Gifts of Portugal

Downtown street in Loulé, Portugal. People are attracted by the music from the speakers nearby and the pink light being sent to the skies. Sellers of LP-plates neatly put in numerous lines stand by the booths and talk to their potential customers. Just around the corner, a concert stage is getting ready.  Soon a rock band comes out and starts playing last century hits. Children come out and begin to dance, since the grown-ups turned out to be too shy to show themselves. The kids run around, and the older ones throw themselves in the air and perform saltos. Row is made in front of the bar serving gin-tonic and all other kinds of cocktails. The concert lasts almost until the midnight.

Night walk on suddenly peaceful cobblestone streets. Sheets in blue, red and yellow are spread between the roofs, covering narrow passages. Some music again. It comes from a little cafe where a musician with acoustic guitar performs something melancholic and beautiful. The concrete under feet has cooled down, but just until the morning. It is August, after all.

The next day, long highway leads towards the west and the amazing and merciless Cabo de São Vicente (Cape St Vincent). Located at western Algarve‘s Costa Vicentina, the cape is also Europe’s most southwestern point. Along the lines of parked cars there is a dusty road that leads to the beautiful, fresh and harsh view. The rocky formations resist violent Atlantic hits and as the foam rolls down they reappear again, shiny and coarse against the distant horizon. The wind joins this play and runs toward the high, steep coast and the hoard of people with their cameras and covered heads, as if promising to blow them all away. One of the most beautiful beaches with golden sand is absolutely intact by human feet as it is far, far below the edge of the cape, protected and constantly sprayed by strong ways reappearing from clear blue-green ocean. The Cape‘s famous red and white lighthouse, one of the strongest and most visible ones in the world,  governs both the square of what it used to be convent, dedicated to São Vicente and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world today.

This part of the Algarve region is said to be perfect for the nature lovers and those aiming to avoid the partying crowd and noise. Bathing in the wild waves can be a challenge from time to time, so it is possible to experience warm water and sunny beach a bit more inland, on the river edges.

On the beach Praia do Beliche there is a sign warning about rockfall hazard; the red line marks the high cliffs suggesting keeping away. Yet, some of the visitors have spread their towels, tents and beg exactly at the foot of the cliff – its different edges sometimes stick out, making a cave-like shelter from the strong sun rays and too much publicity. The beach, although constantly washed  by the strong ocean waves is said to be one of the nicest in this area and a paradise for surfers.

In Sines there is a tree ornamented with hand-made crochet items in red, blue, green and white with a sport shoe hanged over one of them – the community here seems to have developed special at skills in order to make the town warm and pleasant to live in. In the centre of the place there is a small park with water canal and a small stone bridge and the whole area reminds of Japanese-style gardens that can be seen in different European cities. On the balconies on the living blocks nearby colourful beach towels are drying from the morning‘s bathing in the ocean. Further along the road billboards are announcing Medieval festival that will bring knights, horses and the spirit of old times to Sines soon. The old building that housed Sines‘ railway station waits at the end of the road: it is a real piece of art, ornamented in characteristic white and blue pattern, typical for Portugal, depicts the old harbour and sailing boats approaching or leaving it.

The station building walls are covered by Portuguese traditional azulejos (blue tiles) that, in combination with white and yellow colours, depict previous times in Sines harbour and boats coming in and out of it.

Nearby, a group of teenagers is playing football. Benches put along a small passage that is set up over the old railway tracks wait for some tired pedestrians to make a break and have an afternoon chat.

Sines is famous for being birth place of the famous man of sea, Vasco da Gama, whose statues keeps watch of the city‘s public beach and its surroundings, standing on the hill in front of the Mariz church, close to the network of narrow streets full of blue and white-washed houses.

On this particular evening in the area there is a sound of drum in the distance. People gather, realizing that this is not just one drum – a whole procession of local “bombeiros”(firemen) and their children soon fills the street, promoting safety of Portuguese cities and awareness about fires that struck many areas in Mediterranean Europe this unusually warm summer.

