Tuesday, 2 February 2010

On and off the beaten track

Written 31st january 

The lp we have (Mediterranean Europe) includes a two week itinerary for portugal in which it suggests three or so days in the algarve, spending time in Lagos, Silves and Tavira.  We are also now on the trail of a magazine article I read in a donated copy of vw camper and bus where an english couple flew in and hired a fully kitted out westfalia van for a week - it was partly a freeby promotional for the company (siesta campers) but also included lots of lovely pics of nice places they went so seemed a reasonable source of inspiration for our next few days.

So, with all this in mind, we headed for Praia de Rocha, just south of Portimao.  It didn't look promising in the dark - the true awfullness of the over-developed algarve had seemingly not yet been fully revealed to us before this point - but we found a carpark with one other motorhome and some kids in campers and stopped.  It was only on a walk out after dinner that we found that we were actually perched on the very cliff top near some beach steps and the eponymous beach rocks were way down below us and very very impressive in the moonlight.

They were even more stunning in the sun the following morning, when we set off for a walk - unfortunately not early enough to beat the crowds and have the beach to ourselves, we still haven't fulfilled the getting up and getting on intention - but we have been somewhat spoilt in the deserted beach stakes recently!  

There were cliffs and freestanding rocky columns

and round hollowed out cliff caves, open to the sky above and it was rather lovely.

 We walked to the eastern end, where an exciting looking low roofed cave leads, rather disappointingly

to proper beach tat ugliness,

and then back westwards in the pretty bit, being passed by marine police in quadbikes - somewhat incongrously wearing full on puffer jackets and mufflers to talk to tourists in shorts or even just swimming costumes! - and picking up shells for the collection.

The tide was coming in by this point  so we had to wave dodge round the headland to get back to our steps and on beyond them, one bit of beach was already nearly cut off -

of course I couldn't resist wanting to know what was just round the next corner, misjudged my return wave and got thoroughly wet in the process

but it was all warm and all good fun :)

And we people watched all the way back - people are odd, we saw one couple who had come to the beach together and then sat themselves on a rock, as far away from each other as they could possibly be - why would you do that??  And a very slick looking guy walking down the steps, fag in one hand and open laptop with headphones plugged in in the other - he just walked down and then back up again after about five minutes - could he not last without itunes for long enough to not risk getting sand in his tiny, expensive looking laptop?? As I say, people are odd - other people that is, we are, of course, perfectly normal... ;)  

Beach done, we set off east again, this time to the tiny cove of Benagil where the magazine people had had a boat trip out through the caves which had apparently been the highlight of their trip.  We found the beach and the boat

but unfortunately not the boat driver, so only stopped for coffee and then beach picnic before moving on - shame as it was perfect calm boat weather if a little chilly when the sun went in, but not so bad budget-wise as, having spent more time at the back end of the van with the engine running in our beach escape effort, we have realised that we also need a new silencer as it is definitely a lot less silencing than it was... :(

Through a trawl of postcards, we have since discovered that there are other stunning looking rock formation beaches at Ponte da Piedade, Praia Donna Ana and Praia Tres Irmaos, near Lagos  and that you can get cave boat trips most of the year round from Lagos  - ho hum, something for another trip.  Note to self: use postcards for route planning more often in future!

Onwards and inland this time, to Silves, a walled castle town which was once the Moorish capital of the Algarve region circa 10th-13th centuries and which has a castle  and cathedral to enjoy.  

The castle is nice and inexpensive, with walls you can walk all the way round, a few bits of old pottery on display, some excavations (only explained in portuguese but seemingly lots of references to bathroom complexes!), a 1,300,000 litre rain water tank you can walk down into (now empty - seems modern engineers can't get it to hold water any more!) and a nice, landscaped "floating" café and water featured patio - would probably be both lovely and horrible in the heat of summer when the lake effort is actually full of water and it is packed full of sunshine and tourists....

The cathedral was under renovation so we set off in search of the tourist office and found instead the Centre for Interpretation for Islamic Heritage, or some such thing, which is apparently part of a joint effort between portugal, spain and morocco to preserve and promote understanding of the shared islamic history of these three countries, which  stems from the moorish occupation of the iberian peninsula which spread from the mediterranean coast to the far north western corner between 7-9AD before they were gradually forced out of power again between 10-12AD in a sweep south-east.  From what we can gather, at first this was relatively peacefull, a few forays with knights and the Moors were allowed to stay - hence Moorish communities in many towns - but later more violently  as part of the catholic reconquista, the western front of the crusades.

