Spain and Portugal

Well, where to begin? We’d had concerns that we might not get to sail on the date we had booked for. The week previously several sailings to the continent had been cancelled due to bad weather and we were on the first sailing to Spain of this year so as the gales continued we became more and more worried. As it happened we boarded in drizzly conditions but by the time we sailed the weather had brightened a little. On board we were lucky enough to get a cabin with a window so didn’t feel like we were stuck in a cupboard. The crossing itself was uneventful; we drank, ate, slept and eventually arrived in Santander. What a difference, the weather was beautifully sunny and warm. And, it stayed like that for most of our trip.

So, we set off from the port en route for Burgos, our first stop in Spain, and found ourselves on the most delightful roads to drive [very alpine, i.e. bendy and rising and falling a lot] which was great fun; we had decided we were going to avoid motorways so that we could see more of the countries as we passed through them. My views of Spain were coloured by my only other visits to the Costas and Mallorca. This trip has changed my opinions about Spain. It is a beautiful mountainous country with rich and varied scenery, sparsely populated, with the most wonderful towns and cities as a rule.

First stop Burgos. Got into town about mid afternoon with a warm welcome, 22 C as it happens. Settled into the hotel and went for a walk and to visit the cathedral. The cathedral is a splendid edifice full of amazing artefacts and I would heartily recommend anyone visiting the area to go. We must have spent hours inside and enjoyed every minute. Later had a Chinese meal, like you do. In the morning we drove up to the Castle….which was shut, apparently we were too early in the year for such a touristy thing. So we had a walk around the outside and enjoyed the panoramic views from the hill it was built on, had a picnic and set off again on our travels.

I must say here that I really came to appreciate how my French has improved. The frustration of not being able to hold a simple conversation with locals was immense. But I made progress in Spanish, I now know about ten words instead of just cerveza and gracias. The same held true for Portugal. We did listen to CDs on the road to teach ourselves a bit of each language but I’m sure it will all be gone by the time we’re back in England.

And so to Salamanca. On the way we took a detour and visited a town called Palencia. Modern in places it still had a lot of older features and a charming square, markets and cafes all very interesting. Then, onward to Valladolid. When we got into Valladolid we parked up and had a picnic near a fountain. After which we set out to find Cervantes house, didn’t take us too long. But, guess what….that was shut too. Because of seasonal opening times we had missed it by about ten minutes, damn we’ll have to go back some time. Salamanca, arrived at our hotel on the outskirts of town latish so decided to have a meal nearby and sightsee in the morning. There was a shopping centre nearby so we explored that and found a great place where for 9 €uros you could eat as much as you wanted. They had salads galore, hot dishes and desserts, all delicious and the price included your first drink – subsequent wines or beers were available very reasonably priced. The following morning we drove into town parked up and did the usual. Started with the Plaza Major, which was described in the guides as incomparable …. they were right, it was magnificent. On then to the cathedral through picturesque streets where we found the locals preparing for Palm Sunday. They had floats being readied inside the cathedral and were queuing to kiss the statue of Mary which was guarded by two burly blokes with candles [or at least something long]. On leaving town we went on to a place called Ciudad Rodrigo, an old walled town. In an old palacio where it boasted a queen of England had once slept there was the only acknowledgement of the Peninsular war or the war of independence as the Spanish call it that we came across. Our journey had been designed to visit sites linked either to this or to the old pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela. The exhibition was quite comprehensive with detailed lithographs of the battlefields and the storming of both Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz. There were also copies of the strategic layout of the land and the encamped forces. Having worked up an appetite we had a lovely meal in the Parador in the town, where we sat at a table with the most delightful views over the surrounding country. We then set off for Badajoz. Bit of a problem getting out of town as we got snarled up in a one way system the Sat Nav knew nothing about. Drove though the Sierra de Gata on our way and were treated to some spectacular scenery, you’d have to be there to appreciate how absolutely breathtaking it was. Enjoyed the drive and arrived in Badajoz late evening. Because of roadworks we came into town through the most awful slums, looked like the worst of the Brazilian favelas, so weren’t too impressed. After a night’s sleep we were a little more well disposed to the town and actually found some very nice things about it. The cathedral was nice, surrounded by orange trees laden with fruit and with pavement cafes and entertainment in the form of a brass ensemble, who were practising for Palm Sunday ceremonies I presumed. We joined the early mass which was remarkable for the fact that including us the congregation numbered about 10 with at least the same number of celebrants. It deteriorated further as the priests suffered technical problems with the microphones. On then to the castle which was well kept and had good views over the town, lots of which seemed decrepit and run down. This was the only town we had been to in Spain that was full of litter and graffiti. This could have been because the road sweepers were all sitting gossiping in the café in the cathedral square! After the sightseeing we left town and headed for Portugal, didn’t take long as Badajoz is right near the border.