On a fresh sunny morning there is a magnificent view from the walls of Castle of Sines: fortress walls and house roofs in the morning sunlight and very few people that have gotten up before eleven, some with their dog heading for the first cup of coffee, some with their child enjoying precious bigger space on the beach sand. The museum inside the castle walls tells stories about local fishing and sailing communities.

Sines is one of towns that are strategically placed between several sand beaches that are only a short ride away. They line up northwards like pearl beads: Praia de Melides (where an aerobic team works out in challenging warm sand), Praia da Comporta and finally Praia de Tróia, beach that is less than 50 years old. The strong wind and water currents have gradually accumulated the find sand and created a beach in a natural way. The beach that continues to grow and stretches further towards the sea. At low tide, swimmers are tempted to walk long in the water, trying to reach the sandbank Cambalhão. They are soon stopped and sent back by the devoted and professional beach guards (whistle sound being an unavoidable ingredient of beach atmosphere along the Portuguese coast).

Portugal has oldest country borders in Europe and its capital, Lisbon, is older than Rome. After the ferryboat from Tróia crosses the bay, the road follows the way indicated by the open arms of the monumental Christ the King, which hovers over the 25 de Abril Bridge. Notorious for its traffic congestion, the bridge stretches over the wide Tagus River and ends up in a beautiful and exciting Lisboa, a mix of trendy modern life, long history and cultural treasures.

“In Lisbon you will have to climb a lot”, a smiling friendly local warns people visiting the city for the first time. And so it is: cobblestone narrow streets go steeply up and down and, as if that were not enough, they twist and bend around the corners, meet each other at points where Lisbon‘s numerous flatiron-like buildings. It is a worthwhile challenge to follow the route of the famous Tram 28, rather than to stand forever in a line of tired fellow-tourists. At times, messy and chaotic, Libon is constantly full of life and offers fun and experiences for anyone‘s taste: whether it be a baroque architecture, creative graffiti, facades additions such as a  hanging pig (what‘s that under the balcony? A bag? Yeah..er, no! Omg, look, it‘s upside-down) or a car driving through the wall (yep, just above the newsstand), narrow passages between the tall buildings that, naturally, run steeply upwards, a walk along the river bank where a sculptor is showing his stone and sand figures in progress,  or a fado night…. In the evenings, tavernas suddenly seem too small to take in all the people that want to hear fantastic fado music, a sound of guitars accompanied by passionate male and female voices.

Not far from the river bank, on the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) two sitting Chinese ladies synchronically move their upper body as they perform music beats created by drums in their hands. The red ribbons attached to their clothes and instruments fly in the air as the audience gets hypnotized both by the movement and the sound. Rooster of Barcelos,  symbol of Portugal, famous cupcakes pastel de nata, canned sardines and bottles of port wine in XXL size fill the shop windows that surround the square.

Portugal is a real treat destination for book lovers. There is a Harry Potter library, Livraria Lello for the Harry‘s fans that do not mind waiting forever in a never-ending line, and then there is Bertrand Chiado, the oldest bookstore in the world. It sells not only reading items in various sizes and ages (smallest one can be easily hidden in a palm of a hand!), but also old postcards from all over the world. It is a nice place to hide away from the heat and too much rush in  the streets, take a stroll among shelves with so many different stories to tell and even have a cup of coffee in the store‘s cosy garden.

After a break and recharged batteries, it is time to explore further. And which place is better to do that than the explorers‘ haven itself: Belém.   An acoustic guitar player is performing in front of the white giant monument of Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries). Bent up front and facing the water and the bridge, the  faces of soldiers and explorers carved in white marble, express the curious and warrior spirit that Portuguese and other sailing nations are known for.

Leaving Lisbon is definitely not easy – this cross-country trip differs from others, where capital cities often remain in the shadow of many secret treasures that not-so-known inland places have to offer. This time, the capital leaves a reminder -to come back and continue exploring, as two-three days are far from enough.

