The wild west and beyond

Saturday11th February 2006, Olhão, Algarve, Portugal
Retirement is washing your nightie in Spain and drying it in Portugal! Several days have passed since our last entry about Cadiz and we have moved on into Portugal.

Last Thursday we decided we would need to stay put for the day. Jill had developed one of her occasional chronic sore throats and did not feel up to coping with the hazardous motorways around Seville that provide the only route on from this corner of Spain - north of Cadiz is a massive area of reclaimed, silted-up marshland with no routes across, providing a habitat for wildlife and protected as one of Spain’s major national parks - the Parque National de Doñana.

So we contented ourselves with a leisurely morning of domestic chores – this site had hot water for washing clothes and we had a brand new bucket to play with, having split the previous one through too much use! Later we walked into the pleasant town of Puerto de Santa Maria to further investigate its streets of lovely 18th century merchants, houses, its sherry bodegas, riverside and port activities. Unfortunately the local museums turned out to only be open until lunchtime. There are several, covering local history and writers and any would have been of interest. Instead, we discovered our Spanish had improved sufficiently to order a couple of glasses of dry sherry and a dish of olives and actually get exactly what we meant without question! So we sat like true Brits, passing the afternoon on a terrace knowing how lucky we were not to be at work, while Jill soothed her throat with the local produce.

The Bull Ring, Puerto de Santa Maria

Iglesia San Francisco, Puerto de Santa Maria

Iglesia Mayor Prioral, Puerto de Santa Maria

18th century houses, including the town museum, Puerto de Santa Maria

Juan de la Cosa, pilot to Columbus and native of Puerto de Santa Maria

Commemorating the first map to show America, drawn up in Puerto de Santa Maria by Juan de la Cosa

Returning to Modestine in the evening we also discovered our Spanish had improved sufficiently to query our shopping bill! Everything was very amicable, simply a computer error, but we left several euros better off than we otherwise would have been.

Our blogsite seems to have stirred happy holiday memories amongst several of you and we have received a number of suggestions of places we should visit as we travel around the Iberian Peninsular. Unfortunately these sometimes reach us too late, when we are already beyond the suggested point. However, having been told twice that the Doñana nature reserve was not to be missed we determined to visit. So yesterday we were up before dawn, and, stuffing our still damp laundry into a plastic bag, we headed north across a flat agricultural landscape to the town of San Lúcar de Barrameda right on the estuary of the Rio Guadalquivir. This is the starting point for a boat trip up the river and a guided exploration of the wetlands and sandbanks. Regrettably, despite the publicity to the contrary, the boat was not running until Sunday and in any case it had started doing what it does so very well in Spain – raining. So we looked round the display in the former ice factory which is now the headquarters of the National Park and, as the town appeared to have little else to recommend it, we decided to face the ordeal of circumnavigating Seville. After Valencia Jill is terrified of getting swept into the centre of Spanish cities and having already visited Seville twice recently by public transport, we did not wish to end up there again with Modestine. (Our blog of Seville will be added at a later date.)

Headquarters of Doñana National Park in the former ice factory, San Lúcar de Barrameda

In the event all went fairly smoothly. We used the motorway and soon found ourselves heading towards Huelva and the border with Portugal. Another suggestion, from Lynne Osborne, was that we should visit El Rocio on the far side of the Doñana National Park. Having driven for many kilometres around the periphery we now turned off along one of the few roads that cut through the edge of it. This was not at all pretty, being entirely fenced in along the entire 20 km route to El Rocio, presumably the animals, plants and birdlife lived happily on the far side but all we could see were the ubiquitous pine trees and sand dunes that constitute the entire seaboard hinterland of this part of Spain. There is nowhere to stop or even pull in for a moment on Spanish roads which are generally built up high, almost like dykes, with deep drops to either side. Further more, to keep speeds low there are noisy concrete strips and traffic humps every few metres right through the park. Modestine can only cope with these at around 15 miles an hour so Jill was really exhausted with gear changing by the time we finally reached El Rocio

