PORTUGAL AGAIN (AND JUST AS LOVELY)

Gorgeous cove near Porto Covo
Gorgeous cove near Porto Covo

It’s been a while since my last blog and I‘m not sure where to start. We’ve stayed at fourteen places since Cordoba and gone from Spain to Portugal. We’ve met up with Christine and Nick in Vilamoura, Paul and Karen in Olhão, Helen, Bob, Paul and Tracy in Alvor, Carlos in Guia and Camilla in Sines so it’s been a fun and sociable time (and probably why I haven’t had the chance to write sooner!).

Highlights? Lots of highlights which are too numerous to detail, but the big one is the weather. This time last year we were here, having just embarked on our big adventure, Portugal was having it’s wettest Spring since records began. This year it’s in the grip of an extreme drought. We’ve seen a few barragems (reservoirs) and they are looking quite low, when I would have assumed they should be full after winter. Even though the countryside is looking very green compared to Spain, the Algarve is on red alert for wildfires as there has been no rain for so long. Since 65 people died in wildfires in 2017, new measures have been introduced. Landowners will now be fined if they do not keep their land free of brushwood. (Though right now due to the conditions, all such burning is banned in case it spreads). Eucalyptus trees, which Portugal has everywhere, are the bête noire of the countryside. Their sap is flammable, as is their flaky bark which acts as cinders carried on the wind and sets off new fires. Villages and towns throughout Portugal have been told to cut down all the surrounding Eucalyptus trees and plant a different type of tree. I digress… I started by saying how nice the weather is and now I’ve gone off on a tangent and researched all about the evils of non-native Eucalyptus trees. I’m not a Portuguese farmer but a sun-worshipping Brit, so I can’t lie – I like that the sun is out every day. However I hope they get what they need sooner than later.

Barragem da Bravura
Barragem da Bravura

Another highlight is how amazing the South-West Coast of Portugal is. No one told me how beautiful it would be. It is wild and windy as it gets the full brunt of the Atlantic here and the cliffs and churning seas are exhilarating to experience. Even so, we’ve had sunshine and warmth every day. The national park has an abundance of flowers and birds and there is a trail called the Rota de Vicentina which follows 2 routes – a coastal ‘Fishermans’ route that is 125km long and popular with hikers. It runs in five stages. There is also a ‘Historical’ inland route at 230km which goes through several villages and is completed in twelve stages. There are a network of hostels that are no more than 25km apart so that each of the stages can be walked in a day. I’d love to walk this trail if I ever get the chance.  On top of that, the entire length of the coast is blessed with some really beautiful beaches and coves. The dark and craggy rock formations often remind me of Cornwall.

Part of the Rota Vicentina hiking trail at Carrapateira
The Rota Vicentina hiking trail at Carrapateira

 

A fab parking spot next to the lagoon at Carrapateira
A fab parking spot next to the lagoon at Carrapateira

I’ve been running too, which makes me feel brilliant (mainly afterwards it has to be said). I run between 2-3 miles, 4 days per week and I love the way it makes me get out and see more of my surroundings. I am very visual and love taking in the beauty of a place and I also have to confess I get bored easily – running somewhere different every time keeps me hooked. I’ve even inadvertently inspired Tim to join me. He’s a much faster runner than me but finds that the slower pace of my runs is good for preventing recurrences of achilles tendon and calf muscle niggles he’s prone to.

Bodger and Charlie have been enjoying nature too. We’ve been seeking out lagoons and coves with calmer waters than the rough surf you get on some of the big exposed beaches. Bodger has been swimming every day and we are starting to get blasé about white sandy beaches and turquoise waters. It’s a hard life I know !

Praia da Mareta at Sagres - surfers' paradise
Praia da Mareta at Sagres – surfers’ paradise

I loved Sagres which is right down in the furthest corner of Portugal – a bit like our Lands End. It has it’s fair share of international tourists, but oh my it is so beautiful with a space and expansiveness that I love. The beaches are awesome and we spent a happy couple of hours over a Sagres beer or two, watching the surfers try to tame the white-crested Atlantic rollers! On another beach we marvelled at the contorted golden rock formations and explored caves with a perfectly flat slanted roof.

A beach cave at Praia do Beliche
Beach cave at Praia do Beliche

 

Looking out from the cave
Looking out from the cave

 

Flora of the Cape at Sagres
Flora of the Cape at Sagres

 

Cabo de São Vicente, Sagres (the Land's End of Portugal)
Cabo de São Vicente, Sagres (the Land’s End of Portugal)

We were also introduced by my aunt Camilla to Sines, a town 80 miles north of Sagres. The Rough Guide slates it because it is dominated by heavy industry plants with refineries either side and a dock with huge container ships coming and going constantly. However we were to discover it was almost totally free of tourists and has a very pretty old town, a castle and a beautiful seafront with a golden sandy beach. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of Vasco de Gama, the famous navigator who was the first person to establish a sea route to India in 1494. The local Vasco de Gama driving school must be – as Tim says – for particularly ambitious motorists.

Vasco de Gama was born in Sines
Vasco de Gama was born in Sines

 

View over the sea front at Sines
View over the sea front at Sines

 

Martha and Camilla in Sines
Martha and Camilla, Sines

We went out for a meal on the first evening and tried a place with a simple art deco exterior that looked like it hadn’t changed in a century. On entering the restaurant, we were ushered into the kitchen to look at what was in the pots on the hob, one with garlic chicken and one with rabbit piri piri. That was the menu. We chose (I like having less choice it’s so easy) and the food was really tasty and they were fantastic hosts. The whole meal for three of us with wine, dessert and coffee came to €30.

