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 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.


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.