At first this looked like a typical Spanish town under construction, but we’d been warned it was odd. There were absolutely no roads anywhere, just soft sandy tracks between white walled, pink roofed buildings that are so quintessentially Spanish. They appeared to be grouped in little clusters, each one being called a fraternity. The town remains a mystery to us. We never found a tourist office but it was certainly very strange. There were hitching rails around the town and lots of horsemen wearing cowboy style hats trotting through the streets on their horses. It really was rather like a wild-west town.

Street in El Rocio

Church of Our Lady of the Marshes, El Rocio

Nearby we discovered a pleasant lake with lots of birdlife. Here we had our picnic lunch before returning into the town to raid the bank – like they do in Westerns. Here though, we used a piece of plastic rather than a gun and were rather taken aback to receive an onscreen message in Spanish thanking Señor/a Maxted for his/her custom! (It’s the first time we’ve seen these machines pick up and display our name!)

We followed the strumming beat of Flamenco music towards one of the “fraternity” buildings to discover a delegation of Peugeot staff taking a lunch-time break from a conference they were attending. They all had orange ribbons with nametags hanging from their necks and were very smartly dressed. Inside the huge hall there were lots of ladies in pretty flamenco dresses dancing while several Spanish men played their guitars and sang. Around the room were tables piled high with lunchtime goodies and bottles of beer.

Hoping we looked like Peugeot representatives who had simply forgotten their labels we slipped inside and mingled. We watched the dancing, listened to the music and joined the queue to use the loo. (These cowboy towns don’t have public ones.) We thought we’d be pushing our luck to try the beer and cold meats though so just looked longingly – well, Jill did try out a particularly exciting sausage when no-one was looking, but only one slice.

Corporate entertainment, El Rocio

Outside there were huge mules, almost the size of horses, pulling traps through the sandy streets, driven by Spaniards in sombreros while colourfully clad señoritas with roses in their hair and wearing mantillas over their flamenco dresses posed for photoshots with the delegates.

El Rocio

El Rocio

El Rocio

We have no idea why Peugeot chose this venue for their conference. Were they launching a new model? There was a vast sandy area on the edge of the town completely filled with identical blue Peugeot cars in which the delegates later departed in a spectacular convoy. When we have time we will look up El Rocio on Google to discover what it is all about. Certainly a very strange place. Lynn said they had been feeding vultures with dead goats when she was there. Nothing like that today! All we saw were sparrows, cheekier than ourselves, helping themselves to leftovers at the feast.

Deciding we had better make some progress if we were to be back in Exeter in March we returned to the motorway and headed for Portugal. The first campsite we tried, near Tavira, was completely full, but we were directed to this site about 10 kilometres from Faro. We have visited this area once before, almost by chance, when we asked for the next flight out of Exeter to anywhere in Europe a couple of years ago. We didn’t even know where Faro was until then. On that occasion we took a bus from the airport and spent a couple of weeks exploring Seville, Lisbon and the Algarve. (Blog of this will go up in due course) Driving along yesterday, through an unknown landscape so far from home without knowing a word of the language, it was weird to suddenly recognise, near Tavira, the bus stop where we’d helped an elderly man with a wet umbrella onto the bus!

Crossing the Rio Guadiana into Portugal

So here we are in a peaceful corner of a large but pleasant site full of English, French, German and Dutch visitors who have mostly been here for weeks. It is well appointed and compared with Spain, incredibly cheap. We are paying less than 10 euros a night for both of us and Modestine, including showers and electricity. In Spain similar sites were nearly double the price.

