Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
We miss Europe from time to time… the Europe of my daydreams to be absolutely specific! Geoff is a little less romantic in his musings…
Cobblestone streets, secluded courtyard cafes, abundant history, ancient architecture, plazas, fountains… the occasional whiff of ancient roman drainage systems 😉 … and, most of all, a sense of permanence that its ancient cities and towns have stood the test of time.
When I am feeling particularly “European” I suggest to Geoff that we should spend more time there and maybe even think about investing in a modest pied-à-terre somewhere in some (as yet undiscovered) town, city or beach destination which we could call home for a few months of year to escape the steamy floridian summers.
Neither of us have ever been to Portugal – too close to England to be “exotic” enough for a vacation destination when we lived there – and now that we are precisely 4250 miles away it is too far away to nip over for a quick visit or a long weekend. Still, my extensive research had lead me to consider the Algarve as a possible future summer destination – popular as it is with British ex-pats.
So, when the opportunity arose, I planned an exploratory visit with English friends Dave and Ali to see if Portugal might fit the bill.
First stop – Obidos – just north of Lisbon, a beautiful fortified walled town with cobblestone streets and traditional white-washed houses. Once owned by the Queen of Portugal, Obidos is one of the most picturesque and immaculately preserved towns in the country, albeit hardly undiscovered!
Excited to find our cottage as quickly as possible we did as instructed by the owner and followed the GPS directions from the airport. All was fine until we reached the outer walls of the town after which the GPS had no clue whatsoever where the cottage was located. She made a valiant effort at first, burying us deeper inside the maze of one-way cobbled streets and narrow alleyways (never intended to be traversed by anything wider than a donkey) and then, frustratingly, back out again onto the main road. After 45 minutes of circumnavigating the tiny walled town, having been led down increasingly narrow one-way switchbacks and then instructed to reverse back up or down hill again in the pitch black our cheery vacation goodwill started to falter. Geoff and I had flown overnight to the UK and then caught the afternoon flight from Heathrow straight to Lisbon so it was something in the region of 2am for us after a sleepless transatlantic night the day before. We were in no mood or condition to humor the GPS indefinitely and finally Geoff’s valiant perseverance failed him and he pulled the car up at the side of an unidentifiable road somewhere deep in the inner walls. We called the owner who abandoned her dinner to come and find us in the dark. We weren’t optimistic that she would even find us but suddenly she appeared through one of the stone archways and we all breathed a sigh of relief 😉
Miraculously, it transpired that we had abandoned the car less than a 2 minute walk from the cottage which was fortuitous as we had to drag our multiple cases of luggage (and bags of shoes 😉 ) up dark, uneven, ancient stone steps to the front door. With no sense of irony whatsoever the owner complained that nobody’s GPS could ever seem to find the house. What a surprise! I was too tired to suggest that it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man (or woman) to provide a map to her paying customers in advance so that she didn’t have to be dragged out late at night every couple of days to find them in the dark nameless streets of Obidos 😉
We dumped our bags and wandered into the almost deserted town for dinner and life improved immediately with our discovery of a traditional local drink called Ginja de Obidos – cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup. Things were looking up 🙂
We were wide awake the following morning to watch the sun rise from the terrace over the surrounding cottages and the town walls which was glorious. We encouraged Dave and Ali out of bed and headed into town to explore before the deluge of tour buses transformed the peaceful streets. All was lovely until 10.05am when a tour bus arrived and simultaneously all of the stores opened and the streets were filled with the paraphernalia of the tourist industry… mementoes, postcards and Portuguese tiles.
We escaped the worst of it by walking the walls before the sun got too hot and then hiding out in a cafe in a walled garden. It was all quite lovely and we passed a very relaxing day and a half soaking up the atmosphere – largely pre tour bus arrival and post exodus 🙂
Heading south to the Algarve, where we would be spending another 4 or 5 days we passed the coastal town of Cascais en route. Dave had been there decades before and described it with some fondness and my research confirmed that it would be worthy of a detour… so I can’t really blame him entirely 😉
Our first impression was encouraging but it was, sadly, fleeting. It all went rapidly downhill as we stumbled past an Irish bar, an English pub and a raft of burger bars. Abandoning our overpriced parking space we unanimously decided that this probably wasn’t for us, so I grabbed some emergency Portuguese egg tarts and wallowed in my disappointment covered in flaky pastry crumbs and road maps in the back of the car 😉
If I’m honest, I’m not sure that the Algarve itself was actually a great improvement over Cascais. There were some definite highlights but it didn’t take us long to work out that it was unlikely that this part of the country would be a long-term future summer destination for us in our dotage.
