Portugal, Eastern Algarve

As the title suggests we have wondered way off track!  The signs for Portugal were tempting for both of us, Sharon loves ‘Piri Piri Frango’ and I had a thirst for Sagres beer so we continued down the costal road to Portugal.  Enroute, we stopped off at El Rabida which has a monastery where Christopher Columbus sought advice, and at Isla Cristina which is famed as being one of Andalusian’s best beaches.  Here we lunched on cheese and ham toasties using yesterday’s bread.  We are still well within budget by the way, 3 litre boxes of wine are helping both our economy and the world’s environment.  We had a camper scare enroute in an unknown town where I foolishly pulled off the main drag to follow a ‘brown’ castle road sign.  We ended up in a pebbled street with town houses on either side and the Suntor just fitting under the 1st floor balconies….thank you to the un-known Spanish builder who ‘signed’ us down the hill, needless to say we never saw the castle and gave up the ghost.

Once in Portugal we settled nicely in Vila Real do Santo Antonio, which is separated only by the river with Spain.  We had a waterside view again……….

Villa Real (algarve)

Camperstop at Vila Real looking back across to Spain

Friday night did not produce a chicken dinner as we actually weakened and ate at an all you can eat Chinese buffet, we were feeling ‘rich’ as we had only spent 200 euros between us during the last week, including fuel.  On the way home from the restaurant, near the camper stop I almost tripped over a dog who must have been a stray.  Till this day, ‘Nacho’ as we called him, calls on our hearts.  We saw him the next day and we tried to call him over but unfortunately he did not know his new name.

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Piri Piri Frango and Vino Verde

We stayed in V.R.S.A on Saturday too, this time to fulfil the Piri Pir Frango desire, we ate like kings in the main square for just 4.90 euros each.  Mission accomplished, smiles all around.  Portugal is definitely good for food.

Praia Verde was the next stop where we both entered the sea, alone.  The locals walking their dogs with scarves and coats looking at us in bewilderment. It was not that cold honest.

Castro Marim, a small town with an imposing fortress was next, where we took the bikes out around a famed Flamingo wildlife park.  I think I spotted a sparrow and a rabbit, none of the pink stuff today.  To make up for the lack of befriending Nacho the dog, we fed the local stray cats GoCat biscuits. (A continued thanks to Chris and Co. for looking after our cats, who we miss).

Alcoutim, view from camper stop

Free camperstop at Alcoutin.  The fort in the distance is in Spain

Carol and Ian that we met in Sanlucar highlighted Alcoutin to us, where you can zip wire it from Spain to Portugal over the river.  This seemed a must for both of us, but unfortunately it was too windy when we arrived, and the zip wire was closed.  We therefore spent the time wondering another walled town complete with castle…………….We did see a wild turtle though at Alcoutin’s strange river side beach.

Leaving Alcoutin we picked up Berlin hitchhiker Anna who wanted to go to Mertola, which was on our route to Sao Domingo.  On a previous a visit to the Algarve we visited Mertola, another walled castle town, but this time the excavations were more complete revealing an Islamic village at the foot of the castle.   Anna was interesting, her tour started in the Canaries, and she was travelling by foot (it was raining heavily when we picked her up) and sleeping under the stars, even in cities, which we both thought was brave.  Power to her and the trustworthy world she lives.

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Open mine at Sao Domingos

Sao Domingos was STRANGE.  An old mining site and village set up by a British company called Mason and Barry.  It was pretty uncomfortable learning how the British kept themselves separated by what seemed to be the Portuguese mining slaves.  Small one bed cottages lay next to the British Palace where the management lived together with their private police force employed to keep the Portuguese workers inline.

Minas Sao Domingos, mine walking route

On the ‘Rota das Minas’ walk

A 14km ‘rotas das minas’ walk through the ruins of what was the mine (closed in 1966) concreted our thoughts on the poor working conditions and segregation.  To make a small balance we visited a very local bar and drank a few wines (2e).  I am unsure how to weave in SUP boarding into this, but we did do it on our return to the van as we bumped into Carol and Ian who we met in Sanlucar and Ian turned out to be a proficient SUP boarder!