We have tucked ourselves into a secluded corner on the edge of the site, too small for most camper vans but perfect for Modestine. Beyond the perimeter fence are the all pervasive dunes and pines with pretty purple and yellow flowers beneath. The sun is shining warmly and we have the permanent sound of birdsong with doves, sparrows, blackbirds and storks. Apparently, these dunes, which form part of the marshland nature reserve surrounding the estuary of the Ria Formosa at Faro, also provide a home to caimans! Ian assures Jill they are smaller than crocodiles but as she sits in the sunshine outside Modestine, she is grateful that there is actually a strong wire fence between the site and the dunes!

Ian has gone off for a bike ride on Bracket in the hope of finding a Portuguese-English phrase book. Apart from “Thank you” we cannot remember a word from our previous visit but having coped with Catalan and Spanish, Portuguese seems rather like another dialect rather than a different language. We are able to understand without difficulty the signs we see around but we feel very insignificant though when the charming Portuguese receptionist held conversations in French and English at the same time with customers! All that education and ability and she ends up sorting out problems for over wintering migrants too lazy to try learning any Portuguese when they return here every year!

Later, same site
We have spent a really lovely day around Olhão with our bikes, leaving Modestine enjoying the warm sunshine back on the campsite. Having cycled along the coast to the port we chained our bikes up near the marina and went off to explore the town. Being Saturday it was market day with many families strolling around. Portuguese sounds delightful and although we understood not a word, it was lovely watching and listening to the children as their parents took them to see the little lake in the seafront park with ducks, huge goldfish and dozens of terrapins. Nothing matters much when you are retired and the sun is shining, so we wandered along looking at the fishing boats, sitting on benches under palm trees, and wandering back through the narrow pedestrianised streets between the whitewashed, flat roofed houses of this little town of 12,000 inhabitants. The economy here is based entirely on fishing and apparently has the largest tuna fish processing works in Portugal, though we saw nothing of this, as it is presumably somewhere on the outskirts of the town. What we did see though were dozens of fish restaurants and the incredible fish market on the port. We are not great fish amateurs and nervous to buy any to cook in Modestine, but it seems to be the staple diet of the locals.

Fishing boat, Olhão

It was market day by the marina and we wandered amongst the stalls of vegetables, cheeses, dairy produce and meat. Then we discovered the fish hall! This was bigger than the all the rest of the market put together with huge piles of sword fish, eels, every sea fish imaginable, octopus, prawns and shell fish. Watching the vendors prepare the fish for customers was quite fascinating and their dexterity with knives terrifying!

Seaside market, Olhão

Portugal has a strange obsession with tiles. They festoon the facades of many of the houses in what they presumably consider an attractive manner. Originally this may have been the case, but many modern ones are garish, tasteless and rather peculiar to our taste. They do however help to inhibit graffiti. As we wandered around the interior of the town, exploring hidden corners that continuously led us on to explore the next little alleyway, we came across a small restaurant, well away from the quayside and busy with local people eating fish cooked whole on an open fire in the corner of the room. They were all drinking carafes of Portuguese red wine with their fish. Deciding it was time we started using our non-existent Portuguese we went in and looked hopeful. We were asked by signs if we wanted to eat. We nodded and somehow managed to communicate that we wanted meat rather than fish with a couple of beers rather than wine. Soon we were served beer with a dish of plump black olives and bread while our meat cooked along with the fish on the fire. This was served to us with salad and chips followed by coffee. The total bill was 12 euros – about £9.

While we were waiting for our meal to cook a Portuguese man at the next table dropped his glasses and couldn’t see to find them. Jill dived under the table to rescue them. It turned out he spoke a little English and was happy to try it out. He told us he ate regularly at the restaurant and it was now run by the daughter of the original owner. He taught us a few words of Portuguese so at least we can now say “please”, “thank you” and “some more red wine” so we should be okay. He also told us his mother had died at Christmas which was why he was wearing a black pullover as it is still the custom in Portugal to wear mourning.

