How can it have taken me until 2015 to visit to mainland Portugal? And how can it have taken me 3 months to review the photos I took while there? Well I have now and here are some impressions from the Algarve…
Despite this being my first visit I experience a sense of loss – things have clearly changed under the onslaught of tourism and often for the worse. As is so often the case the indigenous attractions that first drew in the tourists have eventually been eroded or eradicated by that same rise in popularity.
The parade of fisherman’s restaurants that I’m told used to line the beach front at Albufeira have gone, replaced by hotel development. That fresh regional cooking for which the region is famed has lost ground to full English breakfasts, chips, nasty pasta or “tourist friendly” versions of specialities. You can still get your hands on an authentic Cataplana – it’s just harder.
Yet there remain some echoes of a less exploited time. Ornate period buildings with their balconies, terracotta roofs and gothic ironwork crumble and rust but may yet be rescued. Old people who have lived through it all walk from the market miles along upgraded roads lugging their shopping through the heat of the sun.
A farmer herds his sheep past our holiday apartment each morning into an arid field now surrounded by holiday rentals. I’m doing that thing again – mourning the loss of something I never knew.
There’s an undeniable British stamp upon these lands. First we came for your weather then we came for your golf. Now, the ultimate insult, we have left Cliff Richard in your custodianship. His face appears everywhere due to his association with wine. You can even book to go on a coach trip to see Cliff’s vineyard although the chances are that he’s in Barbados for tax purposes. What must people think…
Contrary to expectations it’s the journey inland that captures my imagination. A road trip takes me through villages and a landscape that time has been kinder to. The small town of Loules has a lot going for it. Pretty streets lined with cafes and shops with not a chain or national brand in sight. The covered market provides a great place to people-watch.
How long has the man been repairing shoes and umbrellas? From his corner pitch he sees all and probability knows all. These are valuable people in any community.
Stall holders are predominantly staffed by tactile mum-types who want to have a chat and possibly sell something if they get around to it. We buy some unripe Olives for preserving and the sweet elderly stall holders are alarmed in case we intended to eat them now. So follows a 5 minute exchange of advice culminating in the sharing of a family recipe.
Time has a different meaning here. Every turn represents a chance to bump into a neighbour and talk at length about something. If that conversation happens to be outside then there’s every chance smoking will be involved. Everybody seems to smoke. They must teach it in schools.
Onto the attractive town of Silves, bordered by a river and dominated by its castle. This would make a great place in which to stay longer and explore. Cobbled streets wind their way to the summit, the cool shade sporadically broken where the sun finds a way to dazzle off the whitewashed walls. A blackbird sings sweetly from a postage stamp rooftop terrace garden somewhere above me. I don’t want to burst this bubble.
The towering figure of Sancho 1st is itself dwarfed by the imposing bulk of Moorish fortifications at the summit of the citadel. Given more time I would like to explore further and delve the complicated history of the castle and its surrounds.
The N266 road north from Silves winds and ascends through dense forest dotted with the occasional settlement. This is cork country and partially denuded trunks by the side of the road are a symptom of a carefully managed industry that represents half of the worlds annual production. I learn that cork can only be harvested from a tree after 25 years and then at 10 year intervals if the tree is to continue to thrive, so sensitive custodianship is intrinsic to the survival of this industry.
After a brief visit to the altitudinous Monchique (900m above sea level) my route heads west through a more arable landscape. I see people working patches of land I am curious to know what they are growing in this climate. Whatever it is must be for personal consumption as there are no large agricultural plots within sight.
Next stop Aljezur – another castle topped settlement, smaller than Silves but similarly occupied by Romans, Moors, Berbers and more. Today’s occupiers are likely to be upmarket holiday makers visiting nearby beaches, riding horses, walking or attending the cookery school.
(thinks: hmmm, this area would be good for walking…)
Views from the castle are tremendous and the strategic military significance of this site is obvious. Once again on my travels I’m left with the bittersweet impression that historical treasures are being somewhat under-sold. The downside is the lack of information to inform and inspire the visitor, while the upside tends to be quieter and less disturbed remains.
And so to the End Of The World. In former times Cape St Vincent was considered such as the engorged sun set into a sea beyond which there was no more land. People still visit for the spectacular sunsets, including me. As with any show there are the hotdog stalls and tacky souvenir outlets…
…but that shouldn’t take away from the raw beauty of this place. A moonscape of jagged rock ends abruptly with 70m cliffs, before … nothing.
Sorry, that was perhaps needlessly dramatic. There is the vastness of an ocean that still today leaves me wondering if there is anything beyond.
I watch waves batter the cliffs as the sun recedes. Seagulls somehow casually ride the fierce gusts of wind that catch me off guard. The savage beauty of this barren outpost has been well worth the visit despite a cloud obscured sunset.
In the spirit of the most memorable travels it is the unexpected that has been most rewarding. I wouldn’t return for the beaches or go-to resorts but I have seen enough of the hinterland to wonder what else might be discovered…