Friday, May 8, 2009


It would have been a shame to spend nearly a year so close to Portugal without ever visiting. Last weekend, we continued our “no fear” policy by renting a car and driving across Portugal. Now, to see the cultural sites in Portugal, you need to go up to Lisboa (Lisbon), the capital. However, we decided that what we really needed was a beach weekend. It was about four hours’ drive to our hotel in Lagos, and another half hour beyond that to Cabo Sâo Vicente. This is at the far southwestern extreme of Portugal, where Europe dips a cautious toe into the Atlantic. For many centuries, it was the end of the known lands; beyond it was nothing until the edge of the world. Take a look at our pictures at:

I had always thought of Portugal as almost a province of Spain, but it is definitely a distinct country with its own language and culture. It is true that Portugal’s history has been largely determined by its relations with it more powerful neighbor to the east. When Fernando married Ysabel to create the modern kingdom of Spain, Portugal was independent. They were a colonial power during most of the 1400’s and 1500’s, and it could be argued that they actually made more geographical discoveries than Spain. However, during a crisis of succession in the late 1500’s, Spain annexed Portugal and held the country until it won its independence back in 1640. Unfortunately, Portugal never seemed to completely recover from that traumatic event. Further blows included a catostrophic earthquake which leveled Lisboa in 1755, and the Napoleonic occupation from 1807 to 1812. During most of the 1900’s, Portugal was a dreary military dictatorship, and finally moved to a democratic government in the 1970’s.

Crossing the border from Spain to Portugal, I at least expected some kind of passport check. We didn’t even have to slow down. There was nothing, not even a kiosk with a guard. It’s more trouble to cross from Oregon into California; here, they don’t even bother with an agricultural inspection station. One of the first towns across the border is Tavira, recommended as a scenic stop. It was charming, but not worth much more than a short stroll. Lagos is a lovely beachside community, which seems to mostly cater to British tourists. We enjoyed the views of the coast, but the water was really too cold and the surf was too rough to do any swimming. I’m told that it’s the difference between an Atlantic and a Mediterranean beach.

Some comments on driving in Spain and Portugal:

- There seems to be a standard EU license plate, with the circle of yellow stars on a dark blue field. Below is a letter: E for Spain (España), P for Portugal, F for France. The license plate number is on a white field with black numbers. Our rental car plate had the letters GBR, so naturally we named it Goober for the weekend.

- In Spain and Portugal, it seems more feasible to navigate by highway numbers than in France. Of course, that may just be because we largely stuck to major highways this time.

- Traffic circles (called roundabouts by English speakers here, and glorietas by Spanish speakers) are very popular. Under medium-to-heavy traffic conditions, they do keep things moving better. In very heavy traffic, of course, everything stops. The main downside with traffic circles is that you can lose your sense of direction really quickly.

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