Granada: Hints of Arabia in Andalucia

We left Seville with a touch of sadness, a feeling that will no doubt be a part of many departures on this trip. It was off to the bus station for a 3-4 hour trip east and south to Granada.

Granada is one of the three jewels of Andalucia (the others being Seville and Cordoba) and is the most remote. Well, remote isn’t really accurate, since Granada is a major city and tourist destination, but it is the last major destination still to be served by high speed trains. We passed the new track, still under construction, several times on the trip. But for now it was buses and that was fine with me.

The landscape along the trip was dramatic once again. Gone were the orange orchards of Portugal and western Spain. Now it was miles and miles of olive trees, stretching as far as we could see in all directions, through rolling hills and gently twisting roads. Every once in a while, we’d see an especially tall hill. In those cases, there was always a cluster of white walled houses up the side of the hill and a castle and walls on top. I scanned the distant hills for knights on horseback but could never pick them out.

As we got closer to Granada we started to climb. Bare rocky outcrops thrust out of the ground. First a single mountain, then a group, and then we were fully in the mountains. Granada lies in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and as we pulled into the city we could see snow covered peaks off in the distance. I learned that there’s quite a nice ski resort off in those mountains, even though it was 15c in the city.

Our room for the next three nights was the barest of the trip so far. It was basically a spare bedroom and access to the bathroom, in the house of Rafa and David, two young artists. They were very nice, the room was warm and the bed comfortable, and the location, right beside the main cathedral, was excellent. Even though we didn’t really see them very much, we didn’t feel comfortable hanging out in their house. So we were out on the street from morning till bedtime most days. When we came back to our room to dry off and warm up, we were often visited by their skinny black cat, who quite enjoyed my backpack for some reason. I have claw marks as a souvenir.

Granada is a very interesting city in that it was the last stronghold of Moorish (Muslim) rule in Spain. When the Christian crusaders invaded the Iberian peninsula around 1200AD, they came from the north and conquered cities like Seville and Córdoba, but took much longer to get south and east to Granada. In fact, it seems like there was acceptance of joint rule of the area for a time. When we were in Seville, I read of a palace in the centre of the city where the ruler hired artisans from all over Spain to work on the building, including Muslim artisans from Granada.

Evidence of Muslim/Arabic culture is throughout the city but is especially strong in the Arabic quarter, a ghetto of narrow, hilly, twisting streets close to the main avenues. The area is full of tea rooms, hookah lounges and stores selling gorgeous glass lamps, leather goods and silver tea sets. We went to eat in this area twice during our stay, grateful for the delicious vegetable couscous and clay bowls with chicken tajin. But our big discovery was the array of delicious tea in these restaurants. Sweet, creamy concoctions with all kinds of spices. Our favourite was called ‘sol y nieve’, a strawberry and cinnamon tea with a mountain of whipped cream on top. It was an excellent after dinner selection that I fully intend to make at home somehow.

Leaving the Arabic quarter we strolled along the river, along cobblestone plazas full of restaurants and bars. Then we turned left and began to climb up a very steep hillside until we came to a lookout with great views of the city, the main cathedral (right by our room) and the fields and mountains beyond. And a spectacular view of the jewel of Granada, the Alhambra. This amazing palace, castle and garden sits high on the hill on the other side of the river, looming proudly over the city below. It was the last stronghold of Muslim rule in Europe and we were going to tour it tomorrow. But for now, we just looked across the valley and admired the grand structure.


A communal oven!!

Because the Alhambra is a major attraction, the authorities control how many people get in each day. They accept 6000 visitors per day and you can buy either a morning ticket or an afternoon ticket. And each ticket has a specific time where you can visit the Nazrid Palace, the high point of the trip. So on the bus ride into town, we bought ‘morning’ tickets for the next day, with a 1:30PM entry into the Nazrid Palace. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were very lucky. All tickets for the entire weekend we were in Granada were sold out by the time we went to the tourist office to pick up our tickets, three hours after we booked them!

In the morning we grabbed an early breakfast and hiked up to the entrance of the Alhambra, trying to get a jump on the tour busses. It was a steep hike, but thanks to a tip from the lady at the ticket office yesterday, we did all our climbing at the start. We begin the tour at the Generalife Garden at the high point of the grounds, and strolled pretty much downhill from there. The massive formal garden was built as a place for the sultans to relax when life in the palace got too hectic. So long as we paced ourselves well between the Italian tour and the Japanese tour, we could get a sense of the tranquil nature of the place. I also got a thrill looking at the vegetable gardens that were neatly laid out on terraces below the formal garden. After days of orange-red or white soil, it was nice to see some deeper colour in the ground.

From the gardens it was a nice stroll through a tiny village within the walls. There were some restaurants and souvenir shops but also a small shop where two men made very elegant and ornate boxes, platters, chess sets and backgammon boards. The were all intricately inlaid with different types of wood and then heavily lacquered. They were gorgeous and priced to reflect the hours of work that went into each piece. Beautiful but outside my budget, alas.

We walked past a small, nondescript building then backtracked to read the small sign and finally went in. I’m glad we did, since the building was the remains of a hammam, or Muslim bathhouse. It was a cluster of small rooms with curved doorways and with start shaped holes cut through the roof to let the light in. Deep, dark and mysterious.

Then we were into our first example of the layering of history. When the Christians finally defeated the Moors in Granada, they took over the Alhambra complex and started converting it to a Christian palace. The first addition was a large cathedral in the middle of the site. Later it was followed by a massive palace, built for King Carlos V, in the middle of the main square. Our guidebook mentioned that the palace has divided opinion over the years. It’s either an excellent example of 18th century architecture or an abomination in the middle of the Moorish aesthetic. Well, it doesn’t look like anything else around it, that’s for sure.

There’s a pattern evolving here that is interesting and a little sad. It’s one of conquest and re-conquest all over this part of Europe, but is really apparent with structures like the Alhambra. Romans – Goths – Moors – Christians, and in the case of the Christian re-conquest, a need to rework the architecture to get rid of, or at least downplay, the Moorish influence. And then there’s Napoleon. When the French invaded Spain they used the Alhambra as a barracks and nearly blew it up in the end.

This comes up again and again in this region. When the Moors are conquered their architecture is changed, then Napoleon comes and nearly wrecks everything. Then, thankfully, someone recognizes the historical (and touristical) importance of these treasures and they are restored and a ticket office put in front. And I don’t mind the ticket offices one bit because these are beautiful, beautiful places and deserve to be restored and celebrated.

Getting back to the Alhambra, it was the American Washington Irving who is credited for opening people’s eyes to the amazing Alhambra. He lived in Granada for a while after Napoleon left and the Alhambra was falling into disrepair. His writing about the place inspired the restoration work. Hopefully this writing inspires you to visit.

The final tour before our time in the palace was the Alcazaba. This castle / walled area was the oldest part of the complex and afforded more incredible views of the city as well as the lookout we sat on last night.

As we stood in line we met a foursome from Ontario who were travelling through Spain in the reverse order we were, but they were driving the whole way. I was amazed and a little dumbfounded, especially as they told me about taking wrong turns through the centre of Seville. Why anyone would choose to drive through these places when you could walk or take the transit is beyond me. They also told me they booked their tickets to Alhambra over a month ago, so I guess we were lucky to get ours the day before!

And then it was our time to visit the Nazrid Palace. What a stunner. It was more elaborate and ornate than I imagined, but subdued too. When I think of a palace I think of precious metals or gems (I’ve not seen many palaces, but that’s what I think!) but the Nazrid is amazing for different reasons. It’s more about the artisans that built it. Every square inch of some walls are covered in ornate plaster carvings and Arabic script. Some ceilings have even more elaborate plaster domes, giving the impression of a starry night. Other halls had domed ceilings of stretched leather, which was then painted into elaborate patterns. The palace tour was an incredible climax to an already amazing tour of the grounds. It’s well worth the trip to Granada to see.

Our last full day in Granada was Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week or Semana Santa in Spain. The entire week is a huge holiday in Spain, a combination of mourning and partying at the same time. The week starts off with a big procession, mourning the death of Jesus and Mary’s sorrow. We had heard about these processions and were very excited to see one in person. Although, truth be told, it was a bit of a mystery as to where and when the procession would happen. Many of the central squares had been blocked off and large sets of bleachers installed, but as the day went on an we walked around the city, we never saw anyone sitting in the bleachers.

