Unexpected Luxury at Luz

29 September – 8 October 2019

Having recovered fully from the Aguadente, we said our goodbyes and headed off westwards. We were booked into a birdwatching festival at the SW tip of Portugal from 10 October so had time to take things easy and explore the Algarve. The only problem was that we were lacking inspiration. Undecided what to do we satisfied ourselves on the first day with stocking up on shopping and visiting the motorhome bodywork specialist who had been recommended to us by Ian. Although he couldn’t do the whole job we needed he is definitely a good contact.

Remaining clueless we over-nighted at a campsite outside Olhãu with decent internet, did some research and in the end opted to make the most of the sun. We booked into a nice-looking campsite with pool that had been recommended to us and headed off next day through the outskirts of Olhãu, admiring the work of its Street Artists on the way and continued west across the Arade River towards Lagos.

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Arade River, near Portimao

The campsite was situated on the main road just outside Praia da Luz but that was the only downside. Nicely landscaped with lovely swimming pools, excellent modern showers and, for Danny, double bowls in the washing up area. It even has a gym and a spa and it felt like we were on holiday. No wonder so many people appeared to be installed for the winter!

The “chill out” nature of the site and the busy main road meant we didn’t explore too much but we did get the bus into the nearby town of Lagos a couple of times. Bigger than we had thought with sprawling, apartment-filled suburbs, the old town was nevertheless very nice to wander round. 

The river – Ribeira de Bensafrim – that joins the sea with the marina and fishing harbour has plenty of activity to watch, with fishing boats, yachts and a wide variety of tourist trips to watch as they head to and from the sea. This is where many of the great Portugeses seafaring explorers left from and moored in the river is a replica of the 16th century caravels used by Prince Henry the Navigator and Portuguese sailors on their voyages of “discovery” across the Atlantic Ocean and along the coast of Africa. It is a tiny 23.8 metres long and not something we would like to go across the the Bay of Biscay in, let alone the Atlantic.  

We really wanted to see the Mercado do Escravos, Europe’s first slave market which is now a museum of slavery but of course the day we went was the one day of the week they are all closed – Monday.  Still, the place had plenty of historic buildings – some falling apart – and was very pleasant to explore. There is a relaxing square, the Praça Infante dom Henrique with a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator, an old Marketplace, and plenty of little shops and restaurants mostly aimed at the ex-pats and tourists that flock to the old town. 

The small fort guarding the entrance to the river – the Forte Ponta da Bandeira – was built in the 17th century when despite it’s size it was considered one of the most advanced of its time. It formed part of the once impregnable defences of this ex-capital of the Algarve. Most of the town was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and Faro then took over as capital but the imposing  Islamic town walls, built in the 14th century, largely remain including the the São Gonçalo Door, a fortified arch which was once the main entrance through the walls.

We enjoyed our wanders there – Lagos old town grew on us.

Praia da Luz was only a mile from the campsite, a gentle 15 minute stroll downhill.  We found it to be a low key place, not particularly pretty but not “Kiss me Quick” either. There were some very nice looking aparments and villas, some in complexes and some in clearly long-established areas.  It seems to be a place of expat homes, second homes and holiday apartments with the remnants of a small village around the old church. The old fort is now a restaurant.

The main attraction is the beach, which is small but beautifully set with the granite cliffs of an old lava flow providing a dramatic backdrop for the surfers and body-boarders playing in the surf.

Coffee bars, cafes, restaurants and gift-shops a-plenty, but again, all low key. On the outskirts we found a row of crumbling traditional one-storey houses, each with an aging satellite dish, clearly still lived in (we heard the TV going in the end one). What a contrast with the neighbouring villas.

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Old houses, Praia da Luz

Next to the campsite is the small, traditional Portugese village of Espiche, a complete contrast to Luz. With it’s sleepy alleyways, garden vegetable plots, small market building and primary school, it was a different world.

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Autumn Fruits in an Espiche Garden

Contributing to the feeling of being on holiday was the campsite’s “animation” – stage shows put on 4 or 5 times a week.  We tried them out – Latin music and dance one night, a Magic show (Danny’s favourite) another, and our first experience of Portugal’s famous “Fado” music – soulful singer accompanied by a guitar (called a viola de fado in Portugal) and a guitarra – an arabic lute with 6 pairs of steel strings.

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Fado Performance

We had to wrap up in the evenings but the daytime temperatures were lovely and watching the UK forecasts made us feel very lucky – we hope it lasts over our long birdwatching weekend.