Stopped off briefly at a pretty little place called Vila Vicosa where there was a large palace in a huge square paved in local marble. Lots of marble used in the buildings and streets in the area. Sounds grand but most of it was little lumps more like cobbles. Went on then to Estremoz, another walled town where we had a drink in the Poussada after exploring the largely marbled town. We discovered that this was a wine making area and found that the quality of the wine made there is very good, wondered why we only see Port and Mateus rose not the whole range of Portuguese wines at home. On to the next stop in another walled town, Evora, where we saw yet another Poussada and some Roman ruins. When getting back into the car as we were leaving town a man driving by in his car saw me drop my sunglasses, he turned his car around parked up and came over to pick them up and give them to me as I hadn’t noticed they had fallen from my pocket. This act of kindness was typical of what we found with the vast majority of the people we met in Portugal. Onward then toward Lisbon. We had a fairly eventful drive as we encountered many a roadwork and later discovered we were staying in a place not in the Sat Nav as it was new. Costa Caparica is a small resort town on the opposite side of the river from Lisbon and we stayed in a very nice new hotel called Aldeia dos Capuchos. A modern building of concrete and glass but very attractively done. I have to say I was very amused on getting into the lift to go up to our floor to note that it was made by a company called Schindler, couldn’t help laughing each time I got into Schindler’s lift from then on, sad I know. Spent the next four days exploring Lisbon and the surrounding areas. Went first to yet another castle at a town called Sesimbra associated with the Templars who had a base there in the dim and distant past. From Sesimbra on to Cabo de Espichel where more evidence of pilgrimage came up. There were derelict buildings looking like a wild west ghost town on the promontory which had been built to accommodate those travelling to Santiago de Compostella on their pilgrimage. From the earthmoving kit in the area we surmised that there was to be some restoration done, later confirmed by the barman at our hotel.

Up early next day drove to Almeda to catch the ferry to Lisbon, very reminiscent of my childhood rides on the Mersey ferries. Parked the car for the surprisingly reasonable cost of 1 Euro 80 for the whole day, typical of how cheap things were generally in Portugal. Enjoyed the ten minute ride to Lisbon. It is a beautiful but very busy city built on hills. Much of the place was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755 so much of it is relatively new. Traffic is a real problem and we saw lots of jams on the surrounding roads on the TV news during the early morning rush hour. Yet another castle visited. This one has spectacular views over the whole of Lisbon as can be seen from the photos we took. Pray that we don’t show you them all (over 1,000), the slideshow takes about 2 hours. From Lisbon the next day we took the train along the coast and visited Caiscas, the Beverley Hills of Portugal apparently, and quite believably given the range of top name designer boutiques and the price of property. Here we had a drink in an Irish pub with an English barman and walked around in the rain, only drizzle really and much warmer than the stuff we get at home. On the way back we stopped in Belem where the president keeps his palace. Visited a monastery for a change and had a ride on a tourist train. Went into a café where they have made a speciality cake called pasties de Belem since the early 1800’s.  Bit like an egg custard but in flaky pastry, nice with a cup of tea though. The place was so packed you would have thought they were giving them away.