Further north, in old and charming Mafra Palace Library the good bats are sleeping forever in a glass box. Good bats? People get surprised when they learn that these flying mammals, that often give people chills, actually protect the old books against the hungry insects. That is why they deserve a special place in this protected former palace and monastery. Numerous high ceiling rooms, old kitchen, basilica with beautifully ornamented dome and courtyard full of summer green are excellent places to check and spend afternoon in for a couple of hours.

Another extreme point of Portugal: Cabo da Roca, westernmost point of mainland Europe. The lighthouse’s silhouette is bathing in hazy sunlight. It is afternoon, so the sun is on its way to the horizon behind the tower. People climb the small rocky hill and some of them simply ignore the signs warning about the “unstable cliffs”… They take photos at the rocky edges of the cape while, the fresh wind plays with their hair or takes their caps.  On the continental, “safe” side of the cap, there is a green meadow with a small hilly settlement and blue mountains in the distance.

A bit further inland, lavish and UNESCO protected-town and mountain of Sintra welcomes cars and busses fully packed  with tourists that follow the  famous track to Sintra`s castles. A line of visitors, going all the way down to the foot of the hill (!), is daily formed in front of the Pena Palace, a XIX century monastery-turned-palace. Little space and freedom are given to tired tourists that, after finally stepping into the hall of this colourful giant, have to remain in the tight queue all the way until tour outside the glass-shielded palace rooms is finished. The beauty of the place is there, however, but the visit is not as pleasant and crowd-free as the one to a gothic estate Quinta da Regaleira and its big gardens, full of symbolic and mystic details. Here it is possible to organize one‘s own savouring of the site, whether it be admiration of creativity on the richly decorated ceilings and walls of the castle‘s rooms or climbing down the alchemy-inspired Initiation Wells and checking the dark pathways within the garden‘s caves, where the music of water drops create a perfect soundtrack to the circles they make on the surface of a small green pond.

And green remains along the highway on the way to the historic university town of Coimbra. There are so many reasons to come here: history, architecture, fado music, student parties, food, the famous university and its so magnificent, so mysterious – Joanine Library (good bats – those featuring Umberto Eco‘s “This is not the end of the book”- included). Thank you, Gotham Writers ,for the recommendation to read article on bats‘ contribution to old Portuguese libraries.

Walking up and down the cobblestone hills and staircases in the evening to get to lively baixa (downtown) will make one‘s feet pulse, but it‘s worth it. Summer night sky covers the town, but the lights are lit and people do not seem to go back home any time soon. It is simply too pleasant to be outside and enjoy the pleasant fresh air in a good company. Still, streets are not too crowded and there is not too much noise. Only some buzz around, just enough to enrich the atmosphere.

The next morning, on the way to the local bakery and breakfast, there is a fog over the small square. It is cloudy and feels like rain. However, but the time the pastry is gone off the plates, the sky clears, and the university buildings open their doors for numerous guests. A student girl, dressed in a famous black gown sells pens ornamented with graduation caps. As soon the customers pass by, she lifts up her sleeve and looks at the screen of her smartphone, hidden and protected in the shade from the sun. The line of visitors moves across the university square from church to the tower with a great view and then to rich collections of the several university science museums. Once a limited number of people find themselves within the Joanine library, phones and cameras must be stored away while the hungry bookworm eyes try to check every corner of this magnificent “House of Books”, even though that would take much longer than the time allowed. Those ladders on the second and third level of the wooden bookshelves seem to guard off some secret door, while 60,000 books keep secret knowledge from three centuries ago.

After departing down from the top floor where the library finds itself behind the locked door, there are rich science and travellers‘ collections to spend the rest of the day on. Astronomical instruments, official historical letters and gifts, animal and plant samples and exhibits from exotic countries –  the university impresses all sorts of curious minds.

