Bordeira, though, is where you want to be if you’d like a relaxing, meditative beach experience. After taking in the breathtaking cliffside scenery on Estrada da Praia, we forded the Ribeira da Carrapateira to reach the beach (easy enough — it was only a trickle). Ignacio and I walked the entire length of Bordeira, roughly two miles.
After the first mile or so, we didn’t encounter a single person on the perfect white sand beach, save a couple of campers in a tent pitched near a grotto. The only evidence anyone had been on the beach at all was the odd washed-up fisherman’s buoy, which Ignacio scooped up and put into a plastic bag.
The rest of Carrapateira is modest but charming. Nearly all the houses are painted white or off-white, and it offers some decent housing options for tourists (I stopped into the cute Pensão das Dunas, with doubles from 25 to 55 euros — $28 to $62 — per night, depending on the season) and at least one very good place to eat, Restaurante do Cabrita. Seafood is the specialty, naturally, and while it offers dishes like grilled bass (€13.80) and fried cuttlefish (€10.50) for reasonable prices, we were looking for something more out of the ordinary.
We found it: The waiter put a steaming platter of some of the strangest seafood I’d ever seen onto the table. They were perceves, or gooseneck barnacles (€45 per kilo), with black-orange tubular bodies and grayish bulbous, pointed tips. A delicacy in Portugal, the locally harvested creatures resemble an alien life form but taste briny and slightly sweet, with a texture like a chewy scallop.
On my way out of Carrapateira I went south and took in the beautiful vistas at the aforementioned end of the world — the town of Sagres and Cape St. Vincent, with its active lighthouse. Stopping for gas, I grabbed a huge and filling eggplant sandwich (€4) from aSagres Restaurant and did a little souvenir shopping at Artesanato A Mó (mugs and cute ceramic refrigerator magnets are €2.90).
With many charming towns and Instagrammable beaches dotting Portugal’s southern coast, it’s tough to go wrong. Stopping through Lagos is a good bet, however. I parked near the harbor on Avenida dos Descobrimentos and did a little window-shopping among the many street vendors hawking towels, jewelry and handbags made from local cork (small purses were in the €5 to €10 range). From there I strolled down the narrow lanes of Lagos’s city center, with its red-tiled roofs, and fell in love with one particularly beautiful building near Luís de Camões Plaza: Bedecked in bright emerald-green tile, the eye-catching structure would not have been out of place in the Emerald City in Oz.
After picking up a quick €2.50 chorizo sandwich from the fast-food favorite A Merendeira, I drove south for roughly a mile to Ponta da Piedade for more jaw-dropping panoramas of jagged cliffs plunging into limpid blue waters. I hiked around for an hour or two on a few of the surrounding coastal trails, some of which can get a bit precarious — use caution when taking photos.
If you haven’t had enough of the beach (is such a thing possible?), I recommend stopping in Albufeira, roughly an hour’s drive east of Lagos. While the parking situation is a little dicier and the beach slightly coarser, it’s still a pleasant place to dip your toes.
Farther down the coast, the town of Tavira, which straddles the Gilão River, is rich with Old World charm. Near the amphitheater-like main plaza on the Roman Bridge, to which bunches of palm leaves were attached (it was near the end of Holy Week), a man with an accordion sat playing “O Sole Mio” — just a touch too perfect but difficult to resist while gazing out over the water and feeling the cobblestones under your feet.
A couple of miles away, I had dinner at Casa do Polvo, the first and only octopus-specialty restaurant I’d ever been to. In whatever form you could possibly want to consume octopus, it’s on the menu: croquettes, pies, skewers, boiled, burgers. I opted for a more classic grilled octopus (€13.50) — it was tender and yielding and tasted of onions and herbs.
Southern Portugal’s appeal, while great, is certainly matched by that of Seville’s surrounding Andalusian towns. And none are more intriguing, perhaps, than Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. The three towns, each no more than a half-hour from the others, comprise what’s known as the Sherry Triangle. The popular fortified wine must be produced within the triangle to be officially considered sherry under Spanish law. (The grapes, however, may be grown outside the triangle.) The city of Jerez (the Spanish word for sherry) is the home of the González Byass winery and its most famous brand, Tio Pepe.
Visitors can tour the bodega (€14 with two wines; €20 with four wines and tapas), which dates to 1835, learning about the winemaking process and exploring the cool, musty soleras, where the hulking sherry barrels are kept. The different varieties of sherry are fun to learn about (and taste), from the fino variety, which resembles a dry table wine, to the Pedro Ximénez variety, which is aged until thick and dark, and tastes like a mouthful of liquid raisins. Tours are available in Spanish, English and German.