Excursions to the ends of the earth . . .

There is something infinitely exciting — energizing and dream-worthy — about standing on those spots that have been associated with the ends of the known world, the jumping off places for exploration, or the remote repositories of forgotten knowledge.

There are enough of those sites on our globe to satisfy even the most inveterate traveler; I confess that I harbor a penchant for visiting those spots. I especially like standing by the sea and looking into the distance, imagining what it must have been like to step into a journey beyond the boundaries of existing knowledge.

Finding the faraway

It was with that in mind that our group set off from our rental villa in Albufeira, Portugal, to visit the small town of Sagres. Located at the very tip of the Iberian peninsula, Sagres is a storied gateway to the beyond. Once home to a school run by Prince Henry the Navigator, a lighthouse now operates on a nearby point that is the most southwestern tip of land in all of Europe. In Prince Henry’s day, the navigational guiding light was still far in the future; at the time, there was a Franciscan monastery.

It’s my my kind of place, and I can imagine all the voyages, and voyagers, who have passed by over the centuries. As the waves of the Atlantic far below pound the cliffs, I thought of the dreams those early explorers must have held, and the motivation that propelled them to sail on.

The drive from Sagres to the lighthouse is a short one, and there are throngs of visitors, even on windy days. Enthusiastic, able-bodied adventurers make their way to the bottom of 60-foot cliffs to surf the crashing waves. There is little else to see, except for the crumbling walls of a long-abandoned fortification. Near the lighthouse, souvenir sellers set up temporary booths to hawk key chains, postcards, t-shirts, pottery, bottle stoppers, sweaters, baseball caps and assorted “end of the earth” souvenirs. It’s quite a spectacle.

Cabo Sao Vicente

As the travel brochures attest, the spit of land where the lighthouse sits is wild and windswept, and high above the sea. Views are mesmerizing. Built in 1846 on the lonely promontory, it is said that the light itself can be seen from approximately 50 kilometers out to sea. Today, it is automated, and the beacon still guides commercial tankers, shipping vessels, cruise ships and fishermen arriving from far away, those who travel the coastline of Europe and Africa, and those bound for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. The former monastery was badly damaged by earthquake in 1755 and never rebuilt.

It was chilly and breezy the day we visited, but we gazed in every direction out to sea, before taking our leave. Somehow, it felt as if we had actually arrived at one end of the world!

Back in Sagres at midday, our hunger demanded that we seek out a local eatery. Once again, as always in Portugal, we were in no way disappointed by our choice! ASagres Restaurante offered just the right kind of welcome, with a casual ambience, smiling proprietors, delicious food and a friendly mix of locals and tourists. We sampled local wines, filled up on fresh-caught seafood, and had a wonderful time, perfectly happy to let lunch go on for hours!

Afterward, we wandered the small town for a bit, before heading back to our temporary home base in Albufeira.

Cabo da Roca

Later in our journey, and further north in Portugal, west of Lisbon, we had another occasion to venture out from Cascais to a different edge-of-the-world location. We went with the intent of visiting Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe. Unfortunately, the day was cool and drizzly. By the time we made our way along the narrow, winding coastal road, the fog was so thick we could barely see 20 feet in front of our vehicle.

We did see the sign pointing to the lighthouse and the Cape, but because we were unfamiliar with the road, and because we knew the point lay on another high headland above the sea, we decided to forego that particular adventure. Instead, once again, we were drawn to a tempting small cafe situated right on the highway. Again, we made a fortuitous choice. At 3 Gomes Restaurante, we enjoyed a longer-than-planned lunch, warmed by a blazing fire and a roomful of people enjoying good times and good food together.

Often, it’s the unexpected choices that are, by far, the most memorable. I had a chance to sample fresh-caught octopus, and traded bites for samples of the grilled lamb and seafood stew that my traveling companions had ordered. It was actually another perfect day, despite the fog. And it was another time we felt no need for dinner!

Portugal: Uniquely artistic

Lisbon’s enormous statue of Christ, standing 18 meters tall atop a square base that soars to a height of 82 meters, is impressive from the air. With arms outstretched toward the city, the figure stands adjacent to the beautiful red suspension bridge that spans the River Tagus.

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The National Sanctuary of Christ the King took more than a decade to build, and was initially dedicated in May 1959, although it was first conceived in 1940 as a supplication to keep the country out of World War II. Inspired by the similar Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the shrine was completed following the war to express Portugal’s gratitude at being spared the devastation that war brought to other countries.

On the shrine’s 25th anniversary, the first of two chapels housed within its base was dedicated. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, restoration and additional improvements have been made, and a second chapel was dedicated in 2008. From the viewing platform at the base of the statue, visitors get a panoramic view of the city and surrounding countryside.

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Flying into the city on a clear day, I was awed to immediately recognize it as our plane made a turn over the river, bringing both the statue and the bridge into clear focus. But the modernist concrete statue looms even larger as one traverses the river by car.

Portugal surprises in many different ways, with much to enchant the traveler, and the scale of public art is one of the more obvious ways. The art that’s free for viewing is as exciting as it is available.

