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Sunday, June 12, 2011, in Lagos, Portugal

Hi all. We’ve just arrived in Lagos, Portugal. Last week, we had just arrived in Cascais, north of here. We’re making very good progress, almost too good, toward the Mediterranean.

Late in the 19th century, the Portuguese royal family discovered the coastal Lisbon suburb of Cascais, and it has since been a resort for the rich and the regular, for Portuguese and foreigners. The marina is new and surrounded by shops that undoubtedly earn all of their profits from holiday splurges in hot weather. During our stay in the marina, the restaurants were empty and the shops were closed most of the time.

It was our intention to use Cascais as a base for visiting Lisbon, which would have required a frustrating and unnecessary motor if we’d want to go all the way to a marina in town. But Cascais is delightful in its own right. Here’s an example. During our stay, they launched the celebration of the anniversary of the municipality. But was it the 100th anniversary or the 500th anniversary or even the 250th? No, it’s the 647th anniversary. Not only is that not divisible by 100, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a prime number. I promise you this: when I turn 647, I don’t expect anyone to throw me a party.

But Cascais is appealing any day of the year. There are hundreds of fish traps piled on a dock along the shore, overlooked by a cobblestone path leading to an old, well-preserved fort. The cobblestones are patterned in black and white; the wave pattern on the uneven courtyard of the town hall almost makes you feel dizzy.

We spent our first day without leaving Cascais, a combination of exploring the town and completing boat tasks. On our second day, we took the train along the shore to Lisbon.

Lisbon is one of the oldest cities of the world, but not much of the historical city is left. In 1755, an 8.5-9.0 magnitude earthquake, with a successive fire and tsunami, destroyed about 85% of the city and killed somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people (and 10,000 more in Morocco). The train swooshed along the banks of the river Tagus (Tejo). Close to Lisbon proper was a long row of riverside museums. A bridge that’s almost identical to the Golden Gate straddles the river and profiles an enormous Christ the King monument atop a hill on the other bank. It’s a little disconcerting to look across the Golden Gate and see Rio de Janeiro on the other side.

The train station in town wasn’t far from the historic district, but we’d come in through a suburban rail line, and there was no information booth in sight. As a result, we explored the town all day using the map provided by a tour company. The map didn’t have many street names because you don’t need to know streets when they’re driving you around. And it was a little hard to see the names of the places the tour passes, because they’re covered by the wide, colorful pen strokes outlining each route. When we did happen to find the information kiosk, it was during the hour that it was closed. So we used this map all day.

We did have the help of my guidebook, which described places and suggested a walking tour. Our own exploration took us through the tony shops of the Chiado neighborhood. Nearly every sidewalk is made of cobblestone, and many of them have embedded patterns. On large plazas we saw the same dizzying wave pattern we’d seen in Cascais, but even the normal walkways had designs, or the addresses of the adjacent buildings. Façades of buildings were decorated with tile, most often the blue designs we’d seen in Porto, but often just a tiled face, top to bottom.

We strolled past the Santa Justa elevator tower, designed by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. But our vertical climb in Lisbon was provided by Tram 28. Electric trams built in the 1930s and 1940s are still in use in Lisbon, and one of those lines runs through the historic area we wanted to see. We picked up Tram 28 near the river (and importantly, near sea level) and rode it up to the end of the line. It’s not a big trolley, but it’s only the tiniest amount narrower than the little streets we climbed. Occasionally, we’d spot the 28 coming the other direction, and in many cases, the tracks converged. Thus we were often delayed at tiny red lights, waiting for the downward bound tram to pass before we were on our way. It was like being a passenger in a model train set.

On the route, we saw important monuments like the Sé, the main cathedral, real neighborhoods, where people chatted with their neighbors in the street and reluctantly moved out of the way when we came by. After we disembarked at the end of the route, we walked its course back down, a very civilized method of negotiating Lisbon’s hills.

By the time we got back to the boat, the wind hadn’t abated, and clouds were sprinkling randomly. We rethought our notion about dinner out, and settled in for the night.

We’d also done some rethinking about sailing days. There’s a wind routine along the Atlantic coast. The winds are light in the morning, and aren’t really sailable until at least late morning if you’re heading south (the winds come from the north, so they seem lighter when you’re moving away from them.) Already, we hadn’t been in our former habit of leaving at first light, but we began to realize that there’s little incentive to leave and then have to motor for a few hours, especially if the end point of the day is an anchorage.

So we delayed our departure until ten and managed not to leave until 9:30 (old habits and all.) And we were able to sail out of the harbor at Cascais. The winds picked up all day, as always, and were nearly twenty knots behind us by the time we reached our destination. The place was Sines (it used to be spelled Sinus.) It’s pronounced…cinch. Sheesh.

Web sites about Sines warned of the oil refineries, the commercial port, and the industrial aroma, but that wasn’t my first impression.

There’s an outside commercial harbor and a small entrance between breakwaters to the marina. We anchored just outside the marina. On shore, there’s a fortification that lends the landscape a fairy-tale quality. The arches on the otherwise nondescript houses up the hillside make you think about elves.

Sines doesn’t have all that much more historical significance than the neighboring areas, even though artifacts remain from the Punic era (first millennium BC.) It was the birthplace of fifteenth-century explorer Vasco da Gama. He was the commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. In fact, the cute castle overlooking the harbor was da Gama’s home.

