We entered Portugal using the main A22 motorway bridge on the 10th of January. As we do, a sign signals foreign cars to enter the first layby to register a credit card against the photographed number plate to pay for future motorway tolls – apparently they’re expensive and for the most part we plan to avoid them. We pull off almost immediately anyway, heading for Castro Marim. There’s official motorhome parking here and services and it’s free. Well, we were shocked, and 6 weeks later we continue to be so, by the huge number of us in this part of the world. Castro Marim had an official capacity of 25 vans and there were more than 60 of us! It wasn’t even a particularly attractive place. The castle shows the history of the place; once the haunt of ‘the order of Christ’; a follow up to ‘the Knights Templar’, it was handy to spy on what was then Moor territory across the river in Spain. Now, it’s just a fairly insignificant small town.
Now we’re down here, we plan to slow down and not move much. Hopefully we can save some money for future adventures? Food is certainly cheap, though perhaps not so cheap as Spain, and if we can park for free, we haven’t many expenses.
We find a much more attractive spot at Praia Cabeco, a beach carpark just west of Monte Gordo, where we stay for a couple of weeks. It’s quiet and dark at night. There’s still loads of us here though; 20 – 30 on average. It’s a LOT different to last year in Greece when we hardly saw that many all winter. Locals come by regularly selling oranges – which are delicious and huge strawberries – watery and less appealing. We buy large bags of oranges for a couple of euros each and make juice. Praia Cabeco is in the middle of miles and miles of sandy beach. When the tide’s out it makes a good walking surface and we try to get into a routine of long walks. Neither of us are feeling very fit these days. The coast is pretty flat around here too, so we can easily cycle into town for shopping or just for a bit of exercise. Places seem less built up here than further west, which we like, and the area seems to be particularly favoured by the Dutch. We enjoy the novelty of Dutch cafes serving ‘apel gebak’ / Dutch apple cake (Peter grew up, and we met, in Holland). It’s ‘tourist land’ really and it often seems that we must outnumber the locals. I suppose before the mass tourism down here there really wasn’t much of a local population, just small fishing and farming communities. Monte Gordo bay is famous for shellfish, particularly clams. We try them on our regular Saturday lunch out. Not impressed really – and they’re expensive. It is interesting watching them being fished / collected though. The traditional method involves using a sort of rake with a long handle and a wire basket, followed by a net attached. The long handle is vigorously shaken from side to side as the fisherman walks backwards in knee deep water, dragging the apparatus just under the surface of the sand. They stop every so often to sort out the catch. An hour or two of what looks like bloody hard work will produce a bucket full. Still judging by the measly portion we were served, it’s probably lucrative enough if sold to a local restaurant.
Having got used to the Spanish and the Greek custom of shared plates of food (ordering one main course and one salad is usually plenty for 2 and whatever you order is usually put in the centre of the table and each person is then given a separate, small, empty plate), we quickly find this doesn’t seem to happen here. Like in most of northern Europe, each person chooses a separate meal. Whilst food out is certainly not expensive, this certainly doesn’t make it quite such a bargain as Spain. Eating times are what us northern Europeans call more normal here too. Lunch, and lunchtime closing at most shops is from 1 till 3. A bit longer perhaps than further North, but a far cry from the Spanish who often don’t start lunch till 2 or 3 and then sometimes go on till 5 or 6 (with correspondingly late evening meal times). Then again, perhaps we’ll find it different outside of ‘tourist land’ if we ever make it?
We venture along the coast a bit, stopping at Fabrica and then Tavira. Tavira was once a hub for the area, having the dubious honour of establishing itself as a major slave trading centre. Tavira appeals because of ‘actual locals’ to compliment the tourists, but lacks anywhere attractive for us to park. We move on to Santa Luzia and walk across the floating bridge out to the Isla Tavira (One of the many sandy islands just off the coast here). The beach on the outer side is white sand backed by dunes for as far as you can see in both directions; a lovely spot if the weather was a tad warmer. This spot was once the home of a large tuna fishing fleet. The lines of houses and store rooms have been restored, but the most striking feature is the ‘Anchor Graveyard’ left by the fisherman as a memorial to their life here. There’s a museum too but it’s unfortunately closed out of season.
