While a surfeit of tourists inundates Portugal’s Algarve coast from late spring to early autumn, out of season it is so tranquil that you can understand why savvy travellers were drawn to the region long before the commercial onslaught of the 60s and ensuing decades. Today, on the cliffs above white and gold soft-sand beaches stand expensive high-rise apartments and hotels and they are backed by cheaper ones that, at the more popular resorts, roll like a surging tide several kilometres inland. Yet, all this ugliness wrought by the travel industry is invisible from the shore as we walk the almost-empty beaches in mild, sunny, mid-March weather. Indeed, the water, while certainly cool, is warm enough for us to take the occasional plunge and even body surf in waves that are strong enough at this time of year for a good ride. And,our grandsons delight at crawling through narrow rock tunnels as we move from one stretch of beach to another at places like Praia Rocha.
Even more to their liking, however, is scrambling along the rough, red clay, cliff-top trails that connect many of the beaches and fishing villages along the coast. In March they are ablaze in a vast canvas of wildflowers–white and mauve varieties of cistus, or rock rose, yellow chamomiles and sea daisies, all so profuse it feels as if we are in a tended garden rather than trudging unkempt, dusty coastal paths. Yet, practically no one else is walking and enjoying the views southward down the Atlantic, gazing at the occasional caravelle on the horizon, replicas of the sailing ships intrepid Portuguese explorers used on their voyages through these waters to the Cape of Good Hope and beyond.
In the far western corner of the Algarve, it is quieter still, even at Cape St. Vincent and Sagres, high, rocky promintories that reach out into the Atlantic like a pair of battered telescopes. It was at the latter that Henry the Navigator established his famous school of navigation and where Magellan, Diaz, Vasco da Gama and others studied before embarking on their famous voyages of discovery. A smattering of fishermen, perched at the very edge of the cliffs, constitute the bulk of those enjoying this stunning, historic view in early spring. For some of them, however, it won’t be for long. Every year, several slip and fall to their deaths.
Wherever we go, I carry with me a venerable red daypack, purchased more than 15 years ago. It contains a sweater, waterproof jacket, camera, and snacks in case we don’t make it to our intended destination in time–usually a seaside adega or restaurant, serving fresh, grilled fish. But the pack is clearly nearing its end. Once bright red, it is now discoloured with patches of gray, black, and brown from resting too often on train and bus station platforms, under seats in restaurants and cafes, and from sloshing along muddy trails in wind and rain. There’s a large gash on the back, patched several times with masking tape, where, some years ago, while I was standing on a street corner in Madrid, a thief slashed the pack open with a pen knife. Finally, threads have come loose all over the pack, especially along the line of the zipper, making it difficult to open and close. Its days are obviously numbered.
After the Algarve, we spend several days in Lisbon and on our second last day, we take the train to the fantasylike hillside town of Sintra–“glorious Eden” in Lord Byron’s words, a village of royal palaces, luxurious villas and verdant gardens, guarded over by a Moorish Castle high above the town and shrouded in mist. Sadly, it rains hard throughout the day and, although we carry on valiantly doing all the sights, my daypack is a sodden wreck by the time we return to Lisbon. We have only one day left in Portugal, and it is clear that my pack will not be dry by the time we leave and probably no longer strong enough to hold anything of value. It’s clear how we must spend our last day–at Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s famous flea market, reputedly one of the best in Europe. It is in the Alfana district, the oldest section of Lisbon, a maze of narrow, winding streets, clustered around the hill where ancient St. George’s Castle sits contemplating the state of the city below. While we decide to walk to the market, getting lost several times, the Alfana, like most of this once elegant, but now tired and neglected city, is serviced by tram cars. They are quaint and picturesque, but their antiquity reflects the country’s dire financial circumstances today. Indeed, overall, the appearance of Lisbon is rather like my old daypack!
At Feira da Ladra, I eventually find a stall where, among his various wares, a man has a daypack for sale. But before I can get my hands on it, someone else grabs it and quickly agrees with the vendor on a price. “Damn! It looked good,” I say to Dot. “Just the thing I need.”
Then to my surprise, the vendor reaches under his table and pulls out another pack. He slides it forward on the grimy pavement of the market square. I lunge at it and give it a quick inspection. Looks good to me. “Quanto custa?” I ask.
“Cinquenta,” I think I hear him say.
I shake my head. “Muito caro” (too expensive).
The vendor just shrugs and I walk away.
