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…..



Friday, 17 October 2014

The Algarve (7): Lagos

This year’s Algarve post will, for the first time, concentrate on a single place. We spent a morning in the small coastal town of Lagos, as we have done several times before, and it is has always seemed a place worth writing about – so I have.


Route finding in Lagos (October 2008)
Towards the western end of the Algarve’s south coast, just west of the city of Portimão, the little River Bensafrim reaches the sea on the leeward side of a small peninsula. It was an obvious site for a harbour and the last few hundred metres of the Bensafrim were canalised many years ago so that it enters the sea a much larger and more important waterway than would seem possible a kilometre or so inland. The canal provides access to the extensive harbour, once exclusively for fishing boats, but now also home to yachts and pleasure craft of all sizes and degrees of opulence.


The River Bensafrim reaches the sea, Lagos
Beside the river the long, palm-lined thoroughfare of the Avenida dos Descobrimentos (Avenue of Discoveries) defines one side of the old town,…..
 
Avenida dos Descobrimentos, Lagos

….. while the semi-circular city wall, still largely intact, defines the landward side. Lagos has long spread beyond its protective wall, but it remains a small town and the outer areas are sympathetic in style and tone.


Lagos city wall (October 2008)
Beside the Avenida dos Descobrimentos is the Praça da República with its statue of the Infante Dom Henrique, erected in 1960 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of his death. In front of Dom Henrique is a more recent fountain. The Portuguese are generally good at fountains, but this one needs attention and currently looks like a puddle beside a broken water main.


Praça da República, Lagos

Dom Henrique stares seriously across the puddle. He is better known as Henry the Navigator, but although he sent out Magellan. Vasco da Gama, and the other descobridors on their great voyages of discovery, he never personally navigated anything anywhere, but who would have remembered him if he was known as Henry the Facilitator?


Henry the Navigator, Praça da República, Lagos

In the far corner of the Praça is the site of the old slave market, which became Europe's first slave market since the Roman Empire when it opened in 1444. The local tourist authorities are quick to direct you to the slave market, and equally quick to point out that Portugal was the first major power to abolish slavery, which it did in the 1750s (visiting Korčula in 2012 we encountered the Statute of Korčula which outlawed slavery, if only on that one small Croatian island, in 1214)

They admit, in rather smaller print, that the old Customs House which now stands on the site had nothing to do with the slave market. Like most Algarve towns Lagos was destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami of 1755. The Customs House, though worth seeing in its own right, was built after the earthquake and long after trading in human beings had ceased.


The Old Customs House on the site of the even older Slave Market
Praça da República, Lagos

From here we walked into the cobbled and pedestrianised main street of the old town.

This year's Algarve visit was marred by both a week of poor weather and the cold Lynne brought with her developing into flu like symptoms. Our fifteenth trip of this series and perhaps twenty-first in all was not our best. On the plus side we enjoyed two dinners with our friends (and landlords), Tessa and Malcolm (see Algarve 4), had lunch with my 'cousin' Ricky and her husband Zeca (see Algarve 5), and, two days before visiting Lagos, entertained Mike and Alison - who appear on many of the walking posts on this blog – and their friends Steve and Jan to lunch. They were touring Spain and Portugal in their motor homes and were passing through the Algarve.

It was time for coffee and a pastel de nata, so we headed for the nearest café only to discover Mike, Alison, Steve and Jan there too.


Steve, Lynne, Jan, Alison, Mike
Coffee in the main street, Lagos
 
After our coffee, cake and chat (and this digression) we continued up the long narrow street. Lagos attracts many tourists and the town’s citizens do not want them to go hungry - almost every building is a restaurant. Most are Portuguese, but if you want a pizza or fancy the Indian or Chinese option, well that's available too.
 
Restaurants line the main street, Lagos
The street ends in the Praça Gil Eanes. Lagos-born Eanes, a minor figure of the Age of Discovery, shares his surname with Portugal’s first democratically elected president after the Carnation Revolution ended forty years of dictatorship in 1974. The statue of Dom Sebastião by João Cutileiro dates from that revolutionary period and if the statue of Henry the Navigator, completed in the 28th year of the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, is overly formal this, perhaps unsurprisingly, tends to the other extreme. Prince Sebastian looks like a skateboarder who has taken off his helmet to scratch his head.
 
Dom Sebastião, Praça Gil Eanes, Lagos
Dom Sebastião became 'King Sebastian I of Portugal and the Algarves' in 1554 at the age of 3. On reaching his majority he proved an active and able, if short-lived monarch. His popularity and his presence here are a reminder that the Portuguese, like the British, prefer glorious losers (Scott of the Antarctic, Henry Cooper, Sterling Moss) to out-and-out winners. Three hundred years after the last of the Moors had been kicked out of Portugal, Dom Sebastião got it into his head that he needed to conquer North Africa and convert the Moors to Christianity. He assembled an army of 18,000 (because you need an army to convert people to a religion of peace and love) and set sail from Lagos in 1578. His makeshift army encountered a far superior Moroccan force at Alcácer-Qibir and was annihilated. Much as I appreciate a hopeless quixotic gesture, taking 18,000 others to their deaths alongside you smacks of unhealthy self-absorption. Despite that he is known as O Desejado (The Desired One) and, like a Portuguese King Arthur, will one day return to save his country in its hour of greatest need.

Walking back down the street, we dropped into the Lagos Regional Museum, which is built round, and indeed contains, the Igreja de Santo António. St Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of those seeking for what they have lost, was a 13th century Portuguese Franciscan friar who devoted his life to the care of the poor. Born in Lisbon he spent the latter part of his short life in Italy and died in Padua. Immensely fussy gilded carvings cover every surface not devoted to paintings of the life of St Anthony. It is regarded as one of the most lavishly decorated churches in the Algarve, an area where decorative excess is the rule rather than the exception. The wood seems to hold the odour of incense, but it could do with some cleaning - a daunting job for anybody. I can't say the interior is really to my taste, but it is difficult not to admire it. Photography was not allowed but a 30 second YouTube video of the interior can be seen here.
 
Church of St Anthony, Lagos
The rest of the museum is an eclectic collection of stuff, most of it connected with or coming from Lagos. The hallway covers the period from the Stone Age to the Romans. There are some solid looking Neolithic tools, an impressive Bronze Age helmet, several reconstructed burials and a collection of oil lights and other pottery fragments. There are tableaux and some wonderful photographs depicting local life a century or more ago when the Algarve depended entirely on fishing and agricultural. There are models of all sorts, including a selection of sample pieces of furniture made and donated by a local master carpenter. There is a collection of banknotes and coins, old and new, a collection of religious artefacts and an art gallery containing local land and seascapes.

Captioned in English as well as Portuguese, there is something to interest everybody.
 
Ponta da Piedade (Oct 2008)
A short distance south of Lagos is the Ponta da Piedade, where the peninsula terminates in cliffs, caves and offshore stacks. You can wander the cliff paths and view the rocks from the angle of your choice.
 
Ponta da Piedade (October 2008)
The ponta can be windswept and the sea wild, but usually a gentle swell laps up against the rocks. A set of steps descend the cliff to where boatmen wait to take punters out to visit the caves.
 
Steps to the boats, Ponta da Piedade (October 2012)

A lot of people visit Lagos, some on large groups, whether on excursions from the major resorts to the east or from cruise ships docked in Portimão, but the small town manages to retain its charm and its sense of proportion. It is well worth dropping by if you are lucky enough to be in the area.