaint hill towns with white-washed buildings and windmills, reminding me a lot of Greece.

Late in the afternoon I reached the Algarve and the town of Lagos, where I would be basing myself for my time there. By now the rain had given way to sunny skies and some dramatic clouds. I was staying at an apartment/hotel complex called Villa Doris, but the check-in instructions stated that check in was at another hotel “just a few meters from the Villa Doris” itself. Well, after driving around for almost 30 minutes, I finally discovered the other hotel which was indeed not far from Villa Doris, but was hidden on a non-descript series  of several zig-zagging back streets with no signage. I am still not sure how I stumbled onto it, but with some effort, I found a place to park, went inside, and was told that there was someone manning the desk back at Villa Doris and I needed to go back there to check in. Grrr!

Once back at Villa Doris, I learned that in order to use their underground parking garage, I would have to provide a 50 Euro cash deposit for the remote control I would need to enter and exit the garage, and of course I didn’t have that much cash on me, so off I went again to find an ATM. When I returned to the hotel and finally ventured into the underground garage I was confronted with the most claustrophobic parking situation I have ever encountered. Every time I turned my wheel, the tires made deafening squeals against the slick floors, and I honestly did not think I would be able to successfully maneuver into such ridiculously tight spaces, each one surrounded by several pillars that threatened to mash my Space Star into pulp if I made so much as the slightest error! I had to back up a foot at a time, get out and check to see if I was OK, and then go another foot. I tried to find a space from which I would be able to drive out easily, because this was so stressful that I was already considering abandoning the rental car in the garage for the rest of the weekend rather than go through this again! I was actually shaking by the time I got the car parked and unloaded, and think the entire ordeal took over 90 minutes from the time I first arrived at the hotel.

The apartment was a very modern and clean unit on the 5th floor, with rather spartan furnishings, and of course my view was nothing like the photos they post on the website, but I could see a bit of ocean across the parking lot. It was a strange place, because it is attached to a 10 or 12 story tall, ruined and derelict skeleton of an old hotel that is hideously ugly and a bit spooky after dark. However, on the other side of Villa Doris was a bright, modern hotel and beyond that, the famous and beautiful beach called Praia Dona Ana that attracts many tourists. That night I stayed local, leaving the car parked in the garage while I went to get groceries, walked along the beach at sunset, and had a pretty horrible pizza at a place that was within walking distance.

The next day I set out to explore the wild coastline west of Lagos. After the disappointing dinner the prior night, I sought out a good seafood restaurant and found one in the town of Salema. Olhos N’agua is an informal little place with tables that face directly onto the beach and they state that much of their seafood comes in daily from a handful of fishing boats pulled ashore just down the beach. The owner was waiting tables and patiently explained the menu, answered questions, and kept everyone entertained. I ordered a shrimp tempura appetizer that had been highly touted in online reviews and an order of mussels steamed in garlic and lemon. The shrimp, actually more like very large prawns, were unlike any I have ever had before; I simply could not believe how beautiful the consistency and the flavor was, and I asked my host if these were local to the area. He laughed and said that the waters here are too cold for shrimp; these are flash-frozen and flown in from Mozambique in East Africa! But he assured me that he buys these particular prawns because of the quality, and I’ll tell you what, I would make a trip to Mozambique if all the seafood there tastes this good. The mussels, however, were local and brought in about 3 hours prior to my lunch, and they were equally wonderful.

I spent the afternoon driving through the town of Sagres and out to the lighthouse at Cabo São Vicente. It was a very hot day and there were swarms of tourists, with buses and rental cars lining the road for almost a mile before the actual parking lot. I did a bit of a hike out to the edge of the cliffs, but found the going very difficult as there were no trails, only a very unusual, uneven rocky surface that meant choosing every step carefully and slowly. Wildflowers grew in small holes and indentations in the rock, and the waters off the coast had strange lines of foam that result from the action of the currents that collide here from Portugal’s southern and western coasts.

