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Sunday, 28 February 2010

You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows

The Romans saw the sunset at Cabo de Sao Vicente and thought the sun was sliding hissing into the sea every evening; it is also within the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Atlentejano so we thought it was worth a visit, despite the forecast for strong winds.

We caught the bus to Sagres and set off along the dramatic coastline. The wind was so strong we held hands for safety, rather than affection, as we were buffeted along the cliffs to the inevitable lighthouse at the end. In the fresh air your nose wanted to run, but the wind blew everything back in to your throat, apologies if this is too graphic for some of you. It was certainly weather you could feel and there was no question, this is real, as Sam Tyler would say (yes we’ve been re-watching ‘Life on Mars’).

We came upon a group of four empty cars parked haphazardly by the cliffs and no sign of the occupants; Anthony speculated it was the scene of a drugs-war shoot out as we’d watched ‘No Country for Old Men’ the evening before. Carol pointed out that drug dealers rarely travel around in an old Renault Four. When we reached the cars we spotted their occupants half-way down the cliffs; they had climbed down with ropes and were participating in extreme fishing.

We missed the bus back to the campsite and the prospect of two and a half hours to wait until the next in such an exposed spot saw us enquiring about taxis. A cheerful taxi driver in a camel coloured driving coat gave us a ride and gave a commentary about the weather, other drivers and the traffic lights in Portu-English while we nodded and watched the road for him.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

And the sweet silver song of the Lark

The campsite near to Luz is quite a gem; all you blog readers at home may not be able to appreciate how uncomfortable it can be showering in an un-heated shower block every day. In southern Europe heating is generally considered un-necessary; this means that even if the shower is piping hot (and it often isn’t) as soon as you switch it off you are in a race to get dried and dressed, as you quickly cool down. Many shower blocks don’t even have external doors, providing very fresh air while you hurriedly dry. Although it is warmer than the UK, some heating is appreciated and in Luz there is one shower block that is warm, clean and so comfortable we really don’t want to leave, but we are now aware that time is running out and we want to explore more of Portugal.

This part of the Algarve is beautiful; Luz is a charming small town; with a few shops, including a large health food shop, cobbled streets, small apartments to rent, a sweep of sand, a promenade lined with palm trees and restaurants and cafes. It feels relaxed and we could easily spend a long time here. We walked the well-used path to Burgau and back, along the craggy coast, accompanied by sunshine, bird song and the sounds of the sea; Larks, Blackbirds, Kestrels, Turnstones, Sardinian Warblers and Curlew were all spotted. The bright yellow Bermuda Buttercups are everywhere and provide some colour. They are neither from Bermuda, nor a buttercup, but are a well adapted invader from Africa.

The shower block next to our pitch is open to the elements; this suits the swallows who consider it an ideal nesting site. You can use the facilities and watch the birds building their nest at the same time.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Well eight or nine, well, that's just fine

The coast-o-meter we use to judge coast line scenery is the Orkney scale; that is, with Orkney scoring a top ten. Using this scale Blackpool comes in at about two and the rocky Algarve coastline reaches seven.

The narrative on the campsites is that this year is the worst winter weather campers have ever experienced. Certainly, those who have been coming to the Spanish and Portuguese southern coasts for the past seven years or so will have enjoyed the drought of recent years. However, average weather conditions suggest that around eight rainy days can be expected in February and so it may be that this year we are having an average February.

The day we planned to walk along the coast from Benagil towards Albufeira started fairly un-promisingly with a heavy thunderstorm. However, we are English walkers and that gives us an optimistic mind-set; we set off in full waterproofs to walk the coastal path and see the spectacular sea stacks and arches. It was a breezy day, but warm and we enjoyed the exhilaration of fresh sea air; by the end of our walk we were in T-shirts, proving once again that it can be worth just going for it.

As one of us has a cold and the other has persistent age-related hot flushes, we decided to bring our core temperatures down with medicinal large ice-creams in a sea front cafe; these hit the spot and really should be available on the NHS.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

No time for losers

Our first night in Portugal was spent in the campsite bar watching Manchester United beat AC Milano in the European Champions League match. Everywhere we go, when we tell people we live in Manchester, they respond with recognition and say, ‘Yes, Manchester United!’ Until we met Karin; she was on our wave length in so many ways, but, despite being Italian, had little interest in football and when we asked if she knew of Manchester United, she replied that she had heard of it, but what was it.
Our first impressions of Portugal are that although not surprisingly the architecture has similarities to Spain, it is clearly a different country. The Portuguese win hands down on the imaginative use of tiling competition and they do a nice line in decorative chimney pots, more buildings are still awaiting renovation and show signs of deterioration, the language is different; similar enough so we can read it, but we have no idea how to pronounce it, the coffee costs less than one euro a cup in the cafes and we are in the same time zone as the UK.
We are camped in Olhao, with the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa across the road from the campsite. This part of the Algarve coast is small, active fishing towns, with salt marshes, lagoons and off-shore sandy islands.
We took the train for a day out to Tavira; a small town on a river with a ruined castle above the town. Our first meal in Portugal was a curry, very appropriate as apparently the Portuguese colonialists introduced chillis from Mexico to India along with the word vindaloo.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Flowers in Portugal in February

Walking along the Algarve coast we spotted our first orchid in a damp area of grass land. There are many of these that look similar and Carol’s best guess is a Sawfly Ophrys. Someone out there probably knows better. We have also spotted the small sand crocuses and large, cheery White Rockrose flowering.