Then at around 4pm, we saw more and more people heading off in the same direction, away from the bleachers, so we followed along. Soon we came to a different cathedral, with hundreds of people packed tight around the cathedral doors and sort of making a path down the block. I say ‘sort of’ because there’s no such thing as an orderly line in Spain. But it seemed possible that we had made it to the procession route. Laughable attempts to communicate with the man standing next to me confirmed that the procession would start at the cathedral in about an hour. We had stumbled on front row seats!

As we stood there, more and more people squeezed past us, even though I was sure there was no way more people could fit in this square. Our colourful Canadian outerwear must’ve screamed “This Way Through” because everyone seemed to pass beside or between us, even if we linked arms. A gaggle of teenage girls. Teenage boys with the most incredible Justin Beiber pompadours. Mothers with strollers. Old men with walkers. I’m not kidding.

And then it started to rain. Out came 1000 umbrellas, or in our case, up went hoods. We would’ve stayed dry except that, without umbrellas, we were in the drip line of all our neighbours. Then slowly people started leaving. The procession was suspended, for how long nobody new, due to the rain.

We were disappointed, but also wet and cold so we went back to our room to change clothes and warm up. We were just about to head out for supper when we heard drums and horns and followed the music to the main cathedral. There it was! The procession! We hurried over and found a place to stand behind a pair of strollers.

Even though the procession is supposed to be for mourning, the entire event is quite the celebration. Everyone is dressed up, especially the little children. Vendors with carts selling drinks, candy, snacks (especially sunflower seeds – everyone was eating them, from the schoolchildren to young women to the elderly), balloons and toy drums lined each street. There was a huge amount of anticipation as we waited for the procession to pass.

It really was quite a production. First, several dozen marchers disguised in robes and pointed hoods, carrying candles. Then a huge “float” of Jesus, carried by 20-25 young men, hidden underneath. The float was so heavy that every few minutes they’d have to set it down and have a rest, or trade with other men who followed the float.

Behind the float were ladies of all ages in black mourning dresses and vails, followed by a marching band. Whenever the float was in the air, the band played. When the bearers rested, the drummers kept time. It was a very slow, solemn procession.

The floats were so large that it was a real challenge to navigate through the narrow streets. Turning corners was especially dramatic. The bearers took two full minutes to slowly rock back, forth and forward to shimmy the huge float 90 degrees. When the job was complete, the crowd clapped and cheered in appreciation as the float headed off down the street.

A few minutes later, a second procession came by. Hooded figures, then an even larger float of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by dozens of large candles. It was very dramatic in the twilight.

And as the Mary float made its way around the corner, we left the crowd and went in the opposite direction to find some supper. Our time in Granada was coming to an end. It’s a beautiful city. The mix of cultures and traditions is very interesting and the history, like everywhere else we’ve been so far, is thick. I just want to sit down with some history books and really get the background on these places. But we keep moving on. Time to pop a few Gravol and head to the bus station…

How Do You Leave A City Like Sevilha?

We bid a fond farewell to Portugal in Tavira and climbed on the ALSA bus to Seville. There are no trains between Portugal and Spain this far south, so a four hour bus ride was required. But the ALSA buses are comfortable and they have electrical outlets between the seats so all was good.

We’ve been getting pretty good at these 3-4 hour bus journeys by now. A perfect travel day starts with a 7:30AM alarm. Shower, pack and head off for a breakfast of coffee, orange juice and toast (tostas or toastadas.) If we like the pastelaria we are in, we’ll buy a couple of sandwiches to eat on the bus. Otherwise, we’ll stop somewhere else on the way back to our room.

Once in our room, it’s a quick bathroom break, then pick up our bags and head to the bus station. The perfect departure time is 12 noon, so we aren’t rushed. Then we arrive at our destination by 3 or 4 pm, which is plenty of time to find our room, meet our host, and go for a first walk around town. Especially with Spanish time, this gives us a half day in our new town. Although our hosts think we’re crazy to waken before 10AM for any reason.

The bus ride into Spain was quite an adventure. We were stopped at the border for over 30 minutes. Inspectors came on board, looked at us sternly, then took the driver off for a while. No passports were checked, but when we stopped for a break in Huelva, a Norwegian passenger I was chatting with said the border inspectors were upset that there were not fasten seat belts signs on the back of every seat. Our bus only had them every six inches and on the window. So the driver was fined 300€ on the spot.

There isn’t much of a change in landscape between the eastern Algarve and western Andalucia, but there is a change in agriculture. The orange orchards are replaced by mile after mile of plastic hoop houses. We were too far from the fields to make out what was growing under these greenhouses, but the plants looked happy. With the spacing of the plants my best guess is that they housed young orange trees.

After the tranquility of the Algarve, entering Seville was a big culture shock. We exited the bus station on a massive eight lane road, completely jammed with cars, people packing the sidewalks and city busses buzzing by. And the maps.me app gave what seemed like crazy directions to our apartment. We left the busy boulevard soon enough, and seemed to be directed around in circles, twisting and turning through progressively narrower alley ways. At one point we even went through the inner courtyard of a row of buildings, or so it seemed (to be fair, there was a street sign on the wall leading into the courtyard.) But suddenly we popped out into a delightful little square ringed with food shops, walked down a busy street with sidewalks narrower than our suitcases, turned left and were at our apartment.

It was heaven. Pure heaven I tell you. Seville is the most amazing city, and if we hadn’t agreed in advance to visit other places I would still be there. I don’t think I could see it all in twenty years. Our flat was right near the Plaza Alfalfa (ah, memories of home) and if I never left the square I would still be happy. There were no less than three pastelarias on the square! I know! Plus three restaurants, a charcuterie place, a pharmacy and a playground in the middle. Then in the block between the square and our flat, there was a killer artisan bread bakery (also with coffee, orange juice and amazing pastries), two killer tapas bars (one so small and so constantly busy we never did get a table), a fruit market, a mini super market, and a florist. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit.


This fellow rides his motorbike to restaurants to sharpen the chef’s knives. The sharpener is on the back of his bike

The corner right by our apartment. In the foreground, Cindy’s favourite orange juice / gelato stand. Then a market. In the distance, the best bread bakery. Beside me, out of the shot, is a cozy tapas bar. Plaza Alfalfa is directly behind me.

The streets in Seville, at least in the central area, are very narrow and winding. We were continually getting lost, walking for an hour then popping up at Plaza Alfalfa again, or ending up at the Cathedral when we thought we were heading away from the Cathedral. But the great thing is that every single street, and I mean every, single, street is beautiful and interesting and packed with beautiful people. Sevillains (as we called them) are extremely fashion conscious and yet again we felt like frumpy foreigners around them. Had we wanted to, and had the 1000€ it required, we could’ve changed our look in an afternoon. The streets were lined with the most fashionable shops imaginable. Beautiful, colourful, stylish dresses and more suits, in more colours, than I have ever seen. There were many, many specialty clothing stores just for kids too – you can never start too young in Seville.


Sevillians hate this modern structure over a new plaza, but I like it.

The problem with Seville is that it’s tough on photographers. Everything is just so bloody big, it’s impossible to get things in the frame. Seville’s Cathedral is the largest by volume in the world. It took over 100 years to build and let me tell you, it’s a big ‘un. It took forever to walk around, and would have even if the streets weren’t clogged with tourists. Big, gothic and gaudy.

Seville was the richest city in the world for a time, and it shows. When the Spanish colonized the Americas, Seville was awarded the contract to administer all the wealth coming from the New World. Ships laden with riches made their way up the Guadalquivir River to unload at Seville. So the city is full, and I mean full, of palaces, cathedrals and statues. The University of Seville is also right downtown and the main building is full of marble halls surrounding a massive courtyard.

But for me, the most opulent structure in the city is the Plaza de España in Maria Luisa Park, and it’s rather new. The park itself is huge and right downtown, full of statues and fountains and trees and formal pathways. But the Plaza is simply massive. Built in 1928, the plaza is a massive semi circle of connected buildings with a canal in the middle. Bridges connect the centre of the plaza and the outer ring, over the canal. Around the outer ring are a number of alcoves with scenes of Spanish provinces done in tile. We didn’t know anything about the plaza before we stumbled on to it, and let me tell you it was quite a surprise.

