Tag Archives: Portugal

A brief glimpse of Northern Spain, then through France to the ferry.

 

On Monday 2nd May, we entered Spain from the North East of Portugal, via the tiny border town of Rio de Onar. We travel up and over a high area of sparse scrubland with a few forestry plantations, before descending to spend the night by the river at Puebla de Santabra, beneath the imposing medieval fortress town on the rock above. Something is very different. Everybody is ‘doing the paseo’. It’s so much more prevalent here. And just to confirm we’re in Spain now, we’re parked next to an unfinished development, complete with overgrown roads, footpaths and streetlights 🙂

In the morning we follow the A52 motorway East, and then the A66 north to big, busy, Leon for some shopping. We do love the Spanish ‘Mercadonna’ supermarket. Sooo much good stuff, Sooo cheap, and a charcuterie section to die for! Stocked up, we head east again, across flat plains, before the mountains slowly begin to rise again. We pass through Guardo, an unattractive industrial place, before joining a high route through the mountains. We skirt round the Compuerto reservoir and head higher, towards the snow-capped peak of ‘Espiguete(2450m). Over a pass at 1408m, before descending again down to the smaller Ruesga Reservoir, just before the town of Cervera de Pisuerga, for the night. A lovely quiet spot (apart from the noisy singing frogs hehe). The sky has been a stunning clear blue all day. We’re still at around 1000m. It’s going to be a cold night!

This is a beautiful area. Wish we could stay and explore longer, but the dreaded ‘schedule’ is upon us. In the morning we leave, via the CL626, heading east, and then it’s north again on the A67 motorway, down, down, down to the coast. We join the coastal motorway near Santander. It’s busy! There aren’t many options along here. The mountains seem to fall straight into the sea. We stop just before Bilbao at a recommended cliff top carpark for an afternoon sitting out in the sunshine.

In the morning we make the big mistake of trying to avoid the boring motorway and end up in traffic in central Bilbao. Not a recommended experience! We then try and take the coast road for a bit of scenery and to visit a few places along the way. Another big mistake! It turns out to be a nightmare and one of the most stressful and downright physically hard drives I’ve ever done. Up and down endlessly twisty turny roads. It’s a truly mad landscape all along this coast. Reminding us of Switzerland in places, we rarely glimpse the coast. We go over 500m passes on the closest road to the coast!  It’s very tiring, very slow progress. The towns (Bermeo, Lekeitio,..), that from a brief glance at the map, might have been attractive, are busy, tightly packed with flats, all at least 6-7 stories high, and virtually nowhere for us to stop either. We take a break just outside Lekeitio,

but when the tide is in, the waves echo annoyingly, all around. Maybe it’s the frayed nerves from the driving, but we don’t fancy being woken by it in the early hours of the morning when the tide comes in again, and so move on again. There are very few options without a BIG detour and we continue along the nightmare coast road trying to take it steady and not use the brakes too much – they’re now grinding badly at every turn, which is constantly, whether we’re using them in earnest or not. Not good! To end this drive from hell, we stop at an official spot  in what turns out to be an industrial estate, next to a 24hr engineering workshop with continuous lathe and grinding noise – Nice! Almost anywhere would be better. We’re at Zumaia, a biggish port with more ugly flats. Don’t bother! Infact, i’d think twice about stopping anywhere along this bit of coast in the future. On a mission to extricate ourselves from this mess, we manage to find a much needed garage on the outskirts of San Sebastian. They were very busy, but managed to fit us in, order new brake pads (the old ones had crumpled to dust but luckily the discs had survived), replace them and have us on our way again within 3hrs. (Euromaster – there’s one in most major places in Europe and we’ve found them good and efficient). Instructed to use the brakes sparingly for a bit, we took the mechanic at his word and didn’t touch them much for the next couple of hundred miles. We made tracks, gladly paying the €11.35 charges on the motorway to be out of the mess that id Northern Spain (come off at ‘Labenne’, France. Jct. 7 or 8? to avoid further charges). We didn’t stop until we were north of Bordeaux, France, where we pulled off the N10, and spend the night at the quiet little village of Laruscade. It’s good to be in rural France. All we can hear now is the birds tweeting – what a contrast to yesterday!

