The diversity of the shores of Lagos makes up for a large part of the area’s beauty. The east coast, closer to the town, is rugged with sandstone and limestone cliffs that give in winter after winter. A myriad of small beaches of coarse sand can be found in the meanders of the cliffs. These rocky beaches are said to have been havens for pirate ships many centuries ago. Dona Ana is one of these beaches. Divided into two parts by the irregular cliffs, this small beach has micro-atmospheres of their own within itself. The central, crowded area, where mostly families stick around, thrives with the activity of the out board engine boats regularly taking tourists around the nearby grottos. The hidden part, which can be accessed only in the low tide, is usually quieter. But as noon approaches, it becomes hard to find a quiet area. The early peaceful morning haze that comes with the sunrise is quickly replaced by a contrasting sunshine and screams of children and conversations in many different languages. It is one of the few beaches in Portugal where one can enjoy the sunrise while facing the oceanic horizon.
Porto de Mós is a single long beach that takes up most of the south coast. The cliffs are still part of the scenery, but here the softer sand gained the upper hand. This beach is usually the meeting point of many groups of friends which often intermingle. The length of the beach provides ample area for sports, the most usual being raquetes – beach tennis – played with two wooden racquets and a rubber ball that make that ubiquitous characteristic wooden percussion – tak! tak! tak! – like a very lazy, very large woodpecker that takes frequent breaks in his work.
Life is swell in the south.
During the winter, Lagos is but a small town in southern Portugal. When not working, the locals indulge in simple pleasures like hanging out with family and friends, usually at bars, coffee shops and terraces if the weather allows. In the summer the small town gets invaded with tens of thousands of tourists that feed the local economy for another year and turns into a bustling seaside resort. Local businesses go about like squirrels, stockpiling for the winter, making hay while the sun shines. The town fills up with new bars and restaurants that cater almost exclusively for tourists.
But the diaspora of locals that come to spend holidays at home seek out the simple (often secret) pleasures that are there all-year round. B.A. is a haven in that sense. A step outside of the beaten track, this tiny tavern offers affordable booze, a nice outside patio and friendly familiar faces.
Recently opened Esquina do Fado was a pleasant surprise. A wine bar-slash-preserves trader-slash-music club attracts a mixed crowd and often has spontaneous jam sessions with local musicians, playing mostly yankee music. Not complaining here, I’m a sucker for some good blues!
Then there’s matraquilhos, or foosball in english. Always a thrill! On a smoky mezzanine of Black Cat, the 50-cent-a-game matraquilhos table at all times being pounded, slammed, kicked and lifted. Full-time gang bang on the 22 metal players made out to look like a 50s version of the two largest teams in Lisboa – Sporting and Benfica. The teams lined up and put a 50 coin on the table to get in the queue. Whichever team won the match, could play the next challenging team. The guys handling Sporting won every single game as soon as they got in. It was almost unfair how well they played. But that got me the chance to sketch them in full.
In the story of going on holidays to Portugal, food is, of course, one of the main characters.
In Lagos, O Lamberto is the unofficial family cafeteria. It’s outside the city centre, so the few tourists that ever get there want to get there. The highlights there come mostly from the sea, such as the grilled squid or the octopus salad. Going for something grilled here is playing on the safe side. Don’t forget to squeeze lemon all over it.
A Oficina was a new place for me. A friend took us there for a snack session. It lays in a town in the outskirts of Lagos with a fitting name – Mexilhoeira Grande – “The Great Mussel Picking Place” (?!). Yeah… Anyway, the house specials: olives with pickled carrot, goat cheese, bucho (a sliced blood sausage), feijoada de buzinas (cowries with beans), parafusos (shrimp wrapped in pastry, deep-fried), tiras de lula panadas (deep fried breaded squid stripes) and the ubiquitous snails. These came with twisted metal picks that brought a tear to my eye! Everywhere, these traditional picks that make the job of pulling the snails out of their shells have been replaced in restaurants all over by common wooden toothpicks. It was a joy to use one of these again!
For desert, we shared a slice of delicious cookie cake (Marie cookies dipped in brewed coffee, piled together with a buttery cream) and Morgado, a delicacy from Algarve. It’s made of almond paste, eggs and squash jam (Gila) and was heavenly prepared.
Sol e Pesca is a former bait and fishing shop in the semi-prostitution slash new-hip area near Lisboa’s shore known as Cais do Sodré. Its concept is unique (as far as I know): preserves of different Portuguese brands are served in their own oil, with some herbs, bread and drinks. This keeps the place from the restaurant status, while serving a satisfying and delicious meal. Looking at the menu, you just want to have a taste of all of them!
Unlike a plane trip, a road trip where you are the driver won’t bode well for your travel journalling. Especially if the trip is made under a scorching sun.
Memories from the trip from Elvas to Lagos include few sketches and half a dozen wasp stings. The territory of Alentejo is marked by man-made objects of so many different eras. The arid plains of northern (Alto) Alentejo, peppered by its Reconquista era castles, became not so arid in more recent years, due to the construction of the Alqueva dam. Monsaraz certainly benefited from this new dammed landscape, as it became a coastal town other than a well-preserved medieval town.
The menhir of Outeiro is a sign of the Megalithic era, lost in the middle of nowhere, re-erected but a few decades ago. It now provides shade to the gigantic and euphoric Alentejo ants.
In Terena, besides the ubiquitous medieval castle, we stumbled upon a couple of Moorish-inspired tile tables, which pattern I copied.
Southern (Baixo) Alentejo is scarred with constructions of the wheat era. “The barnhouse of Portugal” as it was dubbed under the dictatorship. Its plains were dramatically and systematically altered in the first half of the 20th century to yield great quantities of wheat. The grain storage silos in Moura, Serpa and Beja are the few shadows in this immense golden landscape.
Nowadays, all around Alentejo, old men gather in coffee houses, coming up with nicknames for everybody, letting time go by. A friend told me of this strange particularity that town of Amareleja is known for: whoever happens to wander there is certain to get a nickname. And there was one man who, for work reasons, had to go by Amareleja. But as he did not want to get one of the famed nicknames, he avoided the town and went around it. Town folk dubbed him “the went-around” (“o vai-de-volta“).
I wonder what nicknames they gave us.
Elvas has been an important military outpost since the Reconquista of the Peninsula from the Moors. It was a frontier town to the south, to the Muslim part of the Peninsula, and then later to the east, to Spain. Its many walls, castles and fortresses attest to that historical role.
The 17th century star-shaped city wall with dry-ditch, built during the Restoration War replaced the outdated medieval castle on top of the hill and its wall system. The city’s defence system adapted to counter the newer siege weapon technologies. Thick ramparts rather than high stone walls were favoured to absorb cannon firepower. Dry ditches were left between ramparts to allow killing grounds for assaulting troops. Forts and fortlets were built on nearby hills to disseminate besieging forces. Extensive tunnels were dug inside the ramparts to allow communication between forts.
Later, during the Peninsular War, as improvements were made to the defence system – additional walls and forts – the city also played an important role as an outpost in driving back the French Army.
Nowadays, there is a military museum established in this UNESCO World Heritage site. A messy spread of tanks, armoured vehicles, support vehicles, mobile artillery guns, howitzers and armoured troop transports used by the Portuguese military await cataloguing and proper insertion in the museum’s exhibition in the dry-ditch of Elvas’ fortifications.
You could probably fry an egg in the armour of these menacing beasts.