We wished we had ordered fish when we saw the way everyone else was consuming it. We may go back again as it was a wonderful experience but we don’t know the names of all the different types of fish. The staff all ate in the restaurant too. We reckon they were cooking up everything that hadn’t been used at lunchtime as they were eating huge platefuls of various fish and getting through a good deal of red wine. They were a happy, cheerful, family concern and for us it was a delightful experience.

Next we set off in earnest to find a Portuguese/English phrase book. We really feel inadequate signing or, worse still, using English in the hope we will be understood. Having found and paid for the phrase book we were then able to ask the assistant if she had a guidebook to Portugal. The one in English was 10 years out of date and twice the price of the one in French. So we now have a French guidebook to the major sites of Portugal. It includes a dictionary so when we try reading a menu in future we will have to translate it into French and then English! Oh it’s fun travelling from country to country like this!

Olhão is not an ancient town, dating only from the 18th century. It does however have a very pleasant atmosphere with local people sitting around on benches chatting and enjoying the warm weather which they can take pretty much for granted. Portugal, like Spain, is a heavily religious country and the main church of Olhão, Nossa Senhora do Rosario, built by the fishermen during the 17th century, had a number of elderly ladies praying in front of its highly baroque altar this Saturday afternoon. (Most of their men folk – presumably the fishermen – were gathered in the local bars, more concerned with Benfica’s football prowess than their rosaries!)

Enjoying the February sunshine, Olhão

Nossa Senhora do Rosario, Olhão

Interior of Nossa Senhora do Rosario, Olhão

We cycled back to our campsite around dusk and ate outside Modestine. It is now 9 pm and we are still sitting outside using our computer by lamplight. There is a full moon and as yet we have not even needed our jackets! Can it really be only February?
The site is very quiet this evening, but that may well be because many couples have gone off to the St. Valentine’s day dinner-dance organised by the campsite management.

Some husbands have taken their wives to the St. Valentine’s dance!

Sunday12th February 2006, Olhão, Algarve, Portugal
Last night we set the alarm clock as we wanted to take the train along the coast to Tavira this morning. As we left the campsite on our bikes to cycle to the station the dawn was breaking and the birds making one hell of a racket in the pine trees. Why to doves and pigeons have such monotonous calls? We were surprised that there was absolutely no sign of life around the campsite but assumed everyone was sleeping off the effects of last night’s dinner-dance.

We reached the station a good 30 minutes early for our train having allowed ample time for getting lost on the way. Ian proudly tried out the Portuguese he’d learned last night, requesting a couple of return tickets to Tavira and was there a charge for taking our bikes on the train? No, the bikes went free and it was only 6 euros return for both of us. The cost of living in Portugal must be the lowest in Europe, far below Spain and about half what it would be in Britain. The ticket man seemed puzzled. The train wasn’t until 9.16 am. Yes, we knew that but didn’t have the language to explain why we were early.

We went to the little station café and joined some local Sunday morning commuters drinking strong black coffee. How laid-back this country is, we thought. The station clock was an hour slow and none of the trains arriving seemed to conform to the timetable! Our own train failed to arrive at 9am and we began to get fidgety. Suddenly light dawned for us! Portugal runs on the same time as Britain which is an hour behind Spanish time! We’ve been in the country two days and failed to notice! No wonder the ticket man thought we were odd folding our bikes up ready for the journey over an hour before it was due! We must have been cycling around the campsite this morning around 6am! Hope we didn’t disturb anyone!

Nevertheless we have had a lovely day and the Portuguese phrase book has been very well used. We cycled down into the historic centre of Tavira, a charming old town which claims to have 36 churches. All those we saw were lovely, white stuccoed buildings. Many had seen better days and needed restoration. The town dates back to the Roman period and was a Moorish settlement until recaptured in 1249. Much of its early grandeur was destroyed however, in common with so many old Portuguese towns, in the earthquake that struck Lisbon in 1755 sending shock waves right along the coast.

