Surprises: the water off the southern coast of Portugal is cold. Really cold. North Atlantic drift cold, if the maps of ocean currents can be correctly interpreted. But this unassuming corner of the Atlantic sitting outside the Strait of Gibraltar (and therefore removed from the storied Mediterranean) looks like the warm bath tub of the Caribbean. And the steep, crenelated cliffs along the beaches like something out of a fantasy movie.
I first considered Portugal as a destination after reading Frances Mayes’ A Year in the World several years ago. She wrote about the spring she and her husband spent in Lisbon, the Alentejo region, and some of the northern towns. She raved about it. Then a friend told me she’d been there, and another friend visited as well. On a where-to-travel-next mission a couple of years ago, I tentatively looked into the Algarve—the southern coastal area of Portugal—then decided on Maui instead.
But after a run of obligatory trips to visit family and friends, my boyfriend and I decided that this July we would do a European getaway, just the two of us. The last country we’d visited in Europe was Croatia and we weren’t sure how or if Portugal could top it, but what the heck: we would go.
If only the travel gods hadn’t expressed such rampant displeasure with the earthly beings trying to cross oceans, our trip might have got off the ground as planned. Instead, a “broken bracket” on the plane delayed our flight out of Denver for an hour and a half, causing us to miss our connecting flight to Lisbon from D.C. Once we made it to D.C., we found we couldn’t fly to Lisbon until the next day (since July is the start of the high season, all the flights were booked). Forty-two weary and pissed-off passengers who had all missed international connections scattered to area hotels for the night, food vouchers in hand, and waited it out. After most of a day hanging around a Marriott, chatting up the restaurant staff, and trying out the gym, we crossed our fingers, headed to the airport, and flew seven hours overnight to Frankfurt, then another two hours the opposite direction to Lisbon the next morning. The delays and continental zig-zagging had effectively lopped off more than a day of our vacation.
In the Lisbon airport, through the random kindness of a stranger, mercy was finally had and we were able to jump the enormous queue at the car rental place, retrieve our Volvo, and get on the highway. Advice: don’t drive on Portuguese highways when sleep-deprived. While the roadways are modern and exceptionally well-maintained, the drivers go at least 20 miles above the posted speed limit. Keeping an eye on Google Maps while trying to stay awake and steer straight while being blown past by what seemed like the whole of the country in a terrible hurry was about all our rattled nerves could take.
When we reached Lagos, a small-ish coastal town and our home base for the next several days, we couldn’t find the hotel. By now, near comatose with exhaustion, unable to communicate with each other or the GPS, we started having flashbacks of Croatia when we were randomly dumped off by a surly and unsympathetic taxi driver who had no actual idea where our hotel was. Fortunately for us in Lagos, it turned out we were literally right there; our hotel—like streets in Portugal—simply had no sign.
We parked, checked in, and from that point on, Portugal opened its arms.
Lagos was and still is a seafarer’s town, founded more than 2,000 years ago and presided over by a statue of a priest and an ancient fort. The town’s history follows the nefarious roots of colonialism by once being a hub for the slave trade. What’s left of history now is an open square surrounded by old architecture, a serene church, narrow cobblestone streets leading every which way, and a section of the original city walls. Modernity brought a boat marina to the water’s edge along with condo buildings, duplexes, beautiful glass houses, and tile-roofed gems to the surrounding hillsides, hinting at foreign investment and ex-pat paradise.
But we avoided staying in the town proper and did what we always did: booked something close to the beach, Porto de Mos beach to be exact. Among the well-traveled, the area around Lagos is considered quintessential Algarve. The beaches that run the perimeter of the land here are segmented by those famous cliffs, studded with mystical, implausible rock formations, and punctured by watery caves. The sand is clean, the sea clear, the sky cloudless, and the sun hot enough to warm the bones of the British, Germans, and northern Europeans escaping their dreary climates. Since we’d already warmed our bones earlier in May (in Mexico), we had no set expectations, except to find lounge chairs in the shade, a place to get a cocktail or two, and a breeze to waft away our jet lag and the worst of the political animus we’d left behind in the U.S. Oh, except that we did expect warmer water. Instead, we learned to hold our breath before dunking ourselves up to the neck. Thirty seconds was about all we could muster. We never could figure out how people were able to float around all day without going numb. But perhaps that was how: they were numb.
More surprises: at Campimar, one of two restaurants on Porto de Mos, the servers hustled non-stop, working 12-hour days with only a half day off per week (and it wasn’t even considered the height of the high season yet). The same servers working the lunch crowd were there at night when we’d venture down for dinner and to watch the World Cup games. They were friendly, good English speakers (since our Portuguese was nil), and blessed with a playful sense of humor. You could joke with them, smile at them, tip them, ask for a recommendation, gesture for more wine, and they navigated each transaction with genuine good-naturedness. We were reminded of Mexico and the country’s legendary hospitality. Here was a proud working class defiant of the way others in the world saw them.
At dinner one evening, we sat next to a retired Swedish couple who had picked up and moved to Portugal several months prior. They were spending their first official summer in Lagos as new Portuguese residents. Why? Because Portugal—if we were understanding them right—allowed them to live on their pensions tax-free for 10 years. From their newly built three-bedroom condo near the beach, they had walked down to enjoy monkfish kebabs and wine. On the walk back to our hotel later that night, we passed a British man on his phone saying to someone, “The weather has been a sensation.” We understood this. A livable town on a livable coast in a friendly and open country with—yes—sensational weather. In her book, Mayes remarks upon how it is possible to stumble upon a new place and decide immediately that she could live there, and how strange it is to live somewhere else all the while never knowing. I told my boyfriend that if the proverbial feces hit the fan, we could live here.