I got back to the beaches near my apartment before sunset and despite rather chilly water, a stiff breeze, and a setting sun, I managed a good swim in the ocean as others on the beach looked at me as though I must be totally insane. The coast here is lined with sea caves and small, rocky islands, and the rock is often red, orange and gold, which makes for interesting photographs, especially toward sunset.

For dinner I went into Lagos for the evening, which I found to be a lovely town with tiled streets, and beautifully colorful tiled buildings similar to what I’d seen in Lisbon. It was a Friday night and because I’d neglected to make reservations for dinner, I could not get a table anywhere. I stumbled upon a cute little Italian place called Pomo (I assume short for Pomodoro… tomato). It was an interesting set up; you order your choice of pasta and sauce (all of which were purported to be homemade) at the counter and they bring the meal to your table when it’s ready. Evidently the staff are all Italian and I was able to exercise my Italian language muscles a bit. I had a generous portion of fusilli pasta with a puttanesca sauce and it was absolutely delicious, followed by a flourless chocolate cake after much reassurance from the host that although “gluten free”, it was homemade and delicious. He was correct, and this hearty, late night meal of comfort food cost me about 12 Euro, an amazing bargain.

My dear Italian friends Claudia and Marco had visited this area last fall and highly recommended I take a dolphin excursion, so on Saturday morning I headed east about an hour to the town of Albufeira. From here my trip on the Insonia, a 12 person zodiac-like motorboat operated by Dream Waves departed for a 2 hour adventure that included dolphin watching and then an exploration of the coastline and its many sea caves. I was seated next to Jeanne and Annemieke, a mother and her adult daughter from the Netherlands. Annemieke and I immediately bonded over the fact that whenever the crew gunned the boat’s engines and the boat would make huge dips and splashes in the waves, we would both giggle uncontrollably like a couple of children.

The weather could simply not have been more perfect, and it was so nice to be out on the ocean and basking in the sunshine. Once we were about 15 minutes from the shore, there were shouts from the crews of nearby boats that were out there with us, and soon we began to see at least 12 to 15 dolphins leaping from the water and swimming very close to our boat. I have to say that I was quite disappointed in the dolphins’ lack of experience with posing for photos; I must have snapped off 25 pictures and all but one of them simply showed agitated water that signaled that either a dolphin had just submerged or was about to emerge two seconds later. Oh well, most of us spend too much time trying to photograph everything in our lives these days and sometimes we miss out on the actual experience. I eventually just put my camera down and reveled in the moment.

From here we headed west and back to the coast to start exploring the many hidden beaches and caverns that line the shore of the Algarve. One that I had sorely wanted to see was Praia de Benagil, a tiny patch of sand located inside a hollowed out cavern that features a natural skylight. Benagil is not accessible by land, and so as our boat began to maneuver through a wide archway and I saw the beach inside, my pulse quickened. Pictures do not do it justice, but there before us was a small beach with three people lying on the sand, illuminated by a blinding beam of sunlight coming through the skylight above. The water was aqua-green, while the walls inside the cavern were gold and orange and even odd shades of green. It is one of those rare places that I’ve seen I my life where it’s hard to even process the beauty of what I am looking at. Another highlight of the trip was skirting the shores of Praia da Marinha, a sandy beach with crystal waters and huge towers of colorful rock jutting out of the water. I decided that I would have to stop there on my drive back to Lagos for a swim.

After a fond farewell to my new friends from the Netherlands, I headed to lunch in Albufeira at a little place called The Beach Basket, where I sat outside with an ocean view and dined on a bowl of steamed mussels, crusty local bread, and a local specialty from this region called Cataplana, a seafood and sausage stew cooked in a large, clam-shaped copper pan. Evidently the main seasoning is called piri piri sauce, a mix of chili peppers, citrus, onion and garlic and the broth from the seafood and sausage simmer down to make an amazingly strong flavor. This was one of the most memorable meals I had in Portugal.

