The Sun Also Sets

“The meals were simple and excellent and the dining room and the wood-planked public bar were well heated and friendly. The valley was wide and open so there was good sun. The pension was about two dollars a day for the three of us, and as the Austrian schilling went down with inflation, our room and food were less all the time. There was no desperate inflation and poverty as there had been in Germany. The schilling went up and down; but its course was down.” — Ernest Hemingway from, A Moveable Feast

The sun also sets…as it did each afternoon behind the east-facing cliffs of Praia do Camilo, one of the many beaches dotted along the Costa Algarve in southern Portugal. The grotto below was wide and the sand was coarse underfoot. And yellow, almost a royal yellow, like the cliffs above. The water was near transparent, which made for excellent snorkeling and even spearfishing. But mostly, beachgoers would just lie on the sand, reading novels without meaning and thinking about nothing at all except the sun high overhead and the crash of waves on the shore.

During the summer months, tourists from Spain and Italy and Germany and Holland and from all over Europe would arrive on the coast. They would descend the wooden stairway, down the cliffs, past the little shack that served ice-cold Super Bok cervejas and sorbets for the children, to scout for a place on the sand. The Germans typically arrived very early in the morning. The rest ambled down later in the day, after a long lunch, when the sun was not too severe and the tide had receded.

Portugal was still mired in financial crisis. Much of Europe, too, was experiencing a deep and desperate recession. Many were unemployed, but nobody was unhappy. Not in Lagos. Not on the Praia do Camilo.

Each day, the papers ran stories about the state of the economy. More and more often, the news was bad. Even the Prime Minister, when he was asked about the youth unemployment issue, told the graduating generation to seek opportunities elsewhere. Go abroad, he said, to countries where there are jobs…and a future. Many young people left. They went to Brazil and to Angola. They went to England, where they could still find jobs, some that paid well. Some even went to the United States, for this was before the war and during a time when the United States still welcomed foreigners. The world was very different. Maybe not better or worse. Just, different.

Those who stayed in Lagos worked the beach shacks and at the restaurants in the main town. Some busked outside, in front of tables that lined the streets. Others brought in fresh seafood from the trawlers after long days fishing.

The two of us could get by comfortably on €50 per day, after board. As the euro went down with inflation, our room and food were less all the time. It went up and down; but its course was down. We ate bacalhau à brás and oysters from the Ria de Alvor for dinner with torta de amenoda and tarté banoffee for dessert. We drank well too. Portugal was famous for its good, inexpensive wines, and there were many wonderful varieties to be had, but the vinho verde was the best for seafood. A young harvest wine from the Minho province, in the far north of the country, it didn’t overpower the taste of the oysters, which were fresh and milky. For dessert, we drank sweet, red vinho do Porto. We always drank vinho do Porto, even when it wasn’t dessert.

Sometimes, down on the Praia do Camilo, in the late afternoon, a gentle breeze would blow in off the Atlantic. The shadows from the cliffs overhead would grow long and the tourists would inch their towels down closer to the tideline, eking out every last drop of sunshine. It was best to leave just before the shadows hit the water, when the sunbathers would all rise together and begin the long march up the wooden stairs to the top of the cliffs and the little restaurant that overlooked the coast. Typically, the Germans would leave first, sensing the impending shortage of tables above. Next, the Dutch would pack up their books and towels and fall in line. Finally, the Spaniards and the Italians, having squeezed every last ray from the setting sun, would begin the climb up the top. Usually, by the time they arrived, the seats were all gone.

They were the first to complain…but not the last.

Joel Bowman
for The Daily Reckoning