Category Archives: Portugal

Here Be Dragons: The Promontory of Sagres, Portugal

lighthouse & cliffsAt times, we’ll hear the comment that we, two retired baby boomers with itchy feet and pursuing our travel dreams, are adventurous. And maybe for our time and (especially for our age!) we have the spirit of adventure since we’ve left the comfortable and familiar environs of a middle-class existence in the US to see more of the world, one continent at a time. We carry with us our laptops that link us instantaneously (or so we’d like) to information regarding bus, train and flight routes, weather, lodging and even recommendations for the best places to eat. But as we stood on the promontory of Sagres Point, near the southwesterly tip of continental Europe, we felt we were at the edge of the earth. As the ferocious winds buffeted us and we gazed at waves below us crashing into the sheer cliffs we couldn’t help but talk about the adventurers. Men who set off, in the times of “Here be dragons,” into the great unknown with sketchy maps, meager food and water supplies and a great curiosity as to what lay beyond as well as dreams of finding their fortunes.

When Portugal was in the ascendancy in the late middle ages it was in large part due to the efforts of their royal leader, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Recognizing the historic and logistic positioning of the promontory as a demarcation of the known and unknown worlds – Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian and Roman captains had all stopped at this boundary – Henry capitalized on its deficiencies. The area was sparsely populated due to the continual ravaging of pirate hoards; Henry recolonized the land and built protective forts. He brought in people so there were families to raise crops to feed the growing population. He mobilized craftsmen to work the timbers and metals which he imported to maintain the fleet of discovery and there were the skilled cartographers who worked with the returning captains and crews to update, clarify and expand the accuracy of mapmaking.

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry's death and The Great Age of Discovery

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry’s death and The Great Age of Discovery, Lagos

Henry’s exploratory crews benefited from the improved design and performance of the caravel sailing ships. These boats, of greater antiquity, were given more masts, a broader beam and a mix of square and lanteen sails that handled well, sailing into the wind. The fast, nimble and responsive ships were designed to meet the challenges of discovering and mapping the off-shore islands of the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and later, the coast of Africa and eventually, the Indian Ocean. In the process the astrolabe, sun-dial and mariner’s compass were improved and refined. Each new expedition of seafarers went forth armed with revised knowledge and techniques brought back by the previous crews. It is the simple truth that Prince Henry put his country on the path to the pinnacle of exploratory prowess in his lifetime.walls and entrance to fort - Promontorio de Sagressentry box - Promontorio de SagresAnd that path led directly to the Fortaleza de Sagres, a central fortress in what came to be a string of coastal defenses against privateers from the Moorish lands of North Africa and, in time, other European nations. As we approached the fort we spied from a distance the curtain wall that served as protection from a land based attack. The remainder of the fortifications outside of the walls were in gun batteries, and a lone, remaining sentry box, on the eastern shore battery.

The guns overlooked sheer drops into the wildly rolling waves of the sea. The armaments were protection for commercial watercraft, fishing vessels and explorers’ ships which could find shelter in the leeward bay under the guns. Those cannons facing out to the south and west could harass the invaders and keep them at bay.Promontorium de SagresInside the gate of the fort is an enormous design of rocks and cobblestones arranged in a pattern which some believe to be a mariner’s compass while others think it’s a sundial. Called the Rosa dos Ventos theChurch of Santa Maria -Promontorium de Sagres  outline was excavated in 1921. And again, opinions differ as some think the stonework may date from Prince Henry’s time, while others guess that the 16th century is more likely. The precinct’s oldest buildings include a cistern tower to the east (for always there was a need for water), a house, and the small, whitewashed, 16th-century church, La Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça , a simple barrel-vaulted structure with a gilded 17th-century altarpiece. A magazine, a more recent addition, for storing shot and powder stands prudently off eschewing neighbors in the event of mishap.

