Lagos and Ponta da Piedade

Lagos and Ponta da Piedade

Lagos 09 - Copy

Lagos

Henry the Navigator, the non-seafaring prince who established a school of navigation on the Algarve and financed naval expeditions to West Africa in the 15th century, looks out to sea from Praça do Infante Dom Henrique, gazing upon the harbour from where his expeditions, which made Lagos a major trading port, started. In Praça da República is the former Customs House and the slave market dating from 1444, in the arcades underneath the building, where African slaves arriving in Europe were sold to the highest bidder. This building is a reminder of this dark period of history and may explain why Henry has such a grave look on his face. Nowadays the site of the slave market houses an art exhibition commemorating the victims of this terrible trade.

Another Portuguese hero commemorated in Lagos is King Sebastian, the 16th-century boy-king (he became king at the age of three), who looks out over Praça Gil Eanes. A very misguided attack on Morocco in 1578 resulted in the 24-year-old king’s death, along with 8000 of his troops, including most of the male line of the Portuguese royal family. This reckless act ultimately resulted in Portugal losing its independence to Spain for 60 years. A myth developed around Sebastian based on an idea that he wasn’t really dead and would one day return to rule Portugal. Sebastian rallied his troops for the fateful expedition into Morocco from the window of the Santa Maria church in Praça do Infante Dom Henrique, just behind the statue of Henry the Navigator. But it is the statue in Praça Gil Eanes that drew our attention. Sculpted by João Cutileiro in the early 1970s, it looks like a cross between a spaceman and David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era.

Local hero Gil Eanes has his own statue, not in Praça Gil Eanes, as you might think, but in a park near a surviving section of the town wall, opposite the fort. Eanes’ most famous expedition was when he successfully rounded the previously unchartable Cape Bojado in 1434 which opened the way for the exploration of west Africa.

Once we had paid homage to Henry and Sebastian’s legacies we discovered that there are only a few other places of minor interest in Lagos to keep a tourist occupied for a few hours. Praça Luís de Camões, located just up from Praça Gil Eanes, is a very peaceful square with decorative cobbled paving surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century buildings with very attractive windows, doors and filigree balconies. The square is a nice place to have a drink and watch the world go by. The Santo António church on Rua General Alberto Silveira is worth a detour for the azulejos (the Portuguese blue and white tiles) and ornate gilt and wood carvings. There is also a small museum next door to the church with an eclectic display of objects.

We spent some time wandering around the market taking in the sights and smells of the various stalls selling local produce, ranging from freshly caught fish to cakes and preserves made with locally grown almonds, figs, oranges and honey. From the roof of the market there is a view over the marina and the river. At the southernmost end of the river where it meets the sea is the Forte Ponta da Bandeira, built as a fortification in the 17th century to protect the entrance to the harbour. If you wish to go inside the fort you can pay the €3 entrance fee, which will give you access to a small exhibition about the age of discoveries inside. Next to this is the small but busy town beach. However, the best beaches are about a mile or so outside of the town in both directions, which is also where most of the tourist hotels are located. The lack of large tourist hotels in the centre of Lagos allows it to remain a more traditional Portuguese town and, in fact, its main income comes from fishing rather than tourism. However, it has its fair share of restaurants and shops aimed at tourists, and, of course, along the sea front are endless booths offering boat trips accompanied by the inevitable hard sell!

From the riverfront road, Av. dos Descobrimentos, you can catch the tourist ‘train’ south to the pretty beach of Praia Dona Ana (which was voted one of the best beaches in Europe by Trip Advisor reviewers) and on to the promontory of Ponta da Piedade, one of the most stunning rock formations in the Algarve. This ‘train’ will also take you in the opposite direction to one of the biggest beaches in the area, the 4km expanse of Meia Praia. Beware, the train journey can be very bumpy and uncomfortable in some places where the road is less than perfect!