Next it’s back to the free, and motorway standard, N10, taking us quickly past Angouleme, towards Poitiers. Bored and as usual seeing nothing of the areas we’re rushing through, we turn off and head for Candes-St-Martin, between Angers and Tours, on the Loire river. Candes-St-Martin is supposed to be “one of the prettiest villages on the Loire”. It’s certainly an attractive little place, built out of the very white limestone of the area. It’s very busy, perhaps because there’s some sort of fete going on, but perhaps everybody else has read that it’s the prettiest village too? True to form, we come in the ‘back way’ following the Sat Nav, and end up in the narrow “camping-car interdit!” section in the centre 🙂 Well, there were no signs the way we came in! The following day we manage to loop back round the town. Avoiding the centre, to Monontsoreau and continue along the river to Saumur. It’s a nice stretch of river with several small villages famous for their wines. The wine is, or at least was, stored in limestone caves cut out of the rock that forms the edge of the river valley, often with 3 sides of a house built in front. We park by the river at Saumur and enjoy a good lunch at the ‘Cristal Hotel’ before a walk up to the castle/chateaux. For €6 each including a personal guide in English, we are bombarded with more information than my poor historical knowledge could cope with.

Having been educated a bit in Saumur, we continue north looking for a suitable ‘quiet little French village’. Mouliherne does the job perfectly, with an attractive parking spot, next to a picnic site and stream and motorhome services a short distance away. The French are so good at this! (probably said that many times before?) There’s also, as we’ve seen elsewhere, signposted walking routes making a loop from the centre of town and back.

Another couple of driving days follow. We try to find a good route, avoiding the motorways. We skirt past the edge of Le Mans, through Saint-Martin-Du-Vieux-Bellame, through the national park area of ‘Parc Naturel Regional Du Perche’ (looked like a nice area; lakes, walks, picnic sites, monasteries – another area on the list for future investigations when we have more time), stop at Les Aspres for lunch, before continuing to La Mailleraye-sur-Seine, on the River Seine. It’s an insignificant little place, but it provides a good Aire, right on the grassy banks of the river. It’s supposedly €5/night but the guy never came and asked for it, even though he was there apparently asking others.  Bargain 🙂

A shortish hop, and we’re back on the coast at Dieppe, waiting for the ferry. The end of another good trip! Until the next one….

Don’t forget a map of our complete route can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ymzS6pFRHp4LYX2NeuDVuhMzaVY&usp=sharing  GPS locations, photos and extra infos by clicking the pins

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At the beginning of April we decide it’s time to head North again. There’s still a whole lot of Portugal to see and we’ve got a long way to go in the next 6 weeks or so. We’re planning to be back in the UK by mid May. The weather remains very changeable. Some days it’s warm and sunny (18 – 20c), but we have plenty of rain and wind too. We’re still using the heating a fair bit, especially in the mornings …as evidenced by the fact that we run out of gas – again! Our gas supply often lasts us 4 – 6 weeks, but it’s empty after 2. After a bit of investigation, we discover a leak. So that’s why! We fill our gas bottles from an outside connection and hardly ever look into the storage locker itself. It seems that over time some of the connections had worked loose. Now tightened up hard with a spanner and miraculously our gas lasts twice as long again ☺

We stop just outside the small town of Terena at the Lucefecit Reservoir for one night, and enjoy a long walk around the surrounding countryside here; rolling hills, olives, cork oaks, cattle, sheep and goats grazing and more and more wild flowers are beginning to emerge. All topped off by glorious sunshine and blue skies. Alentejo is still doing it for us.

We pass through Estramoz, stopping for a coffee and a wander. Yet another medieval walled town, much bigger than some; a hub for the area with a big weekly market. We travel fast, easily, on the IP2, north towards Portalegre, across flat plains of wheat fields and then begin to climb steeply into the much higher hills of ‘Alto Alentejo’. After ignoring the sat-nav that was determined to take us down a, ridiculous, even for us, dirt track, we find a quiet spot by the Apartadura reservoir for a couple of nights. It feels hot and sunny during the day (23c), but rapidly gets cold at night. We’re at about 800m. There’s lots of dirt tracks around this area providing a choice of walking. Up high, the fields are edged with dry stone walls – it could almost be Wales or the Lake District. After a long hot walk, the reservoir looks so inviting for a swim but it’s sooo cold!