After academic world, a time has come to head north for the Douro Valley and try some vinho do Porto. And to experience the beautiful city, of course. “Trust me, you dance”, says “Vodka” on one of the city windows, calling for the evening party drinking and socializing. Hunger for the combination of city history and fast food can be met at the fancy Mc Donald’s Imperial, richly ornamented “golden Mc”, while those still into adventures that involves books (and “Harry Potter” movies) stand in long line already early in the morning to climb the “moving stairs” of Livraria Lello bookstore.

While strolling up and down the streets of the old town, suddenly an orchestra music starts playing loudly  from the speakers that are “hidden” somewhere between the tall living blocks. That does not seem to bother neither people in the street nor those enjoying some fresh air from their windows or balconies. It seems like this is a common happening and some knowledge of Portuguese language would probably reveal the mystery of it all.

The historical square Praca da Ribeira offers a place to enjoy a cup of coffee with friends or have a stroll along the Douro River. Two cities, Porto and Gaia are separated by the river, but connected by Luís I Bridge. Many tourists cross it daily to visit the famous wine cellars, a chain of cool vinho do Porto storages, to both taste, learn about wines and spend a couple of hours in these shelters, protected from the heat outside.

When driving out of the city, in the shade of tall trees, a group of bicycle riders are doing their tour or practicing for the future races. The Douro accompanies them, flowing peacefully between green plains.

The next stop is Fátima, a town visited annually by thousands of Catholic pilgrims. Today it is shining in all its whiteness, as both believers and tourists visit its churches and chapels. The local restaurant is serving simple but delicious meat dishes at late lunch time and numerous souvenir shops make sure to underline the religious atmosphere of the place.

A different type of serenity awaits in the old citadel settlement of Óbidos, This is a place with some kind of magic atmosphere that one finds in – you guessed right – books and tales. Guarded by the old fortress walls of a special texture to the touch, this village is situated just next to the farming fields. During cloudy summer mornings, fog that gently floats above the area, only adds to the mystical ambiance of the village. Its old white and blue houses are decorated with pink and green flora, so rich and blooming during the warm season. Arriving to Óbidos and not checking out The Literary Man Hotel is a real pity; thousands of books on the shelves on different floors, in different halls of the house are simply free to take and read over the meal in a restaurant (full of full book shelves as well!), in the kitchen during cooking one‘s meal (same as previously mentioned), out in the yard or inside one‘s room. This is incredible and unforgettable experience for all book lovers. Reading in combination with a stroll through the cobblestone village streets, a shot of sour cherry liquer ginjinha  or ginja (pronounce it something like “zhin-jinya” or “zhin-ja”) and a delicious meal in one of the local tavernas, will make one wish to stay at least some weeks/months/years/forever longer in this fairy-tale landscape and simply enjoy life.

The southern coast of Algarve is something completely different, which only confirms the variety of Portugal‘s territory. Coastal town Albufeira is one of the places made for party, beach and beach-party goers. Its city beach definitely does not lack visitors and the place wakes up during later evening hours for a whole night partying.

And even nicer lively coastal town, full of music, art and beautiful architecture is Faro. The town‘s cobblestone pedestrian zone stretches for visitors and locals in search for something fashionable, interesting or tasty from numerous and various vendors in the area and during the night this at places becomes a dance floor for a spontaneous party-lovers or a corner for gin & tonic drinkers.

During the low tide, sand islands show themselves in full in the surrounding shallow waters, calling for a visit to their long beaches. By noon time, rows are made on piers for ferryboat rides to one of these sandy pearls. On the Deserted Island (Ilha Deserta) there is a long boardwalk trail from one side of the island to the other, where the Cape Saint Mary (Cabo de Santa Maria) is marked with handmade artistic sculpture on the beach, where trailers rest and cool off in the fresh Atlantic waves.

Vacation and cooling off…Portugal can definitely contribute to this. And what better way to toast to this adventure than raising a glass of cold “Sagres” beer after a rich pot with paelha or cataplana and a homemade cake at a great restaurant “Solar da Planicie” ?

Text: Dragana Paulsen

Photos: Kjartan Ivar Paulsen