Ponta da Piedade is the highlight of a trip to Lagos. We were initially discouraged by the area at the top of the cliff where the tourist ‘train’ dropped us off. It is an ugly area where the tour buses stop, with a café and gift shop both aimed at the many tourists who pass through. It is the site of the lighthouse and there is also an unassuming shrine depicting Jesus in the tomb, which seemed incongruous in the midst of all the tourist activity. Round the corner from the café there are some good views of the coastline to the east of Lagos and, on a clear day, as far as Carvoeiro, but it was not until we climbed down the very steep steps to the viewing platform at the bottom, overlooking the arches, caves and fragments of rocks which have been eroded into interesting shapes by the sea, that the sheer scale and drama of the seascape was revealed. Was it my imagination or did one of the rocks look like a horse feeding from the sea? I later learnt that the local fishermen have names for each of the rocks, the strangest of which is General de Gaulle! You can also view these rocks from the sea by taking a boat trip from the marina, but having seen a little boat being thrown around on the rough sea as it tried to pass through an arch I decided to decline this offer. If you are lucky you will manage to avoid arriving at Ponta da Piedade at the same time as the many coach tours. If you are unlucky enough to arrive at the same time, be warned that the steps are quite narrow and the viewing platform at the bottom isn’t very big. The best time to visit Ponta da Piedade is at sunset. The ever-changing colours of the rocks are said to be stunning and maybe next time we will be able to stay until dusk, but for the time being we will have to make do with our photographs of the polychromatic standstone rocks against the bright blue sky and sparkling blue-green sea.

Getting there

Lagos is on the west coast of the Algarve, between Portimao and Sagres. It is easily accessible by bus from Lagoa. There are two routes – the fast route that goes to Lagos direct from Portimão and the slower route which goes via Portimão, Praia da Rocha and Alvor. It’s a slower but prettier journey.

You can also get a train to Lagos from the east of the Algarve, as it is the start and end point of the Algarve Line railway that goes the length of the Algarve from Lagos to the Spanish-border town of Vila Real de Santo António.

Ponte Da Piedade 07 - Copy

 

Festivals, Lagoa Jazz Festival 2015, Live music

Lagoa Jazz Festival 2015

549w

Held annually at the Sítio das Fontes in Estômbar, only 12 km inland from Carvoeiro but one of the Algarve’s best-kept secrets, the Lagoa Jazz Festival is an annual event that is loyally attended by the local residents, but hardly makes it onto the radar of the tourists staying in the nearby beach resorts. The idea of jazz on a summer’s night in stunning surroundings is a tantalising combination and on a hot June evening we arrived at the Sítio das Fontes before sunset with the plan of walking around the nature reserve before it got dark. Not surprisingly, but disappointingly, the organizers of the jazz festival wouldn’t allow this, so instead we found a seat near the bar overlooking the lake and watched the amazing sunset. As evening turned to night more and more people arrived and the queue for the bar and food stall made getting another drink inconceivable. However, just around the corner from the bar, was a stall promoting local wine and we bought a refreshing bottle of local Marquês dos Vales white wine, which we were able to enjoy throughout the concert. We took our seats in the small purpose-built amphitheatre, ready for the 10 pm start. Some temporary extra rows had been added for the jazz festival, but the theatre space remained intimate and even though we sat at the back, we had an excellent view of the stage. Olivier Ker Ourio (chromatic harmonica) and Manuel Rocheman (piano) opened the festival. Their music was an emotionally expressive combination of Rocheman’s Bill Evans-inspired piano style and Ker Ourio’s harmonica playing, reminiscent of Toots Thielemans.

After an interval the dynamic The Postcard Brass Band, made up of Mário Marques (soprano and tenor saxophone), Michael Lauren (drums), Sérgio Carolino (sousaphone) and Rúben Santos (trombone) blazed onto the stage. The night was hot and their music was hotter. Their brash eclectic style of music, a combination of traditional, free and improvisational jazz was a fantastic way to end the night.

Although for many the night didn’t end there. Around the bar area there were CD and other merchandising stalls, areas showing photos and videos from previous jazz festivals, a chill-out zone and other entertainment still in full swing.

Practicalities

Tickets in 2015 cost €8 each. We bought our tickets online in advance from Ticketline: www.ticket.line.pt. They can also be bought from two locations in Lagoa: the Convento de S. José and the Auditório Municipal. You can also buy them on the door on the night.