We learnt all this and much, much more from the guy in there, who was just a mine of non-stop information about this and other things including the castle, a moorish well (of unusual design -  a spiral staircase winding down the outside of it and connected to the well shaft with periodic "windows" - of which there are only a few other examples known in the world - including one in Cairo, the level of which is used as an early flood warning sign for the nile, and another in libya which also has a secret escape tunnel as part of the stairs arrangement), local building techniques (building using mud compressed by hand between planks - a bit like building with concrete today - rather bricks of pre-compressed mud.  Apparently to build like this you need two crazy people and a man with a limp.  The crazies bash the mud like mad to compact it, and the man with a limp fetches more bukets of mud but not too much too quickly which means the mud is properly compacted by the crazies between bucketfuls...), the Discoveries (and the important difference between a colony and an administered territory - which he mentioned a lot but I can't remember the distinction...), poetry, history you name it, we got it - and we only went in to ask for directions to the tourist office!  It must have been a very slow week :)

We also tried to go to the cork museum (which we didn't know existed until the guy told us about it and which we walked past twice due to lack of signage).  We eventually found it but it was apparently closed, although the door was open and there was a man on the desk, and he was unclear and unhelpful as to whether it would be open the following day or not, which is a shame as a peer in through the window showed all sorts of interesting looking machines and gadgets and it looked as if it would have been good - ho hum, things to do, places to go and Will is getting restless in this sunny land of doing nothing so we can't hang around in the off chance if it opening or not. 

We subsequently found its website which is all flashy graphics and only n portuguese , which says it got some 'best tourist museum' award in 2001, but no actual useful tourist information, like opening times.  I also stumbled across an article (not sure how old) saying it had been threatened with closure - well if you don't tell people where it is or when it is open, I am less than surprised...

We found the tourist office eventually but they looked at me blankly when I asked about cork forests as if to say " they're everywhere, what a stupid question"  - well that's as may be but if you don't know what you're looking for... - and also some free town wifi where an internet search for 'cork forests algarve' was equally useless but which did throw up some walking holiday company proposing a three centre Algarve walking holiday taking in Silves and the two 'beautiful and typical' inland villages of Alte and Querença.   As we had already decided to skip Albufeira and Faro - there are only so many beaches backed by hotel/appartment complexes we want to look at - this seemed as good a plan as any. 

So back on the road, inland for a bit, and in search of typical villages and actual cork forests - half the world's cork (or some such amount, would know if I could find a museum to tell me such useless trivia!) comes from portugal  so they must be somewhere!

We rocked up in Alte lateish and the first thing we came across was a road at the edge of town, behind the cemetary wall, with big spaces next to a nice sheltered wall, with the promise of a view in the daylight, and several other motorhomes already in situ - honestly  they are everywhere here!!  We have since discovered through the miracle of the interweb that wild camping is actually banned in the Algarve but it is tolerated, especially out of season - presumably it is tourist income when there would otherwise be very little  - but we have heard tell of people being moved on by the police and even fine notices turning up at peoples' home addresses but like all these things, I suspect it is all about how discrete, untidy and/or permanent you look...

Still, in the late morning sun (we were up late, they had all been out and back by then...), we met some nice british motorhomers to chat to and a pleasant couple of hours was passed. We have some great Croatia recommendations - just need to get on with getting there! - a new drink to try (Brandymel, Algarve specialty), confirmation that the silves cork museum is indeed good - from someone who has managed to go there twice!! must be a miracle... ;) -and a tip off that there are cork trees in Moniche in the western Algarve, an area we limped through, in the dark, a week ago in a poorly van so missed out on.  [Edit: we have since tried Brandymel and it was like pure honey, watered down with pure alcohol - slipped down very nicely with a lunchtime sticky bun in a sunny pavement café - scrummy but just too sweet to become a permanent addition to the tipple cupboard]

Alte is pretty and very nice for a wander - the principal attractions being two fontes (springs), the water of which apparently helps you live longer - or so said the 70-year old man who recommended the village to the people we met and who is about to set off walking from John O'Groatds to Lands End (he has already done it the other way) with just himself, a small rucksack, a small tent and a book of b&b's...  It may work for him but we didn't find which bit you are meant to drink from so will have to rely on wine and la dolce vita for our hopes of longevity ...

Still, as I say, all very nice and good company so could have spent longer and done some of the round walks they suggested but that's not going to get us to Croatia and beyond, so back on the road once more.

Querença was indeed pretty with a nice big white town square but not much more than a coffee stop, and then onwards towards Sao Bra de Alportel in search of cork forest.  We didn't find anything and after a detour via Fuzeta - mentioned by both the mag article and the brits in Alte and which would have been a nice place to stop, surrounded by nature reserve, if we had more time - down into Tavira.

Tavira is a nice town with a river running through the middle, a pretty bridge (and a couple of ugly ones), a couple of nice squares with pavement cafes and a restaurant recommended by the lp.  Having not eaten out since lisbon and with mobey in the budget we thought we would have a night out.  Unfortunately the restaurant (Bica), although busy with locals, was not as great as the review suggested (but it was ok and not too expensive and mum's porto guide book did say the food was better and with bigger portions in the north - we can't contradict this).  We did see a brilliant example of the two types of Brits who live here though; two ladies out for dinner, one obviously a longterm ex-pat and the other a newbie.  Long term lady struggles through an in-depth conversation in laboured, heavily accented Portuguese with the fluent english speaking waiter about the relative dry-ness of the cheap house white (he is struggling to understand her but perseveres.) whilst newbie resolutely orders in english.   They then have a conversation about newbie's new house which she is just beginning to furnish and it transpires that she hasn't found any portuguese furniture she likes so is going to go to Ikea in Seville, 'ah Sevill-ya' says long term lady, carefully accentuating the correct pronunciation 'it is pleasant there'.  'yes, Seville is lovely' says newbie.

