Ups and downs in Algarve, Portugal

It sent chills down my spine. The sound of screeching metal against asphalt as the car squeezed against a
stone wall.

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As we got out there were no visible signs of damage to the white rental VW Up. Whilst parking I had misjudged the depth of the gutter and perhaps scraped the cars undercarriage. Relieved we walked downhill into the UNESCO world heritage town of Sintra. What had made me insist on the detour soon came into view, the town the 10th century Moorish geographer Al-Bakr had described as “permanently submersed in a fog that never dissipates”. His weather forecast still stood today more than thousand years later as the sky had the color of milk.

Where there is smoke…
Before conquering the 15th century National Palace we opted for lunch and settled on a terrace restaurant off the tourist lures surrounding the palace. Trying to go local we ordered a spinach soup and grilled blood sausage served with pineapple. The soup arrived lukewarm and the sausages carbonized. As the waiter was nowhere to be seen I went inside to pay. As we walked away the waiter accused me of a “dine and dash” and offered no apology when I showed him the receipt. Looking at the reviews online it appears that other diners had better luck than us.

With Sintras popularity amongst day trippers from Lisbon I feared long lines. Luckily I was wrong and soon we stood staring up in the painted ceiling of the Swan room, the palaces largest reception room. Through a door and the Swans were replaced by Magpies cooped up in the ceiling. The story goes that after King John I was caught kissing his Queens lady-in-waiting he had a Magpie painted for every woman in the court to silence gossip. The journey in time and place continued through the Julius Caesar room so named after the Flemish tapestry depicting the Roman emperor, Diana’s patio and out in the main courtyard. There the Water Grotto was well worth a look for its intricate plaster reliefs reminding me of Wedgewood porcelain, certainly a place to keep cool in the summer.

Besides being cooler than Lisbon the mountainous area was also favored hunting grounds for deer and boar. The walls and ceiling of the Heraldry room chronicles the past time accompanied by 72 coats of arms of noble families and the royal crest in the apex. However there is more to awe but the royal rooms and their intricate ceilings. The tallest of them all are in the most utilitarian of rooms, the kitchen. Where there is fire there will be smoke and here it had to rise up either of the two 33 meter conical chimneys giving the palace its unique silhouette.

Sintra National Palace, Portugal

With a snapshot of Sintra in the rearview mirror we headed a couple of hours south to the mouth of the river Mira. Our base for the next week would be a somewhat secluded resort offering pool, yoga and a competitively priced self-catering alternative we found on AirBnB. After driving down the dusty road to the resorts we picked up the key in the reception and were sent on our way down a sandy path. In the early evening dusk at the end of the path amongst cactus and cork trees stood a caravan with deflated tires, not exactly glamping but our home for the week. The camper had surely seen better days but after filling up the fridge and spreading our stuff around we warmed to the abode. Neither of us are caravaners so we learned the peculiarities as we went along. It took us some guess work and a few tries to get the hot water for the shower going. The treat of the accommodation was out back where a bathtub stood atop a few cargo pallets and invited to alfresco rinses under a spectacular starry night sky. The evening entertainment consisted of whacking mosquitoes and reading by flashlight.

Getting to know the neighborhood took a ten minute drive into Vila Nova de Milfontes, a former fishing village which’s population doubled during the holiday season. A short walk along the central pedestrian street flanked with restaurants and shops catering to the summer guests lead to the small fortress São Clemente by the river. On the town we visited several restaurants of which “Tasca do celso” stood out for a hearty and plentiful Portuguese fair. A bit outside town “Porto Das Barcas” by the small fishing harbor with the same name stood out for its seafood.

To explore further we drove up and down the craggy Atlantic coast stretching from Sines in the North to Sagres in the South. All of it part of the Natural Park of SE Alentejano and the Coast of Vicentina.

Sines is today mostly an oil refinery with a logistics port and not particularly inviting. However standing on the ramparts of the ruins of the Castelo one could conjure up a view seen five centuries ago by a young man named Vasco da Gama. Perhaps it was here the idea to find what was beyond the horizon grew into reality as he saw ships come and go in the harbor below. He surely put his mark on the map by finding the sea route to India and for that he was cast in bronze and still look out to sea.

Vasco da Gama statue, Atlantic coast, Portugal

Here and there along the coast the Ocean’s swell left sand behind in coves and created natural harbors where a few skippers anchored and built cottages which grew into villages. The fish is long gone the coves are now filled with stranded sun-soakers and the villages with vacationers. We did some people watching over a coffee in Porto Covo (Praia dos Buizinhos) and tested the waters at the larger Praia de Almograve. As the waves reached my chest the undercurrent dragged me into deeper water until I lost my footing. The life guards, an addition this season, had kept an eye on me and admonished me back to shallower waters with their whistles. I had clearly underestimated the undercurrent of the Atlantic and stayed shallow for my next dip.

Cabo Sardão with its lighthouse stood out on the map and called for a visit. There the dramatic coastline dove into the sea and we watched the golden sun sunk below the crossbar of a soccer goal on an ocean side gravel pitch. Unfortunately the home side were not as lucky in the evenings World Cup qualifier we digested over octopus, potatoes and beer at a local restaurant.

Atlantic coast, Portugal

The coast may be the main tourist draw but Algarve’s inland should not be overlooked. Driving on small roads through the cork plantations into Cercal felt almost timeless. There we met the Portuguese British couple Carlos and Monica of Alentejo Weaving who shared their passion for an hour. We tried chocolates at Beatrize in Odemira and steered through hairpin curves uphill to the Frenchly named Monchique, a hill town with steep streets, laidback atmosphere and healing waters. As we arrived a local crafts market was in full swing. Honey, bread, pastries, liquor (a local “cough medicine”) were all tempting. Surrounded by forests craftsmen offered all things wood and at one stand wood carver Jose Lourenco Pires even sported a cork cap. As we stopped by he pulled out his hand made castanets for an impromptu performance. We walked away with a hand crafted wooden spoon and as if that was a sign we went to lunch.

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