On the Algarve Coast, Discovering Portugal's Charms

Saturday, July 18, 2009 | Lagos, Portugal (map)

Praia Dona Ana sits between the cliffs and shimmering waters west of Lagos, on Portugal's Algarve Coast.
Saturday morning we accompanied Jacqueline's family to the Málaga airport to say our goodbyes. Afterward, there was no master plan; we just needed to be back eight days later for our flight back to Morocco.

In a snap decision, we scrapped our plans of public transport and rented a small Opel four-seater. At a gas station on the road to Sevilla, we picked up a road map of the Iberian peninsula, adding to our minimal library of knowledge on Spain and Portugal (which until this point consisted only of our as-yet-untouched Let's Go! Spain and Portugal guidebook). Our Iberian road trip had begun.

Eager to reach Portugal, we hurried across the rolling plains of southwest Spain toward the border.

After four hours driving, as we neared the Rio Guadiana, which separates southern Portugal from its larger neighbor, the radio stations took on a different flavor. Raucous Spanish rock songs gave
way to gentle fado and bossa nova rhythms. As we finally crossed the border into Portugal, the music faded, and a DJ came on the air. Within minutes, Jacqueline was laughing so hard I was afraid she'd drive us into a ditch.

To those who haven't heard it before, Portuguese sounds like a combination of Spanish, French, Italian, and the boinggggggg sound that third graders make by springing their rulers like a diving board on a desk's edge. The Portuguese twang cracks Jacqueline up every time, as it has without fail ever since I first started demonstrating it to her back when I took a course in the language during my senior year at Georgetown.

Though rusty, my vocabulary was enough to get us a coffee in Tavira, a riverside town we chose as our first stop on Portugal's southern Algarve Coast.

We followed the one-lane coastal highway westward all afternoon, past scattered communities with their general stores and churches, orange groves and pensões with rooms for rent. The terrain was flat, the trees scrubby. It reminded us of Florida.

After skipping industrial Olhão, we parked in Faro for a stroll through its walled old city. How nice a medina can be, we mused, when it isn't crammed with people. In fact, on this particular lazy Saturday afternoon, the old city seemed deserted. We saw almost no one until we reached the town's 13th century catedral. There, we stopped to watch the fashionably dressed members of a wedding party mill about and pose for photos on the steps.

* * *

We reached Lagos in early evening, as the air began to cool. Off the Praça d'Armas, I began scouring for lodging. The local backpacker hostel was full, but the owner, referred to by the guests simply as "Mama", yelled over the blaring Bob Marley tunes to invite me back that evening for their 4th of July party. Um, thanks.

A few doors down, a sign above a small grocery store advertised "Quartos/Rooms". Inside the cramped bodega, I mumbled something in my rudimentary Portuguese about a hotel room to the elderly woman behind the counter. "Sim! Sim!" She jumped up and threaded her way through piles of canned goods and cardboard boxes to the door, motioning for me to follow. Around the corner, up the hill, through a doorway and upstairs, she showed me a frumpy little room decorated with doilies and religious relics, and accompanied by a kitchen and rooftop terrace.

"É muito bom," I managed.

She smiled and extended her wrinkled hand. "Bem, eu sou Dona Benta."

"Muito presente."

* * *

Behind the wheel a few minutes later, I made the mistake of trying to park our car near the room, running a gauntlet of narrow cobblestone alleyways that left me pounding the dashboard and cursing in frustration. The car was of little use in this maze, so we ditched it outside the old city and set out to explore Lagos on foot before the sun set. We wandered along the streets, perusing art boutiques, painters' studios, and surf shops.

Jacqueline and I sat down for some tapas and drinks at a bar, A Limão, then headed back to our habitação. In the kitchen, we warmed up the paella which I had made back in Marbella several days earlier, then frozen and tossed into the trunk of our car. (Come on, give me a break, we're on a budget here.) It was a good move—with a bottle of wine and a vivid sunset over Lagos's rooftops, the resurrected paella made a respectable meal.

Gulls shrieked overhead, and in the distance the town beach slowly emptied of sunbathers. We decided we liked Portugal.

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