Most of our time in Seville was spent wandering the streets, looking in shop windows, eating picnic lunches in parks, eating tapas in the evening and generally getting lost. One afternoon we took a pedestrian bridge across the river to the suburb of Triana. At the base of the bridge on the Triana side was a wonderful indoor farmers market (perfect for picking up fruit, bread and Jamon Iberico for our picnic) and a park beside. Lunchtime!

The streets of Triana are laid out in a grid, and it seems when the Spanish have room for a grid, they also have room for extra wide plazas. A massive roundabout at the base of another bridge forked into three wide avenues, one of which was pedestrian only. We walked for at least a mile from the roundabout to a fountain at the other end of the plaza, window shopping and finding the perfect gelato along the way. The street was full of happy people, most of which were locals enjoying the sunny afternoon.

Very cool bread delivery bike

We did more window shopping in Triana than we planned, since it was now 3pm and we were fully into the afternoon siesta time. Most shops in Spain close in the afternoons. They’ll be open from 10AM – 1:30 or 2pm, then close until 5pm or 5:30. Then they’ll stay open till 8 or 9pm. So we gazed in the shop windows and thought of how much money we saved.

But the plaza didn’t empty. Oh, no. The stores closed but the bars were entering into their busiest time of the day. Along the plaza and the side streets were tiny bars full of people, standing shoulder to shoulder and spilling into the street. Businessmen, old ladies, moms with strollers, construction workers. Everyone. And they all had a glass of beer or wine in their hand and a small plate of tapas on the table. Sardines, olives, cheese, ham. Heavenly.

We opted for a gelato stand and sat out on the street, watching the world go by. Then we made sure to get a little more to eat too; after two days in Seville we had learned that we wouldn’t be eating supper any time soon. You see, the bars and cafes are for little bites only. For supper you need a restaurant. And restaurants don’t even open until 8pm! The bar/restaurant combo places close from 6-8 too, so make sure you aren’t hungry during the Canadian supper hour, or be sure to pack a snack.

We were enjoying the local areas more than the tourist areas, so in our last day in Seville we headed in the opposite direction from our beloved Plaza Alfalfa toward the Alemeda de Hercules. Legend has it Seville was founded by Hercules and this long, wide Avenue celebrates the legend. It took us a while to find it, but the avenue was worth the hunt. Two tall pillars stand at either end of this long pedestrian walkway, with people walking down the middle, cars along the outside, and shops and cafes the whole way along it. It was a smaller version of the Avenue de Liberdores in Lisbon, and not as chic, but we loved it.

Then we walked back down toward the river, around the bull ring and back toward the Cathedral for the evening. Our waiter at breakfast had recommended some places to eat and hear flamenco. We had a long night ahead.

Our first stop was a restaurant near the Cathedral that offered a private flamenco concert in the back. A drink, tapas and front row seats. This was a professional quartet; a man playing guitar, a young woman and young man who danced, and a matron (who was in reality quite young) who sang. It was an amazing show. Lively, exciting, colourful and full of passion. We were blown away. It was a wonderful show in an intimate venue, but it was quite polished compared to what we saw next.

Our second stop was a small bar closer to our apartment. We nearly missed it. There was a tiny sign over the door that was difficult to notice, but the fact that people kept going in two by two was a hint that something was happening. But inside was empty. Just a grizzled old man in a heavy wool sweater, tending an ancient fireplace just inside the door.

We walked past the man and turned down the hallway, following the faint sound of guitar. Then we came into a large, low room, more like a garage out back, with long benches filled with people and a bar off to the side. Flamenco music and male singing was coming from somewhere in this mess but I couldn’t see where it came from.

Then we found it. Over in the corner, where only a few people could really see, were three men. They were all seated. The oldest man was about 60 and he played guitar. The man in the middle was younger, say 40 years old and sang. And the man on the left, small, clad all in black, with a pony tail and beard like in a tequila ad, clapped, chanted, then got up and danced.

They played and danced for 20 minutes or more, while people jockeyed around them for a better view or jockeyed to the bar for another drink. Where the first show was polished and electric, this performance was dark and smoky and passionate. We were swept away by the romance of the whole thing. I should be back there still, sweeping floors, washing glasses and listening to that haunting music.

But I’m a family guy at heart so after the performance we left that bar, arm in arm, and just wandered the streets of Seville one last time. It was getting on to midnight now and we started thinking about finding our way home. But then we’d see some people on the corner and would wander by to check out that bar. Or we’d hear music and head down to the next corner. Finally we heard more guitars and more singing, and walked down one more block to a square with three restaurants beside each other. In front of the middle restaurant was a long table with a dozen or more men, all with guitars or mandolins. It looked like a meeting of a local guitar club and they had decided it was time to play.

I don’t know how long they had been playing before we got there, but they played for an hour longer at least. One man would sing. One would play a solo. Everyone sang the chorus, with gusto. A few men would come out into the gathered crowd and ask women to dance. Another passed the hat and bought beer for the players wth the proceeds.

And it seemed like it wouldn’t end. One or two men would pack up, then 10 would perform a song. The lead singer would come back out from the bar for one more song. Then there were 8 players, then 6, then 4.

Slowly, oh so slowly, the mini-concert ended and we wandered back to Plaza Alfalfa, wishing we could stay in Seville forever. Get cleaned up, buy some fashionable clothes, get jobs in a pastelaria and spend our nights singing and dancing and holding hands in a plaza we never knew existed before and may never find again.

Brussels

We’re fine. But I’m a little spooked.

We were sitting in a cafe in Córdoba, Spain, having a late lunch, when the TV cut to the bombings in Brussels. As you no doubt know, two bombs went off in Brussels and if I can read Spanish properly, the authorities found a third that failed to go off. Many people dead. In southern Spain, according to the news at least, people are worried.

It’s the height of their Easter festival here and I would assume it’s prime time for something nasty to happen. Although, personally, I’ll be more worried when we head north in May.

It’s ‘the day after’ as I write this and things seem normal here, although there are a lot more police patrolling the cathedrals and main tourist areas this morning. We toured the Mosque/Cathedral this they checked our bags before we went in. There were three Muslim fellows in front of us in line and I’m sad to tell you that they made me a little nervous. But I guess that’s what happens when anyone could have a bomb strapped to them.

The men made some other tourists nervous too, mainly with the pictures they were taking. Two tourists talked to security, who then spoke to two police officers (who were walking around with their shotguns out) who then spoke to the Muslim men. We watched for a while as they police gave their papers a very good look. One of the Muslim fellows spoke good Spanish (thank goodness) and had a long, calm conversation with the police officers. We left before it ended but it appeared that everything was going to be OK.

So it’s not a good time to be Muslim and walking around in Europe. Or from what I’ve read, the USA either. I don’t know about Canada, but I assume it’s not much fun at home too. And I get it, I guess. But there’s something that’s sticking in me, especially because all this is happening when we’re in Córdoba, where the main attraction is the Mosque/Cathedral. After the Roman’s left, this piece of land was a Cathedral in the time of the Visigoths, then a shared Muslim/Christian space, then the largest Mosque in Western Europe, then a Cathedral only. All with a span of 1300 years. Recently, Muslims have been trying to get access to the space to pray again and the Christians aren’t going to let that happen any time soon.

My point being that all sorts of people have lived in this land for many, many hundreds of years. Some times one group is in power and the other are suppressed. Then things change and another group is in power. But always someone in power, someone gets the short end. Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, Christian, Monarchist, Republican, Fascist, Republican. It doesn’t matter. Somebody wants to get rich and can justify taking things. Then we justify keeping things, and fearing ‘the others’ until someone comes and takes it from us. It’s true in Spain and it’s true in Saskatchewan. And it makes me sad.

We’ve been walking around a very beautiful city this morning; beautiful specifically because of the mix of cultures who have built this place. And all I can think about is fear and hate.

All I can think about is whether humans are doomed to always fear or hate ‘the others.’ And whether we are doomed to be ruled by someone, be it a warlord, King, President, MP, MLA or CEO who gains and keep power by playing on those fears. And what would it take for us all to really, truly, live and let live.

I don’t know. We’ll keep on travelling, with our eyes open, and with our hearts open too. And I’ll try really hard not to get nervous just because the guy beside me looks different than I do.

PS. More light hearted travel fare tomorrow.

