From Portugal to El Rocio …25th January 2015

Our last night in Portugal was spent roughly 10 meters from the border, surrounded by rugged hills in a carpark by the side of a river in a little village called Pomarao. It was very peaceful and very beautiful, a lovely way to end a fantastic time in Portugal.

Although we didn’t really expect very much from it, Pomarao had some fantastic routes heading off into the hills, so we were able to get a lovely long walk in before we stopped in a café to toast to our last night in Portugal and watch the sun go down.

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After seven and a half weeks we have finally moved on from Portugal back into Spain and I can’t think of a better way to have started ‘Spain part 2’ than El Rocio.

It deserves its own page on our blog as it is one of the most unusual places that we have ever been to. Whilst settling in at the campsite (Camping La Aldea – 16 euros a night inc. electricity with ACSI), an English lady stopped as she was riding her bike back from the town and all she could say was ‘It’s amazing – I had to tell someone and you have obviously just arrived, it’s absolutely amazing’ – which pretty much sums it up.

El Rocio is one of those places that you couldn’t ever believe exists, you would probably expect to come across a town like this in the mid-west, but it would be much smaller and less authentic. We struck it lucky as Sunday is apparently a sacred day, when four masses are held at the church by four different bishops as part of the pilgrimage, so we think that it was slightly busier than normal, but there were hundreds, if not thousands of horses here – all being ridden by what appear to be fairly well to do Spaniards in traditional attire – mostly holding a gin and tonic, rum and coke or a beer as they rode.

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The main festival / pilgrimage is the weekend before Pentacost Monday, when thousands of people come on horseback to El Rocio blocking all the roads leading across Andalucia with horses and carts …. I imagine pretty spectacular. The celebration this weekend was religious, but I think that mainly the families use it as a good excuse to get together and have a party and a good old Flamencan sing song.

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The streets are all sand and the bars are set up so that they have high tables for people to ride up and drink a glass of wine or beer whilst still on horseback … all quite impressive. As you walk through the town you are surrounded by people on horseback, or horses drawing carts full of people – every now and then one of them breaks into the traditional flamencan song, or there is a group with a guitar …. It is quite a scene which carries on into the night ….. all a bit dangerous considering the streets are poorly lit and oddly, horses don’t have any lights fitted 😦

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If you are in the area near Seville we would highly recommend a trip here for the day. It is quite a sight and also quite a party town … just beware you don’t go over the limit if you are driving as when we left this morning they were stopping a large percentage of cars and breathalysing the drivers.

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When it rains in the Algarve ….. it really rains – 20/1/15

We have spent the last week meandering our way along the southern coast of Portugal and after a long dry patch, making good use of the bikes to visit some of the smaller coastal villages and more remote countryside.

The distances are small and there is very little green space in between the towns as where one set of empty apartment blocks finishes another is quick to start. Some of the towns are a bit concrete and ghost-like for the winter months, others are actually fairly normal and quite pretty, having a Portuguese community who live in them all year round, only supplemented by the northern European invasion during the summer months…. either way, you can’t take it away from the Algarve – it has some fantastic beaches and even at this time of the year, the weather isn’t too bad.

Our first stop after Alvor was Silves, a pretty little town slightly inland with a castle sitting up on the hill looking down on it. The town center itself is fairly small with part contained within a wall, and the rest mainly consisting of winding cobbled streets around a little market. We parked up in a car park which has been converted (by the majority vote rather than town planning) into a motorhome site for the winter, where 100+ motorhomes from a mixture of northern European countries were parked up uniformly, each with two chairs facing into the sun, some with a dog, some towing a car, but most here for a couple of months at least. Our two immediate neighbours were both English, one set (who actually live in Northern France) had been there since November and the others were newcomers, having arrived just before Christmas. Everyone knew each other and some had been coming to the same car park for several years … just a bit of an odd concept for us, but I guess somehow they have converted the car park into a community – it was clean, tidy, quiet, very welcoming and most of them put money back into the local economy by buying local produce, so can’t be much wrong with it really if you don’t mind living in a carpark 🙂