For details of this year’s jazz festival go to: www.lagoajazzfest.com

There is no public transport to the Sítio das Fontes, so you will either have to drive or take a taxi. If you drive there is a large car park at the nature reserve.

Tavira

Tavira

 

 

0001 (419)

It was an inauspicious start. We took the wrong road to the railway station in Portimão and nearly missed the train. Still feeling stressed by the time we stopped at a café in the Praça da República for lunch upon our arrival in Tavira I learned that the café had run out of salad and I was unable to have the tuna salad I had been looking forward to and I settled instead on the biggest tuna toasted sandwich I have ever seen, but ruined by too much mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. Feeling underwhelmed with Tavira thus far, we checked into our guesthouse, which proved to be a wonderful find, restoring my faith in Tavira. Encumbered by nothing but a camera and a map I confess I fell in love with this pretty little fishing town in the eastern Algarve. I recently read that if we focus too much time on taking photos of something rather than just looking at it, then the image doesn’t stay in our memory. I’m sure that this is true, but Tavira is so photogenic from all angles and at all times of the day and night it is impossible not to want to photograph it over and over.

Without a real plan, but just a short list of ‘must see’ places, we wandered back to the Praça da República, where I had had my disappointing lunch. Looking at it with new eyes, it was now an attractive square with fountains, a small amphitheatre and historical buildings – a perfect place to sit and watch the world go by. The square is close to the River Gilão, over which two charming bridges have been built, the Ponte Romana (which means Roman Bridge, but was actually built in the 17th century) and the Ponte das Forças Armadas (Armed Forces Bridge). The river and the bridges kept drawing us back like magnets and we later discovered that a large number of our many photographs of Tavira were of the river and bridges, in the afternoon and morning light, at sunset and after dark. Each time of day offered a different aspect, including the rising and falling of the water level, which left flights of steps leading from the riverfront houses into the river seemingly floating in mid-air. One of my favourite photographs is of a local fisherman standing knee deep in the river fishing for clams, oysters, cockles, razor clams and conch oblivious of the tourist activity around him. Tavira is still a working fishing port; on the quayside is the Docapesca building where fishing boats unload their catch.

Despite its beauty, Tavira is less touristy than places in the western Algarve; even places designed for tourists seemed more understated. There are several places worth a visit, but not one thing to draw tourists to Tavira, apart from Tavira itself. The remains of the castle at the top of Travessa da Fonte, a hill leading from the Praça da República, is a quiet, pleasant place to wander around. We climbed up to the top of the castle walls, which gave impressive views over Tavira, allowing us to see the pyramid-shaped roofs which are a distinctive feature of Tavira’s buildings. We wandered around the small gardens within the castle walls, a peaceful, shady place with trees and flowers. A short walk back down the Travessa da Fonte is the Igreja da Misericórdia, a church built in the 16th century, which contains an impressive series of azulejos (the famous blue and white Portuguese tiles) depicting the acts of mercy. It also has a stunning gilt alter and a doll-like Our Lady of Mercy in a glass case. The outside of the church has an renaissance-style carved stone doorway, showing Our Lady of Mercy flanked by St Peter and St Paul. Not having decided where to go next, we were approached on the steps of the church by a young woman who said the words that makes every tourist’s heart sink, ‘Do you speak English?’. We reluctantly said we did, wondering what she was selling, but were pleasantly surprised when she informed us about a fado centre, Fado Com História, opposite the church, where a live fado performance was going to start in 30 minutes. Having never seen live fado, I was intrigued and after a short break to have some fig ice-cream (which I had been informed is a Tavira speciality, but which is not something I need to try again – it left me very thirsty) we returned to Rua Damião Augusto de Brito  to the small building where Fado Com História is based and paid the reasonable entrance fee of €5 each. The show starts with a film about the history of fado, but the real highlight is seeing and hearing live fado performed in an intimate setting. Two guitarists and a singer performed a range of fado songs. The show lasted 30 minutes and was thoroughly entertaining. It was a little disconcerting to walk out into daylight after the show finished, as it is something I associate with late-night fado clubs in Lisbon, not six o’clock in the evening in the sunny Algarve. We had worked up a thirst and decided to return to the Praça da República to have a some reviving sangria. After my disastrous lunch experience I was nervous about returning to the square, but we found a nice bar opposite the town hall with its attractive arcade and spent a pleasant hour indulging in our favourite pastime of people watching.

