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Exploring the Algarve and the Southwest Coast of Spain

by Ann Lange 14 Nov 09:48 UTC
Walking path across the delta leading to Portuguese beaches. © Malcolm MacPhail

We landed in the Algarve region in Portugal after our first crossing of the North Atlantic. The Algarve is the southern portion of Portugal, it is a tourist mecca for Europeans, in particular the Irish and the English. We found there was much more English spoken here than when we were in Brazil. The Algarve features miles and miles of lovely beaches, with several rivers that are navigable and eminently worth exploring.

Portugal has a rich maritime history. During the 15th and 16th century, Portuguese explorers discovered the island of Madeira and the archipelago that is the Azores. Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese sailor, was the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Vasco da Gama left Portugal in 1497, rounded the tip of Africa and, after trading with the African and Arab nations along the east coast of Africa, ended his voyage in Calcutta, India. He was credited with finding an ocean route which would allow the Portuguese access to the Indian spice routes. This was a very important economic boost for Portugal. It is even said that Portuguese sailors discovered the island of Saint Helena, which is in the middle of the South Atlantic, but kept it secret for decades, so they could have access to fresh water and provisions to themselves.

We landed in the city of Lagos, just east of the southwest corner of Portugal. Our first view of mainland Europe, as we approached Lagos, was a stupendous rock formation along the coast. We spent a day at the marina, checking in to the country, drying out, stocking up on groceries and exploring the old town. As we continue our journey we anchored at the mouth of a delta about 15 nm away from the town of Alvor. The buoys to enter further into the delta were not in the correct places and we almost went aground as the currents had shifted the sand. Alvor's history is that of a fishing village and its narrow and twisty streets follow the outline of the port. Access to the ocean is through the marshy delta and there is a string of beautiful beaches along the isthmus that is between the delta and the ocean.

We sailed up and explored the Guadiana River which is the border between Portugal and Spain. As soon as we left the coast, I was thrilled to see fields of olive trees on the hillsides! There was very little sailing as we moved up the river, but the changing countryside was fascinating. The land went from the flat coast to rolling hills to steep sided hills where the river had cut its way through. We stopped for the night at Alcoutim, anchoring in the river downstream from the town, and dinghyed to the dock. The local museum described the hostilities that took place between Portugal and Spain and indicated where cannon balls were lobbed across the river at each other. The Spanish town was at a slightly higher elevation, providing a huge advantage. We were able to sail on the way back down the river and it was a lovely experience. In the solitude and silence under sail, we could hear the cattle lowing and a man banging a dish calling his goats.

We sailed down the Spanish coast and stopped at a marina in the town of Mazago. We took a bus to where replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria were said to have departed and read about the voyages of Christopher Columbus. I really wanted to climb the rat lines on the replicas to see if I could handle the ropes and the heights. Unfortunately, insurance issues would not allow it so my plan was thwarted. I will just have to see if I can sign on to sail on a tall ship and get a real chance to try it.

Our next major adventure was going up the Guadalquivir River to Seville, Spain. This river trip was not as scenic as the Guadiana as the countryside is mostly delta with hills visible on the horizon. We anchored in the river, among fishing boats, about half way to Seville. It was a harrowing experience due to the tidal river flow and our inexperience with these Spanish boats with big nets hanging off the boats. When the tide is running down the river, it is useless to try and motor against it as you make only about one knot against the tide and current.

Upon arrival in Seville, we tied up at a rundown marina, but there was a direct connection by bus to the downtown tourist area. We had a wonderful time visiting the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, consecrated in 1507. This was the largest Cathedral we had ever visited. It was massive, with wide cavernous areas for worship, and held unbelievable riches in furnishings, carvings, and paintings. Wealthy patrons sponsor certain areas, in separate rooms off the main worship area, dedicated to specific saints. As a place of refuge, the cathedral could have held thousands of people. The courtyard in the center of the cathedral had rows and rows of Seville orange trees. The path up to the bell tower, with its commanding 360-degree view of the city, is very wide and, as they used to ride horses to reach it, has no steps.