Algarve #3: Chilling Out In Tavira

Imagine if you will: Driving around the southern coast of Portugal, sampling some of the most fantastic beaches in the world; subsisting on oranges, strawberries and dark chocolate for most of the day; arriving in the eastern Algarve town of Tavira and parking in the first lot we could find (as is our habit); then trying to book a guest room for the next three days on your smartphone. By the time we had finally secured a room, it was late, my stomach was growling and I was sunburnt and worn out from all the driving and cliff climbing. So then imagine heading out to find dinner, turning the corner and seeing this:

Nothing like a beautiful square, Roman bridge over a still river and a narrow street lined with restaurants to get your blood flowing again!

While the kids all take bus tours to Lagos to party the night away, mellow baker couples book into a guest house in Tavira for three nights and stroll around the town square and along the river. And that’s exactly what we did.

Our guest room was huge, with a balcony overlooking the Main Street and a large table to sit at. We had a shared bathroom and kitchen area but we were the only people in the entire guest house for two of the nights, so we had more space than we needed. The bed was firm and the WIFI was fast. This room will be the benchmark for many weeks to come.

My love hanging out in our amazing room in Tavira

For our first meal in Tavira we relied on our guidebook and the first “single dollar sign” suggestion was Churrasqueria O Manel and it did not disappoint. The specialty of the house is Piri-Piri chicken; Manel’s been grilling it up, over charcoal, every night for over 30 years. We spoke with his daughter who said he developed the recipe from his travels in the Navy as a boy and let me tell you he knows what he’s doing. We gorged ourselves and the next night picked up a bit takeaway for supper at the guest house. Yup, we ate at the same place two nights in a row. It was worth it.

We never ate at this place, but it was always full. It was the English pub and lots of English like to fly to Portugal for shepherd’s pie, I guess.

Tavira gets a lot of tourists and we had our first experience with ‘tourist pricing’ on the trip so far. Our usual breakfast, coffee for me, fresh orange juice for Cindy, and two pastries typically costs between 5 and 6 euros. But it was 10 euros on Tavira’s sunny square. It was fun, but I’ll take the tiny bar in a side street pastelaria any day.

Eating here is fun, but will cost you!

The east side of the Algarve doesn’t have the tall cliffs like the southwest coast. Instead, the coast is all marshland and salt flats. They do a nice trade in sea salt in Tavira and area. But they do have beaches, you just need to take a boat to the far side of the lagoon. In the high season there’s a ferry right from the town square, but since this was winter and only a sunny 20c, we walked 2km to the outer ferry station to catch the hourly ferry to Ilha de Tavira. We had plenty of time to make the 11 o’clock ferry, but we decided to check out the market on the way and cut it a little close. We had to cover the last 1100 metres in exactly 11 minutes or wait an hour for the next ferry. We just made it, we walked on just as the pilot cast off from the dock. All it took was, as Cindy calls it, walking with purpose. I tied my loose shoelace on the other side.

The market that almost lost us our ferry ride.

The beach at Tavira was excellent, but completely different than the high cliffs and heavy surf of the west coast. Ilha de Tavira is a big sand dune, 11km long and up to 1km wide, with a long, uninterrupted sandy beach on the ocean side.

These fellows worked hard, but didn’t catch very much this day

We walked and walked along the beach, but there wasn’t really that much variation, so we headed back to the section near the ferry station and sacked out on a pair of lounge chairs. We were just about finished the lunch we had packed when a man came by and told us the chairs required payment. Who knew? We apologized, blamed our Canadian-ness and left in a hurry!

Ahh…very nice. For a short while.

The rest of our time in Tavira was spent hanging around the town square and getting caught up in the rhythms of the town. We did laundry, watched a 5k run for cancer research, painted pictures in the park, and ate lots of gelato.

On Sunday we heard a band playing off in the distance and saw a crowd gathering, so we wandered over to see what was going on. We got caught up in the first Easter procession of the season in Tavira – bands, town officials, church groups, Boy and Girl Scouts and two large floats went throughout the town, stopping at several stations along the way to the Cathedral. The stations were really interesting because they were permanently set up. The doors were opened just for the procession, but they are there on the street the rest of the year. But if you weren’t from the town, you’d have no idea what was behind the wooden doors.

One of the stations throughout the town

Tavira is a wonderful little town and I highly recommend visiting, especially if you want to relax for a few days. It was the perfect way to end the Portuguese leg of our Great Adventure.

From Tavira, we got on a bus for the Spanish border and the delights of Andalusia. But we really, really loved Portugal. Great sites, great food and wonderful, friendly people, from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon to the tiniest villages of Monchique and Odeceixe. We loved every minute in this beautiful country and can’t wait to visit again. There’s so much more to see. We could’ve stayed longer in Lisbon. We never made it to Sintra, or even Setubol and Troia. Not to mention the northern cities of Porto and Coimbra, or the ruins at Conimbriga, or the Duoro valley. There’s another long trip in there, for sure.

Algarve #2: Beaches, Beaches, Beaches. Plus, a very interesting bakery.

After a wondeful evening in Odeceixe, we slept very well and slowly got packed up to continue our trip down the west coast of Portugal. It was Saturday morning, so we figured there must be some pastelarias open even in a village as tiny as this. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a Paderia (bread bakery) sign on a side street, however.


You need to check every side street. Magic awaits!

The inside of the bakery was very small but the shelves were full of bread, buns and croissants. I had my morning coffee and pastry and tried, in my best Portuguese, to explain that I was a baker and their bread looked very good. I made some sense, because the clerk called over the owner (who spoke very good english) and she invited us next door to the bakery.

The owner’s mother, a delightful elderly lady who only spoke Portuguese gave us a tour of the shop. Two huge mixers, a big work bench, and a massive deck oven. The bakery was spotless; the bakers came in at 8pm Friday night to do the baking so by 10am Saturday, all the work was done.

Then she surprised the heck out of me. She took us around the side of the oven and showed me a room with wood stacked floor to ceiling. The deck oven was wood fired! There was a small firebox beside the deck oven which held the fire. I don’t really know how she regulated the heat, but I think the fire heats a boiler and the oven is heated by circulating hot water (you can buy gas fired ‘steam tube’ ovens in North America.) Still, I don’t know how they could adjust things in a wood fired oven that large.

And then we were back on the road, heading south along the coast to Arrifana. It’s an area that came highly recommended by the lady at the Faro tourist office and it did not disappoint in any way. We parked high up on the top of a cliff, far too scared to drive down to the beach, then walked along the top, through a small village, to a point overlooking the Atlantic. Sheer cliffs and broken rocks were all around us, with the surf pounding the rocks below.

It looked dangerous and it was. We saw a steady stream of locals walking and driving north to the edge of the cliff. When we looked out past them, we saw a rescue helicopter and two boats alongside some particularly nasty looking rocks. We couldn’t make out their objective, but the helicopter flew so low, and hovered for so long, that I’m certain they were performing a rescue. After 20 minutes or so the helicopter left and the locals went home. I hope whoever they were helping are alright today.

Then we went down to the beach, along a narrow, twisting road with three switchbacks and a steady line of camper vans and surfer dudes. Arrifana is a surfing hotspot it seems. There were surf lessons going on at one end of the beach, and a stream of fit and sexy surfers along the rest of the beach.

The view of the beach from the point. Time to get down to the water!

We didn’t surf, but we did walk along the beach, wade into the water and marvel at the cliffs around us. This beach especially was extremely shallow close to shore, so we could walk out a long way without getting to wet.

After an leg burning hike back to our car, we drove for an hour further down the coast to the very tip of Portugal and the European continent, Cabo St. Vincente. It’s the western most point in Europe, and if I looked really, really hard in the west I’m sure I could see New Jersey. Perhaps not. But we scrambled over the rocks as close to the edge as we dared (we were still very high up above the water) watched the fishermen bobbing violently in their boats near the cliff walls, had a nice conversation with two travellers from Minnesota, then headed east, back into Portugal, to another beach we had passed on the drive to the tip.

I’m not exactly sure of the name of our final beach of the day, but it was just east of Cabo St. Vincente. It didn’t seem possible, but the water was clearer, the surf was livlier, and the cliffs more spectacular than any of the beaches we had been to so far. Perhaps it was because the hike down was steeper and more treacherous than any other; no cobblestones here, just irregular steps with many of the rocks broken away. Or maybe it was because there were no more than a dozen people on the entire beach. But it was thrilling, and we dawdled along for over an hour here.

At the very end of the beach, were the sand, surf and rocks met, there was a little cave that we could just get to without swimming. It opened into a huge cavern, open to the sky above. We imagined that this is where we could hang out if we were abandoned on a desert island. We’d survive in the cave, until the tide came in at least.

