Throughout our 15 years of travel together, we have witnessed again and again how the natural surroundings of a location shape its culture, food and occupations.
For southern Portugal, and more specifically the Algarve region, daily life is influenced by its proximity to the sea. When planning a trip to Portugal this past summer, sun, sand and surf were not initially on our radar. We anticipated castles, salt cod and cobblestone streets, which the country also delivered in spades.
As we drove from the Faro airport into the heart of the Algarve, we discovered that it is the beach lover’s paradise. We were overwhelmed by the sheer number of beaches and resort towns along the southern coast. Which beaches were cleanest? Where was the safest area for swimming? Which town would offer restaurants and activities without being too touristy?
Any hesitation was unfounded, as we soon discovered. The Algarve region is populated with many vacation apartments, a fantastic choice for a number of reasons. Our apartment in Praia da Rocha, adjacent to the town of Portimão, afforded us both more space than a standard hotel, a boon with an active preschooler in tow, as well as a full kitchen, and a balcony with a view of the beach. It also featured a swimming pool and small playground, both critical for our child to expend energy without having to travel far. We were a two minute walk from the beach, its bordering boardwalk and the main drag, where everything from beach towels to bikinis and sunscreen to sarongs could be found.
The natural beauty of the area is clearly the draw for most visitors, making it an extremely popular destination for European holidaymakers. The Algarve boasts great weather, with gentle coastal breezes and sunshine almost year round. Each morning, throngs of water babies and sun worshippers alike traipsed down to the beach, some clearly armed with a full day’s worth of supplies. The soft, white beaches fringe the ocean and stand in stark contrast to the rugged red cliffs at their edge. We were offered a vacation from vacationing as time seemed to stand still in this brilliant sand-swept playground with slow rolling warm currents from the Atlantic coast. Pleasant strolls, building sandcastles or simply lying back and soaking up the rays were the only demands upon our time.
Umbrella-topped patio tables dot the beachfront and streetscape of Praia da Rocha, offering numerous options to satisfy the palate. Happily, most restaurants serve seafood delicacies concocted from daily catches just landed at the nearby marina in Portimão. Cod is on offer here in droves. One dish we were particularly drawn to, bacalhau à brás (braised salt cod), gave us a new culinary challenge to try and replicate at home. Grilled salmon, cod soups and stews and mussels are the standard in most establishments, accompanied by local beer or sangria with red wine made from one of Portugal’s many vineyards.
From Praia da Rocha we headed westward to Lagos, a brief stop on our drive towards Lisbon. In addition to being part of the gorgeous Algarve region, our interest in Lagos was something a little more historical. Here, the country’s proximity to North Africa via the Atlantic played a part in one of the more sordid chapters of European history. Having read about its role in the development of the European slave trade, we visited the 1444 site of the slave market, where Africans were sold into slavery to Europeans. From there, the town grew into a slave trading centre. Now an art gallery, the small building is marked with a plaque in remembrance of its sad history.
Our last stop in the Algarve was Cabo de São Vincente, the southwestern most point in Europe. Legend has it that the body of the martyred St. Vincent was swept ashore at this location in the 4th century, giving the Cape its name. Because of its strategic location, Cabo de São Vincente has been the site of naval battles and was used as a reference point for explorers, including the likes of Magellan and de Gama. The point, known in the middle ages as “the end of the world,” features breathtaking sheer drops from the cliffs above to the Atlantic Ocean below. Hawkers sell their wares along the small dirt road that leads to a lighthouse that sits atop the cliffs. Our visit to the Cape provided the perfect departure point from our time in the Algarve as we moved towards castles and custard tarts further north.
Whether we were building sandcastles on the beach, enjoying seafood just plucked from nearby waters, or visiting historic sites, our time in the Algarve reminded us repeatedly of the importance of the ocean to Portugal. Many of the things that we discovered during our time on the coast illuminate the importance of water as a transatlantic roadway, source of food and marker of identity which define this country, both historically and today.
Kristin Harris Walsh is project co-ordinator at Memorial University’s MMaP Research Centre, and Kieran Walsh teaches English literature at Gonzaga high school. Their travels over the past 15 years have taken them to five continents. Over the past four years, their son Declan has been
an enthusiastic travel companion.