Finally, the weather was improving as we headed south from Evora to the Algarve coast. We had hit an unusual week of rain in “sunny Portugal,” but the whole Iberian Peninsula had been experiencing a multi-year drought. So, it was good to know that some relief was in sight.
The sky was a refreshingly brilliant blue by the time we drove down palm-lined Av. dos Descobrimentos, along the Lagos riverfront, towards the ocean. On our left, Forte da Ponta da Bandeira stood, a silent sentinel still guarding Lagos’ fine harbor since the days of Henry the Navigator and the beginning of Portugal’s Age of Discoveries in the 1400s, when Lagos shipbuilders supplied fleets of caravels to explore the African coast, and later the Indian Ocean and beyond. In 1580,the fortress repelled the English privateer Sir Francis Drake, only to see him sail farther down the Algarve coast and sack Faro instead. Since antiquity Lagos has been an important trading port; Phoenicians established a settlement on the shore of the bay. Later Greek and Carthaginian seafarers visited and traded with the port.
The Romans came, conquered, and left the first defensive walls and a fortress along the cliff. Over the centuries its ruins have slowly fallen into the sea as the cliff face erodes. The only remnant of its existence is an arched bridge, too dangerous to cross, connecting the mainland to a rock pinnacle. Later Visigoths were succeeded by Moors until the Portuguese reconquest in 1241 permanently secured the port for Portugal. The road curved and climbed to the Miradouro Praia da Batata, where we parked and reveled in our first glimpse of the dramatically sculpted Algarve coast and its turquoise waters.
To our delight our accommodation at VI MAR – GUEST HOUSE was located within old town Lagos, just inside the massive defensive wall, which was expanded by the Moors in the tenth century and still encircles the town.
Our room was small, but it had a compact balcony that compensated for the lack of space and was the perfect spot for a morning coffee or evening glass of wine. The big plus was the location, only five minutes from the center of Lagos and just around the corner from MiMar, a great tapas restaurant, Padaria Central – a fabulous bakery, and MarLe Café for excellent coffees and a quiet place to chill. Our host recommended Casinha do Petisco, a small friendly and lively, family run restaurant famous for its cataplana de marisco (a traditional Portuguese seafood stew). We were not disappointed. Arrive right when it opens at 5:30pm if you’d like to be seated without making a reservation; after 7:00pm they are must.
One of our main reasons for choosing Lagos as a base for our five nights’ stay was the size of the town. Small enough to be manageable, yet large enough to be interesting. A walker’s and photographer’s delight within the old town. Plus the fascinating coastal rock formations of Ponta da Piedade and Praia dos Pinheiros were an easy twenty-minute walk away. We planned day trips to explore the coast, east to Carvoeiro and west to Sagres and Cabo de São Vicente.
At the end of October Lagos was quiet and beautiful, with daytime temperatures in the 70sF. With “walk a little then café” as our mindset we explored the old walled town, riverfront and on multiple occasions the trails and boardwalks along the ocean. The coastal rock formations were fascinating and kept revealing different fissures and crevices as the light kept changing throughout the day, though we thought the afternoon light was the nicest for photography.
The cobbled lanes of the historic district were uncrowded during the shoulder season and the ambience was wonderful amidst the palm trees and tiled facades of the buildings.
At the old Mercado Municipal de Lagos we were tempted by the bounty on display to buy “the catch of the day,” beautiful tuna from the fish mongers. On the top level a quaint small café overlooks the waterfront.
Farther along excellent street art decorated a store front awaiting reincarnation near a laundromat we were happy to use after washing clothes in various sinks for two weeks. It wasn’t Portuguese, but Poké Lagos served a delicious bowl of food as we waited for our laundry to finish.
In the evenings buskers performed in several plazas. One misty night a guitarist enthusiastically worked an appreciative crowd that kept growing and tossing coins into his guitar case. He must have sung for 90 minutes, breaking only to quench his thirst with a beer offered by a local waiter. Several times he announced it would be his last song. But the night was electrifying, and he played on. He proudly acknowledged his wife and young child in the crowd, playing for them as much as he was for us. He was, I imagine, in the ultimate musician’s groove, giving one of his best performances, and the folks who circled around watching and listening loved it as much as he did.
After several days of rough water, the wind and ocean finally calmed, and we spontaneously opted for a boat tour along the cliffs. Expertly timing the surge of the waves, our boatsman safely navigated us through tunnels and between rock formations.
At one point he looked high up the cliff face, waved and then yelled “hey Antonio!” to a lone fisherman wedged precariously on a ledge very high above the water. When asked why folks fish from the dangerous cliffs, our boatsman explained that only certain species of fish inhabit the zone where the bluffs meet the sea and that “Antonio, my cousin, thinks they taste better.” We saw this activity in several other places along the coast. Antonio wasn’t the only loco, maluco, fisherman.
The seaside town of Carvoeiro, with its homes built on cliffs encirling a small crescent beach and a boardwalk which follows the rugged coastline, was a destination one morning. One of the things we appreciate about Portugal is that, while gasoline is expensive, parking is free in most places. Even along the beautiful coast.