wall of cistern tower - Promontorio de Sagres

wall of cistern tower – Promontorio de Sagres

The Forteleza, begun by Portugal’s Prince, was altered, expanded upon and finally completed in the 18th century. It may be billed as the star of the promontory – the physical manifestation of Henry the Navigator’s designs for his fledgling nation. But in reality, the commanding presence at the site was the fissured, eroded land; the hardy low-lying vegetation that clung valiantly to life on the windswept escarpment; the gulls, terns, frigate birds and albatross that circled, rose and plummeted on the currents; the wind that swept up and over the land, bending people and plants to its will.outbuilding - Promontorio de Sagresfisherman on cliffsThese and the fishermen. For the people here have always been part of the sea and land. Here, at land’s end, at the edge of the once known world the men still gather to seek their sustenance. They fish for what the sea will offer that day such as bream, cuttlefish or sea bass. They challenge the wind’s wrath by moving about on these sheer precipices, precariously balanced and certainly we were relieved to see that none were carried off as we cautiously stood far back from the cliffs to keep our feet firmly planted on terra firma.fisherman on cliffs - Promontorio de SagresWe were enthralled. There was a tremendous power in the invisible hand of the wind as it pushed and swept around us and across the promontory accompanied by the background roar of the waves. You can see immediately why the ancients would have believed this to be the edge of the world and that beyond, dragons might indeed wait to prey on the foolhardy and unwary. It was with some reluctance that we left the site at the promontory of Sagres for it turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

Simple Pleasures in Southern Portugal: The Algarve Region

beaches and housesMention that you’re planning a visit to the Algarve Region of Portugal to most Europeans and they’ll nod knowingly and remark upon its reputation for having some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.streets of Alvor   Mention that you’ll be going in the months of June and July to a native Portuguese and they’ll comment on the rates which increase two to threefold during the high season as well as the influx of people from all over Europe which triples the off-season population of approximately 500,000 permanent residents.  In Portugal itself, the coastline is THE most popular holiday destination and it’s estimated that up to ten million people (Portuguese as well as millions of foreign visitors) vacation in the Algarve Region annually.  It’s difficult to find affordable accommodations in June, harder in July as rates do a quick upward tick and by August, the pinnacle of the tourist season, it’s almost impossible.

But, since we had to be somewhere in Europe during the early summer months and we’d read enough about the Algarve to pique our interest, we grinned bravely while looking at the rental bill, gulped a bit as we handed over our money and landed in the municipality of Albufeira, almost dead in the center of the Algarve coast.

We never quite got the pronunciation of the sleepy little parish where we stayed, Ferreiras (Fer-RARE-as) correct but we developed a real affection for this wide-spot-in-the-road of 6400 souls (we weren’t quite sure where they all were) with a round-about that sorted people into four different quadrants and a charming railroad station (circa 1918) from which we shuttled east and west across the southern coast every few days to view a different destination.  Located about 3 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the surrounding countryside of Ferreiras is mainly agricultural with almond, fig, olive and carob trees.  Gorgeously juicy oranges were abundant in the orchards and a bagful, sold at the side of the road, could cost as little as a Euro alongside some of the biggest lemons we’d ever seen.

countryside near Ferrieras

countryside near Ferrieras

Since we were in the middle of the Algarve Region we were never at a loss to find a place to visit among the fifty plus parishes, villages and little towns dotting the coast and interior like undiscovered pearls with their Roman ruins and ancient bridges still being used to this day, castles, mosques built by the Moors, centuries old churches and walled cities.  And of course, the Algarve’s hundreds of beaches, gracing the approximately one-hundred mile coast with their fine white and golden sands and coves, clear waters in vivid shades of turquoise and aquamarine, stunning rock formations and limestone bluffs that ranged from worn smooth and subtly colored to rugged precipices pocked with caves and hidden grottoes accessible only by water.beachfront