Monday, 15 February 2010

I'll be gone when the morning comes

The area around Aracena is hilly and forested, rather than mountainous and is a landscape of woodland and small-holdings, called huerta, connected by a useful network of old paths lined with stone walls and sometimes cobbled. We walked through olive, cork oaks and chestnut groves, the occasional blossoming almond tree adding some colour; we spotted the local black pigs, sheep and goats grazing among the trees and plenty of horses and donkeys, overhead Black Kites and vultures hunted. A less rustic sight is the occasional large chicken farm, but there was always something interesting around the next corner.

If you look closely at the photograph of the donkeys, you may notice that two of them have the pattern of a flower in a pot seemingly shaved into their coats. We’ve no idea if this decoration was a childish game or an example of an old local custom. Do you know?

We didn’t have to leave the house to find wildlife in Aracena; a gecko clung onto one of the walls, a hedgehog snuffled around the garden at night and on our last evening a bat appeared in the living room, flew around and then settled on one of the high beams and could not be encouraged to leave; it was still there in the morning.

We have about seven weeks left of our trip and we’re not in Portugal yet; it feels that we are running out of time. We have enjoyed this Atlantic coast of Spain so much, we’re wondering why we spent so long on the Mediterranean; the last month have been a revelation, there is a green, pleasant and less developed Spanish coast and we want to linger here and yet we are also itching to get to Portugal. Clearly after so long away we have lost all perspective on what is a holiday; normally we would spend a fortnight travelling around an area we have now spent over four weeks touring around.

Remember how we laughed away the hours

When it rains and in the dark evenings you might think we would get bored in our small blue bus. This never seems to be the case, as there is always something to do; we write the blog, mend things, read guide books, use the internet, watch DVDs friends sent for Carol’s birthday, read books, do puzzles, write the journal, play games, cook, eat, learn a language, sort out our photographs, listen to music and still after ten months together, talk.

If the campsite has a bar, it can be nice to have a drink there and be in a bigger space than the van; and if there is someone we are on friendly terms with also there, even better. A lot of campers never make it to the bar, but in Tarifa it was always a cosy and convivial place to go and in El Rocio we sat in the bar with a bottle of red and sorted the world out for hours with our lovely Italian neighbour, Karin. The connections we made with other campers will be very strong memories from our trip.

We wanted to spend a few days walking in the Natural Park of the Sierra de Aracena y Los Picos de Aroche, near the Portuguese border. However, at 700 m above sea level it is still cool and the campsites are shut until later in the year. We decided to treat ourselves to a house for three nights and found the perfect rural retreat near Aracena ( From the Owners Direct website, property number Spain 8263).

From the coast we drove through fields of orange trees and strawberries under plastic, passed copper mines, including the massive and infamous Rio Tinto mine and over rivers that flow orange from the local soil.

With central heating and a log burning stove in the house we were soon snug and cosy. We both had our first colds for ten months; that is what comes of being friendly with people, so the luxury of a warm bathroom (with a bath!) and a large double bed, were even more appreciated. The house is in a tranquil setting on the hillside with a view across the olive trees, see the photograph.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo

From the camp site south of Sevilla, we drove to El Rocio on the northern edge of the Donana National Park. To avoid the motorways we navigated along minor roads; the map showed a bridge crossing over the River Guadalquiver. After 20 kms or so we reached the river, there was no bridge, but fortunately a small ferry going back and forth taking cars across so we didn't have to re-trace our steps.

We drove through pine forests with parking areas and stopped in one for lunch, continuing on into the Donana Natural Park area. We passed signs telling us the road ahead was closed, but decided to carry on; Eight kilometres and 16 speed bumps later the road disappeared into a large hole, we had to re-trace our steps this time.

We stopped for diesel in a village garage; the signs said it was self-service, but we couldn't get the pump to work. Another customer told us we had to go in to the shop first, Carol did this and explained we wanted to fill up; returning to the Blue Bus there was still no joy with the pump and an announcement on the loud-speaker in Spanish was no help so we practised our shrugging. However, another customer came over and translated the announcement into English. For being so helpful she got a round of applause from all the other customers and in delight she danced across the forecourt back to her car. So much entertainment from just 80 kms!