Low points? Thankfully there haven’t been that many as we’ve mainly been having a blast. But I got quite ill all of a sudden in Alvor. We’d been out for a few spontaneous beers with some fellow Brit MoHo owners we’d just met, and drank a bit more than planned. Anyway the next day I was struck down by something that was much worse than a hangover (even by my standards!). It was the same thing that I got once last year in Italy and was what felt like a violent attack of nausea, dizziness and light sensitivity that lasted all day and night. The only option was to lie completely still in bed with all the blinds up. Since recovering and reading up on it I’m beginning to think it’s a Silent Migraine (e.g. all the symptoms except the headache). It took a full 3 days of acute fatigue and sleeping a lot before I felt better again. I will get myself to the Docs when we get back.

Our ill-fated spot at the pretty Ilha de Pessegueiro
Our ill-fated spot at the pretty Ilha de Pessegueiro

Another thing happened the other day. We found an idyllic cove overlooking an island with a ruined castle on it called Ilha de Pessegueiro. There was an inviting-looking restaurant and we asked the nice old lady owner was it OK if we ate at the restaurant we could park overnight there? She said yes and later on we had a really delicious seafood Cataplana – which is a Portuguese speciality of seafood stew. However we were to have the rudest awakening at 4.30am when we were jolted from our sleep by a loud knocking on our door and the sound of an engine just outside the van. The GNR (Portuguese police) had parked their 4×4 landcruiser perpendicular to the van and the headlamps shone directly at our habitation door.  If they intended these actions to be unpleasant then they certainly achieved their objective. At that point, we realised we must have camped in a place in which it was not allowed, although they never actually spelled out our crime. Instead we were handed a piece of paper saying we would receive a €200 fine ! We told them the restaurant owner said it was OK and it was only for one night, but he simply said it was not our day and he was under orders to hand out fines.

The next morning we were both very out of sorts. I couldn’t bring myself to go out for my scheduled run. We were in an idyllic beauty spot but had been given misleading information by the locals and paid the price. This seemed very unjust as it was our first visit to the area and we always obey signs if they say no overnight camping (there weren’t any). I’ve read a few first hand reports in the app we use (Park4night) of campers being fined elsewhere (usually in high season) and have never heard of a 4.30am wake-up. It’s usually later on in the morning. I couldn’t help but think the old lady must have known it was not OK to stay overnight so why didn’t she say ? Or had someone in the restaurant reported us? We’ll never know. Since then we’ve seen a spot a couple of kilometres up the road which is awash with about 20 MoHos overnighting. It’s not meant to be legal but clearly the GNR are turning a blind eye so the mystery deepens. However, we’re not taking any chances and have checked into a rather swish campsite called Camping Costa do Vizir in the pretty village of Porto Covo, where we have the place almost to ourselves. The joy of out of season campsites!

Something which we’ve also had to be very careful about are Processionary caterpillars. These are highly toxic little critters who nest in pine trees in what look like white candy-floss cocoons. At around this time of year (Feb-April), they process – very slowly and head to tail in a line – down the tree and towards a patch of earth where they burrow and wait to turn into moths. They are fatal to pets if ingested and can cause intense pain and irritation if touched. They are so dangerous that this is the recommended method for disposing of a nest in a pine tree:

  1. Spray the nest with hairspray to seal it

  2. Cover the nest with a plastic bag. 

  3. Cut off the entire branch

  4. Burn it all


The recommended method for disposing of them once in a procession is even worse: douse them with lighter fluid and set light to them. I even feel a bit sorry for them now.

We once found a great place to camp overlooking a beach at Quarteira but an hour after we arrived, I glanced up at the bedroom skylight to be greeted by the sight of a single Processionary Caterpillar. This put the heebie jeebies into me. We were directly under a pine tree and surrounded by lots of other pine trees – potentially with a lot of other caterpillars all ready to come down and process to wherever they wanted to. Despite this being a prime spot to park and completely free, Tim took the executive decision to scarper. Pronto. With two dogs, the risk was just too great. From then on, all parking spots were judged by the primary criteria of proximity to pine trees and the risk of caterpillars. So far thankfully there has been no more close contact with them (touchwood).

We’re now about six weeks away from our return to the UK (having extended our time away when we discovered that the dogs’ EU Pet Passports would be valid regardless of the Brexit outcome). Our plan is to travel back through coastal Portugal, then Spain and then after exploring the area north-west of Cadiz and Tarifa, strike north, through the interior towards Zaragoza and San Sebastian which are both places I’d love to go to. We’d like to hang on to the warmer weather in the south as long as possible, and are hoping that by the time we reach France, we’ll arrive at the same time as Spring/early Summer. Not sure what route we’ll take though France, but I’d love to return to Brantôme which has a fabulous aire on the edge of a stunning medieval village. I also wouldn’t mind exploring the Atlantic coast a bit more. As always, we’ll be guided by the weather as to where we choose to go. That’s the joy of being free to make our minds up as we go along !

Our tranquil parking spot overlooking the barragem
Our tranquil parking spot overlooking the Barragem de Bravura