We don’t travel far for the next few days, and visit more medieval fortress towns, in this attractive area, right on the Spanish border. Marvao, above Portagem, is closest to the border and probably has the best location, perched on top of a hill and visible for miles around. There’s even an official motorhome parking up there to entice us, but there’s a freezing wind and we don’t stay long. Castelo de Vide, a little further East, has a less impressive location, but is much larger and the old town is mostly still inhabited. A large section of the town, with its impossibly steep cobbled streets, is the Jewish quarter (where some of their huge number escaped to when they were expelled from Spain, having refused to convert to Catholicism under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492). If you survive the streets, you get to the ‘fountain of youth’ spring / fountain in a square, where some of the famous totally clear water, that’s supposed to be a cure all, emerges. I drank some – but no dramatic results yet!

There’s plenty more walking routes here too and, as usual for the Portuguese it seems, they are well marked and there’s a map in the villages that they pass through. We spend a couple of days just outside the border town of Galegos and follow part of the “Coffee Smugglers Way”. We pass through cork and olive plantations, attractive sheltered valleys with clusters of small farmhouses and up some steep! cobbled tracks between old stone walls – the medieval roadways used by the locals to smuggle coffee from Portugal to Spain during the Civil War and subsequent dictatorships on both sides of the border (1936 – early ‘70s). Don’t think I fancy doing this route in the dark as they did! We walked across the border into Spain at the tiny village of La Frontera; now a very quiet, peaceful place, before returning to Portugal, leaving the large, gliding Griffon Vultures that inhabit the craggy ridge that forms the border circling high above.

On the 11th of April we finally leave the delights of Alentejo and head into our next region; Ribatejo. The land levels out and we travel West on bigger, faster roads with much commercial forestry. We stop at Abrantes for the night; a biggish, modern place with plenty of ugly flats and all the usual out of town shops. Our parking spot in a carpark on the south side of the River Tejo is quiet and peaceful enough though. The next day we continue to Constancia at the confluence of the Tejo and Zezere Rivers; a nice little place with steep cobbled streets, a river side park and picnic area. We visit the ‘Castelo De Almoral’, east a bit along the Tejo; a tiny castle on a tiny island – a strategic Knights Templar stronghold, before checking out the nearby ‘Albufeira do Castelo de Bode’ reservoir. It turns out to be  big let down. Steeply wooded slopes, with virtually no access to the lake itself unless you own one of the many private properties surrounding it and have a private pontoon with speedboat and jet skis to explore. It’s obviously a holiday area and is, at the moment, still shut up. There’s a weird, slightly run down feel to the whole place.. We continue on and finish up at Tomar. And it rains! And it rains!

The next day, we check out the main ‘sight’ here, the ‘Convento De Christo’, one of 3 famous monasteries in the area. More info. here: www.conventocristo.pt/en

One of the many cloistered courtyards was specially built as a place where the poor could come and receive a bread ration from the monks. I couldn’t help wondering if they could have spent the time, and money more wisely? On aid / help for the poor? For instance? There’s extensive gardens to explore here too, but the rain was now truly torrential and we retreated to Heidi for what turned out to be most of 24 hrs.

It rained and rained! Enough now!! We didn’t venture out much for the next couple of days. Eventually we head East towards Nazare on the coast. Open countryside seems minimal, and what little there is, isn’t doing it for us – maybe it’s just the endless rain? We pass near Porto de Mos, the biggest quarrying area in Portugal, where much of the black and white granite sets for the pavements everywhere! come from .. We stop at Alcobaca, home of another huge monastery www.mosteiroalcobaaca.pt  It’s still! Raining. Alcobaca is one of Iberia’s greatest monasteries and totally dominates the town. It’s Cisterian austerity makes everything seem scaled up a level, very much in contrast to Tomar. Housing as many as 999 monks at any one time; they held Mass, non-stop, in shifts ! The party ended in 1834 with the dissolution of the religious orders, believed, probably rightly? To be becoming too powerful.

We have coffee and ‘cake’ in the adjacent square.  Invented by the nuns in their corresponding convents, the traditional sweets are all very eggy yellow. The whites being used to whiten their ‘habits’. There is interestingly no wheat flour in most of them either. Instead they make much use of spaghetti squash or almond or bean flour – and very good they are too.

