EuroTrip2010: Portugal Offers Some Surprises

Portugal Offers Some Surprises

From 13 June 2009

The shoreline in Lagos, Portugal is characterized by rocky cliffs towering over crystalline water. In June, the water was frigid, but that didn’t keep people from swimming!

After Porto’s ivy and river view, Portugal continued to woo me with its landscape.  I caught a 5:45 AM train to Lagos, a relatively touristic city on Portugal’s southern coast.  About five hours later, I found myself sitting on the pier watching a pair of male fiddler crabs engage in a duel.  The brawl reminded me of the crayfish competitions observed in my Animal Behavior class at university, proof that bigger isn’t always better… but usually.

That evening, I felt close to home when the Mama Mia soundtrack played through the stereo while I ate dinner at a restaurant.  I can’t tell you how many times my roommate and I held spontaneous song and dance parties to this music, whether in our house, in the car, or on the lawn.

The hike to this grotto in Lagos offered a gorgeous view of the surrounding cliffs and Atlantic Ocean. Donny and I trekked to precarious locales as often as we could–danger led us to great beauty!

Looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep after the early morning start, I soon realized sleep would not come easily that night.  In the bed next to me on the top bunk, a noise–sounding like a car engine turning over while a lawnmower simultaneously revved up–escaped from the nasal cavity of a woman.  This snore, ladies and gentlemen, was louder and more powerful than the synchronized snores of my mother and dog.  Needless to say it made for a good conversation starter with bunkmate, Jacky, the following morning.

Jacky from Australia was also traveling Europe solo for three months.  Both thinking of staying two more nights, we quickly became friends.  Neither of us had concrete plans of where to go or what to do, so we hit the street and decided to follow the coast.  A couple miles into our walk, after passing savanna-like terrain on a straight road, we ran into a dead end.  Instead of turning around, we ventured toward the edge of the cliff only to discover a (brutal) stairway (down) to Heaven.  At the bottom of the steps lay a boat-filled cove surrounded by tall rock islands.  These were the boat trips to the grotto Jacky and I heard talk about!  We hopped on a boat for a tour of the caves and cliffs.  Our driver didn’t speak English, but he smiled a toothless smile every time he could name a rock formation,

Caves over the ocean, called grottos, are a big tourist attraction in Lagos. Native residents take tourists on a boat ride through the grottos for a small fee.

such as the two called “Elephant” because they resembled the animal.  Thirty minutes later, our mouths dry from hanging open in gracious awe, we slowly ascended the stairway.

On the afternoon of the second day, Jacky and I met another solo Australian traveler on the beach.  Donny was in search of a sightseeing opportunity, so Jacky and I walked him back to the grottos.  They were worth a second look, but this time we stayed on top of the cliffs and looked out over the sea.  Headed back into town, we detoured to follow some signs for the beaches of which there seemed to be a few.  We approached a narrow, steep, broken plank stairway, far from welcoming as the descent to the grottos had been.  The splintered wooden steps surrounded by rocky crevices suggested a rolled ankle if one put a foot in the wrong place.  This, of course, only fed us more adventure.  It doesn’t always take a rainbow to find that pot of gold.

About twenty steps from the bottom, a white-haired man poked his head out from behind a boulder.  Our view of the beach was obscured by massive rocks on either side.  The rocks also safeguarded our Puritan eyes from the white-haired man’s fellow nudists.  When Old Man Rivers moved into full view, he was not clothed.  His skin was baked to an unnatural reddish-purplish-brownish hue.  While the three of us were quick to avert our eyes, we noticed the man waving us forward, an invitation to join him.  We looked at each other.  Should we do it?  The question could be read on all of our faces.  And surprisingly, we all decided we didn’t walk down the stairs of death for nothing.  There was a beach, dangnabbit, and we wanted to see it.

We kept our clothes on and made sure our focus lay on the caves and waves away from shore.  Donny and I went for a bathing-suit clad swim in the frigid water.  Yes, frigid.  I exaggerate naught.  So cold that it felt like an icicle hit the exact center of my skull and sent a chill down the full length of my spine.  Did I mention it was worth it?  The nudists by far had the nicest beach.

Alcacer do Sal was our rental car overnight spot. The city seemed like a ghost town as we walked down the dimly lit streets at dusk before spending an uncomfortable but ever memorable night in the crowded car.

Back at the hostel, relaxing (or rather, recovering) from the day’s affairs, Jacky and I met Leanne from New York, also a solo traveler.  The four of us tabled the idea of a road trip.  That story continues soon.

