Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Passage to Portugal

Enjoy some of Europe's finest scenery, food and golf for under $100 a day

The Portuguese are a laid-back people. From the street cleaners and clerks in the capital of Lisbon to the fishermen in the coastal towns of the Algarve, they take a healthy, relaxed approach to daily life -- except when they get behind the wheel. On our second day in the country, we rented a car to travel from Lisbon to the Algarve. It should've been a pleasant morning drive, but the locals give new meaning to tailgating (they love to pass on blind hairpin curves too). I kept speeding up so the guy behind me wouldn't end up in my backseat. When a policeman pulled me over I tried to explain that I was speeding in self-defence. He shrugged and said, "I understand, madam. The Portuguese are very bad drivers, but the law is the law." So I coughed up 10,000 escudos ($70 Canadian), and yes, the policeman was polite.

We motored southward, a little poorer, but already richer in the knowledge that this country is spectacular, hospitable and full of history. Unlike Italy, France or Britain, where the price of a Coke will make you gasp, Portugal is a first-class bargain. For about $180 per day, my husband Bill and I lucked into a five-star hotel overlooking the beach. Our stay included a huge breakfast buffet, access to a rental car and a golf package; the seafood was superb and they practically gave away their vino.

SEASIDE PLAYGROUND
The Algarve coast stretches 150 kilometres along the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Spanish border to Cape St. Vincent, which is the windblown and most southwesterly point in Europe. The coastline consists of tranquil sandy coves fringed by clear turquoise-coloured waters, and huge ochre rock formations resembling sponge toffee rise from the sea. In summer, this playground is packed, but the beaches are blissfully empty in winter and spring.

Our home for the next two days was the Pestana Carlton Alvor Hotel, just a jog down the beach from the little fishing village of Alvor. We arrived in the evening as fishermen hauled their brightly painted boats ashore for the night. We soon discovered that the town is full of inexpensive and cheerful restaurants, pottery shops, cozy pubs and liquor stores. At dusk, Alvor comes alive. Women dressed in black lean from their windows to gossip and hang laundry, men with leathery tanned faces, wool caps and canes gather on benches in the central square, dogs roam the cobblestone lanes, and a whiff of charcoal fills the air.

We followed our noses to a tidy little place where an old man was out on the street basting his churrasco chicken with hot piri piri sauce. Inside, his wife adjusted the TV so her patrons could watch the soccer match. A carful of Brits slowed down as the driver leaned out his window. "Evening, Joao. We'll be back for six chickens in half an hour." While Bill waited for our crispy bird (the Algarve's answer to fast food), I went round the corner for some warm bread and a bottle of wine. The most expensive wine in the shop was about $6. I figured it would be plonk, but was pleasantly surprised by its smooth finish and full body. Other than Mateus (which even the locals call plonk), we don't get a great selection of Portuguese wine in Canada -- pity.

The grand total for our meal was $12. A typical dinner for two -- with plentiful portions, a bottle of good wine and a nip of port -- will set you back less than $40. Menus are usually written in German, Portuguese and English, and almost everyone working in the service industry speaks English. This is convenient, especially if your Portuguese is almost non-existent.

The Algarve is dotted with towns, some of which are more modern and touristy than others. Lagos, with its well-preserved old quarter, ancient fort, pedestrian-only cobblestone streets and plenty of inviting cafes and shops, gets my vote as the most charming. Bill and I aimlessly wandered the maze of back streets in Lagos until we stumbled upon Galaeo, a restaurant that featured an ancient concoction called cataplana, named for the pan in which it's cooked. A cataplana pan is made of copper, hinged like a clamshell and dimpled like a golf ball. Delectable combinations of clam, sausage and bacon simmer in an aromatic blend of herbs, tomato, wine and brandy sauce. If you love seafood, the Portuguese have 365 ways of preparing it -- stone bass with clams, golden bream in salt, octopus gratine, avocado-and-shrimp cocktail and smoked swordfish. But I could eat cataplana every day of the year.

