Somewhere between Lagos and Portimao in the Algarve, the gods of natural beauty seem to have taken leave of their senses, letting the forces of kitsch, gaudiness and overdevelopment have their way with southern Portugal’s stunning countryside.
How else could you explain a part of the world that boasts some of the planet’s most stunning coastlines and pristine, quiet villages coexisting with a vast concrete mess where much of Europe goes to play in the sun?
Having less than two days to explore Portugal’s renowned coast, Skip and I made a whistle-stop visit of the region. And in two days, we found a range of styles, tastes and scenes so diverse you could drive a Mack truck between them.
When we ventured east of Lagos, we felt as though we’d tumbled into in a Woody Allen movie complete with oversized Germans lumbering up from the beach toward the all-you-can–eat buffet at the Happy Talk Chinese restaurant. Further down, busloads of sunburned Brits piled onto pleasure boat excursions, decked out in neon lifejackets that contrasted with their beet red extremities.
Brightly coloured posters advertised wax museums and zoos; highways directed traffic toward highrises and urban blight and real estate offices promoted gaudy homes with swimming pools and access to the golf course.
In contrast to the stunning vistas on the Atlantic side where turquoise waves crashed on craggy black rocks, many of the sights in the southern region consisted of concrete blocks of condos fringed by KFC and McDonald outlets, Chinese and Indian restaurants and enormous roundabouts where stone dolphins frolicked in jets of water as tour buses passed by.
Along this stretch, beaches were wide and sandy but parking lots were crammed with campers, bikes and BMWs. While, on the Atlantic coast, boardwalks stretched like driftwood piano keys, overlooking vast expanses of soft caramel sand where surfers floated on azure water waiting for the perfect wave or rode their bicycles with boards strapped to their backs.
We didn’t venture beyond Albufeira so it’s not fair to say everywhere on the south coast is stuffed with condos and dolphin statues. We found Ferragudo to be a charming fishing village with a couple of small seafood restaurants overlooking the harbour and spent a couple of hours eating and meandering the cobblestone roads.
And Lagos, while one of the larger towns, is beautiful with its many cobblestone roads fanning up from the coastal route dotted with quaint shops, outdoor cafes, trees hung with woven tapestries and stylish Portuguese residents walking their pooches before lunch. As the day grows later, however, buses start to arrive, boat vendors along the promenade get into full swing and charming streets become full of visitors keen to see the sights.
We didn’t make it to Portimao – another one of the popular towns along the coast. Why? Because we saw it looming in the distance, packed cheek to jowl with high rise buildings and busy streets and Skip simply refused to enter. We also didn’t get to the eastern part of the coast which is meant to be beautiful. But, after a limited time in the Algarve, we’d wholeheartedly recommend staying west where tourists are scarcer and you’ll see more natural beauty than commerce.
For us, this region was paradise.
There, we drove along zigzag roads cutting through tiny villages overlooking deep valleys replete with pines and eucalyptus trees. Meandering down the coast, staying away from main roads wherever possible, we ventured onto dirt paths that ended in staggering clifftop vistas across the ocean.
Huge translucent waves crashed onto rugged shorelines, hurtling spray meters high. Sounds of the ocean reverberated from below and long beaches spread out in expanses wider and farther than the eye can see.
We discovered the surfer paradise of Arrifana with its long boardwalk and we visited the ancient lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente, the extreme southwestern tip of Europe. We watched the sun go down over the ocean in a fiery blaze of light and we breathed in the sea spray that flew up from the rocks below. No sound but the waves. Nobody but a handful of people watching the magical dance of Nature.
And there wasn’t a single camper or building in sight.