And then it was one more hike back to the car and a final push along the highway. Through Sagres, Lagos and Portimao, stopping beside the highway for another bag of oranges. East past Faro and Olhao, and on to our final stop in Portugal, Tavira. Here the guidebooks, Cindy’s research and the Faro tourist office lady all agreed – Tavira is a delightful place to finish a tour of the Algarve. But that’s for another post.

A Temporary Photo Fix

Hello from Spain.  The last two posts have been missing pictures.  I hesitate to blame technology (heck, 12 years ago you’d all be waiting for me to come back and process the films) but I’m blaming the technology.  It’s gotten too good for the type of posting I’m trying to do.

The Picture Plan

For the foreseeable future, here’s how the blog will happen.

– I’ll post stories about the trip.  Some long, some short little snippets.

– I’ll also bulk upload a selection of pictures to a special gallery in my SmugMug photo sharing account.

– I’ll link to the gallery at the top of the post.

The pictures in the gallery will be roughly sorted into the same order which I talk about things in the post.  But they won’t likely have a caption per picture.  Sorry.

Here’s two galleries to get you caught up with the last two posts:

Gallery for “Evora: Step Back.  Step Way Back.

Gallery for “The Algarve Has Been Logged.   You Must Visit Anyway.

Technical Details For Those Who Care About This Sort Of Thing

Here’s some detail for the geeks in the audience.  I won’t feel bad if you stop reading now.

The blog is built on a self hosted WordPress site.  I’m writing my posts on a new iPad and posting whenever I have access to Wifi.

I’m using the official WordPress iPad app to post.  I’ve tried posting straight from the Safari browser too and still get the same problems.

The problem, as I see it, is that the image files from my new iPhone and Cindy’s new camera are just too big to upload to my self hosted site.  Whether I upload the images from the WordPress app or the Safari browser, and whether a bulk ‘add media’ operation or from the post editor, the upload hangs up before it is complete.

However, I can upload the files to SmugMug with no problem.  OK, it takes forever, but it works so long as I leave the iPad alone for an hour per post.

If I resize the images and reduce the file size, it works.  But there’s no automatic resize capability with Apple Photo.

I bought a 3rd party app to do the resize, and it works, but individually resizing each photo, then getting back to the WordPress app, finding the space in the post, loading and embedding the picture, etc. Is just taking too long.

I spent over 5 hours on my Estremoz post alone and we were almost in Spain before I had time to finish it and post it.  At this rate I’ll be home and Christmas will come and I’ll still be posting about the trip.  Cindy and I want to see new things rather than sit around uploading photos.

When I get home, I can quickly resize the photos on my PC, or just upload them to WordPress from my computer/proper internet connection.

The only other change I could make is to see if my server has a file size restriction that I don’t know about, which may be causing the issue.  Ie, don’t allow uploads of more than 2mb from Europe.  But that’s unlikely.

The Smugmug solution doesn’t give an awesome reading experience.  Having the pictures in the right place in the post is better.  But at least this way I can stay more current and people can see pictures too.  I know Cindy’s mom wants to see more pics.  So that’s one person anyway, and a pretty important person at that.

The Algarve Has Been Logged. You Must Visit Anyway.

image

Embedding photos is still a bear with my iPad.  But if you want to follow along, here’s a photo gallery covering the areas we went to in this post.

After our tour of dolmans and megaliths was over, Libanio dropped us off near our apartment. We ran upstairs, grabbed our bags and walked (“with purpose” as Cindy says) down the alley,through the city gate, down the road to the bus depot and straight on the bus to Faro. Five minutes early, I might add!

Faro is the capital of the Algarve region of Portugal. It’s the most southern strip of the country, bordering Alentejo on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Spain on the east and the Mediterranean Sea on the south. You might say it’s the Tourist Area – pretty much all my Canadian friends who tell me of their winter escapes to Portugal go to the Algarve for the beaches, golf and food.

But before we could see the beach, we had to go through the mountains on the northern border of the Algarve. While not tall be Rocky Mountain standards, they were a big change from the rolling hills of Alentejo. While we travelled on the main north/south highway, we traveled straight through, but as we exited for the various bus stops on the way the roads twisted and turned quite a bit.

I will admit, our first impression of Faro was poor. But we were on the bus, travelling too fast past hotels, shopping malls and outlet stores. And of course the bus depot was in a seedier area of town. But as we walked to our guest room for the next two nights, the streets opened up and it was really quite nice.

We were staying in the “old city” which dates back to the 13th century and was full of our favourite narrow cobblestone streets. And just outside the city walls were 6-8 twisty blocks of pedestrian only streets full of shops, pastelarias, gelaterias and restaurants. Plus, being on the Mediterranian coast, Faro had a harbour, with a long promenade that we walked at least six times, to and from our room.

While the weather was sunny and mild for us, around 18C, you could tell it gets hot in the summer, since all the streets had white sailcloth stretched between the buildings, providing shade for the shoppers. So we walked around the shopping district, then over to the public garden (with more of my coffee kiosks!) and to the local library. We spent an hour browsing the stacks, looking for books we recognized, even if we couldn’t read them since they were all in Portuguese. Although I did browse through an interesting history of Portuguese postage stamps and learned stamps were called “selo”, which really would’ve helped at the post office in Evora.

Now we were at a crossroads. Before we left home, we planned on traveling to the Atlantic side of the Algarve, but the bus schedules were against us. Many of the areas we wanted to visit are hard to get to in the height of summer, and are pretty much impossible to reach in low season. One bus in at 9AM, one out at 9PM, etc. We’d be spending all our time and money on bus rides and not see anything. So we decided to break our pre-trip promise and rent a car. We found a place near the airport which rented cars with automatic transmissions (they had exactly one in stock) and after promising with our lives that we wouldn’t damage it further (it was already missing one light and had dents in all four corners and all four sides) we were on the highway to Monchique.

A brief word about European cars. I love them. We were driving a Citroen, and though I really wanted a tiny Fiat, or a jazzy Renault even, the Citroen was fine. But their automatic transmissions are really strange. I think they just took a manual and slapped a robot shifter on it. There’s no “Park” so the car will still roll on you and shifting through the first three gears was as rough as if I were shifting myself. Plus there’s ‘eco’ mode, where the engine shuts off at stops and restarts when you release the brake. I thought it was stalling for the longest time. I will learn to drive a manual next trip, I promise.

With all the taxis to the airport, rental contract stress and ‘Eco’ mode, I was getting rather agitated. Hungry too, because we did all this before breakfast. So we decided to stop in the town of Sao Bras de Alportel for a bite. One wrong turn had me trying to park on the narrowest street in town but we survived and were fed. From this point we parked at the first blue “P” sign on the outskirts of each town in which we stopped!

Tummies full, we headed west toward Silves.  This off the beaten track town is renowned for its castle which was built, modified and rebuilt by both the Moors and Christians.  While the exterior of the castle is intact and old, the “rooftop” interior has been added to recently, with a rather smart walking path, garden and restaurant.  Plus, there’s a nice exhibit on the plight of the Iberian Lynx in a massive indoor chamber, which was originally a water cistern in Moorish times.  Boy, even the water cisterns are amazing to behold!  We spent an hour or so roaming around the castle, ate lunch on a bench admiring the castle walls and palm trees, then hiked back to the car.

Our final destination the first day was Monchique, a tiny village deep in the Algarve hills. The drive to Monchique was superb. Clean, smooth pavement, no traffic at all, my lovely navigator beside me helping negotiate roundabouts and all around us, blue skies, high hills, deep valleys and tiny villages with their white houses and red roofs clustered in pockets on the hillside.


A kind grandma selling her oranges beside the highway

We wound are way through the central Algarve for over an hour until we got to Monchique, hastily parked the car and found a room for the night. We stayed in a nice room at a B&B right beside the tourist office, staffed by a tiny old lady who was so small she couldn’t reach the board on the wall to get our room key. All she wanted was 40 euros cash and assurance that we’d leave the keys at the desk. Oh, and we needed to understand there would be no breakfast tomorrow. I think we were the only guests that night and it was too much bother to make breakfast for one. That was no problem, because Monchique has a lovely square at the very bottom of the hill town which just begged to be occupied in the early morning sunshine.

