Getting out of Lisbon was a piece of cake. We slightly overdid our lead time due to mild concern about how often the metro would be running on a sunday but after a wait we were plunked down on the train and headed south towards the Algarve. One of the best views of the journey came not long after departure as we crossed the river over the massive bridge that’s basically a shorter twin of the Golden Gate. The sunny and breezy morning had the sailboats out en masse and it again brought to mind a shadow of what this harbour would have looked like at the height of Portugal’s golden age of exploration.
Further south after we’d emerged from Lisbon’s suburbs we passed into the more arid sunny region. Most of the journey we spent passing olive groves then later just endless orchards full of oranges. Even in the towns you’d see people with massively prolific orange and lemon trees bursting with fruit. To a Canadian that’s just such a foreign site. Given we were crossing pretty much the entire bottom third of the country the journey was over surprisingly fast and I had to prod Mom awake as we pulled in to the tiny station at Albufeira.
The Algarve area of Portugal is the entire south coast and is incredibly built up with small communities. It relies almost entirely on tourism but is also an increasingly popular retirement destination for people from colder climates. Albufeira itself is one of the more populous small cities but to be honest most of them run into one another so it’s hard to tell where the borders even are. Despite the sprawl there’s still a lot of wild looking coastline here and it’s a very pretty region.
A short cab ride later we were back at the oceanside at one of the weirder large resort hotels I’ve ever been to. Mom set about checking us in with the documents while I inspected the lobby. I was more or less instantly laughing at the barrage of rules posted everywhere and (correctly) assumed they were aimed at drunken Brits as everything was in English. There were more usual signs like ‘don’t wear swimwear into the lobby’ and ‘no smoking in the lobby’ but also ‘no feeding the cats,’ ‘do not buy fruit’ and, most ominously ‘We are a family resort and any behaviour like a hen party is not tolerated.’ It was an absolutely sprawling resort and clearly had absorbed several nearby hotels as well.
The place was in off-season mode and clearly understaffed, after finding out they’d ignored our request for two beds we had to have a room change and were told we were getting a ‘free upgrade’ of which we really couldn’t see any sign once we were in the room. It turned out to be a simple room about the size of a large Grand Forks hotel room but with a small kitchenette built into the back wall. It had obviously recently been remodelled, was quite confortable and nice, but was definitely on the small side for one of Dad’s places.
Heck, even finding the room took some work as (defying pretty much any resort convention ever in my experience) you accessed the room on the balcony side and the arrows really didn’t make that clear (the rooms near the elevator had normal room doors.) There was also only an elevator on one end of the entire massive block which meant that most of the older elevator crowd for your entire floor was walking past your balcony door… and only window… which you wanted to have open for the view and breeze… so they could pretty much always see in to your whole place. Since it was one of the small rooms there was no couch either so people walking by just looked in to see you lounging on your bed late in the evening. Honest to god just a terrible design. Yet, we could see the waves crashing in to the point, the beach at the foot of the hotel was a lovely sandy cove nestled in between limestone cliffs and the sunset that night was spectacular.
Portions of the hotel were clearly run as an all inclusive and the bars and restaurants were quite expensive for an a la carte guest ($25ish Canadian for a very so-so looking buffet) so we never ended up eating at the restaurant. The main pool was supposedly ‘closed for maintenance’ but no one touched it while we were there and it just sat there looking gorgeous and empty. They clearly just didn’t have the staff to watch it, the one open pool was far too small for even the limited number of guests but also wasn’t heated. The ‘don’t feed the cats’ sign was explained when we a sudden swarm of (well fed) ferals on our way to dinner.
Walking (surprise surprise) up the hill we ran into a group of Albertans who clued us in to the closest good supermarket. We’d actually run into some Nova Scotians on the train as well when I noticed the Blue Bombers shirt he was wearing (a gift from a Winnipegger daughter.) The top of the hill had us arrive at the section of Albufeira known as ‘The Strip’ a multi-block section of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops that seems to be trying to channel old school Niagara Falls or Atlantic City. We quickly discovered (as I feared from some research) that the place was somewhat of a Brit Stag/Hen trip destination and was a bit… trashy. On a sunday afternoon at an off time of year it was fairly tame and large sections of the strip were even totally shut down (in some cases permanently looking, in others renovations were underway) but pretty much all the restaurants open had touts outside trying to get you in.
Reaching the top of the strip we headed down one of the main boulevards and serendipitously found a very nice little bakery (something we seem to have a knack for) and got some bread and morning muffins before walking further down to find the Pingo Doce supermarket. Despite the heavy load of drinks and things we’d bought to stock the hotel room for the week we started walking back and in fact made it most of the way back down the strip before deciding to grab some lunch (after all this time my first Piri Piri of the trip.) We spent the rest of the night settling in, exploring the weirdness of the hotel a bit more, playing cards and enjoying our first english tv in a while as they had our first non-news English channels of the trip.