We meandered our way along the narrow cobbled back streets, admiring the azulejo-covered walls of houses and shops, back to the guesthouse, taking time to investigate the personality-less Mercado Velho (Old Market, which is now made up of souvenir shops and restaurants) and the tranquil Jardim do Coreto park, with its enchanting 19th-centry bandstand, noticing the old men who gather there to chew the fat, ignoring the intrusive tourists with their cameras.

After a shower and a change of clothes we headed up the Calçada de Dona Ana to the Pousada do Convento da Graça on Rua D. Paio Peres Correia. We had considered staying here during our time in Tavira, as I liked the idea of sleeping in a former convent, but my research revealed that the pousada, which is run by the Pestana chain, has been modernised into a luxurious, but expensive, hotel. After asking permission to look around the hotel at the reception desk we walked into the well-preserved original 16th-century cloister around which the hotel is built. The adjacent bar and swimming pool area are disappointingly modern. In addition to the cloister, the exterior of the pousada has maintained its original features and it is worth walking up the hill for this if nothing else. We headed back down the hill to the river to find a restaurant for dinner. We are experienced travellers and have been to enough tourist destinations to know that the restaurants in the most desirable locations generally do not serve the best quality food, however, the lure of sitting at a riverside table overlooking the Ponte Romana and the landmark clock tower of the Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo (which strangely has clocks on different walls of the tower telling different times!), was hard to resist. Not surprisingly the meal was underwhelming and the waitress acted as if she would rather be anywhere than there. After Neil had returned our cold chips to the kitchen and got some hot ones the rest of the meal was fine: the portions were good, the house wine was more than acceptable and it was the cheapest meal we have had in the Algarve. We were coming to the conclusion that customer service in this area of the Algarve is a little bit less slick, but, refreshingly, a little less cynical than in the western Algarve resorts, where tourism is more developed.

The next day, rather than eating breakfast in the hotel, we found a pastelaria (cake/pastry shop) on a side street and ordered a breakfast of pasteis de nata (custard tarts) and coffee. I love the selection of savoury and sweet pastries on offer in most pastelarias, but confess an addiction to the ubiquitous custard tarts. We had two hours to kill before our train left, so decided to walk around the town again, making sure we hadn’t missed anything. The previous day we hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the architecture, but in the morning light our eyes were drawn to the buildings. A lot of Tavira’s charm is due to the 18th-century town houses with their wrought-iron balconies and attractive windows and doors, particularly those that line the river front, which were built after the town was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1755. The houses were lived in by merchants when Tavira was the main trading port in the Algarve. Strange as it may sound, the doors of these townhouses are much photographed, due to their graceful designs. Prints of photographs of these doors are sold in the town’s gift shops. After revisiting many of the places we had been to the previous day, and taking more photographs of them in the morning light, we made the short walk to Tavira railway station, which itself is also photogenic. Two statues outside the station showing a young couple waving goodbye (or hello) to each other were quite moving. Inside the station is a beautiful azulejos of the Roman Bridge over the River Gilão. I left Tavira feeling I hadn’t seen a lot in terms of tourist attractions, but the beauty of the town left me with an ineffable sensation, and this sensation has stayed with me for a long time since my visit.

Getting there

We travelled by train from Portimão, a journey which took approximately 2 hours. The train was a direct one, but on some you may have to change at Faro. There are several trains a day, but they don’t run late at night. A one-way ticket costs €8.40 (as of March 2016).

Accomodation

We stayed at the Calçada Guesthouse, Calçada de Dona Ana 12, a small guesthouse that has recently been renovated. It is on a quiet side street close to the river and the Praça da República. The communal areas were welcoming, with everything you could need, including free tea- and coffee-making facilities and even a very small fridge containing a bottle of milk, and. of course, free wi-fi. There is a lovely rooftop area where breakfast is served, but we didn’t make use of this. The rooms were clean and well-equipped, including a welcome bottle of water in the room on arrival. We had a very comfortable night’s stay and Andy, the owner, was very welcoming and helpful. We paid €75 for a night’s stay (this didn’t include breakfast).

