Lisbon and the Algarve
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 312
Experiencing the best of Portugal, we start in Lisbon, a ramshackle mix of glorious old and fun-loving new. Salty sailors' quarters and wistful Fado singers mix with ornate architecture to recall the glory days when Vasco da Gama and Magellan made Portugal a world power. Then we head for the south coast of your travel dreams-the Algarve. We explore the Land's End of Europe-windy and historic Cape Sagres before savoring pristine beaches and arm-wrestling octopi in the sleepy fishing village of Salema.
- Read the script from the show.
In Lisbon, the museum called House of Fado and Portuguese Guitar tells the story of fado in English — with a great chance to hear these plush fisherwomen's blues. Don't miss Coimbra's male students' voices singing fado. Drop into a simulated fado bar, watching old Alfama videos and hearing the Billie Holidays of Portugal (30-min cycle includes crazy Portuguese bullfighting scenes). As you leave the fake fado bar, notice — on the wall by the door — the lyrics that were censored by the dictator Salazar (closed Mon, Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, tel. 218-823-470). Two blocks uphill from this square is the recommended fado restaurant A Baiuca.
A tiny, fun-loving restaurant, A Baiuca serves up spirited fado with traditional home-cooking. The menu and wine list is straightforward, but the pre-dinner munchies are costly — turn them away(best singing Thu–Mon 20:00–24:00; reservations smart, in the heart of the Alfama, just off Rua São Pedro up the hill from House of Fado, at Rua de São Miguel 20, tel. 218-867-284, email@example.com). This intimate place is a neighborhood affair as grandma dances with a bottle on her head and the cooks gaze out of their steamy hole in the wall to catch the musical action. If seats are still available after 22:30, English-speaking manager Henrique and his singer-wife Lydia welcome fado enthusiasts to grab a spot for simply the price of a drink (no cover).
If you're into port (the fortified wine that takes its name from Porto), you'll find the world's greatest selection directly across the street from the elevator at Solar do Vinho do Porto (run by the Port Wine Institute, closed Sun, WCs, Rua São Pedro de Alcântara 45, tel. 213-475-707).
The plush, air-conditioned, Old World living room holds leather chairs and cigar smokers (it's not a shorts-and-T-shirt kind of place). On entering, you can order from over 300 different ports from €1 to €22 per glass, poured by an English-speaking bartender. (You may want to try only 150 or so and save the rest for the next night.) Fans of port describe it as "a liquid symphony playing on the palate." Browse through the easy menu. Start white and dry, taste your way through spicy and ruby, and finish mellow and tawny; the colheita is particularly good. Appetizers (aperitivos) are listed in the menu with photos. Seated service can be slow and disinterested when it's busy. To be served without a long wait, go to the bar.
This is the best of Lisbon's 40 museums. Calouste Gulbenkian (1869–1955), an Armenian oil tycoon, gave Portugal his art collection (or "harem," as he called it). His gift was an act of gratitude for the hospitable asylum granted him during World War II (he lived in Lisbon from 1942 until he died in 1955). The Portuguese consider Gulbenkian — whose billion-dollar estate is still a growing and vital arts foundation promoting culture in Portugal — an inspirational model for how to be thoughtfully wealthy. (He made a habit of "tithing for art," spending 10 percent of his income on things of beauty.) The foundation often hosts classical music concerts in the museum's auditoriums (free Sun, closed Mon, good 90-min audioguide, pleasant gardens, good air-con cafeteria, Berna 45, tel. 217-823-000). To get here from downtown, hop a cab or take the Metro from Rossio to São Sebastião, exit the station at Avenida de Agila and walk 200 yards downhill (north).
This museum has dozens of carriages, from simple to opulent, displaying the evolution of coaches from 1600 on (free Sun until 14:00, closed Mon, tel. 213-610-850, taxi stand across the street).
Monastery of Jerónimos
King Manuel's 16th-century, giant white-limestone church and monastery has remarkable cloisters and the explorer Vasco da Gama's tomb. The church is free to enter, but the accompanying cloisters have an entry fee (both free Sun until 14:00, closed Mon).
One bit of old Algarve magic still glitters quietly in the sun — Salema. It's at the end of a small road just off the main drag between the big city of Lagos and the rugged southwest tip of Europe, Cape Sagres. Quietly discovered by British and German tourists, this simple fishing village has three streets, many restaurants, a few hotels, time-share condos up the road, a couple of bars, English and German menus, a classic beach with a paved promenade, and endless sun.
Salema has a split personality: The whitewashed old town is for locals and the other half was built for tourists.Both groups pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence. Tourists laze in the sun while locals grab the shade.
Town Square market action: Salema's flatbed truck market rolls in weekday mornings — one truck each for fish, fruit and vegetables and a five-and-dime truck for clothing and other odds and ends. The tooting horn of the fish truck wakes you at 8:00. The bakery trailer sells delightful fresh bread and "store-bought" sweet rolls each morning (about 8:30–11:00). And weekday afternoons around 14:00 the red mobile post office stops by.
