You could see from the thousands of shuttered apartment units, storm shutters drawn to cover windows and protect from winter storms and theives, all over the Algarve that being there in September was nothing like just a few weeks earlier when Brits overran the place, destroying it’s beauty and charm, clogging its streets and beaches and pubs that had no business being there except to give vacationers that taste of home they couldn’t live without, that pint among the same people they left, even for a moment and to destroy the natural ambiance of the place.
Thankfully, despight the blight on that landscape that these empty buildings present like some new outpost of a dying empire where the Union Jack and the pubs look out of place and sun scorches the white northern skin, all we had to contend with was the pace of life that was settling back into its natural laid back stride where a glass of wine came quickly but the check slowly and old men in brown skin and felt hats sat a bus stop just to watch the cars pass on the street and pulling into a seaside town might feel as desolate as one in West Texas.
I don’t even know what made me choose Southern Portugal over other areas along the coast, although it was probably the promise of the warmest area despite it being early fall, again traveling in the tourist off-season when the surf promised to be good, the weather still holding some warmth despite the Atlantic storm season kicking into gear. I guess at some point when you’re planing a trip you just have to choose.
I had wanted to go to Portugal the whole time I was living in London, but it had never happened, so the flight would be a bit longer, across the Atlantic from New York, and the time zone changes a bit more dramatic.
The two and a half hour drive from the Lisbon airport to Praia da Luz was fast, easy, empty, and well-marked – a super-highway clearly made to facilitate the hoards looking to skip small towns and accidental culture and just get to the beach fast. I don’t actually know why I chose this town, after all there isn’t surf right there and there were plenty of other, smaller, less touristy places to stay. But the views over the Gulf of Cadiz, where the Straight of Gibralter meets the Atlantic, were spectacular. What we would come to find is that every view along the coast of Southern Portugal is spectacular.
There was a surreal, ghost-town quality to Luz that wasn’t helped by the missing child posters hung everywhere from that summers real-life is stranger than fiction thriller of Madeleine McCann, a four year old British girl who went missing while her parents were off having dinner with friends at a nearby restaurant. The case would go on to be a tabloid sensation that included accusations against the parents themselves and eventual retributions for press misconduct, but no resolution. When we arrived just a few months later, but after all of the Brits had gone home, the posters all over town were an eerie reminder that the case was still on going.
Since we weren’t staying where the surf was, each day was an exploratory road trip that started early, looped through ancient towns with names ranging from Burgeau to Aljezur that left you with the feeling that you had traveled across continents and through time. We always found empty beaches and emptier waves, and culminated with fresh seafood and wine at some empty restaurant before heading back to our condo.
The first place I surfed was at a beach called Praia du Tonel near Sagres and its Moorish fortifications, just a short half hour drive along the southern Algarve coast from Praia do Luz. Ironically, or not, Tonel means ‘barrel’ but I’m not really sure whether this is a surfing reference. Tonel presented a pretty heavy beach break but once you were out you had amazing views of the fortifications at Sagres to the south and steep cliffs all around. The surf was fun and challenging and after a bit I dragged myself to shore and fell asleep on the hot sand, protected from any wind by the surrounding cliffs. Tonel was a great introduction to what a surf trip to Portugal can be like in the fall. Sadly, and adding to the already eerie feel of this trip, I would read that someone would drown in the rip currents at Tonel later that same day.
The next two places we visited were the kind of places I’ve constantly monitored the real estate listings for the next ten years looking for that perfect place at that perfect time to pick up and drop off the grid. These small Portuguese beach towns, Arrifana and Odeceixe, would be the perfect place to make that escape come true.
Arrifana is about a 45 minute drive North, around the southern most tip of Portugal and around to the West side of the country. Completely exposed to the powerful Atlantic swells, this tiny beach town gripped along the cliffs left an impression.
Stuck in Odexiexe.
After wandering the completely desolate beach and paddling out into the eerily empty ocean, I changed out of my wetsuit beneath the hundred foot cliffs and warmed up a bit as we soaked in the sunset. Driven by hunger we headed the few kilometers back into town to find a bit to eat. Typically, the seafood was fresh and amazing, the small restaurants empty except for a smattering of off-season tourists, but mainly locals.
True to my commitment while we were here, every night I indulged in the local catch and tonight it was squid in ink. Of course, I was used to our sanitized American version of seafood where anything that might actually remind you that this was a live animal was removed out of sight so that you wouldn’t be troubled or have to get your hands dirty. So what I’m saying is that this wasn’t your typical calamari. This was squid with head on and guts still in tact. Admittedly I was a little taken aback, but I plowed through the best I could, removing the head and guts while I ate the body. Unfortunately, my approach soon left me with a pile of guts on the side of my plate that couldn’t be ignored. I was done. Of course, this was all completely hilarious to my companion who had wisely chosen something a little less ‘of the sea’.
We’re going to need more wine over here.
We left the restaurant and found our car, and this is when things got weird. As we tried to find out way out of the town through the maze of tiny streets, people were out placing what looked like olive branches down on the cobblestones throughout the town. Eerily, no one said a word as we drove slowly past, trying to be respectful despite the fact that there was no way to move out of the way without driving over the branches. We didn’t know whether we were committing some grave error against a religious festival or what. We just knew that at this point we were committed. We had to get out of there, international incident or not.
Eventually, we made our way out of Odeceixe, but it left a lasting impression on us. Another heavenly off the road location where surf and dramatic views were abundant but people were not. A place that would forever hold a place on that list of place to escape the world if and when it ever comes to that.
We would find that southern Portugal has these types of places in abundance, the type of towns that up until now lived only in my imagination of an old Europe seemingly not yet discovered or overrun by the masses.
Praia da Luz
Praia do Tonel
Praia da Arrifana
Praia da Odeceixe