The next morning we were up early, checked out and put our bags in the car. But then we left the village on foot; we had a mountain to climb. Monchique is near the Foia, the highest point of land in Portugal. At 902 metres, it isn’t anywhere near the tallest mountain in Europe, but it was the tallest here and within our grasp. So we wound our way through the village, past the convent and started on the trail.

The 4km walk was tougher than I expected. I guess my climbing legs didn’t stick with me once we left Lisbon, plus the trail was very rough. Lots of loose rocks and quite large rocks at that. It also didn’t help that there weren’t many trees after the first kilometre or so. We had great views of the surrounding hills and saw that there weren’t many trees there either. The entire surrounding hillside had been clear cut, including a large section of the trail. We walked through churned up land, logs and stumps. Where new trees had been planted, and only a very small area had been replanted, the native trees were replaced with tall, straight and foreign Eucalyptus trees.

Back in Evora, Libanio told us many landowners are growing Eucalypts for pulp and paper production, since they grow so fast. But they need a lot of water and don’t add to the undergrowth in the forest. So what you get is trees growing on what looks like rough gravel, with no foliage underneath. And where there were no Eucalypts, entire hillsides were bare or covered with a tight, dense, green blanket of waist high thorn bushes. It was a much different walk in the woods than we were used to at home.

But we kept walking and gingerly picked our way up the trail, and it wasn’t too long before we reached a paved road up to the summit. The road was paved because the summit of Foia is used for cell towers. There’s a little village of maintenance huts and towers at the very top. But the views all around the summit were amazing. Hills and valleys and villages and fields surrounded and on a clear blue morning we could see for miles. We had bagged our first peak. We’ll be sure to do this again in the Netherlands. 🙂

Once we got back to the car, we took off north and west, along twistier roads than the day before, over and out of the Algarve hills and out to the Atlantic coast. The roads were amazing. So twisty that I could only drive 50-60 km/h but I was the only car on the road. So we took it easy and cruised to the west coast. Before long we left the hills and got back to straighter roads and farmland. Then, cliffs.

The southwest coast of Portugal is known for its high cliff sides and crashing surf, dotted with gorgeous sandy beaches. There were dozens of beaches along the coast, too many to see them all, but we went to three on the west side – Zambujero do Mar, Odeceixe and Arrifana. Zambujero do Mar was the furthest north, so we drove there first. It was stunning. A tiny resort village with buildings right up to the edge of the cliff, then, far below, a U shaped beach of smooth brown sand and amazing blue water. There were two or three tiny cafes at the edge of the cliff with incredible views so, of course, we picked the prettiest one for lunch!

After an amazing lunch, we were sad to learn that access to the beach was blocked. Construction crews were rebuilding the cobblestone road and sidewalk leading down to the beach, so the beach was closed. It was so frustrating to see all that beauty and not be able to get a closer view. But we were very close to our goal for the day, so we got back to the car and drove down the coast to Odeceixe.

Odeceixe (pronounced O-da-saysh) was the real reason we rented the car.
Long before we left home, Cindy read about this tiny village on the west coast border between Alentejo and the Algarve and wanted to go. She asked everyone we met about Odeceixe and they all agreed it was beautiful. So how could we miss it?

The village is 3km from the coast, along a river that flows out to the ocean. We stopped in the village, found a room for the night (I think it was the first time the room was used this year) then drove down to the beach.

Although our guidebooks talked about walking along the river to the beach (the hike was what caught Cindy’s imagination) we drove rather than walked because, well, we’d already climbed a mountain in the morning. It was a good call, because there wasn’t really a trail along the river anyway. We would’ve just been walking on the roadside and it required a lot of climbing.

The beach at Odeceixe was splendid in every way. Restaurants, cafes and beach houses at the top of the cliff, a glorious clean, pristine beach down below, crashing surf and great light since it was almost sunset. This beach had the added bonus of a second freshwater beach where the river emptied into the ocean. We walked all over the ocean side, then followed the river upstream for a bit, waved hello to the fishermen on the opposite river bank and generally smiled a lot. It was a beautiful sunset in a gorgeous setting. We drove back to the village, ate a pizza and drank too much wine at a cafe in the village square, I sampled some of the local hooch (a liquor I can’t pronounce mixed with honey – delicious) and we staggered back to our room and fell asleep instantly. What a full day.

Evora: Step Back. Way Back.

Hi.  I’ve been having a terrible time this week getting photos up to the website.  First Cindy had a problem with her camera (fixed) then I can’t seem to get strong enough WIFI for the pictures to upload.  

Rather than wait, and forget where I was or what I was doing, I’m going to post some updates picture free.  Then when I get pictures loaded, I’ll post a photo gallery or something.  Sorry about that!  Mark.

Update: let’s try this.  Here’s a link to a photo gallery of our Evora pictures.

Now, here’s what happened in Evora…

 

As the skies cleared from the afternoon rain shower, we left Estremoz and headed back to Evora. Evora is the capital of the Alentejo region and is a sight to behold when you come in the late afternoon, from the northeast, and gaze upon the hill and the cluster of white walled houses gleaming in the sun. Then you pass under a massive aqueduct that trails off into the countryside, ride alongside the tall city walls and finally pass through the walls, on foot, to your flat in the inner city. It’s romantic as all get out. Cindy and I bounced along the Main Street into the city, then through a maze of progressively narrower alleyways until we met Maria, our Airbnb host, and got the keys to our apartment.

Compared to our cramped top floor flat in Lisbon, Maria’s apartment was massive. We entered into a large living/dining room with our bedroom off the side. To our right was a massive kitchen with stone floors and an ancient chimney over the stove, a large marble sink and a 10 foot ceiling. Maria works in a restaurant and clearly loves food because the kitchen was laid out for serious cooking. The bathroom was through the kitchen at the back of the building.

The only challenge with Maria’s apartment was that, like Evora outside, and Alentejo in general, it was COLD! The region is designed for the long, hot, dry summers and the buildings are designed to stay cool. Portuguese people just bundle up and get through winter, I guess. So there’s no central heating and no way to really get the house warm. So we wore our outdoor clothes inside again and dreamed of buying sweaters and slippers once the shops opened.

There was no way Maria’s tiny portable heater was going to subdue her large apartment, so we closed the door to the kitchen, sacrificing it and the bathroom to the cold. We propped the heater between the living room and bedroom and let ‘er rip. With the help of a few blanket/shawls we were fine. So long as we remembered to put on shoes when heading to the bathroom.

Evora is very old. That is to say, there’s been a city on this hill for a very long time. It was a major centre in Roman times. There are ruins of a temple at one of the high points of the city, and the remains of a Roman bath under City Hall. But the current city was built on top of the Roman plan in the 1500s AD. That’s right, what we’re looking at and walking around is ‘only’ 500 years old.

Evora has an intact set of city walls, so the population of 40,000 either lives “inside the walls” or “outside the walls.” Although with everyone living on compact streets and in tiny apartments, I suspect a great majority of people still live inside the walls.

Because Evora is built on a hill, with all roads leading to the central square, it helps to imagine the city like a clock. The square is in the centre of the dial, but stretches across the face towards 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. The Roman era Temple of Diana is still in the middle, but towards 9 o’clock. The Cathedral is just to the left of centre, and the wide “central” square is more to the right, toward 3 o’clock. With me? Then let’s take a tour.

We came into Evora from the bus depot, outside the city walls, right at the bottom (6 o’clock.) Our apartment was right near the entry to the walled city, but let’s say at 7 o’clock. But our first adventure was a further away, right at 9 o’clock beside the temple of Diana. That’s where we found the aqueduct.

Growing cities need lots of clean, drinkable water to feed its population. And in hot, dry Alentejo, the lack of drinking water was really holding Evora back. So the Romans built an aqueduct to carry water from the river in the hills 15km outside town. That is to say, they built a 15km long gravity fed stone water trough that steadily and consistently flows down from springs in the distant hills to the end point high up in the hill city of Evora.

After the fall of Rome, the aqueduct fell into disrepair, but was rebuilt in the 1500’s and again in the 1800’s. It still looks ancient and amazing.

We found the endpoint of the aqueduct near the ruins of the Temple of Diana. Even though at some points the structure towers 30 feet overhead, the endpoint is a small building no more than 6 feet above ground. But from there the structure extends along the street, outside town, then turns left and runs past a convent and into the hills.

While the land rises and falls, the aqueduct must maintain a steady slope, dropping at most 10m every kilometre. So at times, the structure is quite low to the ground, or even goes underground in places. But when the land falls away, the aqueduct is the largest thing in the landscape.