Eventually the sun puts in a showing, and we head for the coast. Wow! Blue sea and sunshine – seems a long time since we saw it last. We spend the weekend in Nazare before moving on. It’s popular and busy, and you can see why.. We wander the streets of the old town, where ordinary life still goes on, despite it being such a tourist trap these days. There are lots of restaurants, offering charcoal grilled ‘catch of the day’ fish – all done outside as you’re walking past – well, rude not too. Simply delicious!

Many of the women still wear their traditional dress here – an odd ensemble! Shortish skirts, Long, woollen ,patterned socks, Aprons, Woolen shawls, Headscarves (often highly patterned) ..and a lot of them are selling the traditional snacks of ‘frutos secos’ = various dried fruits and nuts, and of course the ubiquitous Lupin beans (which are growing on us). The old men are making brightly coloured, replica fishing boats to sell, and other women are hawking rooms – apparently they’re usually pretty good value and would probably give us a bit more of an authentic feel.

We spend the next week heading slowly north, up the coast, in the dull and greyness. The whole area is covered by sand dunes and forests with only a few pockets of development. Most of the coastal places are still closed up – and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a wild and wooly coast, with an angry, crashing sea a lot of the year. Sand encroaches several streets, if not miles, inland, and people obviously spend their lives sweeping it out of doorways. JCBs are needed along the fronts where walkways and even some of the seasonal beach cafes can be all but buried!  We learn that this whole area was planted by hand at the end of the 19, beginning of the 20th C, to hold back the forever encroaching sand dunes  and create some viable agricultural land out of a once huge infertile river delta. The timber is now also selectively harvested. Interestingly the locals have the right to collect wood from the forests for free – unlike most places these days! Well I should think so too!

We continue up the coast, stopping at Figueira Da Foz for a night, before heading inland to Coimbra, Portugal’s ‘second city’, where we stay at an official stop in the riverside park next to various boat clubs. It’s a very popular spot and we’re tightly packed with the neighbours, but there’s a grassy picnic site under trees just opposite with views of the old town and a pedestrian bridge to get there in about 10 mins walk. We spend several days at Coimbra. We wander the ridiculously steep, ancient cobbled streets of the old town. The famous university here totally dominates the place; both with it’s huge buildings and with its influence on life here. 1 in 3 people here is a student! Many of them still wearing the traditional black, including woolen cape (in this heat? It’s 30+C!) along with coloured sashes or ribbons showing their branch of study. We resist the temptation to ‘do the sights’ of the Old University, which seems particularly expensive at €7-10 each (and we’ve seen pictures of the ornate library which everyone talks about), and decide instead to just ‘absorb a bit of life’, and end up giving the equivalent of our entrance fee to a couple of deaf/dumb students campaigning for better housing. Let’s just say they were very persuasive (especially the one who kissed Peter’s arm lots 🙂 ). We also sampled another traditional Fado evening; a different type, particular to Coimbra this time. Not so impressed – but perhaps that was more down to the location (‘A Capella’, an old chapel with harsh acoustics), and the performers/musicians (Amateurs from the university)? It was there we met Micheal Angelo and Ana, a couple from Lisbon, who were perhaps surprised by our interest, given that we couldn’t understand a word. They, however spoke excellent English and we clearly passionate about the music and it’s part in Portuguese history and keen to share their knowledge. We left with a list of some of their favourite Fado singers and groups to look up and an invite to stay with them at their home if we’re ever passing through Lisbon. More Portuguese hospitality!

April 25th. “Dia da Liberdade’. The anniversary of the ‘Carnation Revolution’. The almost peaceful revolution and overthrow of Salazar’s right wing authoritarian regime in 1974. There were almost no shots fired, and only 4 casualties, when the people took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies. Carnations were put in the barrels of guns and pinned to the soldiers’ uniforms. We went looking for the action. Not a great turnout considering it was a mere 42 years ago. There was FAR more interest in the ridiculous ‘Colour Run’ held the previous day, with more than 40 thousand runners! Still, there were marches and people handing out carnations, and slogans shouted by various union groups. And traditional singing and dancing in celebration. Bagpipes were played, and what looked remarkably like Scottish dancing was danced. More Celtic connections (to go with the male voice choirs of Alentejo), origins of which we don’t really know.