We explore inland, heading towards Cachapo. It’s amazingly quiet on the roads as soon as we leave the coast. Turning off to Casas Baixas, we’re in another world; traditional buildings, subsistence living, a few crops, the odd chicken or goat. We stop for lunch, the door open letting in the sunshine, and are wished a cheery ‘Bom Dia’ with a wave from a toothless old woman in wellies carrying a bucket with today’s harvest. They’re trying to promote the area; the ‘Serra do Caldeirao’, as a walking area following the many winding tracks that , until recently, were the only way to get about in these parts. We try out one of the surprisingly well signed routes, before spending the night in a nearby layby. It’s silent and starry at night. The only sound is a trickling stream. We like.
Unfortunately we wake up in a damp cloud with next to no visibility. We’re quite high in the hills. The forecast isn’t great either, so it’s back down to the coast and back to our favoured spot at Playa Cabeco for a bit. We have a few sunny and quite warm (22-23c) days towards the end of January and we even manage our first swim in the sea on the 1st of Feb. It was cold! but we quickly warmed up in the sun afterwards. Soon we head west again towards Praia da Rocha ready to meet up with Peter’s Dad when he comes out for a holiday in one of the hotels there.
We stop at Tavira again and whilst having a brief wander round the town, we’re hijacked by an enthusiastic promotor who wants us to come and listen to some Fado; the traditional Portugese female singer backed by a pair of male guitarists. Well why not? We’re ushered into a tiny, dark theatre. There is only one other couple there and no more come, not exactly giving the right ambiance. It’s only a short performance of a few songs which we decide is a bit of an acquired taste. The guitarists are excellent, one on a traditional Portuguese instrument a bit like a very large lute with 12 strings and the first piece is just the guitarists. We decide later we could have done without the singer. The songs are all deep and passionate. Fado, we are told, “is sung with the heart first and the voice second”. One of the guitarists does his best to explain, in English, the meaning and the stories behind each piece, but the effect is somewhat lost when you can’t understand the words. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to hear some more in a better atmosphere. It’s more normal to hear it in a busy bar or restaurant.
To continue our cultural experience, we go looking for some Carnival activities. There’s plenty of posters around advertising various events, but they never seem to be where we are. We pass through Loule, the biggest town in the Algarve, where they’re obviously setting up for something major in a few days time and assume, wrongly, that there’ll be plenty of goings on in other places too. We visit Silves for a couple of days with its impressive Moorish castle walls above the town. We hear music and horns and rush off to see a mini procession. A good effort by the local school, but we were hoping for something a little more. On the Feb 8th we’re at Sao Bartolomeu de Messines. There’s definitely something happening here tonight, so we stay at yet another huge ‘aire’ packed with hundreds of vans. It seems this is normal around here. It’s hard to get used to. By 9pm the music is blaring out and we heard into town to see what all the fuss is about. Actually they’re cheating a bit; they’re obviously playing ‘excited large crowd’ sounds over the speakers along with the music, helping to big up what is only a relatively small place. Eventually there’s a chain of floats processing by. There’s various food stalls and people are trying hard to party. For a small place they’ve done well but by the 6th pass of the same float we reckon we’ve seen it! It did seem that more of the town were taking part in the procession than lining the street watching. There seemed a particularly poor showing from us ‘vanners.
We spend a couple of weeks at the huge Praia da Rocha aire. Unusually for us we decide it’s worth the €3 per night for the convenience of being walking distance to Dad’s hotel. There are literally hundreds of vans here, many staying for the whole winter. We choose the back field for a bit more space around us, with grass and some wild flowers. Surprisingly the most popular choice is packed in tightly in the tarmac carpark. It’s nice to have some fixed neighbours and a bit more of a community feel. There’s certainly some interesting rigs here including coach sized American RVs with slide-outs, ridiculously long (8m+) European style vans with twin rear axles often pulling trailers with cars on, and the odd off-road truck. Heidi is definitely one of the smallest.