A favorite day trip of ours by bus and only 4 kilometers away was the municipality of Albufeira, famed for its red-white and blue, street scenebeaches and one of the most popular coastal destinations in southern Portugal since the 1970’s.  Originally it was a fortified Roman city, later occupied by the Moors (who gave the city its present name) for several centuries and then a quiet fishing village for hundreds of years.  The heart of Albufeira is its old historic town with dazzling whitewashed buildings silhouetted against an intensely blue sky and mazes of steep and winding, narrow streets leading down to the sea.  Alongside the cobbled streets are cafes, shops, bars and bistros and a central square, Largo Duarte Pacheco.  Spreading out from the old town are tourist accommodations for every budget including ultra-posh resorts, five-star hotels and residential homes and condos as well as a recently built marina.overlooking streets and shops

Several outings to Albufeira to wander its charming streets, visit its beaches and people watch at the outside cafes were always topped with meals of local dishes like razor clams and rice, freshly caught fish such as grilledwind vane sardines and sea bass, roasted piri-piri chicken, spicy from the peppery sauce and the mouth-watering seafood dish we ordered whenever we saw it on the menu, cooked in a large copper pot, called Cataplana.

We may have hesitated initially at paying the inflated rates for accommodations during the summer season but the Algarve Region has us convinced that the Portuguese know how to celebrate the simple pleasures of life.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed by people who smiled and spoke a few words of English during a transaction or tried to help us with our mangled Portuguese pronunciations.  And the beautiful countryside, beaches, historic landmarks and an abundance of fresh food beautifully prepared were always near by.  We’re convinced that the Algarve Region lives up to all the hype and acclaim and is well-worth a visit at any time of the year.

clock tower & wandering streets

Clock tower with filigreed iron support and bell on Rua Bernardino de Sousa, Albufeira

Next post:  More on the Algarve from Sagres.

By Anita and Richard

 

Cruise Virgins: Voyage to Spain

At this advanced stage in life it’s terribly embarrassing to admit to fellow travelers that we are, in fact, Cruise Virgins. We’d never seriously given the notion of “cruising” any real thought. Not for us … or so we thought until we found we could travel from Miami to Barcelona, Spain on an eleven night cruise for less than the cost of airline tickets, PLUS a balcony stateroom, PLUS meals and then we said, “Sign us up! We are ready, ready, ready to lose our virginity.”

Goodbye Miami!

Goodbye Miami, USA !

This particular ship, The Norwegian Epic, was a repositioning cruise on its last trans-Atlantic voyage from Miami to Barcelona, Spain;  its new incarnation would be sailing through the Mediterranean. The fifteen balcony room aboard the Norwegian Epicdecks contained a maximum capacity of 4,200 passengers but on this trip there were (just!) over 3,100 onboard, with an average age of 59 years. (It was rather nice to blend in.) The eleven-hundred crew members worked diligently to make sure our time aboard was a pleasurable experience.  The major pastimes of the guests appeared to be eating, sunbathing (in rather chilly temps on the upper deck) and gambling although there were evening shows with a hypnotist, comedians, musical acts and karaoke for those so inclined. There were art auctions, meet and greets for the singles on board and Friends of Bill W. and Friends of Dorothy gatherings.  And, of course, outrageously priced booze for the thirsty ship passengers.  However, the star of the show was the F-O-O-D: well prepared, varied and plentiful.  The buffet and food bars were extensive and overflowing. Pushing back from the table, to our consternation, became a major preoccupation.the Atlantic

Since this was our maiden voyage on a modern floating hotel/casino we were comforted by the fact that the ocean – an impossibly deep, dark impenetrable blue – was relatively flat so there was no upset to our overworked stomachs in the area of sea-sickness. At worst, the swells were eight to ten feet so pitch was relatively mild. The constant thrum of the diesel-electric engines underfoot was a bit disconcerting but soon lapsed into one of those background events of which one is only subliminally conscious.Funchal