Minas Sao Domingos, Lago Tampada - Crop

Minas Sao Dmingos

Sharon and Matt SUPing on the lake at Sao Domingos

Eight years ago I wound up at Beja and stayed the night.  During the time I spent in the city (walled with castle again) I ate at a really good churrascaria called ‘Churrascaria do Alemao’ and found some friendly local bars.  So the aim for this trip, with Sharon in toe, was to try and retrace my steps this time by day.  We found the barbecue restaurant almost too easily, we had parked next to the place by pure chance (I can remember only that I had a good time in Beja, but the details are a little foggy!).  So next up were the bars, and this proved to be much harder as I was convinced that I crossed the old town nearer to where I was staying……After two laps of the old city and a (in)famous ‘Matt’ grump brewing (“I don’t want to go out/my shoes hurt”) and a very patient Sharon, we tried the bar opposite the restaurant.  Needless to say this was the one and therefore I must have stumbled out of the restaurant and headed straight to the nearest bar, typical.

Whilst walking back to the van we spotted a poster for a festival called OviBeja and this was something that we had read about in the Lonely Planet.  It was the first day, so we went into the nearest café to ask for more information.  This enquiry led us being chauffeured over to the festival site by Bejan local Eduardo (Obrigado che).  The festival itself was a bit of a strange mix – by day it was like a ‘country county’ show full of livestock and stalls selling riding boots.  By night it turned into a party with 10’s of barbeque eateries, top line bands and DJ’s until 4am.  We almost stayed the distance fuelled by a really good sit down barbeque, but by 2am the caipirinhas had kicked in and it was time for bed.  On the way home we got lost so we asked a couple who were passing by.  This led to another lift back to the car park that we were staying in.  By co-incidence they lived in the apartment block opposite and again ‘obrigado’ to whoever you were.  So, by my book, Beja has now scored 2 out of 2 for friendly people and a place where you can have fun.  Ate mais Beja.

Enroute back to Spain we stayed a Serpa which again was a whitewashed walled town with a castle and aqueduct.  It was stunning and peaceful and we used the time to recover from OviBeja……

Minas Sao Domingos (18)

Trip food summary so far: Portuguese bread, French cheese and cheap Spanish wine.  Consumed not necessarily in that order.  

 

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Huelva Coastal Province

On Wednesday we finally headed around the coastal corner to Huelva.  I can’t explain really I wanted to visit this city as it is not on anyone’s ‘must see list’.  The day’s travelling started off with a shock as once we had studied the map and confirmed with the Sat Nav, Huelva city was considerably further than the 60 or Kms I had in my head.  Not perturbed, we pointed the nose of the van north as you can only cross the river Guadalquivir at Seville (there are not any roads through the Donana national park), and then headed west.  At Sanlucar we visited a museum which gave plenty of information about the local area, including the national park and also a place called El Rocio.  Here, many years ago, a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared in a tree and now it is famous for holding a huge religious pilgrim festival.  On route to Huelva we saw the sign posts for El Rocio and since this story of the wooden vision of ‘Nuestra Senora’ appealed to us (reading too much Paulo Coelho?), and especially Sharon, we detoured.  El Rocio is really weird as it is a complete ghost town out of the pilgrim festival time and resembles something out of a Country and Western film due it horse tie up fences and sandy roads.

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Ghost Town El Rocio

A plus point of the stop was that the town is a platform for ‘Donana’ wildlife spotting tours and has several trails around the area.  Here we again spotted wild flamingos in the wetlands, much to Sharon’s delight!!!  We must have just missed the Iberian Linx though.

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Flamingos at Donana National Park

We ended up staying the night in Matalcanas on the coast.  Again, we managed to stay right by the sea for a grand total of 1 Euro, this is now becoming a habit – I have always wanted a sea view, just in this case it is one that changes.  This is another base for Donana tours so we took the opportunity to complete an early morning walking trail through the morning mist.  This time we only spotted hoof marks of deer that were returning from the beach, they must be early risers!

Thursday bought a bit of a marathon.  Via La Rabida, we completed an extensive drive through of Huelva city centre, much to the annoyance of the local city drivers: – I still think motorhomes and busy city centres are not the best of mixes, and decided that we could probably stay at it’s neighbouring coastal play ground Punta Umbria.  The information we held for a camper stop off must have been old as the (beach side, again) car park quite clearly stated that motorhomes were not allowed.  So at this point we were pretty stuck as we did not really have a back up plan apart from finding something ‘off site’.  We tried the two nearest towns, one being El Rompido, without luck.  At El Rompido, our wildlife spotting continued as there must have been at least a million small crabs wandering the soggy beach sands, they were literally everywhere.  In the end we decided that a beach side car park next to the Chirringuita Bar ‘Recife’ in between El Rompido and Punta would be suitable.  We checked with (and consumed 3 beers with) the Portuguese brothers that ran the bar that overnight parking was normal.  Again, it seemed we had fell on our feet.