In the morning, a short dinghy ride took us to the marina, and we cleared our arrival with the security man at reception. He gave us a map of the tiny town and suggested the two ways to the main area (one is to take the road in front of the castle, and the other is the road behind the castle.) He appeared partial to the front road that also took us in front of the church, so that’s the way we went.

First, we walked along the wide beachfront promenade Vasco da Gama. I’m not much of a beachgoer, but when you’re boating, you’re most often in resort communities, and the beach is a coveted aspect of a resort. My guidebook barely mentions Sines as a destination, even though it hosts the World Music Festival, the largest in Portugal. One of the sailing sites we saw seemed nearly surprised that Sines has “blue flag” status, a designation for the best-kept beaches. When we walked by the Sines beach, I got frustrated with all of them. This is a fantastic beach area.

The beach itself is impeccably groomed. You can barely see the hint of a commercial harbor in the distance. Instead, you’re treated in front of you to the expanse of the Atlantic, sheltered by breakwaters. On one side of you, there’s a fishing harbor with colorful small boats awaiting their calling, on the other, the yacht marina. There’s a paved promenade for walking with a tiny parcourse for exercise. Well above you, you’re protected by Vasco da Gama’s castle. On the beach itself, there are giant water toys in the shape of animals, a volleyball court cordoned off, and a cafeteria, where you can stick to beanbag seats while you drink beer and contemplate the sea. In the morning, the beach is apparently groomed by a large vehicle, and then a man with a small motorized tool does what appears to be polishing the sand.

Then there were the little striped tents that I imagine can be rented as a changing room. The bright colors made me think about Gigi:

“The pink villa.”
“I only remember the blue villa…the one belonging to the soprano.”

Like other towns where the coast drops sharply, the walk to town is largely vertical. In Sines’ case, the town has provided several sets of stone stairs, in groups that each mimic the height of one floor of a building, and with flat “landings” where someone has considerately planted benches. You never know when you just can’t face another set of stairs.

The old part of the town is closest to the cliff overlooking the sea. No shops stuffed with pareos, and swimming noodles, and kitschy souvenirs. No bar district reeking of old beer and covered with graffiti. Just an old town, with white cobblestones and black mosaic patterns that keep the cars from going too fast. The castle, under constant restoration. A modern complex of stone (to mimic the construction of the nearby castle), with an exhibition area, cinema, and library.

Of course, all of this serenity means that there isn’t that much to do. We stopped for coffee and a pastry, and walked through the old town and out to the suburbs. There we found an enormous supermarket and restored our pantry (which, possibly due to in-town pastries, large lazy lunches, and afternoon snacks, never seems to subside.)

The tourist information center had made several suggestions for our lunch, and we walked up to a restaurant that overlooked the sea. The woman was helpful to us in interpreting the menu, even though we shared absolutely no words in common. We ordered a salad to split, a plate of grilled octopus, and a regional specialty of this area (Alentejo) called feijoada de búzios. This is a stew of white beans and “dog whelks”, which are sea snails, with bits of ham. It’s sort of like hot dogs and baked beans if the hot dogs were snails. Anyway, all of the portions were almost too generous, and though we’re big eaters, we only made a small dent in the stew.

The stew came out in an aluminum pot with a lid, a pot of the size I would use to make a portion of rice for eight people. Art kept insisting that she’d brought out the pot from the stove, that we weren’t expected to eat all of it, and that she’d take the rest back and serve it to the next patron. Of course, that’s as wrong in Portugal as it is at home, and luckily for us, language didn’t prevent us from arranging to put the remainder of our lunch in an aluminum tray for a dinner onboard sometime. So this is why we don’t ever seem to need to buy food at the supermarket.

The castle itself is the main attraction in town, and the inside houses a museum with local antiquities going back to Paleolithic times. It’s free to enter, and the collection is impressive without overtaxing the attention span. We met a man inside who was carefully recreating the designs on some stone steles. He told us that this is the best collection of Visigoth antiquities in Portugal. I can’t argue with that.

Our next port was Lagos, a long day’s sail. We decided to accomplish it in two pieces, one long day sail to the Algarve, the coastal part of Portugal that goes east to west rather then north to south, and a short jaunt east to Lagos.

The sail was uneventful, and we anchored off of a busy beach just around the corner from Point Sao Vicente, the southwest corner of Portugal. It was windy when we anchored, and windy again when we pulled up the anchor in the morning. By late morning, we’d registered with the marina in Lagos and settled in our berth.

We’d timed our visit to occur before the rates rose for summer in mid-June. It wouldn’t be possible to escape high rates for the rest of the season, but this marina, with its attached spa and “club”, whatever that might be, has a steep price for any season. We’d need to be planted at Lagos, because we’d arranged for some parts to be delivered and some unfinished work from Vigo to be completed.

Lagos is a tourist town, where people no doubt use land transportation to visit, but it’s welcoming and attractive even from the sea. It’s up a channel, with a waterfront street of restaurants and shops along one side, tourist-friendly services along the other. The marina is on the far side of a pedestrian bridge that traverses the canal. We tied up on the reception dock and went into the modern main building with our ship’s papers. Once registered, we went back to the boat and untied our lines, darted through the bridge, which had magically opened for us, and met two dockhands at our slip. It’s expensive, but it’s a high-service marina, and I appreciate their help.

Hope everything is great at home. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)