Navigating the past
and the future
The cliffs of Cabo de São Vicente, at the far southwestern corner of Europe.
The extraordinary textures of Portuguese design find their way in everyday sights.
FROM LOOKING OUT AT THE WORLD TO LOOKING INWARD
After decades of traveling up and down the West African coast, Vasco da Gama first used the Portuguese mobility innovation—the caravel, a lighter, more nimble ship that could sail farther and faster than large ocean vessels built elsewhere—to round the southern tip of Africa in 1497 and open up trade to Asia in 1498. From there, the Portuguese founded trading posts and colonies in southern Africa as well as Goa in southern India, where you can still find Portuguese influences today.
Then in 1500, the Portuguese began to sail west toward the New World and to explore routes that eventually led to the (Spanish-sponsored but Portuguese sailor-led expedition) first circumnavigation of the world in 1522, begun by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519.
While the ocean was their outlet, the Portuguese spirit can be found in the mountains, too—like in irresistible mountain villages like Alte. High above the resorts of the Algarve, coffee shop owners are happy to ply you with a thimble full of almond liqueur to go along with an espresso and a pastel de nata, the rich, delicious custard pastry that must—must, they are quick to point out—be topped off with a quick shake of cinnamon. Or when strolling the impressive and impressively weird castles and mansions of Sintra near Lisbon, where—they are quick to point out—a German prince fell so in love with the country he was married into ruling…becoming King Fernando II after siring a male heir in 1837, then later handing over the country to him in 1853 when his queen died…that he declined an opportunity to assume the throne of Spain later in life. Or when talking fado—the legendarily sad, epic, storytelling-in-song—that celebrates the lost loves and laments of generations of Portuguese.
But the one subject that, above all, the Portuguese love to talk about—and will bring up even while you are engaged in it—is eating great food. It’s seemingly what brings everyone together, while making for plenty of fairly good-natured disagreements about the best wine, the best dish, the best possible combination of pork and shellfish, the best meals they’ve ever had and the best restaurants. Food is a particularly essential part of the communal culture of the country. Whether you’re enjoying a singularly eclectic and astonishing tasting menu at Terraco Rui Paula at the Tivoli hotel in Lisbon, prepared by Michelin-starred chef Rui Paula himself, or having a humble carne de porco à alentejana (pork and clams) at a hole-in-the-wall in the Algarve, you’ll know why everyone wants to keep the conversation going.
Here, at the most southwesterly point of continental Europe, it was a place where the Portuguese saw the future and sailed into it.
Ponta da Piedade, just south of downtown Lagos, Portugal
DRIVING INTO THE AGE OF DISCOVERY
For a place that looked out onto a new world, there is a feeling of isolation at Cabo de São Vicente, in the far southwestern corner of the Algarve. Its astonishing white cliffs wall you off from the ocean, and its grand vistas let you look off into the vast horizon of the Atlantic. While you can feel alone on a warm, breezy weekday, the site’s significance in world history is the opposite of isolation. Here, at the most southwesterly point of continental Europe, it was a place where the Portuguese saw the future and sailed into it.
It was in Sagres, about four miles from these cliffs, where the first ruling family of Portugal set up the fabled navigation school in the late 14th century. My guide in Lisbon swore it wasn’t the idea of Henry the Navigator but that—as the youngest son of the line—it was where he spent most of his time. But whatever the truth, and truth and fable mix liberally in Portugal, there was a school here where navigators combined the revolutionary knowledge of the stars and the planets with their best guesses and then launched the first ships during their Age of Exploration.
This era of discovery was obvious from the moment I landed in Lisbon. I set out in an Audi A3 Cabriolet over the Vasco da Gama bridge, named after one of those pivotal navigators, on my way to the Algarve in southern Portugal.
The Algarve is known for its beaches, but I felt interested in the history and its more hidden charms. Louis, a bartender at the Anantara resort, triples as an expert of local wines and a guide of the local mountain villages, where he grew up. We drove up into the hills, the roads challenging and well-paved, past roadside olive and almond trees, fragrant fig trees, the ocean laid out below us. We saw older farmers removing almonds from trees in the oldest possible way: a large pole knocking nuts off the top branches into netting on the ground. It was impossibly ancient and traditional, some 45 minutes away from a world-class golf resort, but it portended a different future as, Louis remarked, the younger people move into the cities and away from this way of life.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING OUT, LOOKING AHEAD
The next day, I drove away from the Algarve and zipped up to Sintra, some three hours away via the ultra-modern (and expensive) A2 toll road. Sintra is the fabled mountain town outside Lisbon that served as the summertime capital for the king and his court. I shared a brilliant lunch (as always, the food) of a fish stew and a pristine Vinho Verde (a young white wine) at the old-world Tivoli Palácio de Seteais Sintra Hotel.
The town itself was a hallucination of sorts. Enormous castles, ancient forts and gracious mansions in a mish-mash of classic styles all nestled in the cool green surroundings terraformed by a 19th century fad to plant trees from around Europe. It’s at once a place that is influenced by the Hapsburg Dynasty and pan-global architectural styles but is Portuguese to its core. Locals bring visitors around the massive Park and National Palace of Pena, built by the aforementioned Fernando II, a freethinking and artistic soul who expanded the property and grounds from its origins as a monastery.
Finally, after navigating the tiny lanes that pass for streets in Sintra, I drove back to the road to Lisbon, where I sought to return the car to the rental agency and lose myself in that charming city’s ancient neighborhoods—like the Alfama, which may be the oldest neighborhood in Europe, having survived the infamous earthquake of 1755 because of its location on a solid rock hill. And lose myself I did in its hills and lanes, only regaining my sense of direction if I managed to run into the Tagus, the river that provides the deep port for Lisbon.
In the capital, at the Tivoli with its ultra-hip Sky Bar, I started to gain a different perspective on what the Portuguese saw—and continue to see. Maybe they saw the world before anyone else, but maybe they knew that it would be incredibly hard to improve on what they have right at home.
IF YOU GO
European Delivery customers can make the drive after they pick up their new vehicles at Audi Forum Ingolstadt or Neckarsulm. It’s a few days of beautiful driving to Lisbon but only six hours from Lisbon to Madrid, one of the places you can drop off your new Audi for shipping back to the United States.