We had only one port of call to intrude upon our days at sea and, early on the ninth day the island of Madeira, Portugal, began to slip past us on the port side.  Shortly after 6:00 AM bright klieg lights shone through our Silvestreopen balcony windows from the pier dispelling any future notions of sleep. Having purchased our shuttle passes the day before to take us into the downtown area of the capital city, Funchal, we tagged up with Joe, a fellow traveler from Cincinnati and decided to hire a taxi.  Our mojo was good because the first driver we approached, Silvestre, spoke beautiful English and offered his taxi service, a lovingly tended Mercedes-Benz 220D, at a reasonable rate. We discussed the options and sights we wanted to see, struck a deal and grabbed some Euros from an ATM.  (Note – ATMs are ubiquitous and much cheaper to use compared to the usurious exchange rates charged by the cruise ships.)  Overview of island

And a further aside about the present economy of the island which is based primarily on tourism. In an average year over 360 cruise ships will dock in Madeira and disgorge their passengers who, like us, will descend on the place in mobs to eat, drink, buy souvenirs, and take the quaint tram-way to the botanical gardens and see the island’s other sights. A whopping 70% of the euros generated in the economy come from the guests who flock to this magnificent speck of land. The remaining mainstays of the economy are from produce which is cultivated in the coastal areas and ranching in the highlands around the smaller villages. Fishing provides food for local consumption. terraces

Funchal (a Portuguese name for a fennel plantation) and the island of Madeira were first established around 1452 and the fertile lands in the coastal and upland areas provided the impetus for future settlements. It’s a small island but a handful of hours is insufficient to see all it has to offer from its numerous historic churches, museums and markets to the scenic vistas and countryside reached through roads winding their way through the hills. Actually, the entire island was scenic and the wow factor was high. (Of course, now we have to admit that we’re Europe Virgins too!) The homes were immaculately painted, yards and vegetation trimmed. The hillsides above and below the road ways were stacked with terraced fields which had been under cultivation for centuries; testament to the longevity of the settlement.  Life on this island looked to be slow-paced and comfortable.Camara de Lobos

One of our stops was at Camara de Lobos, a small fishing village where fishing boats had been pulled out of the water in the late morning and cleaned, filleted fish hung in the sun to dry.  Aside from its antiquity and quaint factor its claim to fame was that after the Second World War, Winston Churchill visited to sketch and paint the harbor. A café in his honor still operates near the wharf. The village also houses the church of Saint Santiago, a deceptively small and modest structure from the outside with beautifully painted plank ceilings and a gilded altar to admire upon your entry.Cabo Girao - highest cliff in Europe

Climbing away from the water we topped out at Cabo Girao and the overlook upon the highest cliff in Europe. Past the cliff the small village from which we had just departed could be seen. The entire sweep of that corner of the island came into view with thin gossamer clouds streaked in the sky, contrasting and merging with the ocean from which it rose. Traveling a bit further we stopped at the view-point of Pico dos Barcelos for another vista. We were not alone as buses, taxis and cars lined the parking lots and the tourists, most likely from our cruise ship, waited to get their photos of the not to be replicated panoramas.basket rides at Monte

tobaggan basketSince we’d hired our very comfortable ride in the Mercedes and a knowledgeable driver we decided not to take the gondola cable cars up to Monte, a parish a few kilometers east of Funchal and famous for its botanical gardens as well as the option to make one’s return to Funchal in the 19th century basket sledges.  The baskets are attached to skis and were adopted as a quick way to take the townsfolk of Monte down the winding mountain roads to the city.  They’re guided by two runners, dressed in white and wearing the typical hats known as straw boaters.

The Church of Our Lady of Monte, built in 1741 and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1818, was reached by a climb up many stairs.  Although a beautiful church, what made it stand out for us was that it is the final resting place of Emperor Charles I of Austria, the last of the Hapsburg rulers who died on the island of Madeira in exile after the dissolution of the great empire following WWI.The Church of Our Lady of Monte

We discovered that our short time on terra firma was fast evaporating.  Reluctantly we headed down the mountain toward the harbor where we were deposited at the gangway to our ship.  After a quick parting photo of our chauffeur and his Mercedes, we again embarked on our voyage having glimpsed but a fraction of the phenomenal island of Madeira.

"Pride of Madeira"

“Pride of Madeira”

By Richard and Anita

 

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