Portugal is a country that Australians hear little about. Sure, they used to quite fancy sailing the seas, they’re not bad at kicking a football and oh yeah, piri piri chicken? Isn’t that Portuguese?
The first time I visited Portugal, I had very few plans. I took an overnight train to Lisbon from Madrid, and had a fine time there. Not being ‘done’ with the place, I wanted to see somewhere else as well, and consulted the trusty Lonely Planet. North to Porto or south to Lagos? In the end I spent a couple of days in Porto, which ended up being among the best days of my whole trip. I left the Algarve for another day.
This year, as a tour guide, I returned to Portugal. The Algarve (the name for the beachy, touristy region in the south of Portugal) may as well be a different country to Portugal. One of my lasting images of 2007 was the washing hanging out of windows, always a mark of a poor yet somewhat charming place. Washing does not hang out of windows in the Algarve. Instead, beach towels hang off balconies.
Whilst I’ve always turned my nose up at over-touristed spots in Europe, Lagos somehow gets away with it. That’s probably because of the existence of its Old Town, which is a cobblestoned maze filled with seemingly identical white rendered buildings. On the other side of the canal is the New Town, full of decade-old high rises populated by British and German families. But I’m not here to talk about the New Town.
A major part of Lagos’ charm for me is the fact that each time I visited this year, I stayed with a different local. Little old ladies who hardly speak a word of English rent out their spare rooms to tourists wishing to avoid the New Town, and what a local experience it is. Some had plastic covers on the couches, others had stately wooden four-poster beds and all had a crucifix (or two, or three…) bearing down on you in every room.
There’s plenty to do in Lagos if you’re a do-er, and the beach is there for those who aren’t. Me? I’ve dabbled in both. I’ve kayaked, surfed, shopped and eaten myself stupid (though no piri piri featured). I’ve day-tripped to the nearby village of Silves. And I’ve laid on the beach, relaxed in cafes, and done nothing at all.
I always get lost in Lagos. The main centre and canal is easy to navigate, but once you move uphill all those little lanes look identical. This is particularly problematic when part of my job is to run a pub crawl in these little lanes.
The Lagos Pub Crawl isn’t just any pub crawl. Held on the second night of our tour, it works miracles in terms of getting people out of their shells. Lagos is known for its nightlife, and as such people don’t usually stay for a day or two. People stay for weeks, with the simple pattern of beach – booze – beach – booze featuring on many itineraries. It’s the Ios, Ibiza and Hvar of Portugal.
I love nights out in Lagos. There’s the chance to partake in the Nine Deadly Sins at Whytes (nine different shots – including milky ones – as fast as you can) or perhaps the Bomb Squad at Joe’s Garage (seven Jager bombs in a row). T-shirts are given to successful participants which can then be spotted on the backpacker trail all over Europe. We dance on pool tables, drink cocktails out of fishbowls and then bond over kebabs in the wee hours of the morning. Then we all have to find our way back to our little old ladies’ houses.
Needless to say, I’ve never had the whole group turn up for our kayaking trip the next morning.
So is Lagos really Portugal? Not at all, but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t go there. You’re not going to have to learn a word of Portuguese, there’s no museums that you’ve ‘got to’ visit and the sun shines all year round. It may not be a place for ‘travelling’ but it certainly suits a holiday.
Just stay away from the Nine Deadly Sins. Those things are EVIL.