Moving on from Silves we put a pin in the map and decided to opt for Albufeira, mainly because it was half way between a few places that we fancied visiting and we thought we could cycle to them, but also because it sounded like it was a little more than just a beach. The Aire itself is located near the football stadium and bus terminal. It is quiet and clean, with everything that you would normally get on a campsite for 8 euros including very friendly people who run it…. not bad. Albufeira on the other hand is a concrete resort with nice beaches. The town itself, to put it politely, is not very attractive – I would describe it as having drunk and smoked a little too much for a few too many years and it is now looking slightly overweight and could do with a good long session in rehab. I am sure that during the summer months the streets lined with closed bars and discos are vibrant but despite the sunshine, it just looks a bit run down and tired in January …… ouch, I am showing my age :).

As we had decided to stay two nights, we took the bikes along the coast the following day stopping at the far end of Praia de Falesia to eat our lunch whilst admiring the long sandy beach, before working our way back along the coast dropping off down to each beach village to see what they were like, evidently we had just chosen the wrong town to stop in as the others seemed to be far nicer – possibly because they were also much smaller…. He ho, just because it doesn’t suit us doesn’t mean it won’t suit the next person.  We did make up for the poor choice of location by having a delicious bar b q in the evening, having bought far too much meat from the butchers for two people 🙂

Leaving Albufeira we decided to stop in Faro to have a look around the beautiful (but small) old walled town, stock up the fridge and do the washing. We parked up in a large car park near the old town and battened down the hatches as it started to rain and blow a gale. Thankfully, although the rain was torrential and the wind got up to 25mph, by the morning we were once again looking out at beautiful blue skies (although a little fresher).

Wanting to get one more beach in before we leave the Algarve we headed towards Tavira, looking to stay in a small beach village called Manta Rota for a couple of nights. Generally we have been avoiding the motorways, happy to travel on the smaller, quieter roads as they lead you through more interesting places – however we have now mistakenly introduced Mika into some off-roading. We turned off of the main road and saw signs highlighting that there were road works but as they didn’t say that the road was closed, or suggest an alternative route, we continued on past the digger, onto the red clay (which was quite wet due to the recent heavy rainfall), continuing on through a few puddles and some rather narrow spots for 1.5km, where we arrived at the Aire. As we were driving through the Aire to find a suitable place to park we were wondering why everyone was looking at us weirdly until we got out and had a proper look – Mika was caked in thick red clay mud … apparently the road was closed for roadworks and there was a pretty good tarmac version that led straight out through the center of the village ….. needless to say that we took the tarmac option on the way out 🙂

The Aire (4.50 a night or 7 euros inc Elec) was quiet, located just next to the beach and the village itself, despite being touristy, was ‘cosy’ with a really good butchers, a handful of restaurants/cafes and a nice little supermarket that was cheap and even sold marmite (no – we didn’t buy any…. mainly because we have a jar on route to Seville next week) :).  After a brief walk around on Friday afternoon, we decided to take the bikes into Tavira on Saturday for a look around. Tavira has a lovely old town with a castle and it sits on the mouth of a river – one of the more normal that we have come across on the southern coast.

After a good days cycling and walking Keith braved the cold and only just beat the rain to cook a nice chicken roti wrapped with bacon and stuffed with sausage and faranata on the Bar B Q….can you tell we are liking the fact we can cook outdoors a little 🙂  Later in the evening the skies opened and the rain continued to fall all night….

Having finally managed to get to sleep, we woke to be an island in the middle of a lake – our neighbouring motorhomes having abandoned their pitches. This photo was taken about 6 hours after the rain had stopped and the water had receded …. alot

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Thankfully no harm done and despite losing our matt downstream (we spotted it right in the middle of the deepest bit of water), we found it the next day as one of the neighbours had retrieved it after the water had gone down and it was hanging on their line.

Dried out, we headed inland hugging the border a little, stopping overnight in Mertola and then on to a mining town called Minas de Sao Domingos.

