transplanted goose

Postcard from Portugal #4

September 20, 2005 - 9:02 PM

It's been a while since I last wrote. We've been busy exploring the Algarve by car and foot (lots of foot! Uphill, downhill, around the corner, where'd we park the car?). On Thursday afternoon, a bright red Opel Corsa (very popular car around here; thankfully we didn't end up with a Barbie-pink one, like the one we saw later that day) was delivered to our apartment building. We took immediate advantage, driving to Faro, the capital city of the Algarve. Surprisingly, we found our way to the marina and the old part of the city with only one or two wrong turns, where we were able to climb the tower of the cathedral to get magnificent views of the city and the salt flats, known as Rio Formosa (they're supposed to be heaven for bird watchers, but it's the wrong time of year to see much more than seagulls and egrets).

I've been doing most of the driving, and I'm very happy that we spent some time as passengers in other vehicles, observing the rules of the road, before attempting to master it on our own -- it took a while to get the hang of the traffic circles, with some close calls involved.

Finding our way out of the city was a very different story, and we ended up taking, as Janice called it, a long-cut on the way home -- a combination of city streets, country highway, and autoway (at 120 km/hr for tourists, 180 km/hr if you're a taxi driver, but that's another story). The signs around here don't always tell you what you need to know. You really need to know where you're headed, and which villages, towns, and citites are on the way there. Fortunately, we had a pretty good map, although not excellent, especially once you get off the highway.

Our favourite road sign, by the way, is a big, yellow one, the size of a small billboard (in fact, it *is* a billboard). On it is an illustration of a car, with a pedestrian flying up over the front hood of it, with the text "É melhor parar por aqui" (roughly translated, "It's better if you stop for pedestrians"). I'm going to try to get a picture of one, but it's not always easy to stop when you see one. (I'm getting better with understanding written Portuguese, but the spoken language is still not distinguishable for me. Maybe it's the fact that the written language is very much a Romance language, but the spoken language sounds like Russian (s is pronounced "sh", ch is "sh", m is "ng", and ão is "oung"). I'm usually so good with languages...)

Friday we decided to head for the southwest of the Algarve -- Sagres and Aljezur. Near Sagres is Cape St. Vincent, the most southwestern point on the European continent. It was a pretty cloudy day, so views were not great (much like the view I had of northern Africa -- just the suggestion of land behind the mist). But we were able to hike out onto the bluffs and get a look at the waves crashing against the cliffs.

Sagres is home to a large fort from the 18th century, the outside of which is pretty much intact, but which houses pretty much nothing. There is, however, a huge compass laid out in stone in the courtyard, but all of the buildings inside have been added in recent years. The fort was built by Prince Henry the Navigator to defend the coast from invasion, although I'm not sure it was ever used for such.

From Sagres, we headed north along the west coast of the Algarve, driving through mountains to the town of Aljezur. Not much to see there, although there was a medieval bridge spanning a small river. We had something to eat, then headed west toward a beach called Arrafina. Great view from the cliffs, but we were tired and decided to head home. Long drive, especially after two days on a bus. But a beautiful drive into the mountains.

Saturday turned out to be a disappointing day -- an embarrassing mistake that left us stranded on the side of the road, fortunately not too far from a phone and a gas station. I'm not going to share the details except with my closest friends, but I'm sure my cousin will be sharing them with anyone who'll listen. Needless to say, it involved a tow truck (with a very good-looking driver) and a taxi ride to Faro (with a very good-looking taxi driver, who knows how to drive very fast without making it seem at all dangerous -- if I hadn't been sitting where I could see the speedometer, I never would have know we were driving over 180 km/hr!). In Faro, we picked up another car, this time a Citroën C3, also very popular, but this time silver, which makes it very difficult to distinguish from the millions of other silver cars in this country. This car is not as nice to drive as the Opel was, but it has air conditioning, which turned out to be very useful today.

After retrieving our new car, we attempted once again to get out of Faro, with little difficulty this time. We headed for Loulé, which is just west of Faro, where the guidebook told us we'd find yet another castle. We did, eventually, but couldn't visit it because it had already closed (it's only open till 2pm on Saturdays). Too bad -- this one looked like it had an interesting museum and some interesting archaeological remains. We headed home, swallowing our disappointment, but looking forward to the next day, when we had plans to take it easy.

Knowing that not a lot would be open on Sunday, we decided to take advantage of the sand sculpture exhibition at Pêrá, a short drive west of Albufeira. The theme was "Lost Worlds," and the exhibits focused on ancient civilizations, from dinosaurs to Greece, Rome, China, Japan, India, and central America. They were absolutely breathtaking in their detail. We both took tons of pictures. The artists were from around the world, including a few from the U.S. and one from Canada. Apparently it's an annual festival; the sculptures were completed in mid-May, and the exhibition will end on September 25 - they were in amazingly good condition for having been around for 4 months.

I can't remember if it was Saturday or Sunday evening that we went out for dinner at a restaurant near the beach, but we both had the mixed kebabs, which are stunning in their display (sorry, Carol, couldn't take a picture because I didn't have my camera with me -- and it was the first interesting food we'd had, too). A tower of meat -- beef, pork, sausage -- and vegetables on a skewer, hanging from a hook on a stand made for the purpose. Very impressive with both of the kebabs on display on the same stand.

Yesterday, we headed for Silves and Lagos, again to the west. We were really in the countryside now, off the beaten track. We passed several carts pulled by donkeys and carrying 2-3 people each. After driving past miles and miles of orange groves, you descend a hill, turn a corner, and suddenly, there's a medieval castle perched on a hill above a village of white buildings with orange-tiled roofs. I'd seen a picture of the castle courtyard, with a gorgeous tile pattern in rich colours, but I guess the tiles have been put away for safekeeping while they excavate the site, because only the indentations in the ground where they were laid out could be seen. However, you could walk the entire perimeter of the castle walls, taking in the views of the surrounding countryside, from the orange groves to the river with it's medieval bridge -- now for pedestrians only -- to a hill sparsely decorated with barren trees, perhaps the result of a fire not too long ago?

From Silves, we continued west to Lagos and the Ponta da Piedade, where you can find a network of caves and grottoes along the shore. We climbed down the cliff to get a better look, where we discovered you can take a boat tour of the grottoes. We ended up by ourselves in a small motorboat with a knarled old Portugues fisherman for both pilot and guide. It was absolutely stunning! From the aqua-colored water around the grotto openings, to the schools of small fish taking refuge along the rocks, to the chimneys bored into the cliffs above us -- pictures and words just can't capture the beauty, something I had to hang onto as I climbed the hundreds of steps back up the cliff.

On our way back from Lagos, we stopped at a place called Porches, which we'd noticed on previous travels, to check out the ceramics, painted in both traditional and modern Portuguese style. It was very hard to choose from among all of the pieces on display, but we each made some hard choices. Now we just have to get them home in one piece.

Today we ventured east again, to Tavira, which involved once again navigating the craziness that is Faro. I think we're getting pretty good at it. In Tavira, which is sometimes referred to as the Venice of Portugal because it straddles a river, we explored the castle -- not as impressive as Silves, but still quite nice -- and the area along the river, crossing over the Roman bridge, then back to wander along narrow streets, looking in shops and moseying along. After leaving Tavira, we continued west to Castro Marim, near the border between the Algarve and Spain. Another castle, this one the home of an annual medieval festival, and views of the fort on the opposite hill.

A stop in Montechoro, "the Strip," for a late lunch/early dinner, and browsing in the stores, then home.

And so ends another segment of my travelogue. Hope all is well with everyone, and that the weather here cools off again. Until next time...

Ciao,
Colleen

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