Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Days 11 - 13 - The Algarve (Benagil & Marinha beaches, Sagres, Cape St. Vincent, and Odeceixe)

For my birthday, we headed to Benagil beach - a gorgeous, small beach surrounded by limestone cliffs, and famous for its series of limestone caves.  We booked our boat tour of the caves when we arrived, and as we had several hours to wait, we headed to the beach.

This stunning beach captured my senses as soon as I arrived.  The dozens of yellow-orange hues of the limestone cliffs caught the sun and made a vivid contrast to the sparkling blue and turquoise waters they sheltered.  We didn't waste any time and quickly made our way into the famed warm waters of the Algarve.  The waves were gentle here, and we were able to relax and swim leisurely back and forth, looking up at the cove of limestone cliffs that surrounded us.
Soon we noticed that there were some people swimming around the corner of the cliffs.  Aprehensive at first, we decided to follow them into the deeper, slightly more churned waters and peek around the corner. 
The incredible beauty inside
the cave we swam to

It was the caves!  Even though we were taking a boat tour to them later, we wouldn't get to get out and experience them, so we were very tempted to swim the rest of the way in.  Everyone else was doing it - surely it was safe?

My heart wanted it and my mind didn't - but J was already ahead of me and the heart won out.  We swam through the bouncing waves (not really too bad, in the end - you just need to be a strong swimmer) and pushed our way against their pulling until we finally were able to step onto the shore.
These incredible caves have a soft sandy beach inside - and a hole in the top to let in the sun.  Fascinated, we walked through the caves and joined some of the people that had set themselves up under this large circle of sunlight.  We warmed ourselves up and rested in this spot, while looking around at the utter, eerie beauty of the caves. 
One of the caves you see on the boat tour

We did a lot of things in the Algarve, and saw a lot of beaches, but those fifteen minutes we spent in the caves were by far my favourite part.  Something about swimming to the caves and 'discovering' them ourselves made them feel even more special than they already were.
Opening in one of the caves

The boat tour was also incredible - one hour of being taken around the various caves in the area by a very skilled boat driver.  I will admit I shrieked more than once and clutched the railing unnecessarily tightly as he wove in and out of caves at sometimes terrifying speeds, but it was all worth it for the experience.  We were driven through tight, narrow spaces and emerged from the dark on the other side; we saw caves with holes in their ceilings, from heart shapes to two 'eyes' looking down at us; we saw secluded limestone beaches and other beaches full of people that had many caves to explore.

Being taken through a cave...


Marinha beach from above
After Benagil, we headed to the nearby beach of Marinha.  It's only a five minute drive from Benagil, so it's easy to experience both in a day.  Marinha is also a beach of limestone cliffs and caves and has been voted one of Europe's ten best beaches and one of the world's top 100 most beautiful beaches.
As we descended the long steep steps and slope to the beach, we could see why.  This incredible beach is scattered with cliffs, rocks, and caves everywhere you look.  At high tide, you have to wade through the water around a part of cliff that sticks out, in order to access the rest of the beach on the other side.  Backpacks high on our back and timing the waves just right, this is what we did.  What emerged was even more beautiful than what we had seen from above.

People were swimming amidst the large formations, lying in the shade in nooks and crannies of the cliffs themselves, hopping from one rock to another, exploring small caves, crawling up and over the rocks and under an archway to access yet a third part of the beach, and generally just enjoying this little slice of paradise.
You can swim amidst these at Marinha beach

Entranced, J and I slid into the water and swam around, unable to keep our eyes off the pure beauty that surrounded us.

Photos don't really do these places justice.  I fear my words don't, either.  I'm absorbing so much beauty that I fear my ability to translate it just isn't coming across the way I want it to.

Come to Portugal, and experience it for yourself. 

Compass rose of stones

The next day, we drove an hour west and visited Sagres and the nearby Sagres Fortress.  It is thought that Prince Henry the Navigator's navigation school from the 1400's was located here.  There are many historic bits and pieces located here, from a small church still standing from Prince Henry's time, to various other buildings and fortress details that were built over time.  My favourite was a 43m in diameter compass rose made out of perfectly arranged rocks embedded into the ground. 
The views from here were incredible - wild waves off one side of the cliffs, and calm, barely moving waters on the other side.  There was even a small beach at the bottom of one that you could carefully hike down the cliffs to access, but by the time we finished our walk around exploring, the tide had come in and the small little 'beach' was almost gone.  We headed to another nearby beach instead (Martinhal), which also had fairly calm waters but heavy, relentless winds.  The locals had set up elaborate shelters of umbrellas half-burried in sand, but we weren't so lucky.

