Southern Portugal

It is the strangely isolated quality of Portugal’s southernmost province that most strikes the visitor, perhaps because it is so unexpected. Algarve, as the region is called, is not cut off from the rest of the country by towering peaks, a parched desert, or a dividing river. Nor is it tucked away in the interior and geographically inaccessible. On the contrary: Algarve’s southern and western frontiers are the Atlantic Ocean. To the east is Spain and to the north Alentejo, the rich breadbasket province of rolling wheat fields and cork groves. This was the corner of Europe from which Prince Henry the Navigator sent Vasco da Gama and other explorers over the horizon centuries ago from his navigation school.

Today, though — unlike the southern coasts of France and Spain and the shores of North Africa — it has not even a major port or a substantial city. It is sparsely populated, and its people are poor. No one has really paid much attention to Algarve since the Moorish invaders left their mark. Once Portugal achieved its national identity, the kings concentrated more on developing the central and northern regions, and even in recent years, Algarve has remained a province apart.

One feels, driving through the countryside, that this is one of the loneliest parts of Europe. Between the tiny villages is only the occasional solitary farmhouse or muletransported farming and fishing folk to vivify the scene. It must be added that Algarve is also one of the loveliest areas of Europe, although the beauty is quiet and without the charged drama of, say, Taormina or Marrakech or the fjords of western Norway.

There is one exception which calls for superlatives, even from the Portuguese themselves, who are surely the least demonstrative of the Latin peoples. It is Praia da Rocha, the only Portuguese resort — and one of a very few in Continental Europe - where winter swimmers need not be polar bears; the climate is delightful every season of the year. Directly on the South Atlantic, Praia da Rocha’s beach extends for several miles. It is unusually wide and its sand extraordinarily fine-grained and white. High cliffs form its backdrop, and before them are immense, grotesquely handsome rock formations.

The result is a stunning panorama, viewed either from the beach or from the terrace of the one first-class hotel, named the Bela Vista. One approaches the Bela Vista from the road. Unlike the back of the building, done in clean while and facing the ocean, the front façade is an example of what might be called Portuguese Victorian. A former private villa, its stucco walls are a shade somewhere between rust and orange. They are offset by a turreted tower, the windows of which are of cheap but brilliant stained glass. Occasional balconies, inset tile mosaics, and other bits of gingerbread add to the busyness.

The main floor is a maze of heavily beamed lounges, elaborately furnished with the overstuffed chairs one sees so often in Europe, designed to seat comfortably a small elephant. The bedrooms - and there are less than twenty - are spacious, blessedly white-walled, and some have terraces. Rates are en pension (there is virtually no place else to eat in Praia da Rocha, anyway), and with private bath, cost five dollars single, eight dollars double.

The Bela Vista is operated by a charming Portuguese lady, Senhora Ofelia Bovar de Vasconcellos, who is all smiles and who speaks not a word of any language but Portuguese. Her entire staff operates under much the same handicap, with the single exception of the receptionist, who is the most popular resident of Praia da Rocha with the English trade and the infrequent American who wanders this far south. Even the waiters have steeled themselves against any language fluency. None admits to understanding the slightest bit of foreign table terminology. And the townspeople are all much the same. I asked an English-speaking Portuguese, down from Lisbon, what lay behind the southerners’ language curtain. He called a waiter over for his views and translated the reply: “Why,”the waiter asked, “should we learn another language? Why don’t our visitors speak Portuguese?" There are any number of reasons why people don’t speak Portuguese, but none seemed to make sense at the moment, and I couldn’t answer the waiter’s question. I found, though, that he and his countrymen are most gracious with visitors and indeed patient in trying to understand them. One need only resign oneself to not being surprised at occasional difficulties in getting directions, ordering meals, shopping, and so forth.

Aside from the Bela Vista, there are only a handful of hotels and pensions in Praia da Rocha. (The Penguin Pension is next best.) There are a casino (not at all elegant, but fun) and a charming outdoor café in what used to be a grim fortress guarding the sea.

The entire province is within excursion distance from Praia da Rocha. Portimão, a pleasant fishing center, is a mile down the road. Its spotless cannery reveals the secret of how sardines get from the ocean into the crowded tins. It is open only when there has been a big catch, and at such times visitors are welcome. Portimão is also the site of an institution known throughout Portugal, a candy shop called the Pastelaria Almeida. The kitchen is right behind the selling counter, and Senhora Maria Machado dos Santos, the manager for three and a half decades, is happy to show visitors about. The confections are Algarve adaptations of Moorish sweets: ingenious concoctions of the figs and almonds of the province, combined with sugar, butter, and often chocolate.

