Instead of a little speck on the horizon, a small fishing hamlet
on the most southwestern edge of mainland Europe, all we could see
as we approached was a line of white villas and holiday apartments.
That morning, we had left nearby Lagos looking for our treasured
recollections from 15 years ago: a village square with one bar and
a lone hotel high on a bluff overlooking the bay where fishermen
used spotlights at night to attract their catch.
We would have Vinho Verde on the hotel terrace in the evening
before going to Carlos, the restaurant owner who would treat us to
more free aperitifs until the catch of the day arrived straight
from the beach. One day it was a swordfish so big it hung heavy
between two fishermen dragging it in.
The spectacular beaches, apart from a few surfers and nudists,
were all ours. "Tourists seem to be visitors here, not the owners
of the village," I wrote in my diary then.
Now, the tourists have taken over.
We drove in, passing the Pirate Gift Shop selling
skull-and-bones black T-shirts. We saw an Internet café and an
international surfing school before we finally hit the village
square. Even there, our beloved Dom Henrique hotel was under
There were three restaurants in the square now, and instead of
the elderly of yore, with their leathery faces, dressed in black,
the square was catering to the international crowd at several
Sad? Sure. Bad? There are two sides to the debate.
Still Nature Aplenty
Fifteen years ago, the old fort on the cliffs was basically a
dump, anything but an homage to the famed Henry the Navigator, a
precursor of the great explorers who is thought to have had his
ancient seafaring "school" around Sagres.
This time, a trip
through the area was a pleasure, with its well-kept rooms, video
area and museum cafe. Without the tourism boom, such gems could
well be in ruins still.
The kids marveled at the cannons, the ramparts and fishermen
defying gravity up on the cliffs. The elders could philosophize
around the giant compass at the heart of the fort pointing toward
new naval discoveries.
And so it went, day in and day out. Outrage that another part of
our memory had been stripped bare for yet another tourist
community. There were no complaints, though, when we could drive
the new, marvelous highway along the coastline from west to east in
barely a few hours, a road that went straight into neighboring
There is still nature aplently, especially inland -- although the
summer fires of 2003 have done damage. Golf fans can now chose
between two dozen courses tucked in greenery and many with splendid
Coming back from Sagres, we took some dirt roads around Salema,
where green, open fields and shrubbery suddenly open up onto golden
beaches, with nary a tourist in sight. Compare it to Luz, a
construction site with hundreds and hundreds of homes, all
mandatory white and adorned with a quirky Algarve chimney,
stretching seemingly forever.
The attempts at indigenous architecture find a welcome relief in
the marina of Lagos, a pleasant port town some 20 miles from
Sagres. There, the sleek modernist lines, the light and airy
apartments, make a contemporary statement without jarring with the
A newly built elegant footbridge over the sea canal now joins
the old and new part of town.
Rocks and Nudists
When we first came to Lagos, we were awed by the ochre rock
constructions separating coves and beaches and none come better
than the Ponta da Piedade, where the sunlight dances in between the
coves and rocks.
The suggestive formations have names like "the
Elephant" or "Marilyn Monroe."
This time it was our kids who dropped their jaws in amazement,
as they took one of the dinghies in the bay and scuttled around the
Any visitors willing to zigzag down the cliffs can still find a
beach, and a huge lot of soft sand, to call their own.
"The other beaches? bah!" wrote my daughter Claartje, 10, in
the family diary. "But this one, so nice! We were all alone
[except for a nudist. Hahhah]."
The center of town, though, has turned into a bustling tourist
center, with Australian didgeridoos and African masks vying for
attention within a stone's throw from the arcades where slaves were
once sold to the highest bidder.
Our memories drove us back to the old fish market, only to find
its gates hidden under scaffolding, and workmen slapping fresh
mortar on the facade. The old walls around the center also looked
to be in much better shape than 15 years ago, another renovation to
give hope that not all would disappear.
The great quake of 1755 razed much in the Algarve, and explains
why it cannot rival with its Spanish neighbor Andalusia when it
comes to historical treasures.
It makes the protection of what they have all the more welcome.
The Chapel of Bones
On our first trip, we depended on rudimentary public transport,
which made it tough to wander much inland. This time, the rental
car took us into the hills beyond with woods as intensely green as
the beaches are ochre.
Monchique is already so high it makes your ears pop driving up.
Apart from the pottery shops, tourists flock to Caldas de Monchique
beyond the terraced hills, a spa going back to Roman times, yet
kept well up to date.
Heading back to the sea, we decided to stop off in Silves, or
Xelb as it was known during its Moorish heyday.
High on a hill,
with the town dressed around it, sits the Moorish castle,
resplendent with its walking gardens, ramparts and exhibition
rooms, an ideal day trip from the coastline.
All through the vacation, one mandatory trip hung over our
heads, ever since our son Corneel, 8, had seen his dad pose among
the skulls and bones of Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of bones, in
We waited a long time, quietly resisting the morbid idea of
traveling 51 miles to see a room full of bones. But a child's
longing for Gothic adventure cannot be resisted; we finally caved
The trip again highlighted our ambivalence toward all the
changes in the region.
Driving into Faro, the orange blossoms were in full bloom and
the sweet fragrance soon enveloped our car. It contrasted ever so
sharply with the traffic chaos and construction sites that blighted
the view of the suburbs.
Once there we found the medieval center had been spruced up
since our last visit. At the infamous chapel, nothing had changed.
More than 1,000 skulls and a multitude of bones made up the most
outrageous wallpaper imaginable.
Corneel was mesmerized. He insisted we take a picture of his
face among the skulls, identical to the holiday snap of dad all
those years ago.
Click, and in a sense, the family had come full circle.
The Algarve though, had moved well beyond that.
If You Go
GETTING THERE: The Algarve is a three-hour drive from airports
in Lisbon and Seville. The Algarve also has a busy local airport in
Faro with daily connections to Lisbon and several European cities.
LODGING: Sagres has an upmarket "pousada" overlooking some of
the best cliffs of Portugal at a price of $187 in high season for a
pleasant two-star Dom Henrique in the center of town has views just
as good for $106 (351-282-620-000). Rooms can be rented just next
door at Jose da Paz Pereira's Alojamento Particular at
351-282-624-096. Contemporary upscale lodging can be found at the
Marina de Lagos. Many rooms have a view of the sailboats in the
marina and the wide Meia Praia beach is within easy reach.
DINING: Near Lagos, the Vila Lisa in Mexilhoeira Grande is known
as one of the best in the country. In a simple village house, the
owner brings you just what's on that day and a meal usually lasts
for about a half-dozen courses. A typical menu consists of black
pudding, shell fish soup, baked octopus, roast leg of black pork,
chick-pea and oxtail soup, to finish it off with fig cakes. Dinner
comes at about $31. For simpler family fun in Lagos, try the huge
Adega da Marina, where Portuguese families and tourists dine on
local fish and wine at wooden tables and benches. In the touristy
center of Lagos, the Caravela is a good spot to try stuffed baby
squid and giant prawns.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.portugalinsite.pt or
www.portugalvirtual.pt. To reach the Portuguese Trade and Tourism
Office in New York, call (212) 354-4610.