The Algarve. One good set of pics deserves another, OZ but I’m afraid these are predictable tourist snaps rather than any kind of indicator of what the Algarve is all about. We were there maybe six years back staying with friends near Albufeira. Away from the touristy stuff and the beaches, we found cork forests, atmospheric towns, pretty villages, good restaurants, painted boats and a rich history of oceanic adventure and discovery.
Parts of Albufeira were crassly touristy but I liked the harbour. We had dinner in a restaurant perched up on the cliff overlooking the activity on the quay as the evening light dimmed and the few illuminations came on. It was a the kind of place where you chose your own whole fresh fish and they cook it however you like. I had Dorade – golden bream, I think? Succulent and tasty, falling away from the delicate bones.
Silves was a beautiful and historic town. Astonishing to think it once had access to the sea. There was a wonderful view of it on the approach – the 11th century castle battlements lengthy on the hillside across the valley. Interesting to stroll around some of the narrow steep, immaculately clean streets discovering beautiful hidden houses, unexpected ancient doorways and everywhere pretty tiles.
I think it was in Silves that we noticed a restaurant where people waiting for tables sat in ordinary dining chairs set against the wall of the building on a narrow pavement next to the road. Anywhere where business is that brisk deserves some attention. So we sat on chairs in the street until a table become available and discovered why it’s so popular.
Every table was taken, the place buzzing with conversation and ringing with the sound of mallets on carapaces! The first thing they bring to you at the table is not water, bread and the ubiquitous sardine paste (which I liked) but a wooden board, a mallet and a set of what at first sight appears to be a dissection kit but is actually every metal instrument you’ll need for hooking meat out of every shelly crevice.
My friends grappled with lobsters while I went for a crab. Served very simply – some lemon and a small pot of garlic mayo for dipping plus crusty bread. Perfect with the driest white wine.
Driving up into the mountains above Silves was Monchique, scented with wild herbs and lavender and misty blue spectacular views south to the sea. A sad specimen of tourist outlet sold peculiar paraphernalia including a housewife apron with a pocket containing a stuffed phallus. Perhaps the Portuguese have a special fondness for practical jokes – or at least think tourists do!
World’s End or Sagres and Cape St Vincent was the other place we just had to visit. Arguably, Cape St Vincent is where Henry the Navigator founded his school of navigators in the 15th century. Lagos, not far away was the actual harbour where ships set sail for destinations unknown, discovering the Azores and pushing ever further on around the west coast of Africa until a ship finally founded the Cape of Good Hope, providing the alternative to the Muslim trade routes across the Sahara.
Magnificent cliffs drop vertically into the sea at Cape St Vincent and many a naval battle took place within sight of the lighthouse, including a famous battle in which Nelson defeated the Spanish. It’s also the place we spotted the exquisite pale sea daffodil, growing on its own in pebbly gravel. The most extraordinary thing was the way men were fishing off the clifftop and from clefts in the rock – slinging their hooks into the waters scores and scores of feet below.
Having gone as far as World’s End, we turned the corner to get a taste of the wild west Atlantic coast of Portugal. What a difference. Towering cliffs at the back of rough, wild beaches strewn with rocks of all sizes and real unpredictable surf compared to the pussy-cat calm of the waters of the Algarve. It was windy and the spray from the waves reflected in the evening sunlight and obscured the far views. The water was freezing but the scenery was unrivalled.
The lifeguard had long gone home for supper when we were there so we didn’t swim. Just as well, as two years on, my friend’s brother had a narrow escape in that very same place.
They were together as a family when he went out swimming. A capable, confident assured kind of bloke – airline pilot – strong swimmer – he struck out through the water until he was beyond the waves. The others stayed inshore, some remained on the beach.
When they saw him wave, they knew it wasn’t a jocular greeting. It meant he couldn’t get back. Someone ran to the lifeguard, who had already noticed and they got a board out to him to bring him in.
He had already swallowed a lot of water and he barely conscious but after copious vomiting, made a good recovery. But it was a grim salutory lesson; a warning of the dangers of such frisky waters with unknown, ever-changing currents.
What did I take away from the Algarve? A sense of the history of the adventurous Portuguese explorers, an understanding of why it’s such a popular tourist place, a cork bowl, and a taste for piri-piri chicken. I need to re-visit the Algarve to explore Lagos more thoroughly and to swim and snorkel again. I need to visit Lisbon too to carry out some in-depth research into the history of port, including extensive tastings. Plenty to do.