Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Magic of Portugal in Winter

Orange trees in Largo da Se Square, Faro
I went to Faro in December chasing custard tarts - pastéis de nata - but I stayed for oranges. They dangled in ripe abundance from trees in the new town and the old city, plump and ripe and as common as horse chestnuts in an English autumn. On a long walk inland, orange groves lined the dirt track and the roads. They were punctuated by parched almond trees whose bare branches cried out for water, but oranges and their green leaves pressed glossy and healthy against the protective link-fences and barbed wire. I ate oranges twice a day and knew that I had discovered the Platonic orange: its rich sweet fragrant juiciness was how an orange was meant to be, and I had no choice but to relegate forever the sad imitation found in British supermarkets.
Shells on Ilha Deserta

There was no more sublime place to share an orange than on an empty beach on Ilha Deserta, the 'deserted island', where a driftwood construction proclaims the southernmost point of Portugal. A boat-ride through wetlands away from the coast, in the summer Ilha Deserta throngs with sunbathers who gather for cold drinks at the island's one and only building, an expensive restaurant. In the winter a wild green sea beat down on the sand, the island was suffused with grey-bright light, and we were the only visitors. The mark of the summertime crowds was the occasional plastic bottle lying on the beach; the pounding of the sea had broken down or washed away the rest. Skeins of shell fragment nestled in the tide-grooves of the beach, but there were whole treasures to be found scattered among them too. We lingered over palm-sized thick shells with their edges smoothed by the angry water and pearly oysters with their outer black covering beaten away. In places shards of black mussel as big as kittens stuck out of the sand, and it was not hard to believe that the sea was sufficiently ferocious to wash up gigantic creatures from the depths of the ocean floor. On our walk back to the dock the tide was coming in, and every passing white-foamed wave thundered a little further up the shore, reclaiming the sand. 

We returned to the mainland nursing nature's bounty. From an empty ferry big enough for fifty, the sea and wetlands expanded languidly. The ugly tower blocks of new Faro and the glimmer of its marina were distant whispers on the horizon. In the wetlands oyster-catchers idly stalked the beach on their long legs, and cormorants and egrets plundered an inlet in a flurry of black and white wings. Surrounded by sea and sky I felt the limits of earth and walls and the everyday fall away, and slipped instead into an airy timelessness, where minutes were like hours and moving through space yielded only more space, empty and infinite. Peace was a Portuguese lagoon in winter. 

Ria Formosa Natural Park, Algarve
I found something similar the next day at the top of Faro's baroque cathedral in the old city. I had wandered around its deserted chapels and discovered as an afterthought the steps at the entrance leading up to the tower. They wound upwards in a tight spiral and I climbed in the hush of an empty stairwell, knowing that whatever waited at the top, I would be alone. I emerged onto a tower-top that was far higher than it appeared from the ground. Below me the orange trees of the square were reduced to small topiaries, and in front the sea spilled towards the wetlands and the bright sky. A smattering of small boats hugged the line of the shore. As I looked towards the city, a stork on top of its bell-tower nest refolded its wings and settled. Wood pigeons cooed from the rooftops below; it was the only sound, and for a long time I hovered, listening, in the giddy freedom of height and vista on a warm December afternoon.