Donny, Jacky and I went to a tavern to watch the England vs. USA World Cup match.  I cheered when USA scored the cheap goal.  I was the only one cheering.  At that moment, it became apparent that this tavern was filled ninety percent with British tourists, evidenced by an accented atmosphere of curse words, and ten percent filled with fellow European Union folk.  Whoops.  Fearing someone might soon drown me under the tap, the three of us picked up Leanne and Babsi from Finland.  Babsi was also staying in the room with Jacky and I.

Jacky, LeAnn, Donny and I enjoyed our home-cooked meal at the hostel where we met in Lagos, Portugal. The plans for our rental car trip were only just beginning…

We enjoyed yet another free attraction, an art exhibit.  Then, we made our way to the town center where a street performer was putting on a comedic circus show.  We caught the end of his first performance, making conversation with him when he finished.  On our way past the center twenty minutes later, the show was going on again.  The Portuguese entertainer noted our presence and gave us a shout out, hailing us then and thereafter with, “Australia!  America!”  He completed his sequined Speedo bathing suit ensemble with white socks and black loafers.  It was the Speedo that tipped off Jacky and I that we’d seen this man before.  The day prior, he cooled down after some juggling on the beach with a self-programmed yoga routine.  When Jacky and I left him on the beach, his face was beet-red after a cumulative seven minute head stand.

The next day, Leanne, Donny and I joined a kayaking tour through the grottos.

Another way to experience the grottos of Lagos is to kayak through them. Exhausting as it may be, the kayaking trip is well worth the physical exertion!

At one point, we entered a cave with a small amount of light penetrating down to the ocean bottom from a hole in the cave roof.  The water was well over our heads, but the ocean floor was still clearly visible.  By the end of my time in Lagos, I rode a boat, swam and kayaked through the caves, and each mode of transportation led to new observations.  I have found that it is well worth admiring things in detail more than once from different perspectives every time.

To refuel ourselves after three hours of ocean kayaking, the four musketeers made an absolutely scrumdiddlyumptious meal.  We felt like royalty.  Food always tastes better after a hard day’s work, and when the wind picked up on the ocean, kayaking back turned into quite the aerobic workout.

After dinner, we made our rent-a-car plans searching Europcar’s website for the cheapest car.  We made sure that the cheapest was also an automatic as Jacky was the only one who could drive manual, and she didn’t have her actual driver’s license with her, only a copy.  Leanne would be our registered driver because she was the oldest thereby saving us from incurring the added young driver fee.

Jacky stayed at the hostel the following morning while Leanne, Donny and I walked fifteen minutes to Europcar.  Registered and paid, Leanne climbed behind the wheel as Donny shouted from the backseat, “Wait!  This is a manual!”  The attendant inside did nothing to help us.

“You wanted a small car,” he said.
A joint reply: “No, we booked the cheapest small car that was automatic.  And we made sure it was automatic.”
“No.  I’m sorry, but no.”

Moorish influence is visible in much of Portugal and Spanish architecture. On the way to the Lisbon airport, my new backpacker friends and I drove our rental car through the city of Sintra and up a mountainside to this ancient palace.

He left us standing there unsure of how three non-stick drivers would get this car back to the hostel where the unregistered Jacky could take the wheel.  Leanne and I opted for Donny to drive as he seemed the most confident.  We knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t figure out how to put the car into reverse.

Three day car rental: €159.  Rental insurance: €15.  Driving out of the rent-a-car shop with an unregistered, unaccomplished stick driver behind the wheel of a manual: Priceless.

Thankfully, this beautiful view is federally protected with a wildlife preserve in the surrounding area. At the southernmost tip of Portugal, Sagres does not see many visitors nor host many inhabitants. Perhaps that is what makes the landscape so empowering.

And that’s when I learned to drive stick–in Portugal.  All I can say is thank goodness they drive on the same side of the road as the states.  But my first roundabout was a bit scary. I drove for about three hours, stalling at every stoplight.  We made a U-turn forty minutes into the trip backtracking to the southernmost tip of Portugal to the remote town of Sagres.  I hereby petition this place for one of the 2010 Seven Wonders of the World.

We spent the night in the car in a parking lot of a small town called Alcacer do Sal.  On our way to Lisbon airport for my flight to Scotland, we drove partway up a mountain to Sintra where we checked out a Moorish palace.  Before I knew it, it was goodbye Portugal, rental car and new friends, hello Scotland!

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