We toured the famous bull ring, the Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Seville, that was given royal consent to be constructed in 1730 and, after many stops due to the Spanish monarch prohibiting further construction, it was finished in 1881. The culture and tradition of Spain oozed from every part of the building. Standing in the middle of the bullring, gazing at the beautiful architecture, imagining the swoop of the matador's cape and the charging of the enraged bull, gave me goose bumps. We attended a night of flamenco dancing and I was thrilled with the guitarists and the machismo the male dancers displayed with every taunt movement of their bodies. The foot stamping added to the magical atmosphere as the female dancers swirled in their colorful, long, multilayered skirts.

After our trip back down the river, we sailed overnight to the city of Cadiz, which is the last major port before sailing down the Straits of Gibraltar. Cadiz has a big Moorish flavor to its culture and architecture. It was a long walk into town from the marina, but it was very scenic along a sea wall that had been built for protection from marauders and to keep the sea from washing away the city. In the old town, we meandered through the very narrow alleys, getting lost and having to navigate by the sun. I was very disappointed in the paella that I ordered in a tiny shop on a corner where we sat outside to people watch and consume our fare. There was a modern part to the city as well and we were able to find some much needed boat parts.

On Barry's 65th birthday we had a glorious sail down the Strait of Gibraltar. We tied up in a marina in Spain that is just a hop, skip and jump from the border with Gibraltar where it is substantially less expensive. After almost two months of getting along in a foreign language, it was great to order food in English and know what you were going to get. We took a bus to the base of the "rock" and joined a tour. The tunnels blasted by the British during the first and second World Wars were mind boggling. The network of tunnels had holes for cannons and large guns to defend against a possible German invasion. Barry's back started acting up, but he found some relief at a clinic in Gibraltar, so we decided to sail on.

We did an overnight passage and arrived in Almerimar, Spain. It had a great marina and officials there were very accommodating to foreign cruisers. Barry became incapacitated by his back pain. We visited an English-speaking doctor and eventually she arranged for Barry to see a specialist. Within two weeks we had a diagnosis and his problem was fixed. We do not carry health insurance but the bill for two local consultations, two specialist appointments with an interpreter, an MRI and an X-ray was only $1,100 CAD. It would have cost us more for a return flight home and I doubt we could have accessed services so quickly.

We then made the decision to sail home and complete our circumnavigation before Barry's back flared up again. I really wanted to visit France, so Barry agreed to a road trip. We rented a car and traveled along the coast to Barcelona, crossed the Pyrenees, and drove up the south coast of France to Marseilles. I had read so much about the war years that I thought I was in heaven when we were in the old port sipping a glass of red wine and savoring our bouillabaisse. We stood on the steps where they filmed, The French Connection, and visited chocolate shops, bakeries and ateliers of artist who populated the narrow streets in the area. There is a huge Arab population in France and, dining near the water in Marseille, you would swear you were in Morocco or Algeria. All the signs are in Arabic, many people wear long robes and head dresses, and restaurants offer donairs, pitas and the enticing smell of lamb.

On our way back to the boat, we stopped in Valencia and visited the port where the America's Cup was staged. We also had a chance encounter in a small town with a festival. It involved vendors cooking vast pots of fish-based stews and bands blasting music. People were lined up with plates clutched in their hands while a long row of chefs tended their offerings. Our Spanish was not good enough to ascertain exactly what was being celebrated but, whatever it was, it involved the whole family, a big party and much feasting. We stopped at a beach that was crowded with sun bathers and I went swimming for my first and last time in the Mediterranean. It was late in the year, so the water temperature was coolish rather than the warm bathtub temperatures of the Indian Ocean.

We returned to Cat's-Paw IV and prepared to sail back to North America. We decided to visit Morocco, the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands and then re-cross the Atlantic to Barbados. Our dream of sailing around the Mediterranean for a couple of years and gunk holing through Italy and the Greek Islands was over. I was very disappointed not to be able to continue but I figured that having a healthy husband and completing our circumnavigation together superseded my need to see the countries that bordered the Mediterranean. After being on the boat for 10 years, I felt the pull of family and aging parents and I was becoming a bit jaded with planning adventures in new countries. It was time to head for home.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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