April 11, 2015. Easter morning, on our way out of Évora and heading towards the Algarve, we decided that we still hadn’t had enough of heathens, so thus began our hunt for megaliths — huge stone slabs erected by Neolithic peoples to mark graves or track celestial happenings (think Stonehenge). Southern Portugal has its fair share of these structures, all of which are scattered along country roads that challenged our navigational skills and left our little rental car coated in dust and begging for a front-end alignment.
Our first stop was Anta Grande do Zambujeiro, a dolmen (burial tomb) that once housed the bodies of 30 male skeletons, interred over several generations between 4,000 and 3,000 B.C. Despite being the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, the dolmen is hard to spot, tucked away as it is in a farmer’s field filled with cork trees and grazed by goats and bulls. (The place was so hidden that, pulling into the parking area, we accidentally disturbed two teenagers dressed in their Sunday finest who’d clearly ditched Easter Services in order to do the big nasty in the most remote spot they could find.)
I had to chuckle, because as we approached and I got my first glimpse of the site’s configuration, I thought of the Easter story, with the stone being rolled away from Jesus’s tomb. Today the dolmen’s capstone lies near the entrance to the rocky sepulchre, looking much like the illustrations of Gethsemane, but in this case dynamite did the work rather than the supposed angel. And inside, instead of moldy grave clothes, archaeologists found the largest cache of Neolithic weapons, ceramics, and gold and ivory jewelry in Iberian history. (All these goodies now reside in the museum at Évora.)
Our appetites whetted for more Neolithic sites, we next headed to the Cromeleque dos Almendres, a sort of Portuguese Stonehenge. On the way to the main event, we encountered the Menhir of Almendres — a single, 10-foot-tall monolith that seems to stand sentry to the bigger site nearby. The top portion of the stone is etched with a shepherd’s crook, which is typical for pastoral Neolithic peoples. And like most standing stones, it marks one of the all important agricultural and astronomical mile-markers, the winter solstice, by lining up with its nearby buddies to point toward the rising sun on the shortest day of the year.
The giant stone circles themselves — really more ellipses, although at one point they may have been horse-shoe shaped — sit not too far away and are made up of 95 rounded granite boulders, arranged in dual concentric rings, one large donut connect to a smaller one below it. Both are oriented northwest to southeast to create a sort of crude astronomical observatory or celestial calendar marking the movements of the moon and sun during equinoxes and solstices.
The surface of several of the stones carry engravings of shepherd’s crooks, “cup marks,” spirals, and serpentine shapes, leading some archaeologists to think that the site may have also acted as a giant family tree, tracing ancient lineages of leaders in the region via clan symbols that acted like “family crests.” But no matter the meaning, cultural or celestial, the space definitely has a sacred feel, even on a hot summer day with tourists testing the acoustics and little kids playing hide-and-seek behind the brooding boulders.
As we left the site, Matthew and I admired the peace of the place. Fields full of wildflowers basked in the sunlight and waved in a breeze redolent with the scent of Spanish lavender in full bloom. Beautiful cork oaks offered us a shady spot to sit and admire the amazing variety of birds that sheltered in their branches. I heard my first real cuckoo that day, as the bird’s distinctive call echoed through the trees.
Inspecting their trunks up close, I noticed that many looked like women after a Korean salt scrub, with blushing bare hides that appeared painfully tender after having had their outer skin stripped away. Surprisingly, this rough treatment doesn’t harm the trees, which remain productive for more than 100 years. Their biggest threat is the plastic cork industry, which may mean the demise of the oak forests’ protected and incredibly diverse habitat. (Think about that next time you’re making a wine purchase.)
Our megalithic meanderings done for the day, we sped towards the Algarve, stopping along the way to admire vast wetlands and marvel at the nests of storks perched precariously atop high-tension towers, telephone poles, and chimney tops. (Guess what behavior spawned the fable that the new baby arrived down the chimney via special delivery by a stork?) These bizarre locations for setting up house were a constant source of amazement to us, and we probably initiated several near-miss accidents in an attempt to pull off the road and take photos.
At last we reached our destination, the Algarve, home to some of Europe’s most ruggedly beautiful beaches. Our plan was to simplify our sightseeing and spend more time relaxing, beginning with a stay at the Villas Dom Denis. Super quaint and comfy, the place had several pools and a beachy vibe meant for lazy days sipping tropical drinks and getting tan lines. But as luck would have it, the day we arrived, a storm front blew in, dropping the temperature to around 50 degrees and hiding the sun for the next three days. So much for swimsuit weather.
Refusing to be discouraged, we made our way down to the long string of beaches with romantic-sounding names like Meia Praia, Batata, Dona Ana, and Camilo. Where one began and the other ended, I couldn’t tell you, but I can say that I’ve never been to any more picturesque seaside in my life. Incredible rock formations that included pinnacles, natural arches, sea caves, grottoes, and other fantastical shapes made the whole place look like a Silly Sand castle (does that toy ring a bell, old schoolers?)
Matthew and I spent hours hopscotching our way along the shoreline, climbing through tunnels, egg-shelling barefoot over barnacle-encrusted rocks, and plotting pathways around rocky points where the incoming tide threatened to cut us off from the next patch of sandy beach, barely visible around the distant bend. A network of nature trails high above the water not only gave us a bird’s-eye view of the beautiful coves below, but also provided opportunities to explore the amazing plant diversity when high tide made beach-combing impossible. No words really describe how gorgeous the area is, so I’ve created a huge gallery below for you to enjoy.
That night, we headed into the little beachside town of Lagos for dinner and spent some time perusing cute lanes and alleyways to admire the whitewashed architecture and bask in the overall funkiness common to most seaside resorts. The next morning, we tried to take in a few more sites like Fort Ponta da Bandeira, but the windy weather drove us back indoors to the cliffside Cafe do Mar for a wonderful meal of freshly caught golden bream and sea bass.
With only one afternoon remaining before our trip home the next day, we headed out to our last beach — the Praia do Castelejo — located near Cape St. Vincent, which was once considered Land’s End and is still the farthest west you can go in Europe. The trip took us through a nature preserve that reminded us of the Scottish moors with its steeply rolling hills covered in twisted fairy forests, shrubby gorse, and an incredible array of wildflowers. Our impression of the Scottish highlands seem cemented when we ran into a flock of sheep being herded under the watchful eyes of a shepherd and his sheepdogs.
But when we finally reached the shoreline, we felt as if we’d been transported to some volcanic desert island, where the beaches are made up of black basalt slabs jutting upwards to stab at the sky. A huge group of surfers tackling enormous waves increased the Fiji-like feel, and we watched for awhile to see which folks made it back in one piece. A final stroll along the sand provided us with incredible photo-ops and memories to carry home, fueling dreams of another visit someday … perhaps when it’s warm and sunny, dare I hope?