Next day we drove to Setubal to catch a ferry across to Troia. Had to wait a little while for the ferry and were a bit disappointed when we got on to be packed so close together we couldn’t get out of the car. Anyway, it was only a short journey and then we were onto the coast road south to our eventual stop in the Algarve. Masses of redevelopment going on in Troia, looks like they want to turn it into a really attractive holiday resort. Travelled then down the coast road stopping at a little place called Lagoa de Sante Andre for a drink and to watch the Atlantic breakers rolling onto the immensely long and deserted beach. Drove on then to Odemeira, seeing lots of storks nesting on telegraph poles and buildings along the way, where we turned inland and headed across the Serra de Monchique. Once again there were spectacular views to be seen all along the road. Stopped at a town called Santa Clara where we expected to find another Poussada to have lunch. No sign of said Poussada so stopped to ask an old dear who was chatting to her friends in a quiet little square. She very kindly gave us directions to the place which was about 15 minutes drive out of town, couldn’t help noticing that there is no dentist in Santa Clara – I’m sure the lady we spoke to must be called Juanita [one eater ha ha]. We found the place eventually in a setting reminiscent of Scotland with views over the lake and little islands dotted on it. The hotel had been made from the building that had accommodated the engineers who built the dam making the lake but had been beautifully fitted out. From here we drove via Portimao to Albufeira where we thought we were staying.

Turns out the apartment we had rented for the week was in Salgados a place about 12 kilometres outside Albufeira. Thank God. We went in to Albufeira town and walked about the town centre feeling a bit like we were in an English seaside resort as every café offered all day English breakfasts, fish and chips and cream teas. Decided I didn’t like Albufeira. Salgados on the other hand was a quiet little place on the beach, lots of new development going on so probably not for long, where you could find plenty of undisturbed space on the beach if that was your thing. Lots of golf available as well though I thought the fees a bit steep. We used the Bayside Apartments as a touring base for the Algarve and found it ideal, basic accommodation but with cheap wholesome food and entertainment available.

Went to Faro and got caught up in a cycle race along the way, the police seemed to enjoy keeping all the traffic to the side of the road while the peloton passed by. Parked up in Faro and then went to look at the old town and found it delightful. I climbed to the top of the belltower at the cathedral there, 68 steep narrow steps so too much for Beth, took some views of the town and had a narrow escape from a defecating stork which unloaded as it took off from it’s nest – others weren’t so lucky. From here we went on to the little fishing town of Olhao which we both really liked. Sat in a café on the front and had a beer and a cup of tea for the princely sum of 2 €uros. From here we drove further along the coast to Tavira where we parked and walked into the town. Much of the town had been destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 and had been rebuilt but was now looking decidedly tired in places as the buildings were poorly maintained. None of this detracted from the picturesque nature of the place as it sits on a river and has a pretty square surrounded by shops and cafes.

Next day. Got up and breakfasted before setting out for Sagres the most south-westerly point of Portugal. We were able to drive the whole way with the top down on the car and in the end I considered applying for a job as a stop light as my face went so red from the sun. We had thought we might eat in the Poussada but forgot it was Easter Sunday so left them to their €35 menus and drove down into the town. Visited the fort on the headland where the first school of navigation had been set up by Henry the navigator an influential Templar by another name. Very windy here so after our visit went back to town and had lunch in a café with views over the harbour. From here we set off a little further north up the coast to a town called Aljezur which was closed when we got there as it was late and Sunday. Enjoyed the drive though. Headed back to the apartment by a different route back through the Serra de Monchique.

Found that there was the only Michelin two star rated restaurant in the whole of Portugal not five minutes from the apartment we were staying in so went to find it and book for a meal. Took some finding as it was very anonymous looking behind its electric gates. It’s called the Vila Joya and when we arrived for dinner the guy on reception greeted us with “Welcome to Paradise”. Turned out he wasn’t far wrong. The meal and the service we had were superb. A once in a lifetime experience I thought, and when we got the bill I realised I was right [the mortgage should be paid off fairly soon].

Went to a town called Estoi hoping to see the Roman ruins and the palace they have there but were again disappointed to find we were out of season so they were shut and the palace was under renovation to become a poussada. On then to Sao Bras de Alportel where we went to a cultural museum. This was interesting as we found out quite a lot about cork harvesting.

