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Casting About for a Cliff-Hanging Sea Adventure

June 07, 1987|ROBIN CHARTERIS | Charteris works for the New Zealand Associated Press in London.

SAGRES, Portugal — They cling to the cracks and guts of the towering sandstone cliffs, the Atlantic venting its stormy fury 300 feet below.

The cliff fishermen of the Algarve are at work.

Short, saturnine men of dark and deep-creased faces, they wrap themselves snugly against the ocean squalls and winter winds. Their Moorish ancestors knew nearby Cape St. Vincent as "the end of the world."

It was not until 10 centuries ago that others of their forbears ventured beyond the horizon, heading west and south to find new worlds.

Henry the Navigator

It was on the Ponta de Sagres that Henry the Navigator took inspiration and founded his famous school dedicated to navigation. Inside the walls of the old stone fort, behind the fishermen, stand the massive stone compass and sundial around which crouched Henry and the leading astronomers, scientists, map-makers and mariners of the 15th Century.

England's Sir Francis Drake sacked the place 400 years ago; some of the cannons that formed its defenses still stare out to sea.

The fishermen pay little heed to history. They seek the fruits of the present, far below in the caldron of the Atlantic.

To fish from such aeries they require long, willowy rods, plenty of nylon line and a firm belief in the will of Allah. To fall from here is certain death, for the overhanging rocks are unscalable even for those who fall but escape the wrath of the sea.

The tasks of baiting up, casting and waiting for bites are performed in ordinary enough fashion. Shellfish or pork are the preferred baits and a good, heavy sinker, plus float, are used to battle the surge.

Two-Handed Catch

It is when a fish is hooked that the cliff fisherman's technique comes into its own. Holding his now bucking rod with one hand, he tosses over the cliff with the other a heavy wicker basket tied to a much stronger hemp rope.

The situation becomes a matter of the left hand truly knowing what the right is doing as he maneuvers the hooked fish, often weighing up to 20 pounds and protesting like the devil, toward the basket, or vice versa.

Manipulation of wind, tide, fish and gravity call for unusual skills, especially as the Atlantic tosses the basket about like the proverbial cork.

Sometimes the task requires the combined dexterity of two men. Then one realizes why the cliff anglers are usually in pairs.

Once--and if--the fish is in the basket, it is hauled up the cliff, sometimes destined for market but more often to be sold directly to a restaurant.

A variety of fish is caught from the rampart of sheer cliffs that surround the western and northern corners of the Algarve. Most are bacalhau (cod), although atum (tunny or tuna) and peixe espada (a very long, thin fish like a barracuda but without the deadly teeth) are also common.

Watching the cliff fishermen is one of the many pleasant marine pastimes of a holiday in the Algarve, bettered only by a seafood meal from one of the hundreds of tiny restaurants along this 100-mile stretch of the Iberian Peninsula.

Ameijoas na cataplana , or cataplana for short, and sardinhas grehaldas are the specialties. Cataplana is a wondrous stew of clams, sausage or pork, ham, onion, garlic, paprika, chili sauce and white wine cooked and served in a pot (the primitive predecessor of the pressure cooker), while the sardines, grilled over charcoal, are reminiscent of small trout grilled on a green stick over a fire.

Larger than tinned sardines, they have bones that are more obvious. One should never leave the Algarve, it is said, without sampling this delicacy.

And if the main course, be it fish, steak, veal, pork or the huge mixed-meat kebabs that the Portuguese love, be not pleasure enough, receiving the bill certainly is.

My wife, teen-age son and I ate out almost the entire week we were in the Algarve (staying in a comfortable rented villa, $50 U.S. for the week off-season). A three-course meal, with beer, wine and coffee, never cost us more than $25 U.S.

Enjoying the Wine

The wines-- vinho verde (white, not green) and vinho tinte (red)--are delightful and inexpensive. The verde has a slightly sparkling richness that lingers on the palate, it seems, until the next restaurant comes into sight.

The Algarve has a deserved reputation in Britain as a wonderfully laid-back, restful holiday destination. Charter air fares from London are about $100 U.S. round trip. The British are discovering the place in droves, so it may not be too long before it goes the way of Spain, where the Costa del Sol and the Costa Brava are about as British now as Blackpool.

Still here, however, are mule plows and donkey carts, peasants and Gypsies, clean, cobbled streets and a quaintness that is fast disappearing elsewhere.

Where else on a wet and windy New Year's Eve would holiday makers far from home answer their door to a group of singing Gypsies, exchange songs and gestured good wishes and share a bottle of vintage, locally produced port?

No matter that the patriarch of the group--with his sly grin, grubby trousers, bristly stubble and all--took the other half of my bottle with him, plus a pack of duty-free cigarettes; there's plenty more port in this wonderful storm.

We rented a villa through Algarve Holidays Ltd., Clifford Windsor House, 39 Houndsgate, Nottingham NG1 7AA, England. The company, as do many others, advertises regularly in the Sunday London Times. We hired our two-door Mini through the same company for $68 U.S. a week, from airport back to airport at Faro.

For more information, contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office, 548 Fifth Ave., New York 10036; phone (212) 354-4403.

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