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.