Next trip out was to Lagos where one of the kids Beth had been involved with had originated. We had a drink in a café overlooking the harbour and enjoyed watching the little tourist boats plying their trade. Walked around the old town and saw enough to know we’d like to go back some time and stay there. Drove inland from there to the town of Silves. On the drive into town we could see the huge fortress built of red stone above the town which was our goal. The fortress was very impressive and was undergoing some works to make it more so. They were making it the way it would have been at the time of the Moors, but doing it in a way that could be undone without doing any further damage. It linked to Santiago because it had been under siege for two years supposedly as part of the crusades by soldiers who had been thrown out of Santiago for their immoral ways and  made a mercenary force for King Sancho of Portugal. Needless to say despite a negotiated arrangement for the Moors to leave with their lives they had instead killed them and pillaged the settlement.

Another day another road trip. We set out for Lisbon again intending to visit Alcacer do Sol and Palmela, two towns on our route. As usual we did our best to keep to side roads rather than motorways and did ok with this until after a brief stop in Alcacer where we had a coffee, the café we had found didn’t sell beer unfortunately. Again the Rough Guide had it right, there wasn’t much to see in the town and it was in the midst of some major road improvements. On then to Palmela, or so we thought, after about 14 kilometres we came up to the back of a queue of traffic and sat for about ten minutes. A woman a bit ahead of us stopped a lorry coming the other way to ask what was up. That’s when we found out there had been a major accident between 2 heavy goods vehicles and it would be a good few hours before it would be cleared. So, retrace the last 14k to get back to the only other possible route – the motorway. This at least let us cruise at 85mph so we made back some of the time we had sat in the queue. Palmela turned out to be a beautiful town with another old castle atop the hill, which had been home to the order of fighting priests who guarded pilgrims passing though Portugal en route for Santiago de Compostella. Spent a while exploring the castle, church and Poussada and got some lovely views from the walls out over the surrounding countryside. Met a nice lady in the little tourist office who kept getting muddled between English and German, she was Portuguese but had lived in Germany for 20 years. She gave us directions to the Wine House in Palmela where we bought some wine that had been voted best in the world in a competition involving 35 wine producing countries. Also bought some cakes there which were connected with Santiago, they bore his cross which we had seen at the cathedral in Burgos if I remember rightly, made from eggs and ground almonds.

Took our time with breakfast today as we were going to have to drive through Lisbon to get on to the coast road for Cabo de Rochas the western most point of mainland Europe. As you might expect the views were breathtaking from the cliffs and there were even a few tourist coaches, a bit surprising given how narrow the roads were but these drivers seem to be able to thread their buses through the tightest of gaps. Carried  on up the coast road a bit further and then turned inland for Sintra where we immediately became embroiled in the one way system of narrow streets and difficult parking. Having found a spot we parked and walked up to the Palacio National. Decided to give the Palacio visit a miss as it was noted that there were lots of steps to negotiate. After a break for ice-cream and people watching, lots of tourists, we again set out to look for the coast road hoping to get to Peniche, located on a promontory. No luck, the one way system conspired to get us completely lost in the seemingly endless suburbs of what had seemed a small town when we came in. Eventually found a road with a useful sign and headed for Obidos, this was a small walled town amazingly well preserved. Getting on so put on the Sat Nav to take us to Alcanena for an overnight stay before heading to Fatima. The roads to Fatima were in appalling condition making the drive very uncomfortable at times, though not as bad as it must have been for the reflective jacketed pilgrims we passed walking the route. Finding the Basilica was easy as it towers over the town. Parked up and went to see what all the fuss is about. The whole edifice was very impressive architecturally but it was most odd to see the devotion given to the graves of the children rather than to Jesus or Mary. Some people came bearing gifts which they left at the graves, these included flowers and bottles of wine – strange. The square is huge, big enough to accommodate over a million people which it has on occasion. Very similar to St. Peter’s in Rome but apparently bigger. Most weird sight was the crowds flocking to buy votive candles which they lit in a special bay. Then two men, obviously full time employees, collected the still burning candles and threw them into a furnace. Some folk cut out the middle man and threw their own candles into the flames. Stranger still the wax limbs and organs one could buy to burn. Glad to have been to see Fatima we left for our onward trek to Porto.