There’s probably plenty more to say about Coimbra, but time to move on: Into the mountains. We head through Oliviera Da Hospital, stopping for lunch at an excellent new Motorhome service point, complete with shaded picnic site – shame about the noisy church bells every quarter hour though – don’t think we’ll stay the night! We climb up, up, up into harsh, rocky barrenness. Through the highest village in Portugal; Sabugueiro, where apparently there’s a good bread museum, which we missed. Woolen blankets, hats and sledges! are on sale in the roadside shops. No sign of snow – yet. We stop at the Comprida Reservoir in the icy cold wind for a look see at the spectacular ‘infinity pool’ of a reservoir. Not seen one like that before – it’s built out on 3 sides, to extend the capacity. There’s virtually nothing above us in Portugal other than swirling clouds. We were hoping to do a walk, but it’s late so we delay ‘till the next day, spending the night here at 1594m high. Down to 5C. Heating was needed! At night it’s beautifully silent and dark and we’re blanketed with hundreds of stars. A rare occurrence these days – shame. Who needs all those street lights?!

We wake up above the clouds. The valley below is full of white ‘cotton wool’ as we set off on a cold, crisp morning, in search of ‘Baragem Dos Conchos’ ..to see a hole! Part of the impressive interlinked drainage channel system between various reservoirs up here. It was only a small hole, but quite impressive non-the-less. ..and the isolation, ..and the clear clear air, ..and the silence. We like. Soon the grey swirling clouds return, and we get back just before the rain sets in. We head on, up, over the top of the highest point in Portugal; Torre, at just under 2000m. There’s still a bit of snow up here (and a hopeful sledge renting shed), but we don’t linger, and instead head down, following the mad, hairpin descent towards Manteigas, and pull off down a dirt track with various walking routes signposted. Another stunning ‘Heidi spot’ with views of the mountains and the valley below. Another starry night, followed by a beautiful, crisp, clear day. And another walk. There’s virtually no one about, and we enjoy the silence and the sight of birds of prey, circling high above us.

We explore a bit more around the Manteigas area, but most roads around here are tiny and steep with very few passing places. Not ideal for a motorhome. It’s time to cover some distance anyway, and we reluctantly leave this beautiful area and hit the road. Leaving the mountains behind , we stop at Gouveia for the night, and then head north, crossing the swollen River Douro at the hydro electric dam, just beyond Villa Nova de Foz Coa. There was supposed to be a much bigger reservoir here, but they found some ancient cave paintings which stopped the work. You have to go on an expensive guided tour into the national park here to see them – maybe another time. We join the boring, empty motorway now, and travel fast up to the Azibo Reservoir for a couple of days before moving on again to Braganca via the ‘scenic route’, through more mountains, covered in bare, but obviously cultivated trees – we think chestnuts?

Braganca has a huge market going on, taking up much of the town, along with various fetes, live music, crafts, food and drink. We manage to negotiate our way through the busy, narrow streets and up to behind the castle / citadel to a free aire. Apparently this is the largest market in Portugal, taking place every year in the first week of May. If you like endless choice of ‘the same old tat’ then you’re in the right place! We stop and listen to some rather raucous and out of tune folk music, which all the oldies seem to be enjoying and move on to some Labour Day speeches, unfortunately all Greek (sorry, Portuguese) to us, before returning to the relative peace and quiet of our spot by the citadel.

Monday 2nd May is our last day in Portugal. We treat ourselves to lunch out at a recommended traditional mountain restaurant; wooden beams. ‘Presunto’ hams hanging along the walls.. Yummy, very tender mix of traditional pork and wild boar with various cured sausages and cheeses as starters. Not much veg. in sight – a real carnivore’s haunt. Then, with full tummies, we leave via the ‘back door’ on the EN218-3, through the tiny border town of Rio de Onar and its adjacent Spanish counterpart. Most of our maps showed no road here. Just a single small sign marks the border. There’s no one about apart from a single old lady in black, staring as Heidi squeezes between, what is only a handful, of ancient wooden houses and onwards to Spain. Four and a half months in Portugal. Not nearly long enough! We’ll be back.

 

 

Don’t forget a map of our complete route can be found here:  https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ymzS6pFRHp4LYX2NeuDVuhMzaVY&usp=sharing  GPS locations, photos and extra infos by clicking the pins

 

Southern Algarve, Portugal

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!…