Driving Through Iberia: Cádiz to Sagres
I hadn’t seen Cara in nearly two years. We had parted ways in August 2012 after becoming close friends as expats in Barcelona, and our relationship since we had both moved from the Catalan capital had consisted of hurried fill-ins on Skype and sentimental Whatsapp essays. Cara had moved back down south; her family had emigrated from Scotland to the Costa de la Luz – a southwestern part of the Andalusian coast – when she was a young girl, but not young enough for her to have missed out on a distinct, gentle Glaswegian accent that to me now is so characteristically Cara.
After procrastinating on it for too long, we decided we had to see each other again and make our meeting a special one. I flew down to her home, a dusty town named Chiclana de la Frontera near Cádiz in southern Spain – the area that sits point to point with Africa. We had a car, a map, and the border of Portugal in sight; a week of road trip lay ahead of us. After goodbyes to Cara’s family, hugs and kisses to her dogs Coco and Izzy (both of whom I had fallen uncontrollably in love with already) we packed up Cara’s car – named Bluebell – and headed north.
The inland terrain in this part of Spain and Portugal is a signature contrast between deep green and fiery orange, clashed together where the foliage meets the floor. Motorways tunnel through the landscape, sometimes quite literally as roads are flanked by terracotta walls of rock. Pine trees clump in groups along the humpbacked landscape like blackened mushrooms sprouting from the earth, and the odd giant aloe vera flops its thick arms out to its sides, looking exhausted and defeated by the heat. White-washed buildings with tiled roofs styled to match the colour of the soil break up the natural scenery, some dotted around in whispering cliques and others solitary outcasts in sparser surroundings, often in dead abandonment.
We clocked up a lot of miles of that first day. While catching up on details of stories that were too long to tell over social media, Cara and I sped north to the outskirts of Seville, then took a sharp left and headed towards the Algarve. Putting my bare feet up on Bluebell’s dashboard, I gazed out the window as we chatted, taking in the scenery outside that, thanks to air-conditioning, I kept forgetting was dense and thick with the August sun. I didn’t mind the illusion, as the journey would have been unbearable without it.
Flying along the Guadiana International Bridge, shaped like a giant wishbone with cables coming out of it like spokes on a bicycle wheel, we crossed from Spain to Portugal over the Guadiana River. This impressive bridge made the otherwise unremarkable event of passing between the two countries more of an occasion – like many parts of Europe there was no one waiting for us to check passports or inspect the car. The only thing that told us we had officially passed into another country was the ‘PORTUGAL’ sign we ceremoniously drove under.
Our first scheduled stop was Benagil. In a nostalgic, adventurous move to disconnect from modern life, we had decided to use a paper map to get around Portugal. The only problem at this point was that the map’s scale was too large, and thus didn’t include the tiny speck that is Benagil. Fortunately, Cara and I were both laid-back enough to figure that as long as we just keep driving towards the ocean, we were bound sooner or later to pass a sign pointing to the village. Our positivity was rewarded, and after a few detoured twists and turns, the horseshoe loop of road that sits above Praia da Benagil (Benagil Beach) was beneath us.
The reason why we had decided to stop here was the Caves at Benagil. Considered to be one of Portugal’s highlights, its a less-than-a-minute boat ride from the beach and around the cove to these immense hollows, so beautiful that even Aladdin with his Cave of Wonders would be envious. We bee-lined for the bronzed, idle member of staff in the stand for boat tours, her eyes and brow wrinkled in a constant squint and t-shirt sleeves rolled up to the tops of her shoulders. Approaching, our excitable hearts dropped into our bellies as the small sign the girl was tap-tapping with her pen came into view – it noted that today’s boats were all cancelled due to choppy waters.
Disappointed and lingering around for a little while, as if someone was about to tell us it was all a cruel joke, we popped our toes into the sands of Benagil Beach anyway. To the left loomed a towering wall of stone, blending from orange to the top, down to creme, grey, and a murky soot black next to the ocean. We knew that behind this wall was one of the most famous caves of all 20-something hidden along this patch of coast, so close to where we stood, longing to see it.
We vowed to alter our onward plans and return the following day in the hopes that the seas were calmer, deciding that we should not rob ourselves of the opportunity if we could help it. After all, the place in which we intended to sleep that night was just an hour west, allowing ample opportunity to come back.