El Rocio has to be seen to be even partly understood, the photographs might help and if you cast your mind back to 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' you're half-way there. The town is designed for horses, with streets of sand, no tarmac in sight, hitching posts outside every house and opportunities to buy your Clint Eastwood outfit in the stores. El Rocio is a small town, with over 100 large buildings, each for the use of the Hermandad, or Brotherhood, of an Andalucian town or city, as well as private houses. At pentecost it is a place of pilgrimage for Andalucians; on horseback, in covered wagons and carriages and packed to the rafters, but at the moment it is a sleepy spot.

El Rocio is also the departure point for four-wheel drive trips into the Donana National Park; we decided this was quite an invasive way to visit this protected area and satisfied ourselves with the short walks that are permitted from the visitors centres. We were rewarded with the sight of a flock of Azure Winged Magpies in the pine woods, these pretty birds with their pale blue wings entertained us while we had our picnic.

Monday, 8 February 2010

When we called out for another drink, the waiter brought a tray

You don’t have to be in Spain very long to see that they take every opportunity to use tiles; there are tiled floors, tiles on the sides of buildings, on balconies and on benches. The tiles are often colourful, beautiful and decorative and they are certainly very practical in this climate.

In Sevilla the tiling has been taken to new extremes; the Plaza de Espana, built in 1929, is an artistic celebration of the different cities and regions of Spain in brightly coloured tiles along a crescent (see photograph). In Sevilla we also found signs for shops and bars and advertising in tiling; the photograph of the charming black cat was in the doorway of a lottery shop.

The Alcazar combines Moorish and Spanish styles and plenty of colourful tiles are in evidence in this pleasing palace and its adjoining gardens. Our English neighbours on the campsite said they were disappointed with Sevilla, but then their expectations had been very high. We enjoyed its relaxed environment on a fine Sunday; noted the new trams and cycle routes, treated ourselves to a glass of sherry or two before lunch and dawdled in a vast cafe with smart, bustling waiters serving hordes of groups of middle-aged Spaniards, eating cake and drinking coffee with brandy chasers; we ate cakes with a high calorific content and had another glass of sherry.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

When all the birds are singing in the sky, now that the spring is in the air

Donana National Park is the largest area in Europe without roads and other infrastructure; used as a royal hunting ground since the 13th century, this protected landscape includes wetland, salt marsh, beaches and dunes and pine forest. It is designated a National Park, in Spain this is the highest level of environmental protection and little development is allowed beyond some sustainable honey production, collection of pine nuts, horse grazing and charcoal burning and public access is limited to guided tours. Around the National Park is the Donana Natural Park, acting as a buffer zone for the National Park, here some activities are allowed with licences, such as fishing, salt extraction and hunting.

Donana has always been on our list of must visit places and the boat trip from Sanlucar de Barrameda seemed an excellent way to visit the southerly parts of the area. The boat, the Real Fernando, was under-going its annual maintenance during January and we had to stay in El Puerto de Santa Maria a few days more than planned to take the first trip of the year on 6 February. The day dawned foggy, weather that certainly hampers bird watching! However, because of the weather, the boat delayed departure by half an hour and the sun managed to shine on our trip.

The three hour trip includes time on land as well as sailing up the River Guadalquiver. We managed to spot both red deer and fallow deer, wild boar rooting in the mud, a black stork, avocets and other waders and a Marsh Harrier. We have seen a few swallows making their way north, so can confirm that spring is on its way!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Flags, rags, ferryboats, scimitars and scarves

Cadiz has water on three sides; to the west and north the Atlantic waves roll against the walls and to the east is the huge sheltered bay, in this city you are never very far from the sea. This means it is a city that will disappear as soon as sea levels start to rise, so it seemed worth spending a couple of days visiting it while it is still possible.

We arrived by ferry, surely the only way to travel to Cadiz. Port cities always have a certain bustle and a sense of people coming and going that has always appealed to us; they are cities where lots of people are travellers and so we feel comfortable there. Cadiz is full of light and fresh air; with charming plazas to sit in, streets that open out to the sea and the wide horizon and no high-rise buildings, as these are too expensive to build safely in a city sitting on sand.

The peculiar geography of Cadiz means it can only expand to the south and this constraint makes it a very compact city and ideal for walking around. We followed the coast along the blustery Atlantic side, watching the feral cats scavenging and fishermen mending their boats and through the shady formal parks at the northern tip. The trees in these parks are all native to North America; this is after all the city that Christopher Columbus sailed from for his second voyage and which monopolised European overseas trade in the eighteenth century.

We now have daylight until after 19.00 and the blue skies, warm sun and fresh breezes makes it feel like an English spring, although it is only just February.