For those seeking travel guidance I would highly recommend not bothering to get out of the car at either of the following hotspots – Vilamoura (which is simply ghastly) or Carvoeiro (unless you are desperate to find a cheap cafe serving beans on toast for breakfast). Having said that, the view of Carvoeiro and the old whitewashed fishing cottages from the coastal path opposite is quite stunning.
If you have 5 or 10 million sterling going spare you might think of building yourself a mansion at Vale de Lobo with its very pretty yellow sand beach, backed by red sandstone cliffs. I can see why the well-heeled Brit might want to escape the bleak British winter by buying a golf villa here but, at the end of the day, it is an utterly soulless modern enclave… not at all what I had in mind for our own summer pied-à-terre.
Lest I sound too negative I will allow that there were a few worthy highlights in the Algarve 🙂 😉
The coastal walks linking various villages and towns were absolutely beautiful. Part boardwalk and part rough clifftop, the views were well worth the effort of having flown half way across the world to see them 🙂
Our first clifftop walk, however, at spectacular Praia de Marinha nearly brought our adventures to an abrupt and bloody end. To cut a long story short Geoff was trying to haul me up onto a clifftop view point (on the other side of which was an abyss) and for reasons neither of us can now fathom, instead of launching forward I toppled backwards landing on a stone wall. In an effort to prevent me dashing my head open on the rocks (which probably would have put a damper on the holiday) he clung on to me and, in so doing, I (effectively) pulled him off the wall and he landed on top of me impaling his flip-flopped toes into the wall. I’m not sure why he wasn’t wearing his walking shoes like the rest of us but there you are…
Poor Geoff was hopping about coloring the air with shades of iridescent blue – his big toe-nail bent backwards and my elbow (which luckily had lost all sensitivity) was pouring blood down my white shorts.
Not to be deterred (once Geoff had stopped hollering and hopping about and I had dabbed ineffectively at whatever biological horrors were ingrained in my elbow) I insisted upon seeing the view I had missed. My camera operating finger was, after all, still fully functioning 🙂
Another day trip took us to Ponta de Piedade and the town of Lagos. The coastal walk here, at one end of Lagos, was equally as fabulous as Praia de Marinha. The Algarve did not, at least, fail to impress us with its dramatic rocky coastline, sea caves, inlets and pristine beaches far below us. No injuries sustained this time around we ventured into Lagos which was considerably more attractive, civilized and authentic than the above-mentioned towns.
To add icing to the cake of aesthetic loveliness (the architecture, the tiled buildings, the waterfront promenade, hidden alleyways with cafes and boutique stores) we fell upon the London Tiger Coffee shop. This fine establishment served excellent metro-style coffee with homemade cheesecake and as much free Scottish tablet (fudge) as ones arteries could take… all served up by a friendly Scottish retiree who had always wanted to own her own coffee shop 🙂
Glossing over the more obvious signs of the locals having sold out something of the authenticity of their town to the needs of the massive annual influx of Brit holiday makers, we decided that we liked Lagos 🙂
Tavira, the “other” Algarve, however, we loved 🙂 Again, hardly undiscovered but it is certainly a gem which remains reasonably untouched by the worst of the British pub, fish, chips and a pint of Watney’s beer brigade. Tavira is a traditional fishing town (replete with the requisite whitewashed buildings and colorfully tiled houses) located on the banks of the tidal Gilao River.
Dave and Ali were unable to join us on the rest of our explorations as they had to return to England so we left them and the Algarve behind us and drove north to the Alentejo region of Portugal in search of authentic Portugal.
They don’t know what they missed! 😉 🙂
Our next night was to be spent in Evora but en route to this much lauded city we crossed the sun-baked plains of the Alentejo and headed uphill to Monsaraz for lunch. Monsaraz is high up on a rocky outcrop on the banks of the Guadiana River which forms the border with Spain to the east. A tiny fairytale walled medieval village (originally fortified by the Knights Templar) is today a hamlet of narrow, winding cobblestone streets and flowering vines draped over immaculate 16th and 17th century whitewashed homes. We wandered into a tranquil village square. In the shade of the church 2 elderly residents sat chatting with an equally ancient dog asleep at their feet. They didn’t look too troubled by the woes of the 21st century world 😉 We climbed the granite stone castle battlements and gazed down upon this perfectly formed village and its expansive countryside views 342 meters below. At last – we had found the Portugal that we were looking for 🙂
Reluctant to leave on one hand, I was also anxious to see if our 24 hours in Evora – a UNESCO World Heritage university city – would live up to my hopes. A historic city of wealth and culture: museums, public gardens, ornate Venetian architecture, plazas and courtyards, street cafes, roman ruins dating from the 1st century A.D. with impressive fluted granite columns, churches and a Cathedral, boutique shops, good restaurants, cobblestone streets, a fabulous back street bakery, the beautiful main square Praça do Giraldo, a 16th century aqueduct and a vaguely chilling Chapel of Bones created by Franciscan monks around the 17th century.