We followed its path along the road, around the convent, and through farmer’s fields for 4 kilometres until we’d had enough. The sun was setting soon and we were a good distance out of town, so we found a road that would loop back to the 6 o’clock gate into the walled city and followed it home. We climbed quite a bit into the hills while following the aqueduct, so the downhill stroll home was a nice treat. It was an idyllic evening, cool and clear. We even had to stop for a herd of cows to cross the road to get back to the barn. 60 cows and calves with a single farmer following behind and calling instructions to the herd. How lovely!

The next day, we spent a lot of time walking and exploring the side streets off the main square. We saw the temple of Diana and walked up to the massive Cathedral, then down to the University of Evora (2 o’clock), which dates to the 1700’s and is right at the edge of the city walls. We found a very cute pastelaria near the University that was so good we tried to go again the next day, and got wonderfully lost before giving up. Then we turned the corner and there is was. Many of the pastry shops get all their products from the same bakeries, but our favourite was different. The lady behind the counter was the same lady who did all the baking and was in the dozens of pictures on the wall, each time posing with a local celebrity.

Around from the University toward the southeast corner of the city (4 o’clock) is a wonderful, large public garden. When the cities are full of buildings and cobblestones and cathedrals and ruins, it’s nice to have a green space. In the afternoons especially, the park was full of kids playing and people just hanging out at one of the several bar kiosks throughout the park.

A word now for these amazing green beacons of joy. Throughout Portugal, in parks, plazas and public squares, you will find a tiny green kiosk with small tables and red chairs in front. These tiny oases are fully stocked – ice cream, candy, water, espresso, wine, beer and a fully stocked bar. Some even have newspapers and magazines and lotto tickets. Often they even have a TV on in the corner showing a soccer game. What an immensely civilized structure! I have yet to pass one without smiling and I can’t pass three without stopping for an espresso. Why are there not 7 of these spaced around Wascana Lake?!?!

On our final morning in Evora, Cindy arranged a special treat. She contacted a retired University professor named Libanio Merteira Reis to take us on a tour of some sites around Evora that were very old indeed. Much, much older than the Romans. Before the dawn of recorded history, even.

Archeologists have found evidence of settlements on the Iberian Peninsula from the Neolithic age. That is, from the time of the very first humans, over 30,000 years ago. And the area around Evora contains some of the best discoveries on the peninsula.

After some context setting at a local museum, we took off into the country in Libanio’s Volvo. Our first stop was a cave near Escaurol. In 1963, some quarrymen blasted a hillside to loosen it up a little and found a cave entrance. Inside the entrance were human bones. Archeologists took a look at the remains and the cave beyond and realized that the bones were, in the whole scheme of things, rather recent additions.

What the miners had really created was a new ‘back door’ into a sanctuary where it is believed that early humans have gathered for tens of thousands of years. But they would have entered through a long, narrow tunnel that opened up into this larger sanctuary.

Tours to the Escaurol caves are tightly controlled. Only around 1000 people are allowed in each year, so we felt very fortunate to be allowed inside. In the sanctuary are faint paintings and etchings in the rock wall. Horses heads, pregnant cattle and other symbols. They are very tough to see and many are covered over in places due to calcification on the cave wall. But still, we’re talking the very, very beginning of human civilization. These markings are from a time when humans first started to settle in one place; to move from being hunter-gathers to forming communities.

After we left the cave and continued our drive through the beautiful Alentejo countryside, Libanio told us that these caves were used as burial chambers for the mightiest members of the group. And when a cave wasn’t available, the community would build a structure called a ‘dolman’ to replicate a cave. We were off to see a very large dolman now.

So I’m sure you know about the pyramids in Egypt, right? Massive burial chambers, really. So now imagine a very similar things being built, several thousand years earlier, in what is now Spain and Portugal. Huge stone slabs cut from local hills, hauled and stacked to form a round structure with an opening facing the sunrise. A hallway extending the opening, built of smaller stones. Then cap stones over the whole thing. And then, the entire structure being buried to create an artificial hill, with an artificial cave inside. That’s a dolman.

Over the centuries, the soil around the dolman eroded, exposing the stones. We were able to climb up the back side and see inside (the cap stone was dragged off and broken by an early archeologist many years ago.) Each of the side stones was truly huge – at least 12-15 feet above ground. Now, 10,000 years later, it looks like a pile or rocks, until you realize that people had to cut them with only Copper Age tools and haul them without the invention of a wheel. Remarkable.

Our final destination on the tour was a Really Big Deal. The Megaliths – a group of 90 standing stones set in an oval pattern to denote the changing of the seasons. Similar in purpose to the other standing stone sites like Stonehenge, but 3,000 years older than their more famous English cousin. And with several of the stones having engravings and symbols on them that are still visible if the light is right.

And here’s the thing. You can walk right up to them. Walk around them. Contemplate them. Think of what they mean and how the site was used. I hear there’s a big rope around Stonehenge so you can’t get close, but we could take a rubbing on the stones if we wanted to (we didn’t!). With the exception of the Escaurol caves, all these sites were free, open and fully accessible. Fun and scary at the same time.

The private tour with Libanio was our first ‘big ticket’ item of our trip but it was oh so worth it. Libanio helped us put our visit to Evora into real context. Yes, we were tracing the steps of the Romans and the Renaissance Portuguese, but in Evora we were also retracing the steps of some of the very earliest human settlements.

It really got me thinking about my life in Regina. I mean, we tell people that Regina is just over 100 years old. And yes, there were the First Nations people before that. But I remember a visit I took to the petroglyphs near Willow Bunch when I was a kid. I need to get back there soon and reconnect to the first peoples of North America too.

That’s what I was thinking after Libanio dropped us off in Evora mere minutes before our bus out of town. We were leaving Alentejo and heading south, into the Algarve. But that’s for another post.

Estremoz:  To Market, To Market

Although there was much more to see around Lisbon, it was Friday so it was time to move on.  We found our way along the metro to the bus station and booked our tickets to Estremoz.  

Estremoz is a very small town in the Alentejo region of Portugal, that is, the south central region of Portugal that borders Spain to the east and the Algarve to the south.  “Alentejo” means “beyond” and refers to the area beyond Lisbon and the Tagus river.  It is an extremely beautiful area, especially for a Saskatchewan boy who has been dealing with the crowds of Lisbon.  Rolling hills, fields surrounded by stone walls, farmhouses with white walls and courtyards and grassland dotted with cork trees.  Open space but with lots to gaze upon too.

I didn’t get the history of it, but Estremoz must have lots and lots of marble nearby.  The entire town is beautiful, pink marble.  The cobblestone sidewalks are small pieces of pink marble.  The curbs are small slabs of marble.  Heck, the bus station is all marble!  Harbour Landing homeowners would be seeing kitchen countertops at every intersection.

 

Marble Bus Dept, Estremoz
 
Estremoz is a compact town on top of a hill with great views of the surrounding farmland.  And what does one put on top of a hill with great views of the surrounding territory?  A castle, of course!  Estremoz castle isn’t as big as Castelo Palmela, but it’s got all one needs; narrow, winding streets weaving their way up to the castle, walls surrounding the castle and church with a nice walking path around most of the hill, and a gorgeous set of steps down to the town centre.  

  
Most of the castle and church has been turned into a pousada, a state run hotel and restaurant complex for people much wealthier than I.  Many of the castles and churches in the country have been converted to pousadas in order to fund their upkeep.  It’s certainly a different way to see the country than our Airbnb apartments and guest houses.  I don’t begrudge the wealthy their comforts, because the pousadas were nice to look at on our way to the town square and our modest room for the night.

  
We booked a room at the Hotel O Gahdana, a two star hotel just off the main square which was recommended in Cindy’s guide book.  At 40€ for the night it was a tiny splurge but was well worth it.  It was a mansion compared to our tiny flat in Lisbon; wide hallway, spacious room and a shower that let me stand upright.  And the staff were amazing.  Only the night supervisor spoke any English, but we listened hard, played a bit of charades and worked everything out with the day crew.  

 

Imagine getting off the bus, crossing the square, and realizing there is your hotel. Wonderful!
 
