COVID-19 wins/ Me, the Tourist, loses

On Saturday, I waved the white flag and booked a flight from Ponta Delgada, in the Azores, Portugal, to my home town of Toronto for Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Despite all my attempts to continue travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming more and more difficult. I like to think I know when to quit and, so, I am trying to.

But let’s back up a bit. I had booked a 6 week holiday in Spain back in December to begin March 31, when I was to meet up with a friend in Madrid. Over the last few months, hotels and Airbnbs had been booked, a rental car reserved, advance payments made when requested. I’d also arranged to meet my son here in Ponta Delgada for a week of sun and hiking during the second week of March, a well deserved holiday for him as he left one job and was about to start a new one.

In January, new reports started filtering out of China about a novel virus and a city under quarantine and ships getting turned away from ports in the Far East, but it was a distant thing, of little concern to me. In February, I flew to Accra in Ghana and, after a week there, went to Senegal.

It became time to start booking plans between Senegal and Spain. Everywhere was safe except China and maybe South Korea. I booked 10 days in Lagos, Portugal on the Algarve coast before I was to head to the Azures. After a week in the Azures, I would visit a new country for me, Malta, before going to Milan, Italy, where I planned to visit the iconic opera house, La Scala, and take a train to walk the five towns that make up the Cinque Terres before flying to Madrid.

At the time the plans were made, in late February, the virus had barely hit Europe and was traceable only to persons who had been to China. But once I got to Lagos, events started happening quickly. Italy, mostly Venice and Milan, started reporting outbreaks. My flight from Malta to Milan was cancelled by the airline. A few days later, the flight from Milan to Madrid, on Ryanair, was cancelled. To its credit, Ryanair offered the best, most simple refund mechanism imaginable. Just a few clicks on the link it sent me and the money was back on the my credit card.

Then my son sent me an email from his new job indicating all employees who had travelled to China or been in contact with anyone who had been would not be allowed to enter the building for 2 weeks. He was nervous ( it turned out rightly so) they would expand the ban to anyone who had travelled internationally. He told me he wouldn’t be joining me in the Azures.

Lagos seemed to be operating normally; there were plenty of tourists and no obvious precautions. Nonetheless, I started watching YouTube videos on how to properly wash my hands, managed to buy 3 small bottles of Purell for the usurious price of $26.00 and realized, to my chagrin, how often I touched my face. Twelve days later I left, via Lisbon where I spent 4 hours in the airport. Again, nothing out of the ordinary was observed.

On Thursday, my 3rd day in the Azores, Trump gave his disastrous pep talk from the White House and, all of a sudden, things started going a little crazy.

A digression and a bit of history. The Azores is a group of 9 islands in the mid-Atlantic, about 1500 kilometers from mainland Portugal. Portugal explorers discovered them in 1427 and started settling them soon after. They’re volcanic, with the last major eruption in 1563-4. Today, on the island of San Miguel where I am, are a number of calderas filled with lakes and hiking trails.

On Friday, I noticed a cruise ship outside the harbor. It had been denied entry and was sailing away to parts unknown.

I had booked a tour of San Miguel Island, the largest and most populous island in the Azores, which went to two of the crater lakes: Lake Green/Blue which, as its name suggest, has both a green and blue portion and Lake Fugo

Lake Fugo

The tour was scheduled to visit Caldeira Velha, a national park with hot springs and sulfur steam spraying from cracks in the ground. But alas, that morning, the Portuguese government had ordered a shut-down of all parks. I contented myself with the beautiful views of the Blue/Green Lake.

The Green/Blue Lake

More bad news when I checked GoogleNews during lunch. Malta would impose a mandatory 14 day quarantine on all non-Maltese newcomers who landed on the island. After the tour ended, I went to cancel my flight and hotel reservation there. After being on hold for 3 hours with Expedia, Air Malta cancelled my ticket and refunded it all, despite it being non-refundable. Not so the Grand Excelsior in Floriana, Malta, who didn’t seem to care that its government was telling tourists to stay away, and refused to refund any of my money. So please, if you go to Malta, boycott this hotel.

As I already had a flight booked to Lisbon on my way to Malta, I decided I would go there for a week and managed to book a Lisbon./London/Toronto flight for March 24th. But that night, the authorities ordered nightclubs and museums to close all over Portugal. On Saturday morning came the news that 5 flights from the UK to Spain had been turned around mid-air since they wouldn’t be allowed to land in Spain.

