Nut Shell: Historical Overview
Even today, Portugal, remains off the radar for most Americans, in regards to it's potential as a haven for tourism. This small nation continues to remain one of the least visited Western European countries, due to it's geographic location, logistical accessibility, and popular global travel trends which summon visitors to the French Riviera and such. All the while, due to this nations history of affordability, hoards of UK and German citizens, have frequented this hidden gem for years.
An upsurge in tourism, within the last few decades, bolstered by relative affordability, a rise in the availability of accommodations, membership in the European Union, and government investment in national infrastructure, Portugal has experienced a renewal. This upward trending pattern has breathed new life into the once thriving mercantile based empire and it's tarnished golden age of discovery. The rediscovery of the Algarve's bewitching beaches and the mild coastal climate, by the outside world, has been her enduring salvation.
Much like the Algarve Region of Portugal southern coastline, the nation itself has experienced many years of historical ebbs and flows. For centuries Portugal's geographic proximity (most southwestern nation in Europe) has lent an advantage to this small county, within regards to trade, commerce, and maritime advancements, that other nations could only have dream of. Portugal has existed as a crossroads for many cultural, religious, political, philosophical and ethnic exchanges.
Within the distant past, the Iberian Peninsula was one of the most contested regions in the world. It's proximity to Africa and it's limitless access to both the Atlantic and Mediterranean maritime trade routes were both admired and envied by all. Portugal and Spain interacted with other regional civilizations such as the ancient seafaring Phoenicians and the Moorish invaders from the south for millennia. And the Moors actually invaded portions of both countries and ruled for approximately 700 years until the Moors were pushed back across the Mediterranean.
During the Age of Discovery (1500-1700) advances in maritime sciences and navigation gave Portugal an extensive advantage. These advances allowed for superior ships, navigation techniques, better technology, and mapping, which thus made Portugal one of the riches and most competitive empires of all time. The Age of Discovery also motivated a push in the acquiring, securing, and managing of colonies and trading ports in both Africa and the Americas. Spreading Catholicism across the world piggybacked on the missions of explorers, merchants, and slave traders. During it's heyday, this compact and strategically located country expanded it's trade across the globe and it's oceans in pursuit of natural resources, land, commodities, gold, and slaves.
Since pushing out the Moors of North Africa, Portugal has enjoyed a relatively solitary existence for nearly 800 years within the confines of it's current boarder. Even though both Portugal and Spain share boarders and make up what is today referred to as the Iberian Peninsula, she all the while keeps a close eye on her neighbor due to sharing in a checkered past. Each country has carefully maintained a distinguished language and a unique set of customs and heritage. This steadfast existence has more recently allowed for a stretch of relative tranquility, stability, and some economic success.
Planning & Dreaming
We earmarked a month or so in early summer (2014) to visit the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal & Spain) in addition to dedicating 5 days or so to Tangier in Northern Morocco. We were both in desperate need of breaking up the monotony, routine, and self denial, which had been our lives for over 7 years (investing time, money, and energy into a higher education). This month long trip was one of the carrots at the end of the stick, the motivating factors which helped us wake up each and every morning and to "do it all over again."
Although we were both seasoned travelers and had few doubts concerning our ability to navigate and enjoy a trip well balance in unbridled excitement (spontaneity and flying by the seat of our pants) and methodical planning (knowing hours and location of fairy crossing to Tangiers) we utilized snippets of our time here and there, leading up to the trip, to dream about our trip and vicariously travel by reading online blogs and guide books.
We flew into Lisbon in early May and carefully made our way to the southern coast of Portugal by various means of transportation (metro, train, bus, by foot). Due to timing, sleep deprivation, and an aversion to traveling after dark in unfamiliar places, we spent our first night in Lagos. Rick Steve's Portugal (5th Edition) was helpful and we were able to stay in one of his suggested budget accommodations. After some walking and haggling, we secured a modest "cuarto" several blocks up off the main drag (which hugged the marina and coastline). We dumped out heavy back packs and walked down the cobbled street to an open air seafood restaurant that appeared to have reasonably prices on fresh fish.
Travel Note: One of the good things about traveling earlier in the season is that the lack of air-conditioning (common place) is easier to adapt to when transitioning into the slower paced and often times more modest Portugese way of life - Especially if traveling on a shoestring budget.
The following morning we woke up to sun beams which flooded our second floor room and the bustle and bustle of street activities in the old historic part of Lagos. We threw on our packs, had an espresso and sweet bread along the way to meet our bus, which would take us the rest of the way to our "first stop" on the Portugal coast prior to embarking east and south to Spain and Morocco.
Basic Logistics & Transportation
We caught the earliest bus out of Lagos to the seaside town to Salema - The mild salty air flowed throughout the bus due to the opened sliding bus windows and of course due to the frequent opening and closing of both bus doors. Most bus passengers are quiet and courteous and tend to their own affairs while traveling along - Neither of us ever felt terribly annoyed or threatened. The bus drivers run a tight ship and didn't put up or tolerate any funny business (ie. individuals who are not properly dressed, etc. - no shoes, no shirt, no service). The bus ride flew along as we gawked over the agricultural fields laden with oranges and olives and of course the past and present architectural structures which abounded the countryside.
The trip from Lagos to Salema takes nearly 30 minutes and costs a mere fraction of what a taxi might charge (also the rates are set and there is safety in traveling on the bus with others). We found that traveling by bus (shorter commutes or day trips) within Portugal and by train (longer distances) were the most reliable and most economical forms of transport (and of course being able to walk distances is a plus).
Travel Note: There are no practical reasons to hire a taxi or to rent a car, if you are traveling along the southern coast, especially of you want to travel light, be unhindered by finding parking spaces, and to be free of breakdowns and associated worries.
