Chapter 13

The Iberian Peninsula - Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar

Although Portugal is not a Mediterranean country I have decided to include it as most visitors to the Med. will arrive there, or at least visit the Portuguese islands of the Azores on the way across. So Portugal will give you your first impressions of Europe and these certainly won't be negative.

Painting on the wallThe Azores are a lovely group of islands and well worth exploring. Many yachtsmen stop only at Ponta Delgada or Horta (where they add their painting to the breakwater), but the remaining islands have a lot to offer. The westernmost island of Flores has now improved its harbor, and is therefore no longer such a problem to visit in unsettled weather and so the cruise of the islands that are strung out across an area of 300 miles can start there. The islands are very lush and green, being for the most part fertile volcanic soil. The climate is cool and temperate and agriculture plays a major role in the economy of the islands. San Miguel is the only place with tea plantations in Europe and pineapples are cultivated too, but in greenhouses. Vines thrive on the young lava fields and meadows provide grazing for dairy cattle. The milk churns are often brought to the dairy on horseback. As yet, tourism is not widespread and the islands are unspoiled.

You will be there in May/June, when the hydrangeas that grow wild and make hedges along the roads and the fields are in full bloom. The blue agapanthus are set off against the dark gray volcanic stone of the dry stone walls and the verbenas attract the bees with their scent. On the rugged cliffs the tall stems of the agarve flowers are still standing and along the streets of Horta the trees are covered with red blossoms.

Perhaps you are still there on St. John's day in the last week of June, when festivities are in full swing. We experienced the festival in Angrá do Heroismo on Terceira where the celebrations went on from Thursday to Sunday. The whole town was on its feet, every square in the town had different music. The brass band played in front of the cathedral, the folk song and dance group performed in front of the school, a modern band played in the main square and a guitarist played at the bandstand on the waterfront. Down on the pier temporary restaurants offering all kinds of specialties from the charcoal barbecue were well fre-quented and lights were strung across the streets.

Some towns have bull running during the festival. The sport has nothing in common with the Spanish bullfight. Here the bull is led down the street on a long rope, taunted by the local youths into a charge, which cannot always be held back by the men who hold the rope. There is no bloodshed or cruelty intended, although some audacious youths get tossed by the bull if they are not fast enough.

Pico with a cloud collarGeologically speaking the islands are young and in fact are still being made. As recently as 1957 volcanic activity added some land to the island of Faial, covering part of the west coast with volcanic ash in the process. There is plenty of volcanic activity to be seen. Craters, crater lakes, fumaroles and lava fields abound. The first glimpse of the Azores when approaching from the west will probably be the volcano Pico, 2351 m high and still smoking. It is possible to visit the crater if you are prepared to do a 4 hour climb to the top, which is why most visitors are content to make Pico a picturesque background to their photos of Horta. Much of the island of Pico is unattractive as the lava fields are so recent that they have not been weathered enough to provide the fertile soil found on the other islands.

On Terceira it is possible to enter a volcano: the Algar do Corvao is a cave that formed underneath the crater. It is entered by an artificial tunnel that leads into the side of the hill and comes out inside the crater. Looking upwards you see a circle of sky and abundant green plants where the sun shines in. Below you extends a dark and barren cavern with steps leading down until you finally reach an under-ground lake.

Baroque windowOn San Miguel there are hot springs and little geysers, sulphurous fumaroles and crater lakes. Particularly interesting here are the ovens that have been built into the hot sand near Furnas. Cement pipes have been sunk vertically into the ground where sulphurous gases escape. A large casserole in a sack is lowered into the pipe, a wooden lid is placed over the hole and sand heaped over it. A few hours later dinner is ready. Other main attractions on the island are the lovely crater lakes Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul, the blue and green lakes whose difference in color despite being linked has led to many different legends, and the more rugged but equally beautiful Lagoa de Fogo. Off the south coast is the little Ilheu da Vila, a crater that has been breached by the sea, where you can anchor outside and go in by dinghy for a swim.