Just before sun set a local police car turned up and seemed to be speaking with the owners of a Dutch caravan and car rig and simultaneously a Spanish driver of a nearby motorhome advised me that we can’t stay here tonight and that the police were issuing fines.  He did not speak English and we were relying on my ‘Portoinol’ but we understood that we needed to follow him back to Punta Umbria where he knew of a free safe car park in the centre of the town.  I suppose we have been really lucky so far not to have had these types of interactions with the local police as at times it does seem to be too good to be true that you can park for free overnight in these beautiful locations.

So, to summarise the costal region of Huelva, it is actually a really diverse and beautiful area and one worth spending time to explore.  Pine tree forests and swamp lands mix with vast sandy beaches and, certainly in this season, seems really tranquil and unpopulated.

Sanlucar, Jerez and Cadiz.

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Manolo’s bodega. Spot the man bag!

 In total we passed a week in La Jara and days passed really quickly.  We completed some more bike rides to a pine tree nature reserve just outside Chipiona and along the coast to Costa Ballena.  The pine tree reserve is actually a known chameleon habitat and needless to say we did not spot any!  A good memory will be the impromptu invite from Alfonso who manages the ‘autocaravanna parking’ to a local sherry bodega.  We were promised that the sherry was very good and also very cheap so it seemed like a ‘win win’, to use an old corporate term.  So at 11am on Sunday we all traipsed off to what seemed like a local house, but once through to the garden and out the back there was a barn that was full of sherry barrels (40 +).  The surprise was though, that the guy who produces the sherry, Manolo, was actually Burt Lancaster’s horse riding stunt double in the 1970’s and the photos on the walls of his mini tasting room proved the fact.

We finally moved on to Sanlucar de Barrameda where again we were able to park for free right next to the sea.  Also, by chance we positioned ourselves next to a very friendly Dublin couple (Niall and Christine) who we have since spent several evenings having a pre-dinner aperitif:- we need to palm off Manolo’s sherry which at 45 years of age is a bit of a throat burner.

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Wall tiles in Sanlucar

Sanlucar itself is a bustling sea side town with many churches, a castle and a busy fish market just off the main square.  Perched on a stool, whilst sipping the local ‘Manzanilla’ I absorbed the market’s enterprising bar.  Here you are able to take your fresh fish/sea food and produce that has been purchased within the market hall to the bar and they will season and cook it for you for 3 euro a kilo.  This combined with unorganised, and at times, frenzied shouting between the waiter/bar staff made for an enjoyable experience.  I spent time wondering if this could work in Birmingham’s famous food markets………

A local bus ride took us to Jerez de la Frontera where we spent a whole day wondering the tourist trail.  Jerez seemed quiet to me though and it was not how I imagined the city.  I had envisioned many small sherry bars with barrels as tables lining narrow streets with Spanish locals spilling out onto the streets smoking cigarettes.  It just seemed a little lifeless, so maybe it comes alive at night but since we had to get the bus back to Sanlucar we will never know on this trip.

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View from the van’s parking spot at Sanlucar

Yesterday we day tripped to Cadiz, again using the local buses.  We also tied up with Dubliner Donal, who I met in the Sanlucar market bar, who has been frequenting Cadiz over the last 12 years.  So after lunch we crisscrossed the old town with Donal as our informal local guide.  Cadiz lived up to my expectations and was very vibrant and lively, exactly how I imagined Jerez would be(?).  The old town is literally an oval with sea bordering 75% of the perimeter.  Inside the oval is a network of narrow streets lined with shops, resident’s apartments and of course busy bars and restaurants.  I think we will be putting Cadiz on the ‘return’ list as maybe a few nights there are in order.

Sharon’s highlight of the last few days were the wild flamingos that she spotted in the marsh lands found alongside the roads leaving Cadiz closely followed by the massive mixed fried fish dish that she devoured in the city a few hours before.  Mine has been the overall time here in the region, we have been here over 2 weeks now and we have only travelled 4kms in the van.  I am slowly beginning to relax and the days are passing by without that niggling thought that I should actually be doing something!  This first highlight is closely followed by the sensation caused by the 3rd sherry in Sanlucar’s market 🙂

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Local musican ‘Nacho’, main square Sanlucar

La Jara, Cadiz region.

