Thoughts on an “ugly” beach

Driving across Lagos, Portugal, the native French speakers in our car keep chuckling every time someone mentions our destination.

Surrounded by the area’s famous yellow-orange cliffs, the Praia do Porto de Mós (Mós Beach) is supposed to be breathtaking. But when you pronounce “Mós” the proper Portuguese way, it sounds like “moche”, the French word for “ugly.”

When we arrive, I see that the beach seems to be the opposite of what its French homophonic counterpart would suggest. Although it’s best to see them early in the day, not in the late afternoon as we’re doing, the cliffs are still strikingly colorful, glowing like soft flames. For those of a more material mindset, the villas perched on the hills just a few hundred meters away are a mix of Mediterranean exoticism and universal luxe. Unlike the large, sandy, simple Meia Praia, which we’ve been frequenting, this is seems to be a rich person’s beach. Amid the local families, laid-back Lagos’s beautiful people lounge here, eagerly and shamelessly consuming the sun.

Looking closer, though, Praia do Porto de Mós isn’t particularly beautiful. Its soft sand is riddled with small wooden splinters. Ants crawl everywhere. The cliffs’ proximity means there are rocks in the water. Not a lot, not enough to be visible — but that makes the situation more dangerous. Suddenly, a wave slams a large stone into your ankle. For the soft-skinned, swimming here should require armor.

The cliffs curl around us like an arm to the east. To the west, they recede, undulating down into shadows, curling out again far off, and then dropping and plateauing until they reach the Cape St. Vincent, the westernmost point in continental Europe. Just a few centuries ago, this was the end of the world.

You can see its distant silhouette from the Praia do Porto de Mós as you stand there among splinters, the waves of high tide roaring towards you. And you think, in an inspired moment, or a lonely one, that life is like the coastline of southern Portugal, the inward and outward waves, the unexpected, triumphant rises and vertiginous hollows where sometimes a white rowboat waits. It goes on, curling and uncurling, distant points hazy and difficult to discern, winding out to the end, to the open sea, where water and sky meet, or appear to.

I grew up near the ocean, and its waves have always felt like something holy to me. Something welcoming, that always holds me. It’s not easy to focus on them with a family, including a three-year-old, in tow, but there is one sublime moment in the water at Meia Praia when I spread my arms on the rolling surface, breathe deeply and face the horizon, smiling. The waves come and I jump, laughing, to meet them. I hope that it will be this way when my life has unfurled to its end, hopefully after a long, long stretch of undulating coastline.

It’s getting late on the Praia do Porto de Mós, and we’re getting hungry. We brush off the sand and put away our towels. I’ll miss watching the sandpipers, but they’ll be happy when we’re gone, leaving more ants exposed. On Lagos’s beaches, young boys are often kept naked, the better, I think, to clean the sand off them later. We undress my son and try to brush off whatever we can of the sticky, stubborn grains. Then, a new diaper and his trunks, pick up his shovel and toy truck, and we head home.

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