The Western Algarve and the Alentejo Coast

It’s taken an age to write this blog up, what with my fledgling fiction career kicking off and planning my wedding (this September!). But here we are. It was late February. A late Carneval this year and it couldn’t come soon enough. As ever, we had a precious long weekend, and so we decided to make the best of it. The plan was a road trip to Sagres, in the Algarve, and then to drive back up the Alentejo coast, with a stopover in Vila Nova de Milfontes.

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Despite being the end of winter, we were lucky enough to wake up to a bright, sunny day and so we jumped into my girlfriend’s car and hit the highway. It being a holiday weekend, there was a fair amount of traffic, but nothing too drastic and, some hour or so after crossing the 25th April bridge, we were a little peckish, stopping off in a tiny place in the Alentejo for a bite to eat. We rolled into a tiny village called Castro Verde and walked in what was by then quite blazing sun, to the top of the village and a restaurant called, simply, Castro.

Inside was a wonderfully experience, huge portions of outstanding food, with decent wine to accompany it and very reasonable prices. How I love Alentejo. I ate Carne a Alentejana, a pork steak dish, served with razor clams and, in this restaurant, a huge king prawn. Ana had a steak which was, happily for her, cooked rare. Both were delicious. We finished up with a toucinho do ceu (a heavy egg-based cake, that was a bit too much for me) on the part of my partner and a petit gateau with red fruits and ice cream for me. With wine and coffee, we paid a little under forty euros in total.

There was very little else to see in the town, besides an old building with a particularly interesting wooden tower as part of the architecture. After looking at this, we were back on the road and it was a full two and a half hour slog down to Sagres.

When we arrived in Sagres, it was late afternoon and, at the end of winter, in a place that is so far south, the sun was already setting. Luckily, that meant a spectacular sunset out over the ocean. Sagres’ location, at the southwestern most point of the country means that there is only perhaps 75 kilometres between you and the northern tip of Africa. Too far to see, but the water rolls away, seemingly forever, from the horizon. The Pousada (a traditional hotel network from the early twentieth century) is wonderfully located, right on the rocky cliffs. They’ve also made an effort to keep artificial light to a minimum, making for spectacular sunsets and starlight. The pousada itself is the long, low, white building, featured in many of the photographs.

After freshening up and a bit of a walk on the cliffs, it was time to go and find dinner. The only problem with visiting Sagres – really a small town, relative to its Algarvian neighbours, Lagos, Faro, etc – in the winter, is that many restaurants were closed. We hunted down a few which came recommended, only to find the lights out. Eventually, we stopped at a place called Restaurant Carlos, where we had a really excellent seafood rice to share, packed with crab, lobster prawns, clams and muscles and a refreshing bottle of white wine to wash it down with. This place was a little more expensive, but food and service were both excellent. After the meal we were given a complimentary shot of local acorn liqueur. I’m not sure I’d try it again, but it was an experience!

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Breakfast in the morning, at the Pousada was excellent, with homemade jams, cakes and more alongside the usual variety of international hot food, pastries, cereals and fruit. The coffee was also good, graças a Deus. I have no pictures, though. After breakfast it was a quick shower and then quite the agenda for the day. First was to explore Sagres and, specifically, the old fortress (fortaleza). We walked through the small town for about twenty five minutes to find the fort and the facade is highly impressive the moment you arrive. There is a huge space out the back with a lighthouse, rocky outcrops here and there which are dominated by local fishermen trying their luck and a small chapel, dedicated to ‘our lady of the sea.’

The fort is very cheap to enter and I hugely recommend it. There’s one more interesting thing to be found inside, which is a musical instrument, played by the sea. There are porous caves underneath the peninsula on which the fort and its territory stands so, using the force with which the tide pushes air through the rock, a channel was made a and huge wind instrument was built. You walk inside via a maze like path and then stand over a grate, where a low pitched, thunderous tone blasts you from below. The wind, as well as the sound, is quite something. Take a look at the video, below.

From here, it was back in the car to visit Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape St Vincent). It is the westernmost point of continental Europe and was a place where the Romans once thought you could sail off the edge of the flat earth and into oblivion. There isn’t much there other than a lighthouse, but the views up the coast into the Alentejo – our next destination – were more than worth it.