The towns on the Azores are attractively built, the churches and public buildings often having whitewashed walls set off by the dark volcanic stone that are the cornerstones and the door and window frames. The sidewalks are patterned in black and white, the black cobblestones being volcanic and the white limestone. Sometimes they are more than just symmetrical patterns but are little pictures of ships, shells and windmills. The limestone comes from Santa Maria, the only island that is only partly volcanic. The rest of the island is a limestone plateau that provided a site for the big airport built during the 2nd World War that was subsequently important for transatlantic flights until airplanes were developed that could cross the Atlantic without having to refuel on the way. When NATO also moved its base to Terceira, Santa Maria was left with a big airport for very few flights. The loss of jobs has had its effect on the town. In Vila da Porto many houses are empty and falling into disrepair, where the owners have been forced into emigration for economic reasons.

Yachtsmen will be under pressure to leave the islands as another 1000 miles of Atlantic are still waiting to be sailed in good weather. So tear yourselves away and head for the continent.

Even if you intend to go directly to the Strait of Gibraltar, you might change your mind en route. Cape Sao Vicente can be a nasty corner in the strong northerly winds that can blow down the Portuguese coast and it may be as well to keep well north on the crossing so that you have the option of going into the lee of Cape Espichel instead. Here you can make your landfall in Sesimbra even in strong winds without the high swell.

Brightly painted fishing boatsBut you might decide to start even further north and visit Lisbon anyway, an interesting and attractive town steeped in history on the hilly slopes of the River Tejo. Wherever you arrive, you will realize that Portugal is and always was a seafaring nation. In Lisbon you will see the monument set up on the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator commemorating the discoveries made by Portuguese seamen. In Sines the statue of Vasco da Gama overlooks the harbor. At Cape Sao Vicente you can visit the remains of Prince Henry's School of Navigation with its famous compass rose. And although he was in Spanish service, the first "round the world sailor" Ferdinand Magellan was also Portuguese. With this tradition it is hardly surprising that the present day Portuguese take a pride in their boats. Even the smallest fishing boat is beautifully painted in bright colors. Every harbor is automatically picturesque with its fine fishing fleet.

Both Portugal and Spain were occupied by the Moors for centuries and particularly the architecture shows Arabic influence even today. The Moslems crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 and were finally driven out of Portugal in 1249 and Spain in 1492. Although this was 500 years ago, the 500 or 700 years of Arab occupation have left their mark. The Moors brought with them knowledge and culture that far exceeded the standards in Europe at the time. Agriculture flourished thanks to the introduction of irrigation systems and new crops. They brought rice, cotton and sugar cane, melons, oranges, peaches and pomegranates. They taught the Spanish how to make paper and the gold and silver mines were modernized. Spinning and weaving of wool and silk improved and metalworking, leather tanning and ceramics are industries that still continue today.

It is the ceramics that most reflect the Arab occupation in Portugal, and yet they were reintroduced to Portugal from Spain, where the tradition was unbroken. There is hardly a house without at least a little picture of a saint on 4 or 6 tiles next to the door. Many houses and churches are completely tiled outside, either with patterned tiles or with tiles that make up large pictures. Railway stations are particularly noteworthy. Inside and out they have pictures showing the history of the area, or typical scenes of everyday life. These tiles are now a mixture of the Arab tradition, which has supplied the bright colors and the symmetric patterns, and the subsequent influence of Flemish tilemakers in the 16th and 17th centuries who helped to cover the big demand, and who brought the blue and white picture tiles to Portugal.

Tile decoration at the railway stationPortugal is famous for its port wine, named after the town of Oporto in northern Portugal, where the wine is made. For many years it was one of Portugal's main exports - along with bacalhao, dried cod. It is not unusual to find shops specializing in precisely these two items. Another wine specialty in Portugal is the vinho verde, a light and effervescent wine, available in both red and white. The white is more common. The vines are often grown around the edge of other crops. They are cultivated to grow higher than other vines and are often grown in gardens where they provide a shady walkway.