Thank God for the Sat Nav when it comes to towns. We could have spent hours looking for our hotel but only got lost once, took the wrong lane at a ramp finishing up back on motorway we’d just left, finding it quite easily second time round. After settling in we took a bus into the town and wandered down to the riverfront. A very popular and well frequented place with lots of bars and restaurants. We crossed the river via the huge 3 level bridge and visited Calem one of the Port producers. A bit like any distillery or brewery visit you might make, the Port was nice though. Exhausted by the difficult trek back up the steep roads into town to get the bus we had an early night when we eventually got back to the hotel. After breakfast next day we set off for Spain.

Once again as far as possible we followed the coastal roads and had some wonderful views as a result. Passed through Vigo on the way and saw the magnificent sculpture of horses in the town on a roundabout, which according to the Rough Guide is the only thing worth seeing there. We carried straight on to Santiago de Compostella which was our target for the day. The intention had been to stop on route for a coffee but unlike Portugal there were few cafes and all seemed to be closed, must have been a Bank Holiday or something. The hotel Tryp at San Lazaro proved easy enough to find so we checked in had a drink and then set off for the old town. Although it started raining on the way in by the time we had found a car park and got above ground it had stopped, our luck was holding. Wended our way through the very picturesque streets to the cathedral where we bought a guide. Useless almost as nothing in the cathedral was labelled. Cheated a bit to get our bearings by eavesdropping on a guide a couple had obviously hired to give them a personalised tour. Did the usual popping into the Parador in the square next to the cathedral but unlike others this one only allowed residents in the bars. So,  went out and explored the square which although it looked like a purely pedestrian area had police cars passing through it fairly frequently. We discovered why when looking over a wall we saw the police station with squad cars parked up on a ramp where the only access was from the square. External views of the cathedral were very striking as it is a magnificent edifice. It started raining again so we set off via the arcaded streets back to the car and on to the hotel. Dinner was a bar meal as the restaurant was closed. Went on line and with the help of the receptionist booked a room at a Tryp in Oviedo. Had breakfast in our room and set out for the coast road once again. Stopped on the way at a town called Mondonedo to see the Madonna called ‘Nuestra Senora Inglesa’ which is supposed to have been ‘rescued’ from St. Paul’s in London. Only managed to glimpse her from afar as the doors were locked and there was only a little window into the church. From here we drove to the coast and along to a town called Ribadasella hoping to find somewhere to have lunch. Unfortunately everything seemed to be closed even though we went right through the town and down to the marina. Luarca next stop. Here we drove down a valley on winding roads until we arrived in the pretty little fishing harbour full of small red and blue boats. Parked up near the fish market and spotted a café on the far side of the harbour. Walked around to it and went in only to be studiously ignored by the denizens so left again. Wandering past lots of closed up shops we eventually came upon a café/bar that was much more welcoming so had a drink in there. Back at the car we remembered our Santiago cakes which should have been eaten in Santiago so had them then, very nice too.

The Tryp in Oviedo was right in the middle of a very busy city where we parked in their underground car park, there’d have been no chance of parking close enough on the street. In the lift on the way up to the room we were surprised to see that it was six pm. We hadn’t realised that the clocks had gone forward at the weekend. This wouldn’t have been too bad were it not for the fact that Portugal runs on GMT and Spain is an hour ahead. The result of this was that we lost two hours in one hit, ouch! We went out to explore and bought some interesting pasty type cheesy snacks which we ate later in the room. It seemed a bit odd being in such a busy place after passing through all the quiet towns and villages and the empty countryside but it was entertaining watching from the room as the police were stopping cars and bikes just below us.

