There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Algarve (6): The West Coast

The 130km of Portugal’s southern coast is a land of holiday villas and sun-kissed beaches where the season starts early and lingers long. October, far less crowded than July or August, can usually be relied upon for a succession of warm – occasionally hot - sunny days.

But the Algarve has a west coast too, 50km of it running northwards from Cape St Vincent. Mostly it is a nature reserve where the prevailing westerlies drive Atlantic breakers against the rocks. The beaches here are wilder and more remote, the haunt of seabirds and surfers - all the main beaches have their surf schools.

Surfers, Bordeira Beach, October 2013

We often spend a day on the west coast, this year in warm sunshine, but sometimes in biting wind. The information in this post is drawn from a number of trips, the first in 1982. The photographs, though, all come from the last eight years.

Cape St Vincent is usually referred to as Europe’s most southwesterly point. Most southerly or northerly are well defined, but southwesterly is not; if you head SW and keep going you end up at the South Pole. Nearby Sagres is further South, Lisbon is further west, but a glance at the map suggests it would be pedantic to dispute Cape St Vincent’s romantic if strictly unverifiable claim.
Cape St Vincent, October 2009

The cape is a high windswept promontory. There is little there except a car park, a food van boasting the ‘last burger before America’, a lighthouse and the remains of a Capuchin Monastery. Relics of the martyred St Vincent were brought here in the 8th century, but were removed to Lisbon in 1173.The monastery survived the loss of its relics, the vandalism of Sir Francis Drake in 1597 and the great earthquake of 1755, but was no match for the suppression of the monasteries that followed the Liberal Revolution of 1820.
Looking up the west coast from Cape St Vincent. October 2009

Nine naval encounters between 1337 and 1833 carry the name Battle of Cape St Vincent. The biggest, in 1797, was a British victory over a Spanish fleet in the French Revolutionary War. The British fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir John Jervis who became the Earl of St Vincent for his troubles. Jervis (like this blog) was born near Stone in Staffordshire, where he is also buried.

The shelf-like promontory of Sagres, October 2009

 If Cape St Vincent is Portugal’s Land’s End, Sagres is The Lizard. Beyond the large village, which was established after the 1755 earthquake, is the Fortaleza. Cut off behind forbidding stone walls on a shelf-like promontory high above the Atlantic is the place where Henry the Navigator reputedly established his school of navigation. Vasco da Gama who pioneered the sea route to India (we met him in Cochin), Pedro Alvares Cabral who followed him to India, incidentally ‘discovering’ Brazil on the way – an eccentric piece of navigation - and Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe, all studied here. Despite his sobriquet, Henry never navigated anything anywhere, but he was, in his way, the originator of these great journeys. When he died in 1460 the centre of maritime studies moved to Lisbon and Sagres returned to obscurity.
The Fortaleza, Sagres, October 2005

In 1982 we simply parked on the coastal scrub and walked into the fort. Now there is an elaborate road system, a large car park and an entrance fee. What you get though, is much the same; an old church, a huge compass rose and a lot of atmosphere. You can even stand by a cannon and gaze across the bay to Cape St Vincent (or stand with your back to it, as I am in the picture.)

Cape St Vincent across the bay from Sagres, October 2005
8km North of Sagres is Vila do Bispo, the ancient capital of Portugal’s southwest corner and the place where the N-125 along the south coast meets the west coast N-268. When we first visited in 1982 the N-125 became smaller and bumper the further west you travelled and Vila do Bispo was an isolated oasis of civilization crouched on a rocky plateau and surrounded by dilapidated windmills. Now the N-125 is a major road and as former hamlets like Budens and Raposeira sprout holiday villas by the hundred and the tentacles of development creep ever closer, that air of isolation is fading. A 1990’s Rough Guide to Portugal described Vila do Bispo as ‘…a pretty little town with a lovely old church … [where] … nothing much happens.’ Despite the encroaching villas, that description remains largely accurate.
Vila do Bispo, October 2013