What more could anyone want? 🙂
Breakfast at the Pastelaria Conventual Pao de Rala, decorated with ornate blue azulejo tiles, was to die for: portuguese egg tart, plum cake and a croissant – all freshly baked (reputedly by a white-robed nun from the convent) and washed down with café latte. You have to admire any nation which can function effectively on a diet constituted almost entirely of cake 🙂
This was the cosmopolitan, sophisticated Europe we love and miss so much… a million miles from the Algarve…
I wish we could have stayed another night and revisited Pao de Rala but we would have burst straight out of our shorts if we had enjoyed another one of the sugary breakfasts so we headed further east towards the Spanish border en route to Marvão.
A nice man at the tourist office in Evora had recommended an unscheduled lunch stop at Vila Vicosa, a sleepy town in the heart of the marble mining region with a huge marble palace and an attractive central plaza with orange trees. On the hill just above the town there is a 13th century castle encircling a dusty little village complete with impressive church and gleaming white graveyard fabricated entirely from marble. The castellated village seemed to have been almost entirely forgotten by time.
Back in the central plaza in the “newer” side of town we were treated to a local delicacy – gazpacho. Not exactly a stranger to gazpacho, I was very surprised to find it served with an unanticipated side plate of salami (oh dear 😦 ) and a cheese omelet. The soup consisted of luke warm clear water with a few solitary chunks of cucumber and tomato floating forlornly in an olive oil slick at the surface… If this is typical of the Portuguese version of gazpacho I’ll give it a wide berth in the future.
Luckily, no time to linger long over the soup we had to reach Marvão before sunset. The countryside became more hilly and wild as we passed farmsteads, cottages and groves of chestnut and cork trees for which the region is famous. With the sound of chirping cicadas around us and the temperature gauge pushing an unexpectedly high 30c/86F, we caught our first glimpse of the famous village and its castle perched way up on a granite outcrop. We wound onwards and upwards via a steep, serpentine road punctuated by hairy hairpin bends. We squeezed the car through the fortress walls and finally entered our soon to be favorite Portuguese village.
Marvelous Marvão is a medieval, fortified, hilltop village (one of the most iconic and beautiful in Portugal) replete with white-washed cottages, terra cotta roofs, gothic arches, ornate Manueline 16th century windows, wrought-iron balconies and a castle. From its lofty perch at 843 m (2900 feet) it has a commanding view over the Natural Park of the Sao Mamede Mountains, the Iberian plateau and the surrounding hills and villages. Only 10 miles from the Spanish border this tiny town has hosted Romans, Arabs and, happily for us, relatively few other tourists 🙂 It was an oasis of peace and tranquility. From our vantage point on the wall of the 13th century castle, the panoramic sunset view over the mountains and valleys, the picturesque town and its various churches, the convent and the ornate gardens were breathtaking. Overhead, swifts were dive-bombing and swooping into the rocky crags and there was utter silence around us. It was absolutely fabulous 🙂
Breakfast on the terrace watching the sun rise over the mountains, bathing the walls of the castle with a warm early morning glow, was equally spectacular.
It was hard to leave… we should have stayed for a few days hiking in the surrounding countryside but even paradise in the mountains has a flaw. No bakery! No Portuguese egg tarts within miles! Obviously, that simply wouldn’t do so we threw our cases back into the car and descended once more to the 21st century passing back through the dusty sun-baked plains, traversing hills and valleys, and through olive groves and vineyards en route to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sintra, close to Lisbon.
Oh boy, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Traffic was log jammed trying to get into the small town centre and the sidewalks were packed 4 deep with people. Tourists strayed aimlessly across the roads packaged and labelled with sticky blue name tags so that their tour guides could find them easily and round them up if they strayed too far from their designated tour routes.