Prince Henry’s headquarters were at Sagres. The fortress, where he founded his navigation school in 1418, still stands. A modern weather station adjoins it, but the old walls, cobbled inner courtyards, and corner towers are still as they were. The fort is at the tip of the long, narrow cliffs of Cape Saint Vincent, and if I were to go again, I should arrive at about the same hour: late afternoon, just in time to watch the sun set over the southwestern tip of Europe.

Probably no other country in Europe has fairs in the quantity and variety of those in Portugal. Lagos, one of the chief towns of west Algarve, is a center for them in this region, and with a little advance investigation one should be able to visit there on a fair day. I happily hit upon a livestock exposition and sale, and the fairgrounds were a mass of bulls, cows, calves, and mules attached to the gaily decorated covered wagons typical of the province. Thousands of blackhatted farmers and their families were in town, with most of the youngsters overworking the battered carousel, which is a requisite at every Portuguese fair, regardless of its theme. An entire section was devoted to food stalls and small shops: men hawking colorful, handmade mule saddles, women selling earthenware and pottery displayed on the straw-covered ground, waitresses darting through the narrow aisles of tent-cafés.

Lagos has old monuments, too: ruins of the seventeenth-century governor’s palace, the Sacred Art Museum of Santo Antonio Church, and a sixteenth-century aqueduct. But further east, in Faro, there is even more to be seen: a fascinating maritime museum, with an unusual display of fishermen’s costumes; the superb wood carvings and painted tiles of Saint Francis Church, the Roman ruins of Termas de Milreu, and the formal gardens of Estoi Palace.

The influence of the Moors is present in every Algarve town. The people are darker than in the north, the houses are whitewashed stucco, streets are narrow, and wroughtiron grillwork is Arabic in origin. But in most towns, other ages and eras have crept in, and one finds, understandably enough, an architectural mélange. Olhão. though, is the exception to the rule. Still small, it is perhaps the purest Moorishstyle town of the province. The houses are not only white but cubeshaped, much as they are in Morocco. And the chimneys, unique throughout Algarve, are at their most elaborate here. They are whimsical adaptations of Muslim minarets, octagonal, hectagonal, or round, with intricately designed open plasterwork through which the smoke escapes.

Alentejo, the province immediately to the north of Algarve, has two places eminently worth visiting. Beja, the first, is one of the most historic of Portuguese cities. Built on the site of Pax Julia, an ancient Roman settlement, it was captured by the Moors and retaken by Portugal’s first king in 1162. Souvenirs of its past include a Roman-Moorish castle, the tower of which is 135 feet high; a museum of Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish tombs; Saint Amara, an exquisite pre-Romanesque church; and a fifteenth-century hospital.

Évora is the old city of which the Portuguese themselves seem fondest. They refer to it as the “museum town,” and it is just that. The ruins of the Roman Temple of Diana in the center of the town date from the second century and are unique in the Iberian Peninsula. Just across the square is a graceful, simplelined Romanesque cathedral, built ten centuries later. And, for those with strong constitutions, there is the Capela dos Ossos of Saint Francis Church. The word ossos means bones, and the chapel is a great hall with walls and ceilings completely covered with the skulls and skeletons of the sixteenth-century monks who founded it.

Évora’s black-and-white Praça do Geraldo is one of the handsomest squares in Europe. Its architecture is almost completely symmetrical: a white stucco church with black trim at one end, arcaded palaces (now shops and public buildings) bordering the other three sides, and blackand-white mosaic tiles lining the square itself, which is illuminated by the gas of delicate wrought-iron lampposts, the city’s coat of arms on a gold plaque above each.

Portugal is almost too convenient for visitors from across the Atlantic. I suspect that may be one reason why so many tourists pass it by. I flew there directly on a nonstop Swissair plane, leaving New York at cocktail time and arriving at Lisbon’s modern airport just after an early breakfast aloft. (Swissair’s cuisine, incidentally, is excellent, and its service manifests the reputation of that little nation of hoteliers.)