Mina de Sao Domingo is situated between two reservoirs and our parking spot was idyllic (despite the grey clouds and rain) … the photo didn’t do it justice, so I am afraid I left it out.

The mines were one of the largest in Portugal, dating back to Roman times when they mined for gold and silver, but more recently owned by an English family who mined copper for 110 years, finally closing in 1967.  The town is dusty and the kind of place where you expect to see horses coming over the horizon any minute, instead, you can walk for miles through the red landscape (and we did …a nice circular walk of 18km) with the odd abandoned mine shaft or building popping up sporadically …..

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very beautiful in an odd sort of a way….

Time for a change ….? 13/1/15

So we have finally made it to the land of sunshine, beaches, bacon butties and carparks full of motorhomes – only joking, we still haven’t found a decent bacon buttie 😦

I am painting a bad picture and I don’t want to as we are having the most fantastic weather, the temperature in the last week has risen to between 16 and 18 degrees during the day, going down to about 8 degrees overnight with beautiful blue skies – you can see why it attracts so many northern Europeans.

First stop on the Algarve was Sagres which is about 6km east of Cape St Vincent, Portugal’s most westerly point. We had been told that we it was a place ‘not to miss’ for the sunset and whilst here we thought it would be rude not to have a Sagres beer or two 🙂

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The sunset was stunning and the beer was pretty good too, however we were disappointed to learn that Sagres beer is not actually brewed in Sagres, but just outside Lisbon and, worse still, it is owned by Heineken…. Portugal has suddenly gone down in our estimations …. Thankfully we still have the pastries and some lovely wine to turn to in a time of despair.

We parked in the Fortress car park along with 20+ other motorhomes and walked out to the Cape.

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The car park was enormous, so despite the growing community we didn’t really notice the other motorhomes and it was very quiet – it was also an excellent location to watch the sun slowly disappear behind the clouds and into the sea.

Having drunk the beer, seen the sunset and visited the cape, there wasn’t much left to do in Sagres so we moved on to Lagos for a couple of nights. Lagos has a nice old town with twisty cobbled streets but the northern European influence has definitely taken a hold with estate agent after estate agent, blocks of luxury apartments overlooking the marina and we spotted no less than three indian restaurants ….. definitely for the Brits. Not in the market for a new apartment yet as ours seems to still be working really well for us, we parked our ‘apartment’ up just by the sports stadium in an Aire which cost us 3 euros a night plus 2 euros for 100Litres of water. Despite there being between 30 and 40 motorhomes each night, it was peaceful and only a short walk from the center of town.

After spending the rest of the day exploring the town itself, we set off to the market in the morning to stock up. Although the market lacked in fruit and vegetables on the day we went, it made up for it in fresh fish and Keith took the opportunity to try out his culinary skills on a bit of squid …. Cooking up a very simple recipe with olive oil, salt, pepper and a bit of lime – worked a treat… not a rubber band in sight!

Moving slightly further along the coast we stopped at Alvor, a small fishing town on the river mouth. I am sure that the town itself used to be quite pretty, but unfortunately it is currently in that transient stage caught in between the ‘local’ fishing village and ‘Tourist’ town, lots of shops closed down and generally looking a bit unloved and deserted. However, the seafront and the walk out to the river mouth is beautiful and they have invested money in making it easily accessible, so I am sure that the rest will follow over the next few years.

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The Aire is effectively a large sandy car park on the seafront and costs 4.50 euro a night plus 2.50 if you want electricity, but it is quiet and friendly (I think more than 50% of the motorhomes are here for the winter) and very well located if you want to walk/cycle anywhere. We walked out to the lighthouse at the river mouth and then back along the river on Saturday and then on Sunday got on the bikes and rode round the coast stopping briefly at Ferragudo, where they had a very large flea market, and then onto Carvoeiro, where we sat and ate our lunch on the beach before turning back and stopping for a slightly over indulgent ‘Bolo de Raina’ in Portimau. The Portuguese eat Bolo de Rei (Cake of the King – large polo shaped bready cake with cristalized dried fruits, sultanas and nuts mixed in) and Torta de Rainha (Cake of the Queen – a folded bready cake with sultanas and walnuts) between Christmas and New Year and we had been looking for a decent Torta de rainha, but hadn’t found one as they are less common and the ones we found looked dry and un-appetising …. This one however looked very inviting …. even more so having just cycled 30 miles. Sold by the kilo, this one was probably around 400g ….. probably more like a four person portion than two, but it was heavenly 🙂

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As we have now been away for a reasonable length of time, we have had time to learn a little about living in a motorhome, what is and isn’t important, what we would change / add / not bring with and we have decided to upgrade …..