After a quick stop to look at some hand crafts, it was back on the coastal road, up to Vila Nova de Milfontes. There were no stops on the way, besides one to allow a farmer to march his cattle across the road. An hour and a bit later we were rolling into Vila Nova de Milfontes where we would stay for the night. We decided to explore the town a little, before dinner. The town is situated on the banks of the river Mira, immediately before it washes out into the Atlantic. The result is that there are beautiful river beaches, as well as a dramatic ocean beach, where the freshwater meets the ocean, sometimes violently. We stayed at the hotel Mil Reis, a small but immaculately kept town house B&B, right in the heart of the town. Our room was one of the smaller ones, but we didn’t plan to spend too much time indoors, so it was fine. We stopped in another local restaurant, where we ordered fresh seafood. In my case, fried monkfish and for Ana a seafood açorda, a dish with old bread, mashed up with vinegar, coriander and seafood. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

The next morning, with better light, we decided to drive around the to headland you can see in the dark photo, to take a look at the beach. The tide was coming in as we strolled along, the speed of it nearly catching us out, so we had to dash back across and climb back to the cliffs. The force of the ocean coming in to the beach was really something to behold.

After our little beach trip, it was time to head home, but on the way, we had decided to stop at two places, the first of which was Ilha do Pessegueiro (Peach tree island). This is a place with great views, a lovely beach and the island itself, facing another, smaller sandstone fort. It’s a place so famous that there was even a song written about it. When we arrived though, a storm was brewing and seemed to have stationed itself directly over the island. It made for quite a dramatic effect. On the shore, next to the fortress, there are great slabs of volcanic rock from a time long ago in the past, with trenches carved into them. Whether these are man made or natural, I have no idea, but they certainly added to the impression the place made on me.

After a short time walking here, we were back in the car and up to our last stop before heading home to Lisbon – Porto Covo. I’d heard it was a beautiful place but I wasn’t prepared for the dramatic ocean that we would find there. We arrived some twenty minutes after leaving peach tree island and decided the first priority was lunch. We passed a few restaurants and decided to opt for Restaurante Zé Inácio. We were not disappointed.

We started off with some razor clams ‘à Bulhão Pato’ – it literally means quarrelsom duck, but that has nothing to do with it. They are served in a sauce of olive oil, garlic and coriander and, when they’re fresh like these were, it just works. For main courses we had some really outstanding steak, with excellent side dishes. As Ana was driving, she drank a coke, while I had a half carafe of local red wine (which was delicious). We both had dessert and coffee and the total cost was a measly forty-five euros, all included. We left the restaurant very happy.

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After lunch, it was time to go down to the sea. And what a sight it was. The town of Porto Covo itself is typical of its seaside location. There are the white and blue buildings, the wide, sea facing streets and the cafés, restaurants and boat hire places you’d expect. But the cliffs and the rushing ocean you see when you reach the seafront, you don’t expect. I’ll let the pictures and video speak for themselves.

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Can you find me in the picture?

After watching the ocean for half an hour, with the sun almost down, it was time to hit the motorway and head home.

This is a trip that comes highly recommended from me. It took us three days, but you could probably relax a little more, if you had a bit more time.

If you are interested in exploring Portugal or specifically the Algarve or Alentejo regions, I heartily recommend the guide books linked below. Any purchases made here will kick back a few cents to me for my next trip. Thanks in advance and happy travelling!

 

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Twenty-five Hours in Porto – a Mini Adventure

It was still the middle of January when my lady came home and told me the bad news – that she would have to go away for a medical congress in early February. But immediately afterwards, she told me the good news that I could go with her for the simple cost of the hotel extra person supplement (about ten euros) and whatever my transport costs were.

Not having been to Porto as a proper grown up and it being somewhere I sincerely wanted to see and get to know, I enthusiastically accepted the offer. Consulting train and flight times though, we established that it would mean a grand total of twenty-five hours in Portugal’s second city. Not a whole lot. Fortunately, though, TAP Portugal’s prices for their Ponte Aerea service (link in Portuguese), connecting Lisboa to Porto multiple times per day, were actually a tiny bit cheaper than the fastest trains on the way up. With a flight time of around forty-five minutes, it seemed like the best bet.

I bought my ticket, checked in a couple days before and then it dawned on me: these flights were on tiny twin-propeller planes, the likes of which I’d never flown on. Would it be deafeningly noisy? Would it suffer from immense turbulence and end up being something of a ‘vomit-rocket’? It was too late now.

I arrived at Lisbon airport from work, grabbed some water for the flight and boarding opened almost immediately. The flights run on a fleet of ATR72-600 aircraft. The pamphlet in the seat back advised me that they are some of the quietest, most fuel efficient and most comfortable aircraft in the world over short distances. Still, not being able to stand up straight, as it was so small, I was unconvinced. My fears were utterly unfounded. The flight was extremely comfortable, quiet, rapid, and the on-board service from TAP was typically very good. I received a little pack of Italian crispbreads and a glass of more than adequate Douro red wine. Bear in mind this is on a flight that cost less than 29 euros. I landed in Porto ten minutes ahead of schedule and the rain that had rendered Lisbon so soggy for the previous few days had been well and truly behind. Porto was basking in winter sunshine.