From Lisbon to Praia da Rocha, there is a choice of a daily five-hour express train, private car (several agencies rent autos with or without guide-chauffeurs), or packaged bus tours. I would recommend the second, for with a car at one’s disposal there is no limitation on activities, and only time restricts the variety of the itinerary. For the drive south from Lisbon, I suggest a lunch stop at the Pousada de Santiago do Cacém, one of a chain operated by the Portuguese State Tourist Department along the lines of the Spanish paradores. They are small, first-class inns, handsomely decorated in authentic Portuguese style, serving the cuisine of the region, and often selling tasteful, handcrafted souvenirs, not always easy to come by in Portugal.

Returning north, one might go by way of Évora and stop off en route at another excellent pousada, Saint Braz de Alportel. Pousada rates are about the same or a little less than those of the Bela Vista in Praia da Rocha. And unless one gambles a great deal at the casino there, or drinks more than average, expenses in the south are modest. Shopping is not much of a budget item, for there is relatively little to buy. The most interesting souvenirs are the candies of Portimão. The pousada at Saint Braz sells attractive handwoven women’s belts and handbags, and there is a good shop in Évora, Urbano, which specializes in the copper products of the region and gay blue-and-white pottery. A threepiece hand-wrought copper coffee service sells for about $30; a fourcandle pottery candelabra, $2; belts and bags, $1.25 to $3.

Portugal is too often regarded as a smaller version of its Iberian neighbor, Spain. Comparisons are inevitable, of course, for these countries share the same peninsula which isolates them in so many ways from the rest of Europe. Their languages are similar (the Portuguese tongue has few supporters, least of all those who speak Spanish), they are both Roman Catholic countries, and they have strong cultural and historical associations.

Nonetheless, the Portuguese personality is quite distinctive. Like the Spaniard, the Portuguese is charming, polite, and scrupulously honest in his dealings with visitors. But he seems softer spoken, less volatile, more inhibited than his neighbor. He is more of a moderate. His government is not democratic or representative, but it seems not to have the harshness of the Spanish regime and permits opposition, however ineffectual it may be. The Portuguese fights bulls, but not to the extent of his neighbor: the bulls are not killed in the ring. He is religious but without the intensity of the Spaniard, and his church is not as all-encompassing as that of Spain. (Portuguese schools, for example, are staffed by lay teachers, although there is compulsory religious instruction.) He likes his wine, but he is quite understanding of the visitor who drinks water; he often takes it himself, with meals.

What he eats and drinks is quite different from the Spaniard’s regimen. There is much emphasis on seafoods, many of which are prepared with a great degree of inventiveness and subtlety. Meats are not always of the quality one finds elsewhere, but can be good, and table d’hôte dinners are the most gargantuan meals in the Western world. There is, inevitably, an appetizer, a thick soup, a fish course served with both vegetables and potatoes, an entree with still other vegetables and more potatoes, salad, dessert (often fruit or pastry, seldom cheese), and coffee. The visitor who is able to delete a course without offending the waiter is an unusual diplomat.

The Portuguese are avid wine drinkers, but rarely touch port. “ Too sweet for us,”they’ll tell you. They concentrate on other wines of their own or those from Portuguese Madeira. Many vintages are from the Douro valley, the home of port, but others are from the provinces in which they are consumed. The Algarve table wines - both white and red — are sometimes without the delicacy of French counterparts, but they are always adequate, often excellent; so are those of Alentejo.

Portuguese food is at its best when it is frankly Portuguese, and not in French disguise. One of the finest dishes is ameijoas con carne de porco, a combination of tiny clams in shells and minced pork, sautéed with garlic and black pepper in olive oil. It is regularly served at the Hotel Alentejo in Évora. The Bela Vista is known for its fresh-broiled lobster and lobster salad. And every restaurant serves the national staple, fresh grilled sardines, easily four or five times the size of those which are tinned and exported. Other interesting dishes are the infinite variety of seafood chowders and stews. Veal, beef, and poultry are popular, too. The coffee, much like that served in Brazil, is the thickest and blackest in Europe. I found it delicious, but many (including Portuguese) prefer a carioca — coffee diluted with hot water after brewing.

I wish that I could recommend a good guidebook to the Algarve. Unfortunately, most that I have seen skim over this province or neglect it entirely, so untraveled is it by the great majority of tourists from abroad. The Casa de Portugal, information bureau of the government, at 447 Madison Avenue, New York, is extremely helpful, and most towns of any size in Portugal maintain tourist offices. Their staffs rarely speak English, and their literature is seldom in that language, but is profusely illustrated. The tourist agents point at the picture, and then point the visitor in the proper direction. The destination ultimately arrived at is not always the one intended, but distances are not great and the sensation of original discovery, particularly in Algarve, is not to be underestimated.