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……ahem, perhaps not 🙂

A bit of tranquility … 6/1/15

Where does time go? We have spent the last few days not moving very far, but enjoying some beautiful scenery and making the most of the weather which on Friday and over the weekend was getting up to 16 / 17 degrees during the day and only going down to about 7 degrees overnight – perfect.

Whilst in Batalha we met an English couple who recommended that we visited a tranquil little reservoir called Barragem de Pego do Altar, so whilst in the area we thought we would stop by for a night, it was definitely beautiful and tranquil….

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As it is still Christmas holidays we joined a selection of other motorhomes who were also seeking out tranquillity …. a handful of Brits, Germans, Dutch, a couple of French and a couple of handfuls of Portuguese. It is apparently one of those places that people keep going back to year after year and has built up a bit of a reputation within the motorhome community. Unfortunately, despite being a beautiful and tranquil place in the middle of nowhere, you couldn’t walk very far unless you wanted to walk on the roads, so that – and slightly too many motorhomes in a reasonably small area for our liking – led us to take the decision to only stay one night and move back towards the coast to a little town called Porto Covo.

Porto Covo is a small Portuguese holiday town with good surf which meant that it had lots of car parks along the cliffs. Although there is an Aire in the center, it was busy and not particularly attractive so we parked up in a car park just at the edge of the town where there were a handful of other motorhomes and stayed for three nights. The sun sets were beautiful and there were two long ‘trails’ that start in Porto Covo, one for walking only (fishermans trail – running 120+km) and the other for walking/cycling (Historic Trail – running 200+km). So we relaxed, walked and ate – enjoying a lovely traditional Portuguese dish called ‘Arroz de Tamboril’ (monkfish and rice stew, although this version had prawns and a couple of clams thrown in as well).

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The restaurant we found was actually a patisserie and the guy serving us was the butcher – a bit of an odd combination, but we happened to have bought some Morcilla (Black pudding) and Farinata (Spiced pork fat and flour sausage) from him earlier the same morning, so we can only assume that his wife ran the Patisserie/Restaurant and he, the butchers. Despite not eating any meat from the menu, the food was delicious from the ‘Chocos’ (Squid), through to dessert 🙂

Needing to move the motorhome to empty and refill, we continued along the road towards the Algarve where we are still uncertain as to what we will find and whether we will like it. But for now we have stopped in in Aljezur for the night where we are preparing ourselves for the last 40km or so when we will hit the southern coast of Portugal. The town itself has a castle dating back to the early 11th Century (although there is proof of artefacts dating back to the iron age) and it used to be the only ‘safe’ Port between Lisbon and Sagres, but as it is no longer on water (the river appears to have dried up) and judging by the traffic passing through it, it looks like the main attraction is a stop off point before you get to the Algarve coast…

Happy New Year – 1st January 2015

Happy New Year – we hope that 2015 brings health and prosperity to everyone.

We have been looking back at 2014, thinking about where we have been and what we have learnt and started to think about 2015 and what ‘challenges’ we want to achieve … just to make our life interesting!

2014 gave us (amongst other things) ….

  • Four months living in Bagnoles De L’Orne in Northern France getting to know some lovely people who will remain friends for a long time to come
  • Keith learnt some French and I managed to get my French back up to a good level
  • We learnt about some fantastic local French producers through ‘France Passion’ staying at some beautiful rural locations and learning how to cultivate vine, milk a goat as well as producing Foie Gras
  • We both learnt more about exercise without any equipment and started a daily routine that we have stuck to throughout the trip so far ….. who needs to spend £40+ a month in a gym
  • I started, and managed to change to forefoot running and Keith now does a mean head stand 🙂

But most of all 2014 has opened our minds even further and re-assured us that anything is possible if you want to do it – just give it a go, and persevere.