We spent a morning traversing a “cliff walk”—or path—that ran alongside the cliffs of Porto de Mos. Runners and bikers and those out for a casual stroll with dogs in tow met us coming and going, but for the most part the walk was peaceful and quiet. Signs warned us of the unstable earth. Inching to the edge caused our stomachs to drop. Below and far out to the horizon the sea stretched, with odd striations of rock just under the water’s surface. I wondered what caused this geological feature. On another morning, we trekked to Campilo, a beach that can only be reached by an endless descent down wooden stairs. At the bottom, something you can’t effectively describe except with inadequate phrases: every inch of the sand littered with people; a tunnel through the rock; the incongruously frigid water in shades of turquoise, green, indigo; paddlers and kayakers weaving around the rock formations; the constant urge to take pictures; the small corner we found for ourselves against a cliff face; and the people crowding in non-stop—to see, to wade, to sprawl in the sun. “Campilo is my favorite,” the man at the hotel’s reception desk had said, “if you can do the stairs.” The stairs, though, were nothing. It was the masses of people that had to be negotiated.
In town, we tripped over the cobblestones, did our tourist duty and bought souvenirs, and ate dinner at bustling restaurants. Seafood in rice, pork, stews, whole grilled fish, fried potatoes as accompaniment, and always outstanding bread and olives to start. Heavy food for a summer climate; I had been warned that weight gain was a given. I had also learned about vinho verde from my friend Kelley, a “green” wine light in taste and alcohol. Not big drinkers at home, my boyfriend and I found ourselves ordering bottles of it for dinner and had a glass or two with every lunch. We ordered a pitcher of tinto (red) sangria one evening while sitting on the roof of a three-story bar, listening to soft electronic music under the sky at dusk, next to a couple of hippy Germans sharing rolled cigarettes. My boyfriend and I looked at each other. Something about the vibe . . . “Like Burning Man,” we said.
Each night, the breeze blew off the cold water and chilled everything down. In the mornings, the sun rose in a fresh blue sky as we headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and entertained ourselves with the wizardry of the coffee machine, sipping multiple cups of café con leite. Our room at the hotel was apartment-style, with a fully outfitted kitchen and a washer/dryer. On the first day in Lagos we had found a huge grocery store akin to Whole Foods and bought fruit, cheese, crackers, sliced meats, wine, hummus, juice, water. We ate snacks on our private terrace. I did laundry. Not just a livable town, but a livable hotel. The whole area had the laid-back quality of California with sunburned tourists lolling on colorful beach blankets and strolling barefoot into the restaurants, with nothing much to do but respond to the instinct excavated from deep within to stare upon the blue horizon, wondering—as the Portuguese once did—what was beyond.
On our last night in Lagos, we went back to Campimar and watched Britain vs. Croatia surrounded by a large table of Brits and a young German couple. Everyone was drinking, cheering, joking, cursing. The Germans were smoking. The British wives ordered beer after beer while their husbands switched to espressos. Behind us, the rest of the diners watched with indifference. When Britain began to fail, the German girl got excited. I was with her. I, too, wanted a new team to win. Finally, long past 9 p.m., the Brits decided to nurse their defeat by ordering dinner, their children still happily chattering at the table and running down every so often to play on the beach in the last of the dwindling light.
In the morning, a cliff walk in the other direction during which we stopped cold. The walk took a turn, went downward in some one-person-wide temptation of fate and continued up into the distance, so steep and precipitous that my afraid-of-heights boyfriend couldn’t go further, and I wouldn’t. No sense in falling to our deaths on such a perfectly lovely vacation. We packed up the car and left.
After a white-knuckle drive through Lisbon to the rental car drop-off, negotiating roundabouts three and four lanes deep with—once again—no discernible street signs, followed by an Uber ride with the delightfully conversational Nuno who had lived in Paris and Barcelona but had come home to roost in his boyhood city, we arrived safely at our hotel. I have never been to Paris or Rome; my experience of classic European cities is reduced to London. But even I can see that Lisbon is underappreciated in its beauty and character, from the architecture—rococo mixed with art deco mixed with modern—to the colors—soft pink, mint green, yellow, cherry red—to the palaces behind iron fences and ornate statues in the middle of every roundabout and the cobblestone inlaid with swirling designs, to the hills and parks and shuddering trams straight out of the 1930s, and the graffiti that isn’t an eyesore but somehow adds texture and life. I fell in love instantly.
The young doorman directed us to a restaurant down the alley behind the hotel, where—inexplicably—three theaters stood in various states of function and repair. Apparently, we were in Lisbon’s “Broadway” district. The tucked-away restaurant had a garden, a covered terrace, and good food, and was disturbed only by the complaints of a trio of middle-aged British women wanting vegetables and refusing the inevitable bread. My boyfriend and I were quizzical: “You mean, you can just say no to the bread?” For us, never. We walked off the bread—and everything else—by wandering the Avenida de la Libertad, a main thoroughfare through the city that’s lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels. We stopped at an open-air café, one of several along the shaded center plaza, and had a nightcap. In the morning, we would go home. Not enough time. Just a taste. But a torrent of reasons to come back.
Thankfully there were no more travel delays—just the headwind from the jet stream and the aching joints from sitting too long next to strangers and the extra shenanigans of baggage claim, finding the car, paying for parking, and speeding once again down familiar highways—all to reach what is livable to us, but knowing, now, what else is out there.