In the little restaurants along the coast sardines from the charcoal barbecue are a meal that you can always rely on being fresh and tasty. The locals often have a little barbecue with them on the pier or in front of the house or shop where they make themselves some sardines for lunch. Another common fish here is the scabbard fish, a long thin fish with vicious-looking teeth that is cut into plate-size pieces and fried in the pan. The fish markets have a wide variety of fish, many being deep-sea fish.

The cost of living in Portugal and Spain is still very reasonable although the prices are rising with the rise in living standards since they joined the EU.

The Algarve is still the area that attracts the most tourism and although many new hotels and holiday apartments have been built, the coast still is attractive. There are sandy bays between the high cliffs that are only accessible by boat and these can be explored by dinghy from the anchorage at Ferragudo or the harbor at Lagos.

The Portuguese authorities are very pleasant and very correct, but also very bureaucratic. They will expect you to check in and out of every harbor and as there is often an official waiting for you to come ashore in the dinghy from an anchorage, take your papers with you when you go ashore the first time. Most of them speak French or English and are pleased at any conversation you can make. In the marinas at Horta, Ponta Delgada and Vilamoura all the authorities have offices on the reception pier. This officialdom is a left-over from the dictatorship but the new excuse is that they are taking the security of the outer borders of the EU seriously, now that the interior borders have been dissolved. A few years ago, in 88 or 89, yachties were not allowed ashore in the anchorages and angry letters were written to the press about being forced back into the dinghy at gunpoint etc. In fact Portugal was having a big anti-drug action and boat traffic was being controlled very precisely. As it was not possible to control everyone coming ashore in every harbor and bay, some of the bays were declared off-limits and it was no longer permitted to go ashore there. One man was on duty to prevent any shore trips but alone was unable to perform the further reaching controls. This action was not explained to the press and caused a lot of unnecessary bad feeling, as most yachties would have willingly complied, if they had known what was going on. I mention this as the stories are still going round.

Spain is quite the opposite and not bureaucratic at all, so you will only need the papers along the Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca where you will have to go into marinas for lack of alternative in some places. The first ports coming from Portugal could be along the border river Rio Guadiana that can be explored for some 20 miles upriver as far as Pomaron. Or you can go up the Guadalquivir to Seville, a city well worth visiting, but also accessible by train from Cadiz.

La GiraldaSeville is famous for its Alcazar, which is a Moorish fortified palace dating from the time of the Arabian occupation, but used and added to by later Christian kings. Here you will be introduced to the fine architecture that the Moors brought to Spain and the extensive gardens with the fountains and running water that impart a feeling of coolness even in the summer heat. Here too is the lovely tower "La Giralda" built 1184, which once was the minaret of the great mosque. The mosque was unfortunately de-molished in the exhilaration of the triumph over the "infidels" and replaced by a great cathedral, which is also worth a visit. It is a magnificent example of gothic architecture and is the third largest cathedral in Europe. Here is one of Christopher Columbus' graves. Three towns can lay claim to Columbus' grave: He was originally buried in Seville in 1506 but in 1544 his daughter-in-law transferred him to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. To protect his grave during the fighting with France over present-day Haiti his body was transferred to Cuba. At the end of the 19th century when Cuba became independent of Spain, his body was transferred back to Seville. However in Santo Domingo they claim that in the haste, the wrong body was taken away...

But not only the noteworthy sights are worth visiting, the whole town has a nice flair. The trees along the roads are full of oranges and the old town has narrow charming little streets. The town boasts some nice parks, for instance the exhibition area of the Hispano-American exhibition of 1929. The exhibition buildings are attractive examples of the use of decorative tiles. It seems that every corner you turn, you see another splendid building. Even the former tobacco factory is a magnificent building, most unlike a factory. It now houses the university, for which it seems more suitable.

Seville is the heart of flamenco country. Here you may find a display of flamenco dancing. Some are put on for the many visitors to the town. In other towns in the south you can see flamenco too, for instance the Yacht club in Cadiz organizes the "Flamenco Thursdays" in August. However you should be aware that Flamenco is not just the castanets and the dancing, but also involves ballad-telling and singing.