The next morning we walked the 3km along the coastal road into Albufeira’s old town proper. Along the way we admired a number of vacation homes large and small, many with elaborate flower gardens blooming all about. The coast is a strange mix of ultra developed more modern sections and more run down micro-condos. Overall it’s really quite pleasant and the views from many would be spectacular, especially the couple right at the top of the sea cliff before we walked down the long hill to the main beach.
Albufeira’s old town is nestled on and above a wide sandy beach known as Fisherman’s beach though the town’s boat traffic is now in a modern harbour/marina a few clicks east. With Mom’s coffee addiction having her near collapse we settled down into a seaside cafe and enjoyed the breakers rolling in. Weather wise the wind was up and it was probably one of the colder days of the trip. Nothing by our standards of course but the cafes all had wind shelters up and the locals were bundled up like it was -30, we zipped up our hoodies.
Further back in the maze of streets of the old town you could see what had once been a small fishing village but was now more or less entirely tourist. A spacious and quite pretty main square is surrounded by restaurants and bars. I noticed that one of the gelato places had my favourite (Amerena sour cherry, see Rome post years ago) and instantly bought us each one which we quickly dispatched while roaming the cobbled streets. One end of the town has a tunnel bored through the rock leading to the next small inlet and beach. Wikipedia tells me that this was once the main visitor beach (as fisherman’s was covered in boats) and it would make sense, though on this day it was particularly windswept.
Overall the town proper had a lot more charm than our end of things, though that’s not really surprising. It definitely had a bit of the same bar vibe though.
I’m worried that I’m sounding a bit snooty when I call places trashy but it’s sort of hard to describe if you haven’t travelled to places like this. You have to remember that to Brits going here for a boys or girls weekend is way cheaper than it is for us to go to Vegas and for a certain type of Brit (and to lesser extent French/German/other) they treat it much the same way. The point for them is to maybe get a bit of sun but mostly to pub crawl and get absolutely blasted. As a result many of the bars are just trying to look like British football bars, one site actually told me ‘Albufeira is known for its irish pubs.’ Riot police have even been called in to deal with mobs of them at times.
Honestly the closest analogue I can probably give for most of the people who are reading this and don’t get it is imagine a Daytona Beach gearing up for Spring Break vibe, except it probably hits that every weekend during high season/christmas season. Thankfully at this time of year that wasn’t going to be a problem, but the vibe was still there. Also thankfully, like Daytona the scenery still manages to be beautiful despite the commercial surroundings.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time here, but if I returned to the Algarve I’d try to stay in a different town with a more laid back vibe (and probably have a car the whole time.)
Upon arriving we’d noticed that there were a number of tours further afield and with the sea temperature not really conducive to much swimming (though I was going to dive on Friday) we thought maybe we’d do one of them. Gibraltar sounded appealing as I’d always been kind of fascinated by the place and Mom had been there eons ago with Granny and had found it worth the trip. Unfortunately a bit of research into the tour revealed that you started stupidly early, spent your first 2 hours gathering other people from other hotels, then when you arrived the tour didn’t include going into Gibraltar at all, you had to pay extra or do your own thing. Since we kind of wanted to see a bit more of the coast anyway we decided to rent our own car.
So at lunchtime the next day we loaded up our new Citroen estate and headed west to explore the rest of the western Algarve. It was a cloudy day that seemed to be threatening to break into storms at any moment but in the end we never actually saw any rain. Navigating was mostly painless, everything was super well marked and we bopped our way along the coast to Sagres, Portugal’s (and Europe’s) most southwesterly town. Once the final staging base for many voyages around the horn and to the new world it’s now mostly known as a surfing destination.
As with the rest of the Algarve it’s small beaches nestled between outcrops of cliff. Yet here the cliffs are even more impressive and the waves crash in much more aggressively as it faces the open Atlantic more directly. The surfing is particularly good as a result I’m guessing, though I think that’s also a factor of the availability of multiple beaches facing different ways off the point so there’s probably a solid beach for almost any wind direction. That said we also saw a couple of looney bins taking some crazy curls right next to a sheer rock wall so it’s not like some surfing types need anything.
We explored the fortress on the point. It turned out to be more of a fortress wall protecting the entrance to a towering point. It’s the former site of Henry the Navigator’s nautical school though to what extent it existed is the subject of some debate. Henry himself was definitely a driving force in starting Portugal’s age of exploration and helped develop the newly designed caravel that would drive those travels. What exists of the fort at this point is mostly remnants, battery platforms and stupendous views. The caves and holes in the rocks lead to some excellent blowholes as well, one of which they’ve surrounded with a concrete echo chamber to really augment the sound of the surf.
We walked the entire perimeter of the fort/point before moving on as we wanted to see the literal end of europe before sunset. Cape St. Vincent is just a couple minutes down the road and is the southwesternmost point in Europe. These days there’s a small lighthouse and gift shop. If anything the cliffs here are even more impressive as they tower over the crashing green waves. It’s a wild place and you can really imagine just how scary it must have been to stand here and look out into the void you were about to cross, particularly as the sun set and the waves grew darker and darker.
With night fallen we set out home to our hotel and made ourselves a pasta dinner/had a slightly early night before the big trip the next day.