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.
There were cliffs and freestanding rocky columns
and round hollowed out cliff caves, open to the sky above and it was rather lovely.
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!
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!
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]
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.
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!)
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 :) ),
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 :)
And on this occasion, it paid off as we quickly found ourselves in a silent wilderness, surrounded by views and shaved cork trees.
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.
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!