Random Trivia: Stucco, concrete, and stone dredged from countryside quarries are the foundation of all buildings and construction projects along the coast. South of Lisban and north of Tunis, rugged mountains and forests abound, but the coast lacks lumber producing trees and has salty moist air (hastens decomposition, ie. mold), thus the reliance upon hard durable substances persists.
Little Slice Of Heaven
The public bus dropped us off at the small covered bus stop just on the towns northern periphery. We had all day to explore, haggle, and eventually decide upon a place to spend several days in Salema. No sooner had we hopping off the bus, adjusted our backpack load lifters, thumbed through our trusty Rick Steves travel guide book (to find the town map) but a stout tan middle aged woman approached us offering (from what we could gather) a place to rent.
We were initially hesitant and did not want to appear to eager. But we listened respectfully and then through a hodgepodge of Portuguese key words, unpolished Spanish, English, and gestures, we conveyed that we appreciated her offer, would look around a bit, but might be interested at some point. So we parted ways and did some scoping out of the downtown and a few affiliated business within close proximity. Since it was off season we didn't want to jump on the first opportunity but wanted to feel things out and possibly talk about things over another single shot espresso (We drank coffee several times a day under umbrellas at a small cafe... And loved every minute).
The woman settled herself within view (visited with town folk as she lingered). We eventually scoped out the competition; thus we felt that we had a general idea what was being charged for local accommodations (must know the range of prices prior to successfully haggling). After getting off our feet and recharging on caffeine we headed over to the woman who had initially engaged with us and asked if we could bother her to see the accommodations which she had spoken of... And we were both so thankful and relieved that we had taken a chance on the potential opportunity!
Come to find out, the accommodations consisted of a simple two bedroom, one bath, apartment with a small fully furnished kitchen and living room which opened out onto a wide balcony which looked down upon a lovely vegetable and fruit garden and then out over the Atlantic's horizon. Amazing! Plus the apartment had a small exterior stairwell that led up to breathtaking rooftop terrace with lounge chairs, table and chairs, clothes line, and a 360 degree views of the rugged countryside and coast! We had a difficult time internalize our excitement but we remained as calm as possible and were able to negotiate the price down by about 25% of the initial asking price. We settled upon the price, both parties seemed satisfied, we paid for 3 nights up front in euros and the middle aged couple handed over the keys to our little slice of heaven.
Travel Note: There are no banks or ATM machines (that we could find) in Salema - And cash reins king, so be sure to hit the ATM in Lagos (if you have to change dollars into euros at a local joint in Salema - you will most certainly get the short end of the deal). Hate to say it, but the grocer (Romeu's Salema Market, pg.132 of the Portugal 5th edition) that Rick Steves suggested to visit in order to complete monetary exchanges is not our top choice but he appears to be one of the only acts in town. Sadly enough there were two pictures of him and Rick Steves proudly posted in his grocery store which somehow validated his transactions. But that's ok, lesson learned - Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.
As mentioned above, we had somewhat concrete plans to travel extensively throughout 3 countries over the course of our month-long trip to Europe. The southern coast of Portugal was the first stop on the trip but we had no idea how much we would want or need to stay in the first place we visited - Which was Salema.
We were initially ambitious and gung-ho about our plans but the "mental plans" had dissolved during the first three nights and days that we spent basking in the sun and taking care of the basics in our sleepy fishing village apartment.
We were enthralled by the simplicity, the quiet, the slow pace, and the absence of an agenda or schedule. Neither of us realized how much we truly needed down time - Peace and quiet. We reveled in having a home base, which allowed us to sleep in as long as we wanted, lazily sip coffee and read on the terrace, to prepare fresh fish and vegetables on a primitive gas stove and to store market food in a small refrigerator, to be able to leave our stuff stroon across the place, or clothes and swimsuits drying on our rooftop clothesline.
Some of the quaint and quirky little joys associated with this town are the following:
The endearing tidy, terraced, little white washed row houses which encircle the town center, beach, and cove.
The feline fixtures which lounge and lazily yawn in the sun on retaining walls, roof tops, and near the eastern most boat ramp where the fish and especially octopi were processed.
The morning fish truck that rolled into town around 8ish and alerted the town of it's arrival by honking the horn.
Inconsistent interior plumbing, water temperature and shower pressure.
The dramatic rock cliffs that slide into the sea all the while coddling and protecting beach enthusiast (Be careful of falling rocks and slides).
The rugged beauty of the cliffs juxtaposed with the deep green Atlantic waters.
Vibrant morning glories carpet the hill sides and crawl up dilapidated building facades and long abandoned abodes.
The many faces and ancestry of Portugal; All which have a place amidst the melting pot and the former mercantile powerhouse.
The array of humble, well worn, colorful, fishing boats, which either anchored just off shore during calm water or those hauled in and lined up along the far end of the beach front promenade on the outer skirts of town.
Row after row of well tended citrus orange trees, plus decade old olive trees and grape vines shining in the sun, while forming quilt-like patterns upon the landscape.
The easily observable and accessible pre-historic dinosaur fossils within the cliff walls during low tide.
Salema: Portugal's Sleepy Atlantic Gem
Salema will resided forever in my memory and as Willie Nelson proclaims in his legendary song and I romantically echo, "you are always on my mind." This small gem of a town is a place that you can find a blend of quiet simplicity smoothly amalgamated with a tinge of robust old world brashness. Take a break from over the top all inclusive beach vacations and say yes to adventure, beauty, tranquility and allow yourself to find what southern Portugal has offered since the dawn of time.
Settle into Salema for a while and she will resonate with you for a life time.