Onwards we journeyed to Ponta da Piedade, another of the Algarve’s most impressive sights. Driving into the popular tourist town of Lagos, Cara and I followed the signs down to one of its most famous features. We stood on the tops of the cliff above the beaches, and shifting our eyelines past the rows of marooned travellers on the sands, took in Lagos’ coastline. Undulating in and out, in and out, its mainland cliffs dwarfed smaller pillars and bumps of rock smattered by their feet or further out to sea. For centuries, the ocean has sculpted these shores – nature’s beautiful accident. Much like Benagil, the formations offer a blend in tones; striped in milky chalk and tangerine, crowned with tufts of a dusty slate.
Hot-footing it back to Bluebell, it was time to head on to the day’s final destination – a secluded beach that Cara had visited during past adventures with friends. Driving to the little town of Sagres, Cara swung the car around onto a quiet track. As we rumbled along, we passed a dishevelled couple who proceeded to stick their thumbs out as we drove past. With so much gear in our tiny car we had no space for the hitchhikers, a regretful fact as we knew their destination was the same as our; this track only led to one place. Pulling an overemphasised sad face out the window and turning my hands palm-up in an effort to show them a ‘We would if we could!’ expression, we drove onwards.
This scruffy duo were an accurate reflection of the kind of people who come down to this beach. Dreamers, wanderers, nomads – in the more literal sense of the word. Bluebell seemed out of place among the beaten-up motorhomes, renovated buses, and tinkered campervans, all looking as if a gust of wind could rip them away in a matter of seconds. The inhabitants of all these makeshift shelters seemed like the happy-go-lucky type, people with extreme values and placid lifestyles, and the striped, baggy trousers and unkempt hair to match. They put together their camps for the night with military efficiency, taking odd chairs, cushions, mattresses, stoves, and blankets out of their vehicles and laying them out in what I imagined is a routine they’ve performed hundreds of times before.
Due to the strong winds, our own attempt at getting our tent set up was far from successful, a reality devastatingly emphasized but the experts around us. Eventually, we managed to fashion a makeshift shelter, and afterwards sunk into camping chairs with glasses of wine in hand. The more exhausting stories from the last two years were saved for this moment, when the buzz of deliciously cheap Portuguese wine would get us through them.
The sun went down over the hills behind us and, in a blissful states of relaxation, we looked out over the U-shaped cove. Our home for the night was small. Stretching around 200 metres from one side to the other, with sand in the centre merging into rocks on the outside, the beach spread back from the ocean as far as its width before leaping up into hills covered in greenery. This nameless pocket of coast doesn’t offer much for those seeking the spectacular, but it does provide a space for travellers who want a quiet, unassuming place to sleep, undisturbed by cookie-cut tourists or any form of authority. I felt a natural respect among the people here. There were around two dozen other groups of campers that night, but we only caught dull chatter once or twice the entire evening; any other noise was carried away on the wind.
As our world fell into darkness, it was at around 11pm when our attention turned to the stars. Never before have I seen such a heavenly blanket of sparkles covering the sky. In some parts, it even felt like there were so many of them that they joined together into a mist – as if we had been transported light years away and were floating in the middle of the unknown. I couldn’t have picked out a constellation even if I’d tried, as the familiar formations were lost among their twinkly neighbours.
Falling silent at the sight, we gazed at those stars until our eyes fell heavy; I tried to stay awake in an attempt to take in as much of that night sky as I could, but was fighting a losing battle. At the time, I remember thinking that looking at the sky for longer would help to burn that memory into my brain more effectively, but in hindsight it’s ridiculous to think that I could ever forget something of such phenomenal beauty. Content, we lay back, curled ourselves into sleeping bags, and let the silky hush of the waves coax us into slumber.
I awoke as the skies were a dull, misty colour, that nondescript time when you can see the effect of the sun’s rays lighting up your surroundings, but the sun itself is still playfully hiding beneath the horizon. My ever-efficient body clock had woken me up for its rising. Cara had told me to also wake her if I happened to be up at the time, but after a gentle push, to which the reply was a groan that could have only come from the depths of deep sleep, I decided it was not best to pull her from it.
I dragged myself out of my warm nest, and walking along the shoreline to the right side of the cove, I could see the sun was already making itself known along the edges of the cliff. As you stand facing the ocean on this beach, the sun rises over the rocks to the left, lighting up the cliffs to the right. I chose to sit in the part that I knew would be drenched in sunshine in just a few moments, and watched as the light crept along the rocks to the side of me and the sands at my feet.
The body of the sun started to appear through a dip in the cliffs on the other side of the cove. It peeked through cracks, sending a few cautionary rays out until it knew it was safe to emerge, before ripping its way up through the sky.
Day two had just begun.
This story is the first in a multi-post series about my trip through Iberia. Look out for announcements about the next instalment on my Facebook page, or subscribe to get an update right to your inbox!