I’ve now been to Portugal three times, and spent about three weeks there in total. I’ve seen a fair bit of the country (the Algarve, Lisbon, Sintra, Obidos, Fatima, Batalha, Nazare, Coimbra, Figueira da Foz), and I’m a big fan. When I get back I definitely intend to explore more, especially the interior, and Porto.
But there’s one thing that’s been consistently bad: the food. Other than fresh fish (which I’m not a huge fan of), and the heavenly Pasteis de Belem, virtually every meal I’ve had has been pretty ropey (and don’t even get me started on the salt cod). Most people I’ve spoken to who’ve been to Portugal feel the same.
Spanish food rivals Mexican as my favourite in the world. I don’t understand how theirs is so good, when their Iberian neighbour’s is so awful. Or have I just been extremely unlucky so far?
A Pastel de Belem, Portugal's main culinary redeeming feature
On the way back to the airport we decided to stop off in Faro, figuring the biggest town in the province probably had something going for it. Now, being October, we expected it to be a little quiet. As it turned out, quiet was an extreme understatement – it was like being in a ghost town.
The centre of Faro is still contained within medieval walls, and is very pretty, with whitewashed buildings, an old palace, cobbled streets and a pretty cathedral.
Despite all these sights, and the huge number of tourists passing through Faro even at this time of year (the airport was heaving), the town was empty. When we arrived in the main square, in front of the Cathedral, we were literally the only people there. It’s not very often you get somewhere like that all to yourself.
The rest of the town was much the same – more baroque churches, lots of buildings covered in Azulejos, and the novelty of seeing storks’ nests perched atop every tall building – and all empty (it was actually a little scary – we barely even saw any locals). It amazes me that so many people can go to a place and not actually spend any time exploring or checking out the history.
Azulejos & Graffiti, Faro
Stork's nest on a church, Faro
For some reason I’d written off the Algarve as being horribly overdeveloped tourist trap like the worst of the Spanish Costas. On absolutely no evidence whatsoever, just general snobbery about package destinations (says the man whose favourite place is Ibiza). Turns out I was quite wrong.
After a typically early flight from Gatwick we arrived in Faro, we were able to take advantage of the stupidity of all the other passengers – there was an enormous queue for the manual passport control, with electronic passport readers next door with no queue whatsoever, allowing us to skip right past them, straight to the front of the taxi queue and onto the station just in time to catch the train to Lagos.
Lagos itself isn’t the most beautiful town in the world (although it has its charms), but where it scores is with the coastline. Starting from the harbour there is a string of little coves dominated by huge golden sandstone cliffs, running all along the coast towards Sagres (formerly seen as the end of the world, before explorers headed out beyond them into the Atlantic in the 15th century).
Sandstone cliffs & stacks at Praia Dona Ana, Lagos
The cliffs were fun enough to walk across on the first afternoon. Much more fun was tackling them on bikes. Only a week after my first proper ride in years, I found myself bombing along the coast on dirt tracks trying not to plummet over the edge. I’m now quite taken with this cycling lark, might even have to buy a bike before I go away. Although I probably need to learn to be a little more careful before tackling the ride down the world’s deadliest road
in Bolivia next year; a couple of times I was a bit overambitious and came off the bike. It’s all worth it for the war-wounds though.
Always make sure you're going fast enough when cycling up a 45 degree embankment
The other main activity of the weekend was less of a success. Despite my indoor course back in June, my first attempt at outdoor climbing was a bit rubbish. I just didn’t have the confidence to really commit to some of the tougher footholds (despite being on a rope). I have no idea why I’m happy to head downhill at high speed on a bike over rocks, ignoring the risk of being flipped over the handlebars, but worry so much more about falling while climbing, even though the rope means that’s much safer. Think I need to get some more practice in before next year (although despite being a rubbish climber, I still think the photos look quite impressive)
Me. Half-way up a cliff.