We left Oviedo and set off along the coast road again passing close to the Picos de Europa, an impressive sight with their snow covered peaks. The day had started well but the weather worsened as we headed North East. Stopped for lunch at a service area and watched the Spanish version of Wheel of Fortune. The prizes were not what we’re used to in England or France, I think the highest value was about 200 Euros. When we arrived in San Sebastian Beth was very disappointed as she had wanted me to see the bay, which I believe is beautiful [did look nice on the postcards], only for it to be too grey and misty to see much at all. We did find the hotel Beth and her mum had stayed in back in the sixties, for the princely sum of 12 guineas it was quite a bargain. Had a coffee here then set off for Irun/Urdanibia which was where our next Tryp hotel was located. The Sat Nav did a great job of finding the place, but the hotel was a different matter. After a couple of circuits of the newly developed estate we stopped and Beth went into a baker’s to ask for help. Turned out the hotel was on the opposite side of a main road to the development. We settled in and had a meal in the bar and conversed with the waitress in French, she spoke no English and our Spanish was nearly non-existent. Left the hotel early and set off for France and Bordeaux. You could tell immediately when you’d crossed the border as the housing was better, in design and condition, and there was none of the speculative development we’d seen in Spain. Drove without stopping to…….

Bordeaux was every bit as beautiful as I’d expected. The architecture typical of French cities was breathtaking and all the buildings were well maintained. There was a system of trams which was very modern but didn’t jar with the overall atmosphere.

The streets even at this time of year were full of tourists so the place had a very vibrant feel to it. In the cathedral square there was a display on by the city’s street sweepers and children were being given rides in one of the little vehicles that cleans up the gutters etc. and they were doing eco activities. We both enjoyed having a drink in one of the pavement cafes by the cathedral, me a beer and Beth a glass of Bordeaux, what else, while indulging in a spot of people watching. During our explorations we discovered more links to Santiago as there were plaques set into the pavement marking the pilgrimage route ‘Chemins de Saint Jacques de Compostelle via Turonensis’. Along the river front there were beautiful gardens which were very well used by families and people showing off their skills, a unicyclist on this occasion. We stayed on the opposite side of the river in the area called Bastide. It was here that we sampled the delights of the Formule 1 chain of hotels for the first, and probably last time, there being very basic accommodation and no en-suite bathroom. Our evening meal was taken in a ‘Flunch’ attached to the local Carrefour supermarket – and then to bed.

On the road again, reminds me of a song, on our way ‘home’ to Antoigny and la Retraite with a couple of stops on the way. First a place called Rochechouart where we stopped for fuel having driven for miles through empty countryside and not knowing when we’d find another garage. After filling up we went into town to look for a Tourist information to find out where Oradour sur Glanes was, Chris and Debbie some friends had recommended a visit, as we’d had duff info from the one in Bordeaux. Turned out there’s more than one Oradour and we’d been heading for the wrong one. Had a walk around the town after parking by the chateau and had a coffee in a pleasant little bar where Beth discovered that the hole in the floor toilets are still in use in France, but not by her. Oradour sur Glanes when we arrived was well worth the effort to get to. It is known as the Martyr Village as pretty well the whole population was slaughtered by the Waffen SS at the end of the war. The people of the area are still understandably very bitter as the Officers involved were in fact from Alsace so were French to all intents and purposes. Then after the war these people were given amnesty leaving the locals very angry, a feeling that persists until today. We spent hours reading the history and then walking around the village which has been left exactly as it was after the massacre. A very moving experience.

We left Oradour and set out North again. Had intended to have another overnight stop but the weather was beautiful and sunny and the Sat Nav said only five hours to home so we pressed on. It was a lovely drive through fabulous countryside and the time passed quite quickly. We did make a stop at Angers where Beth found us the place we’d stopped at years ago when Tricia and Frank had been with us. Had a potter around a new supermarket we’d not seen before called Casino. Did a bit of shopping for basics and then had a meal in their equivalent of the Flunch, very reasonably priced and the food was quite good. Back on to the road and onward to home. It was great to arrive as ‘it’s very nice to go travelling but it’s so much nicer to come home’. The next story starts here.