Monday, 25 January 2010

Half a week and half a country away.

Written 25th January 

Estremoz was, unfortunately, nothing special.  It is a marble town with a 13th century hilltop fortress and an old walled town, set in the hills of Alto Alejanto and was only really on the itinerary as a stopping point on the way north to the walled towns of Castelo de Vide and Marvao further north. But we have decided that there are only so many walled towns we can really fit into the schedule and that one 3,000 feet up, although undoubtedly spectacular, is probably not where we really want to be at this time of year...  And a 160km detour north and away from our stated Algarve goal is more than our petrol budget can take right now. :)

Arriving late, we found a huge, well-lit car park, with another motor home already installed, right in the centre of town that also had wifi - excellent! - but as walled cities go, we have been to better and prettier and we didn't fancy any of the museums. Not to worry, we have lots of other places to see. 

The only quite interesting thing it does have is an actual scale model of the solar system - one of only two in Europe - where not only are the  planets in correct scale but the orbits are too.

Due to the distances involved, and the fact that they wanted the sun outside the Estremoz science museum and Pluto in a particular location elsewhere, the sun is represented by a disc 3-4 metres in diametre,

Mercury is a sphere the size of a smallish marble located on the far side of the car park,

Venus, the Earth and Saturn are elsewhere in the town, and the other planets are in other towns in the surrounding countryside with Pluto being outside the chapel in Evoramonte some 7.5 kms away.  We only found the sun and mercury and weren't sufficiently bothered to go find the others but it is not something I have seen anywhere before so there you go.  

Onwards once more, in the late afternoon sun, to Evora, a university city stuffed with history, from the remains of a Roman temple, a mediaeval gothic cathedral - apparently the largest cathedral in Portugal  - 14th century town walls and best of all, a 17th century Franciscan chapel of bones -

literally built out of human bones and constructed by raiding all the town's cemetaries so that the Franciscans could meditate and contemplate the human condition - and it is brilliant, if not just a little creepy, including the inscription above the door which reads "We bones that are here we are waiting for yours" - propoer spooky stuff!

The university was only the second established in Portugal - after Coimbra - and students could study theology, science, maths and rhetoric  - whatever that is! - but although it was founded in the 16th century, it was closed in the 18th century when the franciscans were expelled from the city and not reopened until 1979 - history does not relate what they did to warrant expulsion or what happened to the buildings in those intervening 200-odd years - well at least not the history we had which we got from an audio tour from the tourist office which was informative, if a bit like being on in a tour group with an enthusiastic simpleton who can't stop asking questions and a very patient if patronising tour guide - no baftas would be awarded for this piece of audio drama... ;)  it was an entertaining way to spend a morning at least :)

But we have had enough of chilly cities and cold hilltop towns, and, having been thoroughly spoilt by Seisimbra, we decided that warm beaches are where we really want to be so off we set southwards once more.

I was driving this leg as Will wanted fettling time on the laptop and we have discovered that Seisimbra's cliff road was more unkind to poor Jules than we realised and with no power, even on the gentlest slopes, a tendancy to judder and stall and a complete inability to start again once stalled - which usually manifested itself on narrow, uphill streets in towns with cars behind and many amused onlookers - may all their cars be cursed - it was not a happy bunny :( poor little van.  We have also lost the exhaust tailpipe off the end of the silencer - presumably left in a clifftop ravine somewhere - not vital but we are now venting exhaust sideways not backwards and I can only imagime the effect this lack of forward thrust is having on our top speed... I am only half joking, apparently it was by repositioning the exhast on the engines from sideways to backwards that the spitfire engineers got the extra 70lbs of thrust they needed to get to a top speed of 380mph, so there! - not that Jules can really be compared to a spitfire I know - I mean we have a fridge and a kettle and movies, they didn't even have an in-flight magazine! - but every little helps... ;)  

Anyway, after the single longest and most miserable journey of our travels so far through a land devoid of petrol stations, supermarkets and even proper road surfaces (in one county the main N-road was cobbles - cobbles!! - for bloody miles!) the three of us eventually limped, late, into Sagres at the south-western tip of Portugal and stopped.

The next day, we stayed in bed whilst it rained and got up with the sun to find ourselves facing the sea and surrounded by other vans.  Making the most of the weather we set off on our bikes to the famous fortress where alledgedly Henry the Navigator founded his navigation school and therefore single handedly enabled the portuguese sailors to be able to take full advantage of the prevailing winds to set off on their journeys without having to stick by the coasts in order to know where they were and thus setting the wheels (or sails) in motion for the Discoveries.  

On arriving, we found that, once again, being a Sunday morning, it was free and also that we could take our bikes in and cycle round - brilliant!  

Just a side note - if you ever go to Portugal, remember that most museums and other things of interest are free on a sunday 10am-2pm, they won't tell you this on most signs or tourist info as they will want you to sleep in after a night spending your tourist euro in one of their fine restaurants and then spend more tourist euro going in things which locals get for free by dint of getting up - not unreasonable but worth planning around...

Anyway, whether or not Henry was ever there, the Sagres fort is brilliant on a clear sunny day.  It is right where the land turns a corner from west to south - nearby Cabo Sao Vincente is the most south-western tip of mainland europe - and is a foot of land sticking out into the sea with the fortress as a a kind of heavy-duty stone ankle bracelet at the narrowest point.

Beyond the fort, it is largely a vast expanse of wild land, with various exhibits about the history of sailing, world maps and navigation and also some stuff about renewable energy.    

Did you know, for example, that port and starboard on boats are so named because in sailing down the atlantic - which is where the prevailing winds and currents took boats at the time of Henry - the left side would face the ports and home whereas the right side faced the unknown and adventure - hence port and starboard respectively.  And that the green starboard light represents hope and discovery and the red port light signifies heart and health?  I didn't!