Here is a sampling:

Flowers, too, qualify as art: In public squares and private gardens, the natural and the manmade coexist for the delight of both local residents and visitors. It may be an expectation that greenery and vibrant color will punctuate the landscape, but the same plantings bring color and natural beauty to town squares, narrow streets, cafe interiors and marketplaces, even highways.

Art adds to the enjoyment of life. Art stands as a tribute to the human need for beauty. It celebrates history, encourages joy, adds meaning, can be quirky and irreverent or breathtakingly realistic. It transcends place and time. It exists in many forms: Architecture and massive sculpture, religious and military statuary, landscaped parks, graffiti and street art, sidewalks and plazas, decorative address tiles, lacy bridge railings, unique street lights, utilitarian manhole covers, multi-colored buildings, and signs.

Even a pedestrian walkway over a busy highway can be unexpectedly colorful, looking every bit like modern sculpture. Lisbon’s massive Airport, despite its emphasis on function, also boasts its share of eye candy! Then, flying out of the city, we once again saw, from the air, Portuguese art in the form of two very modern, and artistically-designed sports stadiums!

In Portugal, clearly the society thrives on artistic expression. Each place we visited told a different story. From crowded Lisbon to the smallest village, along the highways and in backyard gardens, the nation is filled with art — in all its various forms, new as well as old.

Invariably, it’s unique. Always it’s worth a second look. It’s remarkable.

Great Portugal Excursions: Tour a Cork Forest

Even though five generations of his family have held title to the land that claimed Phillip Mellon’s heart, his own journey to living on that land was circuitous. The attachment, though, is obvious and strong.

On a two-and-a-half-hour classic Jeep safari of the 540-hectare (more than 1,300 acres) Portuguese farm that he occupies with his wife and two young boys, he recounted the story of how his passionate love for the land unfolded. He admits that he is the first of his family to actually live on and work the land. His forebears, he explains, were “gentleman farmers” who held the property as a sort of vacation retreat from life in the city and other professional pursuits, hiring caretakers to tend the cork oaks, supervise the harvest and care for grazing animals.

Learning from the Land

During the tour, Mellon tells of the farm’s history, how it was that he found his way home, literally, to build a new life on his land, and of his hopes for the future. It’s a fascinating story of adaptive land use, and a continuing effort to build reality from a dream.

Phillip Mellon is a totally modern man, with deep Portuguese roots and ties to the culture. He was reared in the city, near Lisbon and the sea, but he says his happiest times were the school vacations and summers he spent at the farm in the country’s Alentejo region.

Mellon’s father, an attorney, still lives in the city, as do his siblings. Phillip himself had no early intentions of becoming a farmer. He was educated in England, then lived and worked both in Australia and Canada before finally returning to Portugal to settle on the family land. Noting that he really knew little about farming at the time, he has seized on opportunities as they presented themselves, learning by doing, and not averse to trying out new ventures.

In the year 2000, he embraced the idea of planting grapevines; today the vineyards produce award-winning wines. He says, laughingly, that he is a bit undisciplined in his pursuits.

Cork: A Major Industry

Driving east from Lisbon, we did not at first know what to expect. The scenery is dramatically beautiful, pastoral and calm, with scattered small towns punctuating the green hills. Large trees became more common, but we did not immediately recognize them as cork oaks, until we spotted large stacks of bark drying in the sun.

Luckily, our rental car had a superb navigational system; we were to meet our guide “in front of the museum in Redondo.” After only a few wrong turns and some good-natured advice from local residents, we arrived right on time, met Jose Inverno and our tour-mates, and were escorted to the farm for a sip of strong espresso in the sunny courtyard of the main farmhouse.

The surrounding forests in the Alentejo region and further south in Algarve province have been producing Portugal’s noted cork for centuries. The story of cork is a fascinating one. Portugal is the world’s major supplier, now accounting for approximately one half of the annual global harvest. A tree must be at least 20 years old, often much older, before it can first be harvested. It is said that the best bottle corks come from trees at least 50 years old. Then, by law, the bark of a cork oak may be stripped only every nine years. At this farm, Herdade da Maroteira, the rotation is once every 11 years. It is not a pursuit for the impatient!

Today, Mellon not only supervises the annual cork harvest, but is also planting new grape varietals. The farm offers informational walking treks and motorized tours through a subsidiary company managed by Jose Inverno, and has recently ventured into agri-tourism, with simple, but charming, accommodations available by the night or for an extended stay.

In addition, there are olive trees that produce oil for the farm and some limited sales, as well as beehives to supply fragrant honey. Sheep and cattle graze on the land, and Mellon partners with an Iberian black ham producer, allowing the distinctive long-legged pigs to fatten, during season, on the nutritious acorns that fall from the abundant oak trees.

The pigs, however, had not yet arrived on the land; the sheep seemed shy, but the cattle were unfazed by our presence. Farm dogs accompanied us everywhere.

