Portugal’s New Look

Posted by on February 27, 2004

Everyone who can goes toward the sun in the winter. Some of us are lucky enough to spend the winter in Florida, or California or Arizona, or at least a while, and some of us get to go to the islands for a week or two. (I know, some of us get to go to Amenia.)

In Europe, the same thing is true. It seems to me that all of the northern Europeans are either in southern Portugal, or Southern Spain, or on some Mediterranean island, all in search of a few rays. (It is also true that those who are not in the sun are skiing in the Alps. The Europeans take their holidays much more seriously than we Americans do.)

The Algarve, as the whole bottom section of Portugal is called, is the sunniest part of the country. There are two mountain ranges a few miles behind the beaches that tend to keep the warm air from North Africa trapped on the southern coast. These same mountains tend to keep back the cold wintry blasts from the north.

We just spent three weeks in this part of the world, most of it in the Algarve. Although the temperature was cool, it did rise in midday to around 70 degrees, which was fine with me, and the sun was there every day for two weeks. Not to be sneezed at, considering what was going on here in Dutchess County, eh?

True Portugal lovers, and we count ourselves among them, would avoid the Algarve altogether, since it is full of English and German retirees and ex-pats. That has been true for decades, and it is true that there seemed to be an inordinate number of English and Irish pubs in evidence. I think we were saved by two things. The first is that we already know Portugal from our travels to the north of Lisbon years ago, and the second is that in January, there is hardly anyone at all in the Algarve, of ANY nationality.

Everyone who was there was out on the beach without fail at midday. I’ll admit most of the walkers (there was swimming only by intrepid Portuguese teenage surfers and only a few of them) were blond looking, no doubt escapees from the British Isles or Scandinavia. I was among those who were on the beach, which was easy to walk and sunny all those days. January sun is a very great blessing, I’ve decided. We saw NO Americans, or at least we heard NO American voices during our whole trip, except for our Millbrook friend, whom we visited in Spain for a few days.

This was the first time we traded our time shares for weeks in Europe. It proved to be an exciting cultural adventure. We found it enlightening to observe other cultures and how people (on holiday) live, as well as observing ourselves in a new milieu. By staying a whole week in one apartment, and then another week nearby, we had ample time to meet European time-sharers, Portuguese retirees, local workers, and British and Irish ex-pats. The Portuguese were incredibly friendly and helpful everywhere we went. We were not surprised, as we have always found Portuguese people to be gentle, quiet, and accommodating.

Our first foray into daily life was our trip to Modelo, where everyone in the whole area seems to go, to this huge shopping center, with a super market as its anchor. Modelo is the name of the supermarket, and it has 41 check-out lines. It is in itself a shopping center, since you could buy clothes, books, dishes, linens, etc. in addition to all the usual food items. Within the store, we bought everything from good wine, to a good pillow at bargain prices. The center also contains two floors of separate stores, including a camera shop, a bank, a newsstand, a book store, several clothing stores, record shops, a food plaza, and on the top floor, a giant six screen movie theatre. The parking lot was full almost all the time, but we always managed to get a parking place. We went there several times, as you can imagine, including one trip to see The Last Samurai with Portuguese subtitles. We were thrilled to discover that Portugal isn’t big enough to have a dubbing industry. So if you ever go to Portugal, you can go to the movies, not so in Spain or Germany or France. The movie theatres were extremely comfortable, with reserved tickets, and business class seats. We made friends with the students who worked in the bookstore, (Bertrand, a good small chain of Portuguese bookstores, which we knew from previous trips,) who gave us tips on restaurants and the like.

Once in a while it seemed a little strange, when we went to the restaurant at our little complex, only to find we were the only people there. It did mean that we got very good service, and the bartender was especially nice to us. But the emptiness of the restaurants was indicative of the lack of activity at that time of year. It got so we were thrilled when someone else came in to the restaurant.

We ate a lot of meals at our own little place, of course, which gave us a chance to try lots of the Portuguese goodies. Among the best buys in Portugal are the wines. It is easy to buy wines, and they are remarkably cheap. We found we could get very good bottles of Portuguese wine for two to three euros, which is about $2.50 to $3.75, at the current exchange. Even though the euro is high against the dollar, Portugal is an inexpensive country. Our meals out, which we often took at midday, were often daily specials at the equivalent of under $10.00 for a three course meal. These were quite sufficient, and often very good. We enjoyed good cheeses and fruits as well. We soon found out we could get take out food from our little restaurant, so we could enjoy it in the comfort of our own little apartment.

There is so much more to tell about our trip to this little known part of Europe, that I’m going to do a continuation.

(Betsy Shequine would love to hear from others who have traveled to Portugal)

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