Sand-covered and cold, we nevertheless made our way over to the south-western most point of Europe (Cabo S. Vincente, or Cape St. Vincent).  The views from here were also breath-taking.  I can't help comparing some of these places to what we experienced in New Zealand.  Some of the landscape is similar, but the way that countries deal with them are very different.  While in New Zealand most of these places were remote, wild, inaccessible, and protected, Portugal does things a little differently.  Fisherman perch themselves over the fences that say "Danger - cliff erosion" with little concern and set up their rods for the day; fences have intentional breaks built into them so you can go past them to the 'dangerous' part and look over the cliffs if you wish; and small carts are set up cliff-side to sell you pasteis de nata, blankets, and even postcards.

Cape St. Vincent

We of course get the obligatory tarts, and perch ourselves on a rock looking over the never-ending ocean.  I read bits of translated Portuguese poetry, history, and legends to J while we sit on the wind-swept cliffs and try not to get blown away.

This place has been used for spiritual purposes since Neolithic times.  Ancient people's would gather here; Romans and Greeks set up temples and believed it to be the "end of the world" - with the infinite sea beyond; monks have even set up a monastery here.

Today, it is simply a place to come and visit, take walks around the cliffs, enjoy the views... and, if you stay late enough, enjoy the sunset.

That had been our plan, so we set about finding a good spot to sit.  We found one as close to the edge as I would allow us to sit, and wrapped ourselves in sweaters and beach towels to await the sinking of the sun into the sea. 
Sunset at the end of the world

Gulls floated up and sank down at dizzying speeds; the wind fluttered our towels and blew our hair around, and more and more people started to arrive.  It was an interesting phenomenon - all these people driving to the tip of a country, perching themselves on cliffs, simply to watch the sunset.  There was laughter, eating, drinking, but also a lot of quiet.  There were at least over 100 of us.
Something about this communal gathering of people to witness something like the simple setting of the sun really moved me.  You could hear various different languages being spoken; people were of all ages; all cultures.  And yet there we all were, silently united by this one simple yet incredible thing - watching our sun slowly disappear into the endless sea.

When the sun finally did set, glowing orange and large, then the last sliver slowly disappearing into the blue horizon, another curious yet moving thing happened - all around the cliffs, from end to end, people started spontaneously clapping.  A little taken aback, J and I looked at each other, then started clapping, too.
People gathered on the rocky cliffs to watch the sunset

Usually applause is meant to indicate appreciation, celebration - but there is an intended listener.  In this case, there was no listener.  It made me think back to the Cromlech/standing stones that we saw near Évora.  In ancient times, people who gather with those stone circles and celebrate the solstice and other important movements of the sun.  And here we were, a spontaneous assortment of humanity, tourists and locals from all over, gathered at the 'end of the world' to watch the setting of the sun.  Perhaps our applause was simply that - a spontaneous expression of our unity with each other and with the beauty of the world we were all witnessing together.

And yes, I had tears in my eyes.  I couldn't help it.


Our last day in the Algarve found us back at Marinha beach.  The warm waters and incredible limestone formations beckoned us once more, and we couldn't resist another swim before heading on our way back north to Lisbon.

We did make one more final stop on the border of Algarve - the beautiful beach of Odeceixe, where a large beach of pillowy-soft sand stretches between two towering rocky cliffs, and you can walk right up to the nearby river and watch it empty itself into the sea.

The waters were very shallow but the waves incredibly strong; we spent our last beach day trying to catch these waves as they crashed and pulled against us.  We rode them with varying degrees of success, laughing and giggling at them and each other.  It was a moment of pure joy, where all our senses were focused on nothing but crashing water and staying upright.

We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Odeceixe beach and said goodbye to this beautiful province that gave us so much more than we ever expected.  Until next time, Algarve.

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