Thursday 25 February 2016

Portimão, Lagos and Silves

Portugal, 11th – 14th February 2016

We’re still in the Algarve, where I am pleased to report the newly working water pump is getting liberal usage; nothing quite makes you appreciate showers like going a month without running water.  Matt’s parents have been and gone, and after a week of dining out we’re getting used to a life of luxury, having eaten out eight times over a course of nine days and having plans to try out another place soon.  A little beyond our usual extravagance?  Maybe.  Then again, when you can get decent meals for about €8-10 a head in Portugal, it would be wrong not to: at least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Portimão / Praia da Rocha

Although most of our overnight parking this week has been in Portimão (or more specifically Praia da Rocha: the coastal resort to the south of actual Portimão), we didn’t actually spend a great deal of time in the place as we were too busy exploring other places in the area by car.  What we did see of Praia da Rocha (once we’d passed the huge estates of high-rise hotel blocks) was a long, mostly pedestrianised street of bars and restaurants elevated on the cliffs over a rather vast beach.  There were a fair few people around and a lot of restaurants were still open over the winter period, but the choices left something to be desired.  Most were of the very non-traditional variety catering for the tourist market, with lots of generic menus offering steaks, pizzas and All Day Breakfasts, Irish pubs, and the occasional Indian.  The beach was fairly attractive with a long stretch of sand backed by cliffs, although I imagine despite its large size, the number of holiday makers visiting during the summer months probably leave it packed like sardines. One ambitious entrepreneur attempted to sell us sunglasses as we passed on the promenade, to which Matt pointed out the lack of a sunny sky.  This was not enough to deter his sales attempts, as he changed tactic to “Some nice hash for you my friend instead.”  Got to admire his boldness if nothing else!

The free-parking area we were parked in was a convenient place for us given that it was right next to the hotel Matt’s family were staying in, but the attitudes of some of the vans here left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths.  Many of them had cars and trailers or scooters which they’d used to intentionally block parking spaces to prevent other vehicles parking up or reserve spots for their friends who weren’t arriving for days.  We witnessed one van pull out, move their trailer to ‘reserve’ their favourite space before leaving, and then not return for at least a day; this attitude seemed to be far too common here.  It wasn’t just restricted to the vans with trailers; one van used a collection of 6L water bottles, and another man left his wife guarding a spot in her deckchair whilst he went off in the van.

Matt and I do a lot of free-parking, which is one of the things that’s allowed us to finance travelling for such a long period of time.  But we like to try and do it with respect for the local area, i.e. not staying in one spot for extended periods of time (especially in built up areas), keeping our parking as unobtrusive as possible, and not getting things out of the van (such as tables and chairs) in spots where it is clearly not an appropriate area to do so.  A lot of the vans looked like they were in it for the long haul, and when the normal parking areas filled up they spilled out into the surrounding road, and one group were parked up for several days right in front of the entrance to an open-for-business hotel.  It annoys me because this kind of behaviour is likely to upset locals and force the police to be stricter about moving vans along, as well as being a bit of an eyesore!  I could perhaps understand reserving a space on a campsite if you’ve already paid and want to get two pitches next to each other, but blocking off free spaces in a public car park?  Doesn’t quite sit right with me somehow.

The official motorhome parking at Praia da Rocha
We later moved on to the official Portimão / Praia da Rocha aire (GPS: 37.12152 -8.53020, €3/night, €2/100L water) for a few nights, chosen for numerous reasons: it was still near Matt’s family, we needed the service point, and it was a fairly secure place we could leave the van whilst we were away for long periods of time on day trips.  The aire is huge, with a main hardstanding area that was packed as well as a large overflow field at the back, housing hundreds of motorhomes that looked like they were in there for the winter.  The service point could probably have done with some improvement; the grey and chemical point was a bit worse for wear and the fresh water was on the other end of the site, where you put in a €2 coin and got a nonstop stream of approx. 100L of water, which is fine for filling the tank but would have been very awkward for anyone wanting to fill water carriers or similar.  Maybe I’m just nit-picking but when you’re collecting money from hundreds of vans every day, it would be nice to actually put in some proper infrastructure to support them.  There is however an on-site bar/restaurant that was permanently busy, which is possibly the first time we’ve seen such a thing outside of campsites.

One of the nicer areas around Praia da Rocha can be found if you walk west on the beach until you get to the end and then head up the cliffs, where there is a coastal walk that takes you around onto Alvor’s beach.  It’s about a 1.5-2hr walk to get from central Praia da Rocha to the main town in Alvor but there’s some pleasant scenery to be had.


On one of the days when the weather was poor, we went for a visit into Silves.  Silves used to be the capital of the Algarve when it was ruled by the Moors, up until around the 12th century during the Christian Reconquest.  When they attacked Silves thousands of inhabitants retreated to the castle and withstood a siege for months until they managed to negotiate surrender with a guarantee of safety, which was then promptly ignored when thousands were killed.

Today, there’s a lot less fighting and a lot more storks.  The birds were all over the town, with nests built on the ruins of old buildings (which were in abundance) and dotting many of the telegraph poles.  Maybe the elevation of the town draws them here?

Silves is one of the places we’d heard about where a lot of motorhomers come for long periods of time over winter.  It is an interesting town for a half-day visit, but we couldn’t personally see the reason why so many would flock there.  Perhaps seeing the town on a dull day meant the atmosphere was very different to how it would normally be and so we weren’t doing the place the best justice.  There’s a cathedral and castle to visit, one of which had had a price hike and the other had gone from free to paying, so being our stingy selves we decided to give them a miss.  Our money was instead spent at one of the restaurants near the indoor market overlooking the river, where €9 a head will get you tasty piri-piri chicken, chips, salad, bread and olives, a small desert and a beer.  Can’t quite get that kind of value in the UK!

Lagos and around

It was around time that we turned Lagos into something more than a convenient aire, and so we finally visited the main town.  It used to be an important administrative centre before Faro superseded it and became the biggest city in the Algarve. It is also home to Europe’s oldest slave market, although this was closed up and only open during exhibitions so we don’t really have a great deal to report about it.  The old town was however filled with cafés and restaurants and had quite a few open squares, and had a bit of a nice buzz about the place.  There is an interesting collection of beaches here, with small cliff-backed coves connected together by caves which we explored.

We had a look at the coastal towns west of Lagos, from Luz to Salema.  Seeing Salema again, this time on a dull drizzly day without people about, in contrast to the previous week when we visited shows how your experience and opinions of a place can vary due to factors like the weather.   Our favourite was probably Bergau; it had more of a traditional Portuguese fishing village feel to it, with none of the feeling of being surrounded by blocks of hotel rooms.  A small steep road cuts through the small town down to the beach, where the cars of a few surfers—the only people who seemed to be around—dotted the small unlevel beach car park.  There was a British-run café in a good location looking onto the beach that was open for business and seemed to be getting most of their trade from the surf crowd (and us); there were several British options on the menu but alas, we weren’t around to see their Friday special, where you can get beer-battered fish and chips!

I’ve probably talked about enough places to fill one blog, so before I begin to bore you I’ll let Matt take over for the rest of the week.

- Jo

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