Parking near the Forte de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação we followed the Passadiços do Carvoeiro boardwalk atop the cliffs and back into town, stopping often along the way to take photos of the seascape before lunch at a shaded café. Although the temperature was comfortably cool, the sun was strong and frequent escapes to shady spots were required.
Afterwards we headed to Ferragudo, a small town, across from the busy port of Portimão, where the Arade River widens and meets the Atlantic Ocean. Two beautiful, wide sandy beaches with calm waters, the Praia Grande and the Praia da Angrinha front the tidal Arade River here. There are three relaxing restaurants along this stretch of sand to grab a beer and find some shade. The dividing point between the two beaches is the Castelo de São João do Arade. The castle was built in the 1500s to protect the important inland city of Silves from pirates, as the upper reaches of the Arade River were still navigable at the time. Over the centuries the fortress lost its relevance and was eventually abandoned and later auctioned off in 1896 to the Portuguese writer Joaquim José Coelho de Carvalho (1855-1934), who restored the cool digs into his summer residence. Years later the town of Ferragudo was unable to fund its transformation into a cultural center. Since 1998, the unique summer home has been owned by the Portuguese businessman Vasco Pereira Coutinho, who continues to use it as a private residence.
Just beyond the castle and the Praia da Angrinha the river juts to the right into a small, sheltered cove that fishermen have used for safe anchor since the Phoenicians. The harborside village, with whitewashed homes and narrow alleys that gently follow the contour of the hill, first appears on a Portuguese map of the Algarve coast in 1560.
It’s a picturesque harbor with boats bobbing softly on wind-blown waves. Quayside fishermen still piled their nets and pots, reminding us of its roots as a working village, but gentrification is slowly happening.
Driving home later that day we were delighted to spot storks resting in their nests before migrating further south to winter over on the African continent. Spontaneously we turned down a country road in search of more birds. We didn’t find any, but we happened across a historic moinho de vento, windmill, in Odiáxere. A nice surprise and something we would have missed if we had stayed on the main road.
Only an endless sky and sea filled the western horizon as we stood on the cliffs next to the Lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente. The Atlantic Ocean stretched infinitely before us. In the time of Prince Henry the Navigator, this was the last frontier and filled with legendary monsters. Knowing the coast of North Africa can be seen from southern Spain, Henry sent his explorers south to follow the west coast of the African continent in the early 1400s, and later, when blown off course during a storm, Brazil. There was a high mortality rate amongst the sailors who ventured into the unknown. Fewer ships returned than set out.
But there was always the promise of riches and fame to be found. In 1484, in a plea to the Portuguese crown, Christopher Columbus pitched his idea of sailing due west, but maritime officials rejected it because they thought his estimate of distance to India was incorrect. In 1492 Spain was eager to match Portugal’s discoveries and accepted Columbus’ idea. One hundred and fifty miles east along the Algarve coast, just across the border with Spain, Columbus set sail from the river port of Palos de la Frontera. For many millennia this barren land’s end, where the horizon swallowed the sun, was considered sacred. Today, near the lighthouse, a witty food truck vendor markets the “last hotdog before America.”
Fifteenth century fortresses dot the Algarve coast at every seaside port. While the Moors retreated from Portugal after their defeat during the Reconquista, Barbary pirates from Morocco, Algiers, Tunisia and Tripoli often raided ships and towns along the coast, taking mercantile goods and hostages. As a defense, Prince Henry ordered the unique Fortaleza de Sagres be constructed upon a narrow cliff-faced peninsula that protrudes like an index finger from the coast. From here you can look west and see the lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente. The peninsula is flanked on both sides by two sandy beaches, Prainha das Poças and popular with surfers, Praia do Tonel. Only the entrance to the fort that divides the peninsula from the mainland is fortified across the narrow width of this windswept headland. The unscalable cliffs provided the bulk of the fort’s defense, or so it was thought. Though some how that thorn in every sailor’s side (if you weren’t English), Sir Francis Drake, returned to the Algarve Coast in 1587 when Portugal was under Spanish rule and raided the fort!
Without any natural harbor, the fishermen in the old village of Salema used to push their boats across the beach and launch their sturdy craft into the crashing surf, hop aboard and row further out into smoother waters.
Fortunately, lifting glasses of sangria to our lips was the only exertion required to enjoy the beach today. The once sleepy whitewashed village has transformed itself into popular tourist destination with many new villas built along the coast that take advantage of the gorgeous seascape.
Trails going east and west from the town’s central Praia da Salema lead to small isolated beaches. From the top of an actively eroding cliff face the ruins of Forte de Almádena loom over the crescent shaped Praia da Boca do Rio below. We freely roamed the ancient ruins, but well away from the roped off precipice that had already swallowed parts of the castle into the ocean.
The weather along the Algarve coast changes quickly and our sunny day was cut short as we were mesmerized by a fog bank that slowly blanketed the coast. We took this as our signal to return to Lagos and back our bags for the next part of our journey to Maderia Island.
Till next time,
Craig & Donna