Enough was enough. There is a non-stop flight from Ponta Delgada to Toronto on Tuesday, March 17th. I booked a seat. The timing was lucky. Later in the day, Trudeau told all Canadians to come home as quickly as possible. My flight sold out soon after.

So it is Monday now and I wait for the flight, hoping it will go. The island is quieter than when I arrived. The Tourist Office and half the restaurants are closed. Packets of sanitary wipes began appearing on the tables at the hotel breakfast yesterday and today the entire staff is wearing gloves. Only 2 people are being allowed into pharmacies at a time, so crowds are mingling on the street as they wait their turn.

I can do little more than walk around or cycle on the 4 kilometer bike path along the sea wall. It is a beautiful town, its architecture a mixture of Portuguese and colonial. Most prominent are the white buildings framed in black, basalt stone, a nod to the volcanic nature of the island.

If for some reason I do not get home tomorrow, I keep telling myself it is no big deal. My hotel, with a balcony overlooking the harbor, is very inexpensive and has lots of toilet paper. The restaurants which are open serve great fish and meat dishes. Before the islands turned to tourism, their main source of revenue came from cows, a breed brought over hundreds of years ago from The Netherlands. They are grain fed and apparently their milk, cheese and meat are highly prized. The steak I had was delicious.

The weather is also wonderful. Semi-tropical, the temperature rarely goes below 15 or above 25. A warm breeze keeps the air humid and, even though the temperature was only 17 the week I was here, it was warm enough for just a t-shirt and shorts.

But I get the message. Now is not the time to be travelling. Much as I would like to take advantage of the near empty, normally crowded tourist hotspots, I don’t want to be disrespectful. Governments don’t want foreigners on their soil, potentially spreading the virus and imposing on all ready over-burdened health care systems.

Besides, it is not fun anymore. I am inundated with hourly emails from back home from concerned friends and family reporting the latest WHO figures or the newest closures. Emails from lists I have long since unsubscribed from all start with their concern over my well-being and safety. The news reports nothing but the COVID-19 virus. My plans, and the back-up and the back-up to the back-up, have all been thwarted. I hate the uncertainty.

So I will be responsible. I will return home if my flight leaves here tomorrow, armed with a few cans of tuna, a bag of rice, lots of hand sanitizer and 12 rolls of toilet paper.


For now, my travels are over.

Another Slavery Hotspot: Lagos, Portugal

I had just spent two weeks in Western Africa, where the main tourist sights related to slavery; the ugly capture and transport of millions of Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, so I thought Portugal would be a welcome relief from the saddening tales of the Ghanian and Senegalese slaves.

The Slave Trade:

My landing point was Lagos, a city of 30,000 on the south coast of Portugal, in the famed Algarve region. A friend had stayed here last year and highly recommended it as an inexpensive but warm vacation spot with lots of good food, plenty of sunshine and decent wine. I booked a place for 12 days and arrived after an all night flight from Dakar (only red eyes fly from Senegal to Europe) to Lisbon, a quick hop to Faro and an hour mini-van ride from the airport to the hotel. Situated right on the marina, my one bedroom offered a large balcony, reliable hot water and decent wifi, all welcome contrasts to my prior hotel in downtown Dakar. As an added bonus, there was no daily 6AM call to prayer to wake me.

But my belief that I had left the slave trade behind was completely erroneous. In fact, Lagos had been the capital of European slavery for centuries, beginning as early as 1450. Fifty years before the Portuguese claimed Brazil and 42 years before Columbus discovered America, Europeans were importing slaves from North Africa and selling them in the main market square in Lagos. A small Slave Museum, located in a former Customs House, details the slave trade to Portugal. Slaves, allegedly mostly prisoners of war sold by Arab traders, were sold in Europe where they were used in construction and heavy labour jobs. Somewhat incomprehensible to this explanation in the museum is an extract from a contemporaneous manuscript describing a slave auction, where a mother tried desperately to stay with her child. How mothers and children became prisoners of war is never explained.


I took a walking tour with a history fanatic through the center of Lagos. In addition to the slave history above, we were handed a sheet with a timeline of significant events in Lagos, which went something like this: original inhabitants were Celtics, followed by the Romans whose main legacy is the road system.. When their empire disintegrated and the dark ages reigned, the Visigoth tribes moved in. In the 8th century, Arabs conquered the area and created cities using Arab building techniques still evident today. Between the 11th and 13th century, tribes who eventually became the Portuguese from Astoria in the north battled the Moors for supremacy, eventually driving the Arabs out of Portugal in 1249.

