A popular European summer spot for its “most beautiful beaches in the world” and breathtaking seaside cliffs, the southern coast of Portugal isn’t well known amongst vacationing Americans. Curious, because it’s rather affordable, very Floridian and it’s GORGEOUS. I’m drawn to travel mostly based on culture and natural wonders. I enjoy countrysides more than cities. My husband enjoys those too, as well as rich histories, so this was the perfect first family vacation for us, including a precocious child of 5 who most enjoyed climbing on rocks, learning the language and counting Euros. I had to see those fantastic cliffs and sea caves filled with sapphire seas, my initial draw.
The Algarve “lagoon” seats the coastal cities of Sagres, Lagos, Portimão and Albufeira against the Atlantic Ocean. We visited in mid November, and while weather is hit or miss at this time, we had a lucky 60-70 degrees and perfectly cloudless skies our entire trip. We stayed in an Air B&B in clifftop Albufeira. Absolutely gorgeous with a view of Albufeira beach and surrounding cliffs. Seriously, the line where experience exceeds even photography.
Albufeira is a small coastal town in the Faro district. In November it’s pretty much dead with vacationers, but that’s why we chose it this time of year. It was quiet, super clean and about half the souvenir shops and restaurants were still open during off season (November-March). The Albufeira tunnel cuts between hotels and eateries and connects shopping areas to beach front dining. Like all of Europe, walking everywhere is the cardiovascular regimen of city structure, but especially here up and down these inclines (I swear, a strict 45 degrees on some). These cobblestones have worn out my boots! Crowdless, I love how snug all these streets sit. If you don’t have a photographic memory, navigating just a few twisting blocks can be a little tricky. But enjoy a distraction from the cats of Albufeira as you walk. Had I time to chase them around for portraits you’d see Gatos de Albufeira here, but instead I selected Portas de Albufeira, because look how colorful those doors! (As we pass a cat sunning on the roof of a car.)
I’m an artist and I obsess over color, culture and intricate things. Azulejo (ah-zu-LE-zhou) tile work was my favorite thing to look for, everywhere. And it was everywhere. On souvenirs, tiles, floors, doorways, whole building faces, entire entryways. The most traditional I think are the blue and yellow colors in Moorish designs, colors, after exploring I inferred are most certainly inspired by the sunny cliffs and sapphire sea. Wikipedia says the Portuguese adopted the Moorish tradition of horror vacui (‘fear of empty spaces’) and covered the walls completely with azulejos. Now that sounds like a beautiful OCD. Also, the rampant roosters are too cute and comical aren’t they? Check out the story behind the rooster legend.
I’m not a foodie, so I don’t take photos of all the food I eat when I travel, but I am a budding espresso snob, so my foodie pics turned into a project I called #eurespresso, for which I’m collecting my own images of espresso drinks from European countries to create a piece for my kitchen wall. I’ll tell you what though, I love cafés, and there’s certainly no lack of them here. Still hasn’t diminished my excitement about them. I drink espresso like a European, and it made me happy to see my people sipping their tiny tazzas on the go in the afternoon. No one takes to-go coffee here (rarely did I see a disposable coffee cup, Carbon Footprint Award!), and no one consumes anything much taller than 8 ounces. My people. I prefer espresso, but also enjoyed galão, the Portuguese cappuccino.
BENAGIL SEA CAVES
Oh my gosh, there’s nothing I love more than caves, and these caves were filled with gorgeously clear sapphire teal sea splash. Another experience definitely no photos can truly do justice. Benagil Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We took the X-Ride tour, a fifty person speedboat to see dolphins and caves. We went in and out of at least seven caves along the Algarve coast.
PORTIMÃO SANTA BERNARDA PIRATE CRUISE
You can’t get a more authentic pirate than a Portuguese pirate. Except our captain was German, but anyway… This excursion sailed us back towards the sea caves in the Santa Bernarda for an inside look at the sea caves via dingy. My son Nikhil was so brave! Despite getting sea sick, he braved it on that dingy in some pretty choppy water. What an experience! The train ride to and from Portimão was also an enjoyable ride.
The Historic Algarve Tour was an excellent on/off bus trip, we learned so much about the geography and history of the countryside. The Silves Castle was built in 1189, now an archaeological architectural site with an amazing view of lower orange orchards and the city of Silves. Nikhil’s key you’ve seen him trying to open doors with is actually a reception favor from a wedding I shot this year. I encouraged him to bring it to see if he could open any doors in Portugal. He tried all the keyholes he could find. It was the best distraction a five year old could have up and down a long cobblestoned walk. This tour took us to lunch at a local mountainside restaurant where we enjoyed some cuisine with white wine famous to the region and the freshest water you’ll find this side of the planet (9.4 alkalinity).
Portugal has large industries in wine, citrus and cork production. Yes, cork! Know where it comes from? Cortiça (cor-TI-sah)… cork trees! I don’t know how I never knew this, but I was fascinated to learn all about cork production. You won’t find a souvenir shop here without cork products, including hats, bags, even postcards. Driving through the Monchique Mountain range was a geographical wonder. Gorgeous vistas. And a chance for the kid to climb some rocks, which wholly satisfied his entire day. Check out that cork bowl we found in a gift shop. You know you want to stash all your wine bottle corks in a cork bowl that still looks like its tree.
A shopping stop in Lagos! With gelado, galão and more keyholes. Husband may or may not have been checking out real estate over his cinnamon crepe.
Here was, I think, the pinnacle of our travel. The Old World End Of The World. Beyond which the maritime explorations of Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama had yet to discover in their time. The port and lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente was created to facilitate navigation and exploration to new worlds by Prince Henry. We were fortunate to end our bus tour here at sunset. What a sight! Sincerely indescribable. Where land touches sky, and then nothing but ocean, and if you look far enough… North America. Photos just scratch the surface of this experience. At cliff’s edge is not actually a steep drop, rather about a 30 degree rocky decline, which was wander worthy. Listening well and under strict exploration guidelines to hold my hand, Nikhil thoroughly enjoyed the cliffs. Another win for kids who climb on rocks. To the end of the world and back.
A full day in Lisbon before our trip home. Lisbon is full of colorful graffiti! It’s artful design along walls and sculptures throughout the city brings me back to the azulejo concept. Perhaps in some modern ways horror vacui still exists. Hadn’t a chance to photograph it as it was all viewed from moving bus, but worth mention. We bussed to the Jerónimos Monastery and discovered that the Portuguese Armed Forces marching band was performing, and how lucky to have caught it! It was wonderful to experience national pride for this country. It surely was a rich experience for all of us. Found Vasco da Gama’s compass, or something like it, and that’s a sweet treasure. We stayed half a night until it was time to head to our connection in Paris, but the nighttime view out our window at Panoramic Living Hotel was lovely. (And their hospitality was fantastic! Certainly recommend it.)
These images were actually from our incoming travel through Charles de Gaulle, wherein overbooking through AirFrance awarded us free cash and a complimentary night’s stay in Paris. We took the opportunity to see the one thing I requested seeing as we went through Paris: Café des deux Moulins, the cafe where Amélie Poulain worked in the French film Amélie, one of my favorite movies of all time. Amélie is my spirit human, so I just had to have myself in that atmosphere and experience her beloved breaking of the crown of a cremeé brûleé, and snag an espresso shot to represent France on my Eurespresso wall. Oh my gosh, I don’t eat many cremé brûleés, but this one is probably the best one you’ll ever have. Also can’t turn down a bonus trip to the Eiffel Tower for all but 15 minutes! Enjoyed this quick and exciting excursion.