The yacht club in Cadiz is also noteworthy for its new extension to the yacht club harbor. Just inside the main harbor mole to starboard, before you reach the old yacht club harbor, is a marina-style basin that in 1993 was not in the pilot books yet. A pleasant surprise as it is walking distance to the old town. Here you can while away the days waiting for the wind to change, as there is no point attempting to go through the Strait of Gibraltar with a levanter blowing.

The Strait of Gibraltar is a windy place. At the narrowest point on the Spanish side, Tarifa is well-known to windsur-fers and the hills are covered with wind farms. The east wind, the levanter, can be very strong but so can the west wind, or poniente. A nasty weather situation is the contrastes (see "Weather"). The signal station at Tarifa (semaforo Tarifa) will give a weather forecast on request and also likes to receive a traffic report from every ship passing through the strait. The traffic separation zone is strictly observed and should only be crossed at right angles. Traffic is heavy, but you are either outside the separation zone rounding the point near the coast, or crossing to Tangier and it is so much easier to judge the relative speeds of ships all going in one direction, that it is not a problem.

Bird's eye view of the RockThe Rock of Gibraltar is easily recognizable by the sheer cliffs on all sides. The yacht harbor is right next to the airport which has a runway that goes from the Gulf of Algeciras to the Mediterranean Sea across the causeway linking the Rock to Spain. After checking in at customs, you have a choice of two marinas: the legendary Shepards or the newer Marina Bay. Shepards chandlery has the reputation of stocking everything you might need, and it certainly is pretty well stocked. Gibraltar is home to many a boat that dropped in on its way through and stayed.

Gibraltar has low taxes and plenty of duty-free shops. Diesel and cigarettes are cheaper than elsewhere, but for all other items check the prices in Spain first, as some liquors are good value for money and some are more expensive than in the nearest Spanish supermarket across the border. The cheap cigarettes in Gibraltar present a major problem for Spain as they are constantly being smuggled by boat into the Spanish harbors. Every night the cigar-shaped night-blue speedboats leave the harbor. The Spanish Guardia Civil often race behind but seldom manage to catch them. Their powers are limited as they can hardly shoot the cigarette smugglers. It might be a different matter for the boats that go to Morocco to fetch drugs, but this is done in a much more clandestine manner than the flagrant cigarette-smuggling. The officials in Gibraltar do very little against it, the only law broken there is the loading of the cigarettes into the boats without an export license, so that is always done with utmost speed.

Gibraltar is a unique place and has had a special role in history due to its strategic position. It is riddled with tunnels, some of which go back to the Great Siege 1779-83, when Spain tried to win Gibraltar back, but most date from the Second World War. The stone removed while making the subterranean fortifications, bunkers and shelters was used to make the breakwaters and the runway, that had to be built out into the sea at both ends. It also has natural caverns, some of which are used as cisterns. One cave with splendid stalactite formations is open to the public.

Talking to a Barbary apeThe monkeys in Gibraltar are famous. The only place in Europe where monkeys live wild, there are several theories as to how they reached the Rock in the first place. There is a saying though, that the British will continue to rule the Rock as long as the monkeys remain. Reason enough for Churchill to order that more be fetched from Africa when their number dropped dramatically, and the reason why they are under the care of the few remaining troops in Gibraltar, who provide them daily with food. There are two separate colonies of them in Gibraltar, and certain individuals can be guaranteed to turn up at the top of the cable car or on the road to the cave when tourists are about. These Barbary apes are up to all sorts of pranks and woe betide the unwary tourist who approaches with an obvious bag of monkey nuts, held in easy reach. He will be seen from far and will run into an ambush that will snatch the whole bag from him!

Continuing along the coast into the Mediterranean, some sailors are deterred by the sight of the many hotels along the coast. Viewed from the sea, there is hardly a stretch of coast that is not built up. However not all the new developments are ugly or have altered the centers of the towns that were there beforehand, and so it is possible to find some attractive overnight stops. An example of a new development that is pleasing to the eye is the little Marina del Este, where a harbor has been tucked in between the steep shore and an offlying rock, that is now planted with flowering shrubs. The coastline is full of marinas and for those who need to watch the costs there are a few possibilities to anchor. The prices of the marinas vary considerably and it is worth gathering information from yachts coming the other way, or by radio from yachts going ahead. In Motril, Torrevieja and Alicante there is room to anchor in the harbor. The Playa de Genoveses is then the first protected anchorage in a bay, away from civilization. Somewhere along the coast south of Granada a stop should be made for a trip inland to visit the Alhambra in Granada.