We wound our way down an alarmingly narrow, steep and tortuous road, hemmed in by high stone walls until we found the apartment which would be home for the next 2 nights. In all the chaos of the town centre, the apartment was, thankfully, an oasis of calm with a gorgeous flower-filled garden, arches, patios, statues and views over the valley below. And even better it was only a 5 minute walk back into the madness for sustenance and the welcome respite of a half decent coffee shop filled to overflowing with Portuguese egg tarts 🙂
Still, we hadn’t driven all that way back across the country just for me to continue my pilgrimage around Portugal’s bakeries so, refreshed, we tackled the crowds and made the grueling trek to visit our first palace. As I am chief planner, researcher and vacation booker Geoff rarely knows where we are heading to – or with what purpose. Occasionally he asks for a brief synopsis of the intended grand tour upon our arrival in a new destination but rarely does he look at me in bewilderment and ask “What on earth are we doing here?” 😉
We could have ventured instead (I suppose) even further north from Marvão to Monsanto (another pristine hilltop village) – which we certainly will visit next time we are in Portugal. However, as variety is the spice of life, I chose to visit the extraordinarily popular destination of Sintra to see the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Parque Natural de Sintra.
First stop, the Palacio y Jardines de Regaleira (Regaleira Palace) with influences from Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian and Renaissance architecture. A building with a highly ornate façade and a very dusty interior. Attractive wooded gardens with shady, winding paths, terraces, turrets, grottoes, pitch black tunnels and a subterranean tower with a descending spiral staircase known as the Initiation Well – used for Tarot initiation ceremonies. One of the wells has 9 platforms descending 27 meters (88 feet) underground and it is said to represent Dante’s 9 circles of Hell, 9 sections of Purgatory and 9 skies of Paradise. At the bottom of the well is a compass and a Knights Templar cross.
Finally! Geoff cheered up once there was something more magical and mysterious to contemplate than a dusty, boring old palace 😉
Still, there was a vaguely Disney feel to the whole experience as people clambered irreverently over turrets and walls for family group photos but this was Disney without the sensible rules and organized herding which we all know is intended to keep everyone safe from their own stupidity 😉 Where there is no control there is utter chaos. Wedged in a turret at the top of a tiny spiral staircase (wide enough for only 1 very diminutive person at a time to pass), a stream of giggling, oblivious Portuguese visitors continued to force their way up the staircase until we were pinned flat against the turret wall trying to avoid being pushed clean over the edge of the tower. We wondered at what stage the climbers would realize that there was simply no more physical space into which to squeeze another human before someone was squashed to death 😉
A similar Portuguese laissez-faire approach to the safety of the general public culminated in an exciting interlude watching grandma being rescued by the emergency services from the centre of Waterfall Lake. We can only hazard a guess as to what she was doing tottering about in the emerald green pond. There are stepping stones across its centre but surely poor grandma hadn’t actually been encouraged to hop across the stones just for a family photo?… That sort of thing just wouldn’t happen in the good ol’ US of A because we are thankfully protected from our own dull-wittedness. We would never have the opportunity to inadvertently dunk grandma into a weed-filled, bacteria riddled pond… even if we really wanted to 😉
Our final day in sunny Portugal was a mad dash around 2 of Portugal’s most iconic historic sites.
The most famous is Palacio Nacional de la Pena (Pena Palace) which sits atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains – a 19th century Romantic-era palace painted in vivid shades of red, yellow and grey. It is Sintra’s most famous historic site. Turrets, domed belvederes, Moorish tiles, terraces and watch towers. It was the distinctly flamboyant and highly decorative summer home of the royal family before they fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. Stunning, if not gaudy, we pondered from our lunch perched on the “Queens Throne” which is carved into a rock at Saint Catherine’s Heights, the choice of clashing paint colors, quite incongruous in the palace’s verdant hilly setting.
… and then finally on to The Moorish Castle (Castillo de los Moros), a medieval military hilltop fortress which was built, due to its strategic location, by the North African Moors around the 10th century to defend the locality and importantly maritime access to Lisbon. After a tumultuous history it fell into rack and ruin after the Christian Conquest of Portugal. We wandered the battlements and clambered up the steep ramparts until it was time for another Portuguese egg tart and then we headed back into town feeling suitably virtuous from the activities of the day 🙂
Portugal (in parts!) is definitely a place to add to the “must do” list of European countries for those contemplating a Grand Tour of Europe 🙂 …it’s unlikely to be staying on our list of potential retirement destinations, but we will certainly revisit and explore more of the countryside and mountain villages 🙂