One of Tavira’s many churches

We spent a lovely morning exploring the centre and rediscovering places we had so much enjoyed on an earlier visit several years ago. (Our blog of this may follow eventually.) On the hill above the historic quarter we visited the remains of the Moorish castle offering lovely views over the town and the surrounding marshlands. It also has a beautiful garden with orange, lemon, pomegranate and banana trees and a collection of flowering shrubs from the various Portuguese colonies.

View from the castle at Tavira

After a cold beer in the public gardens by the river we crossed the bridge with our bikes to explore the streets on the opposite bank. Here the white buildings were crowded in along narrow cobbled streets. Many façades were hung with glazed Portuguese tiles in blues, greens and yellows. They are not really to our taste but very popular here. Many of the houses have lovely, tall, decorative white chimneys.

View across the River Séqua, Tavira

Houses fronted with glazed tiles (azulejos), Tavira

All along the coast there are marshes and lagoons, the sea lying several kilometres away, accessible only by boat. There are sand banks and islands off-shore protecting the lagoons with openings between them to the open sea. We cycled out as far as we could to the landing stage where the island boats are moored. Here the water teamed with fish and several local fishermen were pulling them out as fast as they could cast their lines. They had buckets full of jumping, twisting silver sardines.

Fishing from the landing stage, Tavira

On the way back we passed a parking area that had been completely taken over by French camper vans. There were maybe a hundred of them, out on the marshes in the hot sun. They seem to have arranged to meet there and one had a banner across its windscreen claiming “Convoi d’Anges Heureux” or “Convoy of happy angels.” French blog followers will appreciate the aural pun “convoi dangereux” or “dangerous cargo.”

Nearby were shallow lagoons with very many feeding birds. We are not ornithologists so recognised only oyster catchers, gulls, and flamingos. Even we are able to recognise a pink flamingo when we see it wading red-legged through the shallows with its ungainly neck and sieve-like beak down in the water. They were fascinating to watch but failed to come near enough for decent photos.

Salt marshes with flamingos, Tavira

Waiting at the station in the late afternoon for the train back, an elderly gentleman was fascinated to see us folding our bikes. He couldn’t stop chuckling at how small they folded. He wanted to know where we were going so we explained – in about four words of pigeon Portuguese - that we were camping at Olhão. Once on the train he kept pointing us out to other passengers and there was general delight that folding bikes were the perfect solution when camping. We then had an audience on the platform at Olhão watching us unfold them!

Hinge and Bracket wait for the train, Tavira

Two bronze figures – a monument to soldiers and their families outside the station, Tavira

All that was so friendly and nice. It was such a shame that cycling back it nearly turned very horrid when Ian stopped to take a photo of some particularly artistic graffiti. There is a superabundance of wall writing here. More than we have seen in any other country during recent travels. It is ugly, garish and generally makes estates and housing developments look run-down and unsavoury. Much of it though, is incredibly well done, with great skill and no sparing of paint. Alongside the railway line, beside an area of barren, weedy ground near some flats Ian propped up his bike, walked a few yards and put down his bag to take a photo. Seemingly from nowhere a young man appeared and headed straight for Ian’s bike. Fortunately Jill realised his intention and rushed back on hers, beating him to the bike. He then turned his attention to the bag on the ground, Ian being quite unaware of the drama taking place behind him. Jill shouted, being unable to let go of the bike, and Ian turned in the very nick of time to grab his bag before it disappeared along with our passports, USB sticks and documents! The young man then made off. It has been a very salutary lesson to us and could have been a disaster. Perhaps we have just been lucky so far, but we have received such a friendly welcome everywhere we have been, thoughts of robbery have not been uppermost in our minds. Portugal is far less affluent than the other countries we have visited and a young man living on a deprived housing development probably regards all the foreign visitors with their big campervans at the site along the road as fair game.

Anyway, we hope you think the quality of the graffiti was worth the trauma we went through to photograph it.

Graffiti, Olhão