We aren’t into New Years’ resolutions, but we have decided to put a few ‘personal challenges’ in place to see if we can achieve them….

  • Keith
    • Wants to get his handstand perfected this year, and progress it into a handstand push up
    • Would like to be able to do one handed press ups
    • Wants to learn to cook some tasty recipes with squid and mussels
    • Would like to get his French back to the level it was when we left France (it has taken a dip as we have been speaking in Spanish through Spain and Portugal)
    • Plans to start looking at charities that he would like support
  • Gail
    • Wants to increase average running speed by 10%
    • Would like to increase fitness levels to be able to complete four quality burpee and pike jump sets without decreasing the quantity by more than 10% between sets
    • Plans to increase both French and Spanish vocabulary by 5 words a week
    • Would like to try and cook at least one new recipe a month
    • Plans to start writing her book ….

We will try and give you snippets of progress as we achieve them and I will endeavour to keep it short so we don’t bore you, but thought you may be interested in some of our ‘oddities’ !

Anyway, back to the interesting stuff…. Whilst trying to work out the best way to visit and take in the sights and smells of Lisbon we realised that Sintra had a train that left every 15 minutes, arriving in central Lisbon 40 minutes later. All the campsites close to Lisbon had poor reviews, were very expensive and you still had to travel between 30 minutes and an hour to get into the center – so, as we were comfortable and in a reasonably quiet location, we decided to stay and extra night and catch the train in on Monday.

The wind had blown away the fog and any signs of rain and we had a lovely crisp day with bright blue skies to explore the maze of cobbled streets twisting up the side of a hill to each of the different districts. There is no way that you could put Lisbon in the same sentence as ‘clean lines’ or ‘modern architecture’ as apart from four roads that go directly back from the river front in the center of the town from the main square, I don’t think there is another road that runs more than a couple of blocks without a twist or a turn. It is one of those places where some may look at it and say it is rough round the edges and in need of modernisation, which is fair as there are a large number of beautiful buildings (including gates to the old city) which are neglected and falling down, but that is what makes it so interesting. There aren’t many new buildings and a large number are in some kind of state of dis-repair…. but that is what adds the character. Each time you turn a corner you find something new – as Keith read somewhere, don’t use a map – just get lost as you will find more than if you try and walk round the city in a structured way.

We walked for miles…. 20 to be precise…. and took in most of the sites from the main square…to Belem Tower

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And just as we were on our way back to the station we found a shop full of Sardines ..

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Well worth a long weekend, we will be back to take in some of the sites in more detail next time.

From Sintra we passed through the outskirts of Lisbon and crossed the rather impressive ’Vasco de Gama’ bridge (which is just over 17km long) to get to Evora, which is where we stopped for two nights including New Years eve.

Evora is the capital of Alentejo, a region famous for its culinary delights, producing some rather tasty wine, olives, bread, cheese and pork produce (Chorizo, hams, etc). The plethora of delicatessens in the local market helped us make the decision of what kind of food would help us bring 2015 in… what a feast we had 🙂

Evora is a beautiful walled roman city with remains of thermal baths and a temple as well as lots of narrow windy cobbled roads – so, steeped in culture and history as well as apparently coming in as number two in the rankings of ‘best places to live in Portugal’ – worth a visit!

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New Years day is one of the only days where most things close in Portugal (the other being Christmas day), so we took advantage of the quiet roads this morning and came towards Monsaraz where we are currently parked up watching the sun go down in what can only be described as one of the most beautiful locations we have stayed the night in.

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Monsaraz is one of the oldest settlements in southern Portugal dating back to before history was documented apparently …. It is a magnificently restored/maintained walled town with a castle and it is idyllic…. yet another place that I would say is definitely worth a visit 🙂