Lagos reached its heyday in the Middle Ages, when ships bound for Africa and America called it home. Fleets moored in Lagos during the Spanish/ British wars were attacked by Sir Francis Drake (Portugal was under Spanish rule at the time), along with various pirates who regularly plundered the city.

In 1755, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed the city along with most of coastal Portugal. Lagos slowly rebuilt itself.

Portugal remained a monarchy through the Napoleonic invasions and the industrial revolution. A few 19th century civil wars reduced the monarch’s power to that of one of a constitutional monarchy but in 1910, the king was deposed and sent into exile. The Republic was born.

Over the next 65 years, Portuguese politics was plagued by military coups, dictatorships, fascism and communist parties. It remained neutral during WWII, assisting both sides as the wind blew. But in 1975, the country adopted a democratic government which has ruled ever since.

Henry the Navigator:

Lagos’ most famous citizen was Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince born in 1394 , died in 1460, and who, while he was a prince was not much of a navigator. Rather, his claims to fame are his contributions to navigation; he is rumored (but disputed) to have started a school of navigation in nearby Sagres, where two significant discoveries were made. First, the caravel, a lighter, more maneuverable ship was developed under his tutelage. Second, cartographers mapped more of the world, including the Canary Islands and the Azores in the Atlantic and the coastal areas of Africa below Bojador in the Western Sahara. They learned how to navigate using the stars, permitting the Portuguese to sail beyond the coastline, something the Vikings had figured out some 400 years before but that’s neither here nor there.

Lagos today:

Of course, most people don’t come to Lagos for its history or its architectural marvels. Rather, its primary attraction is as a well-deserved, relaxing tourist destination. Prices are inexpensive, with good Portuguese wine costing only a few dollars a glass, rotisserie chickens in the supermarket the equivalent of $5.00 and bus fares costing just $2.00. Hotels with all the modern conveniences abound, there’s a pretty pedestrian way with restaurants offering lots of fish dishes. Along the main road, pretty white low-rise buildings evoke pictures of traditional Portuguese houses and palm trees sway in the breeze.

Lagos and its canal

The area has at least 13 golf courses and lots of water sports, including fishing. For those that prefer to walk, the streets are lined with sidewalks, zebra crossings are everywhere and cars most diligent about stopping to let pedestrians cross the street.

Tourists walk along the canal, up the shopping streets, towards the fort or beside the churches. It’s a bit of a walker’s paradise, with oodles of hiking trails. My favourite was a 45 minute walk from the marina, up a hill, to Ponta de Piedade, where wooden walkways criss-cross fields and run alongside cliffs overlooking limestone formations in the Atlantic Ocean below. Along some of the the walkway, a bevy of yellow flowers were in bloom, making for a lovely sight, but naturally, not in the pictures below:

Large numbers of Europeans – Brits, Germans and French – come here every winter to enjoy the mild (average about 20 degrees) weather and sunshine and Canadians have started coming here also. One sign read “We speak francais and quebecois.” Bars catering to foreigners line the marina  where British football matches play continuously, menus advertise Roast Dinners every Sunday and the singer, a guitarist, played mostly Tom Jones songs, but the loudest singalong was reserved for Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.


Thirty kilometers away is the town of Sagres. Reputedly home to Henry the Navigator’s sailing school, at its end is Cape St. Vincent, the most southwestern point in Europe and regarded as the end of the earth in ancient times. A lighthouse marks the end of the Atlantic Ocean where ships enter the Mediterranean Sea.

Today the lighthouse still stands and, in clear weather, its light can be seen for 60 kilometers. People, myself included, flock here for the nightly sunset, watching the sun drop into the ocean.

Sunset at Cape St. Vincent

The Grottos

The waves have carved beautiful grottos into the limestone cliffs; most are accessible only by boat. Kayak and stand-up paddle boat tours take intrepid travellers into them, but I, being less fit and much lazier, opted for the speedboat. Little did I know the driver considered terrifying the passengers with sharp turns and dizzying speeds over high waves part of the experience, so I gamely held on  to my chair for the 25 minute terror ride to the grottos. The views were my reward; I will let some pictures speak for themselves.

Closing Thoughts:

Lagos wasn’t the most fascinating place I’ve been to, historically, architecturally or  culturally, but what it lacks in those areas, it certainly makes up for in great weather, easy travelling and nice, welcoming people. After 12 days here, I understand Portugal’s attraction for tourists escaping winter.

Next: Travelling in the time of Covid-19