We also got to play charades at the tiny restaurant down the street where we went for supper.  We held out till 7:30PM but were still the first customers of the night, although the five other tables filled up soon after.  We did our best to navigate the Portuguese menu; Cindy knew she was getting fish and I knew I ordered pork, but beyond that we had no idea.  It didn’t matter.  Both plates were huge and delicious.  Two big plates, plus bread and wine, plus the desert of the house (which was delicious) for under 25€.  Incredible.   I’m pretty sure a 1/2 litre of local wine was 3€, which is so cheap I wish I could handle a litre.

  
But, the real reason we came to Estremoz wasn’t for the castle, or the wine.  It was for the market!  Each Saturday, Estremoz is home to one of the largest farmer’s markets in all of Portugal.  Cindy set an alarm for this one.  We weren’t going to miss it.

  
Now you have to remember, early March is still late winter in Portugal.  There’s not much on offer, or so they told us.  But I’ll tell you what, there was more selection at the Estremoz market than most Regina farmers markets.  Huge bins of oranges, lemons, potatoes, carrots, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. Strawberries!  Peppers! Winter squash so big that they sold them buy the chunk.  One fellow even had a basket of huge avocados from his two trees.  

  
There were baskets of eggs that you could pick out and put in the carton yourself.  Some grandmas just sat on a bench with a basket of eggs to sell.  They didn’t even need a stall.  

  
There were several stands selling local sausages and cheese.  One fellow had large slabs of pork fat and was cutting chunks for the ladies to take home.  

   
   
And some of it was live!  There was a row of sellers with chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits in cages.  We learned this is prime rabbit season and were a little scared of one old gentleman who gave his rabbit a good looking over before agreeing to take him home.  I thought he was going to ring its neck right then and there. Over the course of the morning dozens of people took their Sunday dinner home in a cardboard box with airholes cut out.

  
Midway through the morning, we got another treat.  There was an off-road racing event just out of town, so all the trucks in the event held a parad through town.  Three laps of honour around the square.  I thought it was an incredible racket, but lots of the old fellows stopped to have a look.  (In the afternoon, there was a second parade of muddy trucks, but not near as many people stayed to see that one.)

   
  

It wasn’t just the fellows watching the trucks!
 
We discovered our new favourite market snack.  It’s called Fartura and is the Portuguese version of a churro, or beaver tail, or elephant ear.  Fried dough in sugar.  What could be better?

There were two Fartura stands.  One run by an old couple (Sir fried the dough while Madam mixed the batter, portioned out the Fartura and took the money.) This booth had a line all day long.  We waited 10 minutes and we were lucky.  The other stand was run by a young man and I never saw a single person go to that stand.  There’s an interesting story there but my Portuguese isn’t strong enough to get the scoop.

The unique trick to Fartura is the batter is squeezed out in a continuous, circular spiral, flipped as a single unit, then cut (by madam) into long sticks and then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. Two sticks made up one portion and most people bought two or three portions to take home. We tucked into ours before we had even left the line. Delicious!

  

There was so much more to the market.  One seller specialized in pet birds, from tiny chickadees to peacocks.  There were many plant growers selling bedding plants (they’d pull 20 plugs of lettuce or carrot or tomato seedlings, put them all in a plastic bag and sell them for 1€) and fruit trees.  I would’ve bought an orange tree for 7.50€ but it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.

  
And finally, beside the farmer’s market was a flea market; row after row of antiques, used books, pottery and clothes.  There was even a man selling a table full of Russian cameras and Soviet military hats.

   
 But my favourite sellers, bar none, were the three young girls selling cake by the slice.  They had baked three cakes at home and had them displayed on a wooden table.  For 1€, you got a slice of the cake of your choice, cut to order and wrapped in a napkin.  The Regina health inspector would pass a large stone at the thought, but I’ll tell you what, we put the paper wrapped cake in Cindy’s pack and ate it a day or so later.  I’m still able to write about it and never even got the shakes.  

  
By around 12:30 it had started to rain, so all the sellers packed up and headed to the bars, pastelarias and snack bars around the square for a drink and bite to eat.  We ducked into a pastelaria too, for coffee, hot chocolate, a pastry and a box of cookies for the afternoon bus to Evora.  It’s only a one hour ride, but you can never be too prepared.  Emergency cookies are an important component of every traveler’s kit.

 

Good Day at the Market!
 
   
Farewell Estremoz. Already one of our favourite places.
 

Descent From Palmela And Another Magical Meeting

In our last episode, our intrepid travellers embarked on an adventure full of distant train stations, steep switchbacks, and chance meetings with intensely interesting people.  But it was time to hit “post” and they were still on top of Castelo Palmela, trying to determine their next move.  Will they make it down in one piece?  Will Cindy ever see Setubol?  Will Mark get his mid-afternoon espresso?  Read on…

It was getting toward 6pm and our amazing day in Palmela had to end. We were tired, footsore and hungry. Reluctantly, we made for the train station.  

But we were also feeling extra happy and brave, so we decided to take the gravel short cut back to the train station. Remember, it was on the map app, and we could see the path clear as day. So off we went, hand in hand. We were walking through the Portuguese countryside, just as we had dreamed, and if it was only for a few kilometres between towns that was just fine.

 

What comes up must go down, right?
 
Things got a little interesting though, when the map showed a fork in the road and we couldn’t see the fork. Oh there it is – our route was no longer a road, but a walking path. Then a little further, it got smaller still, to a single bike track. Then the barbed wire fences and the ‘Private Property’ signs. (At least I think that’s what they said, they were in Portuguese.)
Soon, the muddy descent on a now washed out path. But the path is on an app! It has to be real! As we descended the hill, the fences kept narrowing towards us on the left and right. We were being funnelled to a point, but couldn’t tell if there was a break in the fence at the point.  Just when I figured I’d have to boost Cindy over some barbed wire, there was a break in the fence so we didn’t have to wreck our new travel clothes. At least not this time.

  

Finally, we were near some houses again. Gated estates, actually. With high walls and lots of noisy dogs, enraged at the intrusion on their domain by two tasty looking Canadians who straggled down the back of their property. Luckily, the path (which had now widened to a trail again) led between two of these estates and we nervously stumbled back onto the highway. Right near a McDonalds no less. We were in Aires again, and limped the final 2 km to the station relieved that we actually knew where we were going. No more map apps tonight. 

Looking back up the hill. I looked easier from the top!

We stumbled on the train and headed back to Lisbon.  I was so tired.  I tried to watch the three young folks play cards beside us but could never figure out their game, and besides, I kept nodding off in the middle of the hand.  But I was also very, very hungry.  We resolved to find a place to eat between our metro station and the big hill right before our flat, no matter what.

There was an interesting looking side alley just before the big hill that Cindy had wanted to check out all week, so this time we went down.  It quickly forked into two even smaller allies, with three restaurants all in a row (left side, middle point and right side.) Left side was too fancy; white tablecloths and black aprons.  The middle point looked really good, but only had empty tables outside, and we were too cold to eat outdoors tonight.  

Right side was different.  Colourful.  Lively music you could hear from the street.  Tables mostly full, but room indoors.  Menu on a chalkboard.  We figured why not and went inside. Called Tas’Ka, it looked like a coffee bar or lunch counter that had been repurposed to be  a restaurant.  But it sure smelled good.  

They serve African food that is representative of the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique.  It had only been open for a week and all the food was created and cooked by a lady we could watch from our seats. She was legit; cooking Real African Food,  just like mom and grandma.  At least according to Anna Dika, the lady seated beside us, who is without a doubt the biggest fan of Tas’Ka.  

Over the course of or meal, Anna helped us order and checked in on every course to make sure we liked it (we did.)  She was appalled that we were drinking water, so got us two glasses of wine so we could taste the food properly.  When we didn’t order one of her favourite dishes, she made sure our waiter brought some by to taste.  

If that wasn’t enough, it turned out that tonight was our waiter Clarence’s birthday.  Anna and six or seven other people were at the restaurant to make sure Clarence was celebrating properly.  Cake was served.  Shots were poured.  Songs were sung, including Portuguese Happy Birthday, which we were lucky enough to know already (we learned the Brazilian version and it was close enough.) So we made two new friends and had cake too.

Once our bellys were completely full, and Anna had filled my notebook with places to eat in Alentejo (our next destination), we were allowed to leave Tas’Ka.  We got back to our flat and were fast asleep in under 10 minutes, I’m sure.  

What a day! Other than seeing the castle in Palmela, we didn’t do a single thing we had planned.  But we had a month’s worth of adventures in a single day.  That’s what travel is all about – I just never thought it would happen to me.  But I really hoped it would.  I’m a lucky guy.