01-04-16, La Jara.

Heading towards the sherry triangle we stayed the night at Zahara de los Atunes and Canos de Meca.  Zahara was a small Spanish holiday resort with a castle and small old town full of white buildings.  As it was Saturday of the Semana Santa weekend, the town was full, and so were all the restaurants and bars.  From the roads as we trudged by it looked like everybody was having fun, large tables in the street with vast Spanish families (often three generations worth) knawing their way through plates of fried sea food.  Quite a few times we muttered to ourselves that ‘we wished we were on holiday’ where we would be eating out every day.  We could have easily taken a table and ordered several ‘½ raciones’ washed down with the local wine, but, no, in this new life we can’t, so for us lunch was taken sitting on the beach and consisted of a large bag of Spanish crisps and a couple cans of beer (Cruzcampo, Seville).  To be fair, we were not sure which would have been the nicer experience, restaurant (80 euros after a couple of daily menus and bottles) or beach (2.50 euros).

The highlight of the day was the fantastic sunset which enveloped the town and beach.  We had the van parked up beach side for the night, so we quickly grabbed a bottle and joined fellow sun set seekers on the sand.  I have taken some photographs, but typically the true redness of the sun set was not captured by my cheap camera.  Note, the man bag is proving quite useful, I have added a cork screw to it’s contents.

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View from the van at our over night place in Canos

The next stop over was Canos de Meca which has been a place I have wanted to visit for a few years as it supposed to have several hippy communes.  Again, Canos proved easy to park in for free, as we found a strip of scrub land, just off an old bus stop, located right on the beach.  The waves were full of ‘normal’ surfers this time and the beach expands out to right to the ‘Cabo de Trafalgar’.  As the name suggests, this is where Nelson was victorious over the Spanish.  I am not much of a historian, but I thought it was interesting that the one information board at the Cabo basically blamed a Frenchman for the defeat as he who was actually the fleet Commander and he was only assisted by the Spanish.  Also, this trip has ignited an old pet hate.  The 14th century fortification at the Cabo unfortunately had graffiti on it’s side, however it was of the type ‘XXXXX loves YYYYY’ and contained zero art.  Tarifa however, had a good stencil type piece that was spotted throughout the town ‘Refugees Welcome, Nobody is Illegal ’complete with a simple picture of people holding hands which in my opinion is more tolerable/valuable than the adolescent love struck scrawl found at the Cabo.

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Evening, Cabo de Trafalgar.

Well, did we find the hippy communes?  I think we did possibly, but it seems they might have evolved into yoga retreats and vegan food outlets which really was not what I was looking for.  In a small protest, we stuffed down a huge hamburger and fries in a chilled out bar on the main road through Canos.  As a nod towards the other health food places, the burger bun was of the multiseeded type.

After a slightly unsettled night, we zoomed  off early to Conil de la Fronteria for breakfast (great sea side town, again full of small white buildings) and then onto the Sherry triangle.  After the off site Canos parking experience we went back to the ‘motorhome stopover’ book to search for more official parkings and that is how we have found this gem at La Jara (it has WIFI and hot showers).  Coastal La Jarra sits between Chipiona and Sanluca de Barrameda and it was the plan to use Sanluca as a hub and use public transport to Cadiz and Jerez.

Well, it is our third night here already and we have adopted the ‘travel slow principle’.  We explored Chipiona (6Km away) on our bikes and then Sanluca (5 km away) on foot.  We also had our first BBQ which was a great experience even though a high proportion of the 32 chicken wings were badly burnt, can I blame a Frenchman too please?

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The bikes parked up at Chipiona, spot the olives and empty Manzanilla cup.

The best thing about this spot though is La Jara itself.  It is a small cross roads surrounded by numerous small holdings.  It has a non-branded supermarket that sells everything you would need and several small simple bars.  Here you can watch the ‘rural Spanish’ world go by (everything from the smallest tractors in the world to gangs of untethered goats), whilst sipping the local sherry (Manzanilla) which is a taste I am trying to acquire.

In the next few days we will move the van across to Sanluca, as we have found a free aire there in the centre of town, and from there we will pick off Cadiz and Jerez.  Until then, travel slow……as there is still some more exploring to do around and about La Jara….

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Sharon cooking with the sunset, Autocaravana Stopover, La Jara.