And it was great for cycling round in the sun - if a bit windy!  Back to the van and Will set about cheering poor Jules up, discovering that our problems were caused by a combination of; loose leads, incorrect timing, an unoiled (although new) distributor, a dwell of virtually nothing and the dislodging of a small, yet apparently vital piece of pencil lead which is all that stands between us and non-starting, non-runnng disaster...  No, I didn't know about this either, and on balance, I preferred it when I believed the whole thing ran by magic due to pixies on bicycles, or maybe hamsters... ;)

It turns out, that one of the features  of the space-age technology with which our van is equipped  - think carefully about that, it isn't as good as it first sounds... - is an airflow sensor which works by a flap which is in the air intake and which is connected to a wiper which runs over a variable resistor, the reading of which tells the fuel injectors how much fuel is required for the correct air/fuel mix.  Not only is this piece of technical wizardry specific to vw campervans, it is specific to vw campervans made in the US (but importantly not california) between 1977 and 1978... And is therefore expensive, virtually irreplaceable, and in our particular case, wearing out... Leading to inefficient fuel consumption and lumpy driving.

It is this that Will is working to bypass with some of his fettling - basically using a modern airflow sensor and a chip, the processing power of which would have taken a computer the size of a small room back when Jules was built, to brute force override this miracle of cutting-edge-as-it-was-at-the-time technology - the original engineers would be weeping!

Anyhoo, the small (approx 2mm long), yet perfectly fashioned (there are carved notches) piece of pencil lead - which I knew nothing about and which has apparently been in place since cambridge - sits under the two prongs of the wiper, creating a smooth sweep across the track of the variable resistor which simultaneously improves the connection to the track and smooths out the worn out bits - needless to state this is only a temporary fix until the "project" is finished...

So crisis averted as we have pencils and knives, grease, a timing gun  - we are once again very grateful to Austin for the lend of his spare timing gun, it has proved a vital thing! - and all the requisite spanners and screwdrivers to deal with all these eventualities - honestly, it is a testament to Jules' perseverance in the face of adversity  and the standard of vw engineering that we even got here with that list of things wrong! - so they were soon fixed, whilst I painted daisies and got chatting to two australian lads, who were on a three day surfing break from london however they had arrived but easyjet had neglected to send their surfboards so had spent 2 days staring at the sea and hoping the boards would arrive in time for at least an hours surfing (apparently they couldn't hire exactly the right boards out here - I don't know, I don't understand surfing, isn't a board a board?? How picky do you need to be if it is a choice between some surfing and no surfing??) before their monday flight home. They circled some places in italy on our map from a previous three month road trip and donated us the remains of their lunch that they had bought from lidl and were about to throw away (bread, sausages, cheese and jars of olives and pickled peppers), and then we were back on the road as if in a new van and on the way to lidl for bbq supplies.  The dream is still alive!

I am not sure quite how I got the dubious pleasure of the longest drive with the most unhappy van and have insisted I get another go now it is better but I do at least find driving much less stressful than Will does as I am largely oblivious to little indicators to things which might be going terribly wrong and therefore don't worry about them and I am blissfully unaware of the knife edge on which we are apparently balanced between going and stopped...  Just turn the radio up I say - if you can't hear a problem, it ain't there... ;)

Today, after a nice chat with an irish couple on the beach about life, vans and winters in Portugal - they have cone here for short winter sun holidays for 4 years running now and up to yesterday have had the worst weather of any year and just when they have to think about leaving, it is finally set to be sunny! - we cycled the 5.5kms of cliff top road to Cabo Sao Vincente - the aforementioned most south-westerly point of mainland europe - in the sun only to find that all there was were three white transit vans with trestle tables outside selling tat and alpaca wool ponchos - it is not the weather for a woolly poncho! -

the light house closed with a big barred gate, no way round the outside of it and many other bemused tourists - mostly in motor homes, honestly you get them at every turn here! -wondering quite why they were there and what to now they were.  Not even an icecream to be had!  But still better than the temple to consumerism that is lands end...

So we cycled back - freewheeling downhill with the wind behind us most of the way wheeeeee! - and were about to settle in to some fettling in the sun when a genial german surfer loped over to us, clutching a car radio and said that an english speaking couple in a van at the top had said that we might be the right people to talk to about why his radio didn't work.  He had apparently got it from a friend and tried to fit it but it blew a fuse so he put a bigger fuse in and it blew that, repeat up to 30amps and now he was stuck... 

Well we are obviously always looking to chat to new people - he is on a break from an architecture degree and has convinced his lecturers that a road trip round europe to study different styles of architecture is a valid reason to do this but has in reality spent two month surfing and smoking pot in Sagres... :) - and opportunities to build up our busma so Will set to whilst we all had a beer and eventually, through judicious use of multimeter and complete disassembly of the radio  (I have never seen the insides of a car radio before, it is very complicated!) tracked the problem down to a cooked diode, ironically the one which is meant to blow a fuse if the radio is connected up the wrong way round so as to protect the radio - which Woller admitted he may have done, who knows - and so had actally admirably done its job before being goaded into self destruction by continual application of bigger fuses...  

Fortunately Will was able to replace it with a spare one we have lying around - as you do! - and fit the thing correctly into the spaghetti wiring of Woller's van - Woller can't test it as his speakers don't work for some reason and he is hoping to buy some external computer ones at a market next week as replacements - but he is at least one step closer to music and as he said, he just can't play his guitar whilst driving...

So, here we are, surrounded by german surfers - two more sets have just pulled up - with the sunsetting on another sucessful day - Will's PIC program might finally be doing the right thing! - and off to Lagos tomorrow for a change of scene.

ttfn xx

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