INTO THE SWING
A traveller can't exist on food and wine alone. I needed to play golf. Every year, international golf-and-travel experts and journalists choose one locale as the worldwide golf destination of the year. In 1999, the nod went to the Algarve and it didn't take long to see why. The terrain varies tremendously, from pine forest to olive groves to oceanfront. The area boasts 22 courses, including my favourite --the Royal at Vale do Lobo where the 16th hole, a par 3 over three steep red cliffs, is one of the most photographed in Europe. I parred it, but Bill nearly hit Neptune. Three new courses, including the Millennium designed by Arnold Palmer, opened last summer.

Most hotels offer a package deal that includes golf, accommodation and a rental car, but you might consider purchasing one of the popular golf passports that entitles you to a choice of five rounds at 12 courses for about $240. Beginners are welcome, but be warned: the quality of play is high.

After a few days of dining and teeing off in the Algarve, Bill and I once again decided to brave the traffic and head north to one of the most interesting settlements I've ever seen. Sintra is only 20 kilometres from Lisbon: you have access to the city without the noise and you get much better value at the hotels. Plus, I'd heard that the poet Lord Byron loved this place and now, so do I. True romantics, namely, lovers of poetry, will be smitten with this verdant Eden full of mossy winding lanes, misty mountains, Moorish fountains and fairy-tale castles.

 

The steep cobblestone streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site are cluttered with tiny shops full of great bargains. The same waffle-cotton guest towels I paid $28 for in Toronto cost $3 here --with monograms. I also picked up quite a collection of hand-painted ceramic plates, a tablecloth and some napkins with the Portuguese rooster motif on them. The rooster, a symbol of hope and loyalty, appears on many souvenirs.

Legend has it that a pauper accused of stealing a silver platter from a rich man's home was about to be jailed; yet, he so vehemently denied the accusation, the magistrate allowed him to plead his innocence at the scene of the crime. The pauper arrived at lunchtime and the table was set with platters of food, including a roasted rooster. "I swear I'm innocent," he cried. "And to prove it, that cock will stand up and sing." You know the rest.

By this time, I'd had it with driving. Rather than risk more speeding fines, we hopped the train from Sintra to Lisbon. In town we caught the local transit tram 28, which rattled and lurched up and down through the oldest quarters: a medieval jumble of Moorish alleys, cafes and laundry hanging from ancient balconies. Lisbon is the cleanest city I've ever seen. I even saw a woman washing the cobblestones in front of a church.

We got off the tram and immediately launched into our hike through town. Lisbon is built on seven hills and, after a while, I felt as if I'd been up and down all of them --good walking shoes are a must. First, we climbed up to the belvedere of Sao Jorge castle for a panoramic view. Then it was down to Cervejaria de Trindade, a lively former monastery with walls covered in famous azulejo tiles. These tiles aren't unique to Portugal, but in no other European country will you come across azulejos used so prolifically; they adorn churches, stores, homes and even bus depots.

We worked off our lunch of cod-and-potato casserole by trekking around the city's historic waterfront where the Portuguese government erected the Monument to the Discoveries, an imposing structure that juts into the Tagus River like the prow of a ship. On board are Henry the Navigator and a number of fellow explorers, including Vasco da Gama. In case you've forgotten your grade-school history, Lisbon was once to explorers what Cape Canaveral is to space exploration today. It all started with Henry who died 540 years ago. His search for a trade route to the Orient proved futile, but his innovative shipbuilding designs and navigational techniques helped future generations of Portuguese sailors reach the New World.

Our time for exploring was running out. One more night and we'd be jetting back to our real lives and jobs in Canada. I really wanted to take in a traditional fado performance. These sad sailing songs, some dating back as far as the 16th century, are performed in taverns and bars along the coast. During long sea voyages or fishing trips, sailors would pass the time by singing about homesickness or tragedies experienced on the open seas. Unfortunately, most fado performances don't start until midnight. It was only 7 pm and I was already exhausted. Besides, the songs are such melancholy laments, and that wasn't the way I wanted to remember Portugal.

 

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