I then headed to the beach at Praia da Marinha, and the view of the beach from the parking area at the top of the cliffs was even more impressive than the view from offshore during my boat trip. I read that this place has been singled out as being one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world, and I would have to agree. Rather than even trying to describe it, I’ll just share my photos and you can judge for yourself.

After a couple of hours at the beach, I sought out a homemade ice cream shop that the captain on our boat tour had mentioned as having the best ice cream in the entire Algarve. My ears pricked up when I heard that, and so I located Gelados & Companhia in the tiny beachside town of Carvoeiro, braved heavy traffic and difficult parking conditions, walked about 10 minutes in blazingly hot sun… and I would do it all again for another taste of that ice cream. I am so glad that I am the kind of person who’s willing to go the extra mile… OK, even the extra 100 miles… to experience the best local places.

Unbelievably, by nightfall I was hungry again and I was still craving seafood. For my last meal in Portugal, I visited a place called “Ol’ Bastard’s” in Lagos. Owned and operated by an Australian guy named Mika who settled in Portugal a few years ago, Ol’ Bastard’s specializes in fish and chips, but these are not just any fish and chips. This seriously had to be one of the most delicious takes on this common dish that I have ever had, with flaky, perfectly cooked fish in a crunchy, but not heavy batter, and with fries that I simply could not stop eating, even when I had long passed the point of fullness. I was seated at the bar and was enjoying a delicious hard cider with my meal, and because of where I was sitting, I got a chance to talk a bit with the bartender, the waiters, and Mika himself.

As things were winding down, Mika plunked himself down on a nearby bar stool and told me a bit about how he’d ended up in Portugal to begin with, and it involved getting drunk the night before he was to fly back to Australia, resulting in missing his plane and ultimately leading to his meeting his wife and deciding to permanently stay in Portugal. He had the bartender prepare shots of God only knows what, gave one to me, took one for himself and passed the rest to the staff and we all  toasted and downed them. Despite my bulk, I am a lightweight when it comes to drinking, and after my large bottle of cider, I was already feeling pretty good, but after the shot, followed by one or two more, I was having the time of my life. I barely remember the jokes and the specifics of the conversations, but I remember the feeling. It was one of those moments that only travel seems to be able to provide: I was totally sated and satisfied by delicious food, I was feeling the warm glow of a little too much alcohol and was enjoying the camaraderie of being treated like an insider or an old friend by Mika and the rest of his crew.

However, it was getting late and in the back of my mind I started having the nagging thought that I really needed to get back to my apartment and pack my stuff, as I needed to be up relatively early the next day to drive three hours back to Lisbon and catch a plane for Greece to start the next leg of my trip. But all I wanted to do was just to hang out on that bar stool, laughing and drinking the night away with the gang, like a bizarre Portuguese-Australian version of Cheers, where everybody knew my name. As so often happens when I travel, I wished that I could extend my stay by just one more day and continue the reverie. I was having fun, I was relaxed and carefree, and I really, really liked it.

Ultimately, looming travel schedules, reservations and deadlines rudely pushed their way to the front of my mind and I had to refuse the next round of shots that Mika offered. “Are you sure?” he asked. Laughing, I said, “Yeah, I’m sure. If I don’t stop now, I’m going to get really drunk and I’m going to miss my flight tomorrow, and the next thing I know I’ll end up working here at Ol’ Bastard’s!” He got a chuckle out of that, but as I said my goodbyes and walked back to my apartment in the quiet of the night, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad turn of events after all.

4 thoughts on “The Powerful Pull of Portugal’s Algarve

  1. Dear Matteo,
    Thanks for yet another delightful travel experience. I’m still basking in the glow you describe so well.
    Much love to you,


  2. Matt, traveling with you is an eye-opener and a joy, even if only as an armchair companion! Keep your adventures coming.


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