It was a bit chilly for a pavement cafe and the only busy bar was the irish bar which was hosting a birthday party, so we didn't really get our night out, but we did find parking with internet so all good (Bill, if you do ever get here, it is on the west side of the river but in a one way street you can only enter by crossing the middle bridge from the east side and you need to stop just after the  bridge on the river side of the park - took us a while, some illegal parking for google maps and some reversing on a oneway corner to gett it!  Luckily it was late and quiet!)

A sunday morning stroll found us the castle - now a nicely done garden inside the remains of the walls

and signed everywhere except the crucial last few corners! - and the interweb found us the river road to Pego do Inferno - the route and waterfall suggested by the mag, and another cork museum, with an excellent independent review on someone's blog, and a cork area to try in Sao Bras de Alportel and surroundings.

We set off up the N379 on the east bank of the river and had a pleasant few k's following its meanders before finding the featured precarious bridge (more solid on top than than it looks from  below :) ),

orange orchards and the waterfall. 

I had found a review on trip advisor which warned of tumbledown, rickety steps, slippery rocks and poisonous spiders and snakes and advised people to stay away for their own safety.  As full on danger junkies and adventure seekers, we were somewhat disappointed to discover well-signed, well-maintained steps, firm river banks, the snake warning to be a 'local flora and fauna' info board which included rabbits (gotta watch those dangerous rabid bunnies...) and no mention of spiders - I am already crafting my response to that review... And the waterfall was pretty, although it was too cold for swimming which is the other main summer attraction for the pool - again, one to cone back for.
Onwards once more and we got to Sao Bras - once the capital of the cork industry -  and eventually found the museum of traditional Algarve life, which is housed in the former house of one of the town's captains of cork,  - again, only one sign way away elsewhere in the town and no visible sign at the actual place! - but despite the opening hours I found on the net which said it should be ooen, the gates were firmly locked and gated.  Oh well, destined not to know anything about cork

Without much hope, we set off in the footsteps of the blog writer on the N2 to Alportel and then off in the direction of Javali, heading for Parises, where she found cork trees.  I realise now that, with absolutely no prior knowledge of cork trees, I had been envisaging big, managed forests of towering, tall trees with big thick trunks - something like the redwood trees in Muir Woods just north of  San Francisco - and that had I actually thought about it any way whatsoever , I would have worked out that that sort of tree just would not survive in this climate and rocky soil type.   So really I should have been expecting the small, twisted scrubby trees in the wilderness we actually found, and we probably have driven past loads already :)

We pulled off the metalled road somewhere before reaching Javali following a miradouro sign  and, with no signs to say we shouldn't, set off up the dirt track and into the red-earthed scrub in search of adventure -

yes yes I know that Jules isn't really an off road beastie and that there were also no signs saying we shouldn't drive up cliff roads with ravines or on to sandy beaches

and that both of these quests for adventure very nearly ended badly but hey, if you worry too much about things you wouldn't get out of bed in the morning (for reasons other than laziness ... ;) ). 

And on this occasion, it paid off as we quickly found ourselves in a silent wilderness, surrounded by views and shaved cork trees.  

Well, silent apart from the racing quad bike and motorbike which took us somewhat by surprise!

The only things I do know about cork, are that the trees take between 25-40 years to grow before they are ready to produce cork and then are harvested only every 7-9 years.  In the algarve, it seems that they harvest every 9 years and number the trees accordingly after they have done it to show when it was done - once they get to 9 (which we think was this year) they go round again. 

The cork processing seems to involve some drying, some squashing, shaping and some 'improving' by tumbling in parafin - or so we gathered from the machines outside the cork museum but that is the extent of the knowledge I have gleaned to date.

We found trees in various stages of growth,

some piles of drying harvested cork, a great cork country drive and all in all, had a fab, free, cork day out!  Who needs museums anyway!

We are now in Castro Maxim, right on the spanish border, a place with a castle to explore tomorrow and where we were told we could do washing and have a shower.  We drove round for a bit, found the castle but were surprised not to see any motorhomes until we took the last unexplored street (it isn't a big place) and found a proper Aire de Service and the biggest ghetto so far!  I really don't know what they are all doing here - carpark residents must nearly outnumber house residents! But suits our needs for tonight so here we will stay.

We have also found the washing place, but whilst I will pay €2.50 if I have to for a warm shower - but I bet it won't be twice as good at Figueira da Foz! - I won't pay that to handwash my clothes in a concrete sink when for 50c more I can find a machine to do it!!

So, the plan tomorrow is; shower, castle, washing, a final stock up on gpl, fresh milk (not easily available in spain) and port (we have seen taylors in a town on the way here, for the first time in portugal, presumably specially for the english port drinkers!) and then Spain!

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