I’m standing distractedly at another stall where Dot has found something that interests her. “You know, I’m not sure I heard that guy right. Fifty euros sounds like a lot for that pack. I mean this is a flea market, not a sporting goods store. I think I’ll go back and check.”
So I return to the vendor and ask him the price again.
Fifteen euros! I can hardly believe it. This is lower than I ever expected to pay. Since, at Fiera da Ladra, I know you are supposed to bargain, perfunctorily I offer twelve.
The vendor shakes his head, and quickly I settle for fifteen.
We leave Portugal early the next morning, so it’s not until we are back in Toronto that I have an opportunity to give my new daypack a careful check. But when I do so, I discover this is no ordinary daypack. It’s state of the art. The pack I have purchased–in factory-fresh condition–is a Deuter Futura 27. It’s made of a very durable fabric with a moulded back and mesh cover for “aircomfort.” The principal pocket has separate, interior nylon lining and it is large enough to carry a full change of clothes, a sweater, jacket, snacks, and probably more. Inside the main pocket is a separate, roomy pouch big enough to carry more clothing, food, or a couple of books, and another small one at the top with its own zipper to store valuables, including money and passports. On the outside of the pack, there is an additional zippered compartment where I can keep guidebooks and maps. Below this is one is yet another spacious, semi-circular, zippered pocket for my camera, sunglasses, eye glasses, a flashlight, pen knife and other sundry items. Still, this is not all. On the bottom of the pack, there is yet another pouch with its own zipper. Inside, there is a rain cover to pull over the entire pack in inclement weather, or in which to store a wet bathing suit or soggy pair of socks. Needless to say, the pack has comfortable carrying straps that are supplemented by waist and chest buckles. There are even additional buckles to secure the upper, exterior compartment to foil any would-be thieves.
I’ve just checked and my daypack’s successor–the Futura 28–is retailing in Canada at $110. What I paid was the equivalent of about $21. What a bargain! I’m feeling very smug about my purchase.
A few days after our return, I wake up one morning with incredibly itchy, red and white lumps on one arm. The next day they have extended to my other arm. When I scratch them, the sores just get worse and the itch won’t go away. By the fourth morning, I have several welts on my legs and stomach as well. Dot who has been lying on the other side of our King-size bed has nothing. I visit our family doctor who isn’t certain what I have, but doesn’t think it is bites from some kind of insect. She prescribes an ointment that gives me minor relief.
As a precautionary move, Dot retreats to the guest room bed, leaving me as the bait if we do have bugs. Through a sleepless night, every half hour, I sit up and turn on my bedside light. Finally, around three in the morning, I spy a little brown bug slithering along my sheet. Foolishly, I quickly squish it, and a spurt of blood–mine!–smears the sheet. It’s a bed bug, I am almost positive, but it didn’t occur to me that an exterminator would need one captured alive in order to fumigate the house. So, in the morning, we launch a detailed search of the bedroom, looking under rugs, a discarded blanket, socks…..and, lying in a corner of the room waiting to be stored, the Futura 27. Suddenly, Dot spies several bugs scurrying across the floor, but before they can hide again she manages to capture one and place it in a plastic capsule.
Later that day, the exterminator confirms our find. We have bed bugs. “You’re lucky,” he says. “Looks like a small infestation. That probably means you brought the bugs back with you from Portugal. They’re just getting started.”
I sneak a furtive look in the direction of my daypack, but my glance does not escape Dot’s notice, and she fixes me with a reproachful stare. You and your dumb Futura 27, I know she is saying to herself. Twenty-one bucks, eh? Wait until we see this guy’s bill.
“We don’t know for sure that they came back in the pack,” I say defensively. “Maybe we got them at the hotel.”
“Yeah?” Dot retorts dismissively. “We were there four nights and never got bitten.”
In the end, even though it was a light infestation, it takes two fumigations three weeks apart to rid our house of bed bugs. The cost: $400. Of course, that doesn’t take account of the aggravation involved in the process, especially evacuating the house for the sprayings, stripping all our bedding and clothes from chests and closets and running everything through the washer and dryer, including the Futura 27.
Is my daypack worth the retail price of $110? Yes, I think so; it’s pretty special. But $421? No, that was too steep a price to pay. How about 15 euros, or $21? That was clearly too little. When you shop in flea markets, the old edict applies: caveat emptor; let the buyer beware. You’ll get a bargain no doubt, but you may end up with fleas as well–or something else just as bad!
For more travel stories by T.A. Keenleyside, Missing the Bus and Roaming the Big Land are now on sale together at a reduced price at: www.penumbrapress.com.