An Individualized Tour Opportunity

Our Jeep safari followed dirt paths winding through the oaks, past fields of lavender, yellow and white wildflowers, adjacent to vineyards planted with a variety of grapevines, and across the hillocks of the foothills of the Serra D’Ossa range. At the highest point, we breathed in the spectacle, as Mellon pointed out the boundaries of his working estate down below.

We passed other groups of trekkers, each one accompanied by a congenial guide, and Jose also escorted a second driving tour in his car. We made frequent stops to listen to Mellon’s dialog, and the photo ops were superb!

The area invites exploration, from the evidence of ancient settlements to scattered ruins and well-preserved medieval walls and churches. The time passed all too quickly, and following a visit to the farm’s small shop, we returned to Redondo for a long, relaxing, traditional country lunch, included as part of our tour.

Sunday Dinner Far From Home

It was a Sunday and Restaurante Serra d’Ossa was filled with locals, all genial and smiling as they were greeted by Mellon. They, in turn, greeted us warmly, and we felt at home. The proprietors took care of us as if we were family, and the bountiful food and wine was brought to our table family style. We had a wonderful time getting to know our fellow “trekkers” better, and the food itself was delectable.

The menu included a variety of interesting appetizers served as traditional Portuguese “couvert,” followed by amazing tomato soup with poached eggs, and “green soup” for one of our group allergic to tomatoes. The entree was a mixed platter of pork prepared several different ways, and fresh salad, followed by a selection of tempting desserts, all of which disappeared quickly.

We assume that the cadence of life exists in this small town much as it always has, and we were delighted to be a part of it, if only for a day. Mellon told us that few of the other cork farmers have an interest in opening their forests to visitors or in diversifying into other enterprises. So, for the time being at least, Herdade da Maroteira offers a unique experience for travelers to Portugal. It is one that we will long remember, and one we highly recommend.

Because we were there in late April, we missed the harvest, which typically occurs in late June or early July, but we can visualize the buzz of activity it must generate at the farm.

Other available treks and tours take visitors to explore the ancient “dolmens,” burial mounds in the surrounding hills, on leisurely countryside walks and birding tours, and to visit the museum and ancient buildings of Redondo.

Perhaps one day we’ll return to do it all.

*Note: Some Portuguese cork factories also welcome tourists, but we chose to forgo the opportunity because of time constraints and distance. We left Alentejo headed south to the Algarve for a week near the sea. In future posts, I’ll chronicle other wonderful excursions for Portugal travelers.

Graffiti: Art free for all

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I may represent the minority, but I am enthralled by street art and graffiti. I always have been. Wall murals attract my attention, and I secretly believe that the cave drawings and petroglyphs we work so hard to protect were simply the graffiti of past times.

Fanciful expressions of modern culture that grace rail cars, empty warehouses, bridge girders and old water towers, decaying barns and even bus stop benches, and the colorful tags and “signatures” along highways and byways never fail to attract my attention. Portugal was a visual feast!

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In urban settings, I adore oversize murals on random buildings. They add color and design to sometimes bland and boring walls. Occasionally, advertising masquerades as art, and it’s true that graffiti speaks a message all its own. But, more often than not, graffiti is just for fun. And I like it!

When I travel, I typically have a camera in hand; I come home with as many photos of graphic graffiti scenery as of people, historic sites and natural beauty. I snap the shutter from a moving vehicle window, a building’s balcony, or when out for a stroll.

While traveling in Portugal, I was amply rewarded. Graffiti seems almost a national pastime; in my eyes, it’s a national treasure. Nowhere else in my previous experience has the graffiti been so pervasive, nor quite so memorable.

Sometimes obvious “tagging,” Portuguese graffiti is, seemingly, respectful of both private property and public monuments. Although it is clear that graffiti sometimes supports a cause or is otherwise prompted by local issues, we saw little that could be considered outright defacement or the work of vandals. There seems to be no concerted effort to paint over or erase existing graffiti.

Sometimes it is hauntingly beautiful. Occasionally simple and childlike, the work can be stunning in composition and in execution. There are true artists at work along the highways, in small towns and large cities, in farm country and in fishing villages. And, while larger than life murals are not graffiti in the strict sense, they are certainly unexpected; sometimes they are inspiring.

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I know that not all the graffiti is officially sanctioned, but we were told that local and national authorities grant permission in certain areas for graffiti artists to transform crumbling walls and cracked stucco into something more interesting and colorful. Driving along freeways bounded by industrial-grade barriers, the graffiti was welcome, a colorful display of creativity for what would otherwise have been mile upon mile of sameness.

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Portugal has other art as well — serious art — statuary and sculpture in city squares and parks, in front of public buildings and private apartment complexes, in gardens and on the beach, as well as dramatic, oversize centerpiece art in vehicular “roundabouts.”

It’s a phenomenon. There is little need for visitors to pay admission fees to art museums: The best art is free for viewing all around!

If pictures are worth a 1,000 words, this is a “book’s worth” of my favorite images.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. In a future post, I’ll share some of the notable public art we encountered throughout this unique country.