Fishing scene: Salema is still a fishing village — but just barely. While the fishermen's hut no longer hosts a fish auction, you'll still see the old-timers enjoying its shade, oblivious to the tourists, mending their nets and reminiscing about the old days when life was "only fish and hunger." To get permission before taking their photo, ask "Posso tirar uma foto, por favor?" (paw-soo teer-ar oo-mah foh-toh, poor fah-vor). In the calm of summer, boats are left out on buoys. In the winter, the community-subsidized tractor earns its keep by hauling the boats ashore. (In pre-tractor days, such boat-hauling was a 10-man chore.)
Beach scene: Suntanners enjoy the beach May through September. (I once got a sunburn in early May.) Knowing their tourist-based economy sits on a foundation of sand, locals hope and pray that sand returns after being washed away each winter. Some winters leave the beach just a pile of rocks.
Beach towns must provide public showers and toilets. The Atlantico Restaurante and Salema's Balneario Municipal (daily 14:00–19:00 in summer) each rent beach items. The fountain in front of the Balneario Municipal is a reminder of the old days. When water to the village was cut off, this was always open. Locals claim the beach is safe for swimming, but the water is rarely really warm.
A pre-breakfast stroll eastward is a pristine way to greet the new day. On the we st end of the beach, you may be able to climb over the rocks past tiny tide pools to secluded Figueira Beach. (But be aware of when the tide comes in, or your route back will have to be over land.) While the old days of black widows chasing topless Nordic women off the beach are gone, nudism is still risque today. If you go topless, do so with discretion. Over the rocks and beyond the view of prying eyes, Germans grin and bare it.
Community development: The whole peninsula (west of Lagos) has been declared a natural park and further development close to the beach is forbidden. The ramshackle old village of Salema is becoming less and less ramshackle — gradually being bought by northern Europeans for vacation or retirement homes. Salema will live with past mistakes, such as the huge hotel in the town center that pulled some mysterious strings to go two stories over code. Up the street is a sprawling community of Club Med-type vacationers who rarely leave their air-conditioned bars and swimming pools. Across the highway a mile or two inland is an even bigger golfing resort, Parque da Floresta, where several well-known European soccer players have recently snapped up holiday homes (spa tel. 282-690-007, golf tel. 282-690-054, www.vigiasa.com).
Sleeping: Salema is crowded July through mid-September. August is horribly crowded. Prices jump up in July and August.
- Pensión Mare, a blue-and-white building looking over the village above the main road into town, is the best hotel value in Salema. Two easygoing Brits, John and Annette, run this place, offering six comfortable rooms, three fully-equipped apartments in a tidy paradise (Praia de Salema, tel. 282-695-165, fax 282-695-846; has good Salema information). John will hold a room with a phone call and a credit-card number. They would like to retire — any bidders?
- Hotel Residencial Salema, the oversized hotel towering above everything else in town, is a good value if you want a basic, comfortable room handy to the beach. Its 32 red-tiled rooms all have air-conditioning, balconies and partial views (may be closed Dec–Feb; includes breakfast, elevator, bar, tel. 282-695-328, fax 282-695-329, firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Romantik Villa, a chic, artsy house on top of the hill with three rooms, an apartment, a garden and swimming pool, is run by Brazilian Lisa. Tastefully decorated, it's good for people who want quiet — no children or teenagers are accepted (cash only, extra charge for room cleaning and fresh bedding during your stay, heading out of town past Restaurant O Lourenço, take a right at the phone booth just after the grocery store into Urbanização Beach Villas and look for sign on the right, Praia de Salema, tel. 282-695-670, mobile 967-059-806, email@example.com).
Eating: Salema has six or eight places all serving fine €10 meals. Happily, those that face the beach (the first 3 listed below) are the most fun and have the best service, food and atmosphere. For a memorable last course at any of these places, consider taking your dessert wine (moscatel), Brazilian sugarcane liquor (caipirinha), or coffee to the beach for some stardust.
- The Boia Bar and Restaurant, at the base of the residential street, has a classy beachfront setting, noteworthy service by friendly gang and a knack for doing whitefish just right (daily 10:00–24:00, tel. 282-695-382).
- The Atlantico — noisier, big, busy and right on the beach — originated as a temporary beach restaurant. It's known for tasty fish (especially swordfish), a wonderful beach-side terrace, and friendly service (daily 12:00–24:00, serving until 22:00, tel. 282-695-142).
- The intimate Mira Mar, further up the residential street, is a last vestige of old Salema with a reasonable tapas plate that can make a meal and a delightful Portuguese fish and vegetables stew (Sun-Fri 12:30–16:00 & 18:30-22:30, closed Sat, cash only).
- Restaurante O Lourenço, a block up the hill, has no ambience or view but offers good-value meals and a local clientele and is the place for cataplana. Paulo serves, while his mother Aldina cooks (closed Sun, cash only; from Hotel Residencial Salema cross the bridge, restaurant is a half-block uphill on your left; tel. 282-698-622).