The Lion courtyard, GranadaGranada was the last stronghold of the Moslems, from where they were finally driven out in 1492. The Alhambra is a group of palaces that were added to and altered by a succession of Moorish rulers. The graceful buildings with the slender columns and stucco decorations, alcoves and tiled walls, courtyards and gardens, fountains and pools, are considered the loveliest of the Moorish architecture in Spain and Seville's Alcazar pales beside it.

One of the very positive aspects of sailing the Spanish coast is the food. The Spanish have a lot of appetizers, that are on display on the counter of the bars and are as tasty as they look inviting. These "tapas" are all sorts of small portions of hot and cold food such as squid salad, shrimps, slices of eggplant in batter, meat balls - every tapas bar has its own specialties. If you just go in for a drink, you may be given a small dish of olives or mixed nuts to go with it. Full size portions are called "raciones", so if a bar has "tapas y raciones" chalked up on the board outside you know that you will be able to get food in the bar.

The Costa Blanca is not quite as built up as the Costa del Sol, but wherever there are sandy beaches, there are also hotels and holiday apartments and this applies to the coast all the way to the French border.

The North Majorcan coastThe Balearic islands on the other hand, although a popular tourist area, have a much more varied coastline. Here it is possible to find anchorages where you are alone and can enjoy the landscape. The water is clear and inviting. Most of the towns are away from the coast because when they were founded the Balearics were often raided by pirates. The houses were therefore built away from the harbors for protection. Exceptions are the towns of Ibiza and Palma on Majorca as they have fortifications. Present-day tourism is attracted mostly by the sun, sand and the sea and the tourist resorts have sprung up along the sandy bays. The more rugged areas have little inlets where it is possible to anchor, or fishing ports.

The islands have more to offer than the hotel brochures mention. There are several excellent natural caves with stalactite formations, that are well presented with lighting and sound effects. One of them (Cuevas de Artà) inspired Jules Verne to write his "Journey to the Center of the Earth". There are various stone monuments from the Bronze Age, particularly on Menorca, of types found only in the Balearics and on Sardinia. The little island group of Cabrera south of Majorca is a National Park with a lovely anchorage right below the castle that was built to prevent pirates using the bay. Now anchoring is not permitted, instead 50 buoys have been laid out for visitors, but you must get permission between 3 and 20 days beforehand. The application can be made by fax from one of the other harbors. Even with permission you cannot roam freely over the islands as they are a military zone, but there are paths, and permission can be given to go diving.

a quiet bay with clear waterThe Balearics have been a popular tourist area for many years. Even Frédéric Chopin came here. Many English and German speaking people have settled in recent years and opened up shops and trades, so it is not uncommon to see signs to the "Butcher" in English. The local people speak a Catalan dialect, so Castilian Spanish is almost a foreign language for them too.

Apart from the cultural interest of mainland Spain, the Balearics offer the best cruising on the Mediterranean side of Spain, thanks to the indented coastline and the alterna-tive routes that islands as such offer. Nor are they lacking in cultural interest as the towns of Palma, Ibiza and Mahon and the archeological remains prove. The islands are green and attractive all the year round but particularly lovely in early Spring when the almond trees are in bloom. Almonds are the major crop on Majorca, 7000 tons being harvested in the autumn, and the lower slopes are all full of almond plantations interspersed with carob. Higher in the hills, where the slopes were terraced during the Arab occupation, are the gray-green olive trees. Inland Majorca can be appreciated on a trip with the narrow gauge railway from Palma to Sóller, combined with a walk to Fornalux and Binirax, the villages that are reputed to be the prettiest on the island.

© Dianne Reichart 1997

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