Considering the fact that we could have driven here in three hours from Lisbon, it was surprising how long it took the Corinthian, struggling through the waves and swells to get here. It made for a disturbing night's sleep. But the advantage of being on a small ship was apparent this morning, when we were the only ship here in a spot no ocean liner would fit. Later in the day we saw tenders, taking cruisers to a large ship outside the harbor. We just walked right off. We are in the Algarve, an area highly touted by travel magazines. I never knew exactly where it was and now I am here on the southern coast of Portugal. The Algarve is a favorite spot for northern Europeans to thaw out in the winter and the weather for the summer sounds like southern California. Since members of the EU are free to buy land anywhere in the union, people from the UK, France, and Germany have flocked here to purchase second homes. So many of them have come, they have established small towns where they never have to speak Portuguese. Their pensions can go a lot farther here than they can at home.
Most of the locals who don't service the snowbirds, work in agriculture and the cork industry has been major here. We went to a plantation to learn all about it. Cork is a family business because you have to wait 25 years after you plant the tree to take your first harvest of bark and make a little money. The first harvest has low quality bark, which is ground up and used for floor tile and bulletin boards. After a few more years you can remove the bark again without harming the tree and the third time you get the high quality material people stuff in high quality wine bottles. Your children earn a living from the investment you have made 40 years before.
Taking a tour about tree bark sounds like it could be kind of boring, but the enthusiasm of the granddaughter of the original owner drew us in. After the trees are stripped by hand, the bark is boiled for an hour to make it lose its shape and be pliable enough to flatten. Once it is dry again, men with sharp knives trim it and evaluate its quality. The corks are also punched out of the pieces of cork manually. It felt like an old world production. When we have toured vineyards at home, we have been told that corks are passé and it is nice not to need an opener to get into the bottle. With a plastic cap you can drink a glass of wine and easily seal the bottle again. We did not share these thoughts with the woman who gave our tour. Perhaps vintners in the Old World are still more loyal to Old World traditions.
Having a meal with locals in their homes is an OAT tradition and we had lunch served to us by three generations of women. They had a nice middle class home and tried to talk with us, but their English was only marginally better than our Portuguese. They ended up mostly serving the twelve of us and we mostly ended up talking to each other. These cultural encounters sometimes are better in theory than in practice.
We also stopped in a cute town called Loulé to visit a local market and get in the way of the people who were trying to do business there. Seafood fanatics like me are in heaven here. Despite all the fish being sold, the market smelled fresh and clean. Souvenirs made out of cork were also sold there. It appears to be a versatile product when handled properly. An umbrella made out of cork was especially unique.