0001 (524)

 

Bacalhau à Brás, Food and drink

Bacalhau à Brás

 DSCN4577

It still amazes me that a fish that is not found off the shores of Portugal, and therefore has to be imported into the country, is the national dish of Portugal; particularly bearing in mind how many other types of fish can be found the sea around Portugal. But bacalhau (dried salted cod) is Portugal’s national dish and there are infinite ways of cooking it; it is said that there is a different bacalhau recipe for each day of the year. Cod is even the national dish of choice for Christmas dinner.

Bacalhau à Brás (Portuguese cod, egg and chips) is one of the most popular cod dishes. It is easy to cook and is ultimate comfort food. If you can’t get dried salted cod, the recipe works just as well with fresh cod, but you don’t need to leave it to soak first.

Serves 4

Ingredients

400g dried salted cod (or fresh cod)

500g potatoes

1.2 litres vegetable oil

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion

2 cloves of garlic

6 eggs

salt and pepper to taste

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

40 black olives

 

 Method

  • If you are using dried salted cod place it in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Leave it to soak for 12 hours. If you are using fresh cod you do not need to soak it.
  • Remove the skin and bones, and break the flesh apart.
  • Cut the potatoes into matchsticks. Heat the vegetable oil in a pan and fry the potatoes in the hot oil until light golden brown (approx. 7 minutes). Remove them from the pan and dry them on kitchen paper.
  • Cut the onion into thin rings and finely chop the garlic. Sweat the onion rings and the garlic in the olive oil in a deep pan until golden, then add the pieces of salt cod, and cook for a few minutes, until they soak up the oil.
  • Lightly beat the eggs. Add salt and pepper to the eggs.
  • Add the potatoes to the onion, garlic and cod mixture and stir whilst adding the lightly beaten eggs.
  • Stir for a few minutes, turning off the heat before the eggs solidify.
  • Serve hot, garnished with the chopped parsley and black olives.
Almond Tart, Food and drink

Almond Tart

IMG_0372

I first ate Almond Tart at O Cantinho restaurant in Carvoeiro. The combination of light sponge and nutty caramel topping was so good I was determined to recreate it when I got home. However, the first one I made, for a dinner party, had a topping more like an almond brittle than the soft caramel I had experienced in O Cantinho and my guests nearly broke their teeth on it. I have experimented with the recipe since then and after several attempts have now perfected a version that is very similar to O Cantinho’s. This recipe has a very light sponge topped with sliced almonds in a caramel sauce. It can be eaten on its own or served with crème fraiche or vanilla ice-cream.

Ingredients

Cake:

120g self-raising flour

150g granulated sugar

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 egg

100 ml plain yoghurt

20 ml milk

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

80g melted butter, cooled to room temperature

Almond Caramel Sauce:

150g granulated sugar

15 ml water

40g butter

100 ml single cream

40 ml golden syrup

⅛ tsp salt

100g sliced almonds

 

Method

  • Preheat oven to 180°C
  • Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  • Beat egg, yoghurt, milk and vanilla extract together until smooth. Stir in melted butter.
  • Add flour mixture and mix with spoon until nearly smooth.
  • Turn into a buttered 23 cm spring form cake tin.
  • Bake until centre of cake springs back when lightly touched, about 35 minutes.
  • Remove from oven.
Make the Almond Caramel Sauce:
  • Heat 75g sugar with 15 ml water in a pan until it turns a rich reddish brown.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter.
  • Add the remaining sugar, golden syrup, cream and salt.
  • Return to the heat and bring to the boil, watching that it doesn’t boil over.
  • Reduce the heat slightly and simmer for 4-5 minutes or until it reaches 130°C on a sugar thermometer.
  • Remove from the heat and stir the sliced almonds into the sauce.
  • Pour the sauce over the cake (still in the cake tin) while still hot and spread evenly.
  • Grill about 15 cm from heat until almonds are lightly toasted.
  • Cool on rack for 15 minutes.
  • Using knife or spatula, loosen sides between pan and cake, then cool completely before releasing the spring form cake tin.