Day 4: Sao Rafael, Lagos, Praia da Rocha
After a couple of days of taking it easy, today we would aim to change that by getting out and about and seeing beyond Albufeira. I headed down to the local Budget rent-a-car who informed me that I could get hold of the vehicle at 11am. That gave me a couple of hours to kill (killed by generally being lazy and doing an impression of a sloth), but soon enough I had the keys in my hand to a little silver 1.2 litre VW Polo. It had a couple of scuffs on it and hubcap missing, all of it noted on the pre-rental check-over note, although I wasn't expecting to add to that. Having said that, I opted for the extra insurance to cover me for any accidental damage – after all, I did witness that accident when we first arrived, and it seemed only prudent.
Our first journey was to the Bone Chapel in the Algarve capital Faro. I had brought my Satnav from home, loaded with Portugal maps, and it did a grand job of getting us right there, albeit lacking some details on the way (there were lots of roundabouts not shown on the Satnav maps, but nothing too troublesome). The parking around the church was choc-a-bloc and the cobbled streets were even more narrow and winding than those we'd seen in Albufeira. Or at least it seemed that way sat in the car. I couldn't see any spaces and so looped around again and found what looked like a space the second time. There was just 15 minutes until the Bone Chapel was due to close for the daily siesta shut-down but once we got into the church that houses the chapel, we realised that at the front of the church were a group of people who were either paying their respects or waiting for a service to start. There was a funeral note on the door of the church which suggested the man who had died was a fireman, possibly the local fire chief (there were a couple of vintage fire tenders parked out front, presumably in his honour). The problem was that the entrance to the chapel was right at the front, next to where these people were sitting, next to what looked to be an open casket. I really didn't feel it was appropriate to walk past them in my tourist get-up of shorts, t-shirts and randomly dangled camera/camcorder. So we headed back to the car. The plan was to grab something to eat nearby, walk around some shops and try to make that last the two hours until the Bone Chapel opened again (and with some hope when the funeral would have taken place). That was the plan, at least.
So I'm standing there in the narrow street as a woman speaks incomprehensibly (to me, at least) into my phone while a queue of traffic is forming behind and a mini bus driver is sounding his horn; people are coming out of their shops to see what all the commotion is, and I'm responsible for it.
Rewind a few minutes to this scene: I'm driving down the narrow street in which numerous cars are parked, half mounted on the kerbs and with wing mirrors tucked in. Having only been in the car for a total of perhaps 40 minutes, I hadn't quite got my position on the (opposite side of the) road sorted and hadn't allowed enough room. There was a loud thwack as I clipped another car's wing mirror. I looked over to see the nearside mirror on the car now pushed in, cracked and apparently quite damaged; in the rear view mirror I could see the people whose car I hit waving at me. Here we go, I thought. Time for paperwork fun and games. I knew that I would need to call the police to report it as they'd made that clear to me at the rental place. However, the people whose car I hit were not bothered about the damage – they had got just a small black scratch on their wing mirror and wanted to be on their way. Our hire car had borne the brunt of it. I called the office and said that the other people wanted to go, so did I still need to report it and was told that yes I did, but I could let them leave as long as I make a note of their registration plate.
I then called the police and tried to explain where the accident happened. The number I called was a national emergency number so I was having difficulty explaining that it was not really an emergency, no-one was injured and that the other car was gone. The man on the other end of the line could not understand my description of the location, so I pounced on a woman passing by and asked her if she could explain to the police on my behalf what had happened. I then repeated it all again go her as she relayed/translated. Then a mini bus arrived and was trying to squeeze through the gap between our car and the other side of the street. There was nothing in it and I suspected that the car was about to sustain even more damage! The mini bus gave up and then started honking his horn. Meanwhile the woman was still on the phone and I had to get in the car to move it as I was causing a blockage. But I couldn't get in the car 'cos the bus was blocking the driver's side door. And I couldn't drive off with the stranger holding my phone. With more cars beeping and everyone's stress levels rising, I signalled to Manda to wait with the woman for the call to finish while I hopped into the passenger side and clambered across. The manoeuvre was going to be tricky – I had little room to move, but just then a shopkeeper came out and moved his car in front of me, so I was able to pull out and get further down the road to an area that was a little safer.
I never got to thank the woman for her help personally, nor had I verified that the police were on their way. So I waited at the junction for a police car to roll by while I sent Manda off to the shops to stay cool in the shade. Expecting it to take at least an hour, I was surprised to have a visit from the transport police within 10 minutes. With the formalities of reporting the damage done, we headed back out of Faro. I just wanted to get out of those streets and back onto an open road. Getting into a scrape so soon had knocked my confidence and the thought of driving the 260km or so to Lisbon one day seemed fanciful. So we decided to keep heading west and check out some of the beach scenery that the Algarve is famed for.
Our first stop along this route was at Sao Rafael. Not much to say here other than it's your typical Algarve picture postcard view – clean beaches (with not many people on) and interesting-looking sandstone rocky stacks offering a little bit of shade from the midday sun. It looked like an idyllic spot for a swim, but we'd not come prepared for that.
We continued on to Lagos, a pretty town near the south-west tip of Portugal (Sagres is the most south westerly point of Portugal – and indeed Europe – but we were not planning to go that far). The next beach along from Lagos is Praia de Luz, a place that has become very well known in the last couple of weeks on account of Madeleine McCann's mysterious disappearance. With Lagos being the nearest reasonably big town to the location she went missing, it was not a surprise to see many posters up in the shop windows – almost every shop had one variant or another of her missing poster, including ones that were obviously put up the night after her disappearance. No 'sponsored by News of the World or some other local paper' type advert, these were simple A4 sheets with a colour photo of Maddy and a hand-written note saying "Missing in Luz, 10pm last night, please call ...". You could really sense the panic from those notes.
We had a little wander around the centre of Lagos which was also cobbled and full of narrow streets, many too small for cars, before settling on somewhere for an evening meal. We did also have a drive around the town, an experience that I can only describe as being something like a driving aptitude test – lots of narrow streets, tight turns, hill starts and navigation/orientation tests (there are a lot of one-way streets on account of the narrow roads). Satnav is helpful in some respects – you can get general directions but many smaller roads are not shown at all and those that are do not take into account the one-way systems. On a plus point, I was getting some of my confidence back with driving on the other side of the road. No additional scrapes yet!
After Lagos we headed over to some more beach/rock combos, one of the most impressive coastal rocky formations that Algarve has to offer, called Ponta de Piedade. The sun was getting low at this point, casting much of it in shadow, but it was still a really amazing sight.
Finally, we made our way to Praia da Rocha, heading back in the direction towards our 'home' in Albufeira. It was a race against time to see the rocks at Rocha before sun-down (we'd read that it was the best time), but we were just a little too late to see them cast in that lovely orangey glow we'd hoped for. Nonetheless, it was worth stopping there to take in the sights before the light completely vanished. We drove back in the pitch black, pleased that we'd got the car for a few days – freedom to explore at our leisure.