Dilapidated windmills can be found throughout the Algarve, though particularly in the windy west. Most are just stumps of brick and although a few still have their sails none, as far as I know, are in working order. Now, after a century or so of neglect, wind power has become important again and wind turbines dot the landscape, harvesting the energy of the prevailing westerlies.
Wind turbines near Vila do Bispo, October 2013

A line of windswept beaches Aguia, Castelejo, Cordama and others are accessible from Vila do Bispo on roads some of which are tarmacked. We have been to Castelejo, and maybe others, I remember photographing the surf school, but that was in the days before digital cameras and despite rummaging in the cupboards, I can find no photographic evidence.
Amado Beach, October 2005

Further north the beaches of Amado and Bordeira are also surfer’s beaches. They can be reached from the N-268 on sealed roads, but the road that connects them along the cliffs, despite its frequent viewpoints and boardwalks, has no tarmac.

Lynne and Bordeira Beach, October 2013
The village of Bordeira, as distinct from its beach, is several kilometres inland and on the other side of the N-268. Wrapped round the base of a low hill, Bordeira is a wonderfully unspoilt example of an Algarve village. There are no holiday villas here, just the old houses, well maintained and freshly whitewashed.

Bordeira, October 2013
This year we stopped for coffee in the village café where few concessions are made to tourists. Three or four locals had spread themselves and their Sunday papers (Portuguese tabloids are as lurid and fact-free as their British cousins) over the outside tables whilst the owner stood by the roadside skinning a rabbit. I am happy to report she carefully washed her hands before making our coffee.

Bordeira, October 2013
A little further on, a road running northwest from the end of the A-22 motorway joins the N-268. We often come to the west coast this way, winding through the low wind turbine crowned hills beneath the warm, fragrant pines, past eucalyptus and cork oaks, the bark stripped to head height.

The N-268 crosses the Ribeira da Cerca at Aljezur, the river splitting the town in two. According to the old Rough Guide I quoted earlier ‘… to the west of the river is the drab old Moorish town, straggling along the side of a hill below the ruins of a 10th century castle.’
Aljezur, October 2005
I have to take issue with the word ‘drab’. Making your way up through Aljezur’s charming old streets you reach the castle. There is not enough left of it to justify the effort, but the views over the old town....

Alzejur old town from the castle, October 2005
 across the countryside…
Countryside below Aljezur Castle, October 2005
…and to the sea beyond are ample reward.
A distant view of the sea from Aljezur Castle, October 2005

The ‘new’ town across the river was built 200 years ago as ‘the old site was an unhealthy, mosquito infected place.’ The mosquitoes are long gone, and the ‘new’ town is a bit dull by comparison.

Odeceixe is the last village in the Algarve. It sits below the road hunched under a hill topped with a dilapidated windmill. In the much restored village centre is a small coffee shop which sells a fine almond cake and what may be the definitive Portuguese apple cake, which may account for our repeated visits.
Odeceixe, September 2010

Keeping your nerve and driving through what appears to be a pedestrianised area but isn’t.......

The centre of Odeceixe - not really pedestrianized, October 2010 can follow a small road down the side of the valley of the little Ribeira da Odeceixe which for its last 20km forms the boundary between the Algarve and the Alentejo. At the end of the road is the hamlet of Praia de Odeceixe overlooking a large and often windswept beach.

Sometimes the sun shines, Praia de Odeceixe, September 2010

The river flows along the northern edge of the beach until it reaches the sea.

Sometime you need wrap up against the wind
Praia de Odeceixe, November 2008

Venturing into the Alentejo you reach Zambujeira do Mar, the only out-and-out holiday resort on this stretch of coast. We visited on a warm, sunny September day, but unlike on the south coast, the season was clearly over, the beach was almost deserted.....

Zambujeira Beach, September 2010

 and so was the town.
Zambujeira, September 2010
Here, having gone beyond the bounds of the Algarve, this post ends. The climate along the Algarve’s south coast is the most benign in Europe. The west coast can be warm, even in October, but the frequent wind means the climate here is ideal only for surfers.  Consequently the west receives far fewer visitors, but that does not mean it is not worth a trip.

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