We have a good week with my Dad, venturing out on trips most days trying not to let the, still very variable, weather bother us too much. We do several walks. We follow a route round some of the old irrigation channels (levadas?) at the confluence of the two rivers leading down to Portamao. The channels are dry and not in the best of shape. We suspect the watering is done by pump from plastic pipe these days – or perhaps they’re simply not needed today in the rain! We also explore some of the dramatic coastline that this region is famous for – both from the beaches, and the cliff tops. And we drive up to Monchique, and Foia; the highest peak in the region. We had hoped to have a second helping of Fado at the hotel one night too, but a suspect ‘thud thud thud’ from Heidi’s nether regions had Dad going home in a taxi (all part of the exciting experience you know) and us having an unplanned altercation with the Portuguese equivalent of the AA. As it turned out, it was only a damaged tyre (can’t believe I didn’t spot it myself!) and easily sorted for a whole lot cheaper than in the UK. They even had them in stock: the advantage of being in an area packed out with similar motorhomes! Hope you enjoyed your holiday Dad?
It was useful to be able to leave our chairs out and the bikes behind, marking our spot, when we went out, but after 2 weeks we’re still struggling to see what the long-term attraction is. There’s a beautiful beach and coastline, but then it extends all along here. The main town of Portamao has everything but is nothing special and the beach resort of Praia da Rocha is still predominantly empty and closed at this time of year.
We keep asking ourselves just what it is that makes the Algarve so popular and so busy. We decide that people must be attracted here because it’s easy. There are motorhome service places everywhere, even if the adjacent parking areas are often full. We decide, we still prefer ‘wild camping’ to the official places. Parking bumper to bumper or with no more than a van’s width between you and the next one, especially on what is just an unattractive carpark, really doesn’t do it for us even if the services are convenient and the shops close. We find we can live off-grid’ perfectly well for a week or more and we’d so much rather have a bit of space and more of the natural world around us. That said, even the out of the way places provide us with plenty of ‘neighbours’ in this part of the world.
Portamao used to be the centre of the sardine fishing industry here and there’s a good museum based in the original factory documenting it all; from the boats coming in, the catch being unloaded into baskets on an overhead rail system and going straight into the factory, the cleaning, steam cooking and packing in tins of olive oil. They also made the tins with labelling stamped directly onto the sheet metal before being cut out, assembled, and eventually sealed and packed by a series of ingenious machines. They were then exported the world over. People’s whole, long days were organised around the factory which provided crèche facilities for babies ensuring the mothers never strayed far from the production line. It was not to last. The sardines were vastly over-fished and have never really recovered. Unfortunately the labelling in the museum is in Portuguese only, but there’s a good film explaining everything with English subtitles. Well worth the visit.
As ever, we enjoy seeking out the local markets. Even small places seem to have their ‘Mercado Municipal’ often in quite a grand covered building. There’s usually lots of fish and vegetables at good prices. Local honeys and various fig and almond creations. In Tavira we find an excellent spice stall with its mounds of bright colours. We buy smoked sweet paprika and turmeric; both good in a Paella (one of Peters favourite dishes). It is so much more intense than the stuff we’re used to in a tiny jars. We can only buy a minimum of 100g in a very thin plastic bag with the wonderful smells coming through. Now we need to find some suitable containers to store it in. We meet ‘the spice lady’ at the Loule market too. She turns out to be English, living locally. She grows chillies in her garden and sells them and other local products as well as imported spices that she’s sourced from her own travels. She’d spent time in India and tells us that it was the Portuguese that originally imported the chili to India, having brought it back with them from their exploits in South America. The Goa area was a Portuguese colony. We’d wondered at the large amount of Indian restaurants here, assuming initially that it was just a response to the wants of tourists. We discover that when the Portuguese handed Goa back to India, the locals were given the option of Portuguese citizenship, and many then emigrated here.
…and in case you think we spend all our time lazing about and living the good life? I’ve been trying hard this winter to give Heidi a little TLC. She’s beginning to show her age and the fact that we are living in her full time. The plastic round the windows, doors and skylights had recently gone very yellow and much of that has now been painted. I’ve even had a go at some of the exterior plastic bits that are deteriorating in the sun. I’ve also made a start at varnishing the cupboards to give them more ‘life’ protection – it’s a long job but it’s getting there. Then, of course, there’s the boiler drip to look into …but for now, sitting out in the sun with a book is calling. One must get one’s priorities right!…