After disembarking from the plane in Porto, getting to the city really couldn’t be any easier. As it was an internal flight, there was no need for passport control. There is a metro connection to the purple line, running from the airport in the north west of the city right the way through the centre to the Estadio do Dragao (FC Porto’s stadium) in the east. Tickets are cheap at just under two euros each and can be bought from any of about ten machines. In fifteen minutes, I was hopping off the metro – more of a tram system, really – and into a small cafe to have a snack, as I’d missed lunch. Then it was on to our hotel.

Because we were placed for my girlfriend’s congress, we stayed in a business hotel. Called Hotel Bessa, it’s located next to the stadium of the famous Boa Vista football club. A giant, imposing wall of the stadium faces on to the side road where the hotel is located. The hotel was very well equipped, had efficient reception staff, great rooms (including really top quality toiletries, and a TV which allowed you to play your own music via bluetooth. Beds were also comfortable and breakfast (more on that later) was outstanding.

After recharging my batteries and cleaning myself up, I was off into town to meet my girlfriend for dinner. She’d decided to take me to a restaurant that she knew well, close to the Ribeira area of the city, called Cantinho de Avillez. The proprietor is in fact from Lisbon, so the food was more classic Portuguese rather than specifically northern. Nonetheless everything we ate and drank was terrific, while the staff were that brilliant blend of always on hand but never in your face.

After dinner we took a walk to the river front – somewhere I was later told is quite a rough part of town, but I didn’t see any trouble. The river Douro is a really strikingly beautiful place and never more so than at night, with the Port houses and bridges all beautifully illuminated.

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After that we wanted to see more of the city lit up, so we walked back up, first to the railway station of Sao Bento, with its famous azulejos in the ticket hall, round to the old town hall in Avenida Dos Aliados, and finally to see the Torre Dos Clerigos. All were quite magnificent when lit.

After that, the cold got the better of us and it was a quick Uber ride back to the hotel and much needed sleep.

Waking up relatively early the next day, we went down to check out the Hotel Bessa breakfast and were not at all disappointed. The range was top, including a vast array of hot options, very fresh fruit, pastries, cereals and everything else you could ask for from a breakfast, really. Even the coffee was of a decent standard.

Well breakfasted, we showered and then stepped outside. Our plan had been to walk to a nearby park, but the rain clouds had decided otherwise and it was really coming down by the time we left the hotel. So we dived into another Uber and were dropped off at São Bento station, with the plan to cross over the Dom Luis bridge, both to take in the views and to get over to Vila Nova de Gaia, the land of Port wine. With daylight aiding me, I decided it would be a good time to get a shot of the famous São Bento azulejos in all their glory.

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From here, according to google maps, it was a short walk to the entrance to the Dom Luis bridge, via a beautiful cathedral. So we began the walk over. We followed the map directions, turned through myriad narrow side streets and, finally, came out exactly where we had begun.

Second time lucky though and we found ourselves exactly where we wanted to be, on the grand Dom Luis bridge, with its incredible views over the Ribeira district on one side and up river into the hills of Douro country the other. We stopped to take a couple of photos and then the rain came back with a vengeance.

With the rain now pummeling us, we needed a way down to the riverside without getting wet. And then we saw it, the Teleférico de Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s basically a cable car ride down to the riverside, from the far end of the Dom Luis bridge. We decided to give it a go. It was a great ride and, even with the rain blocking the view to some extent, it was great to zoom over the river and the Port Wine houses.

Landing at the other side, it was still pouring, but now some three or four hours from breakfast, it was time we ticked another box in the essential Porto list. Time for a Francesinha. We had been recommended various places to try a francesinha, but with the rain preventing us from walking too far, we decided to go somewhere close by and reviews on Trip advisor told us that the restaurant, Ar do Rio, did a pretty good job. So we dashed through the rain and were quickly seated next to the panoramic window.

When the francesinha arrived, I have to confess to being a tiny bit disappointed that it all fit on one plate, as I was used to Francesinhas arriving on one plate for the sandwich and another for the fries, such is the scale of the thing. But, far more importantly, the quality and taste were excellent. I polished it off with a beer on the side, while my good lady had a steak.

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Evidently it was not too small, as I had no room for dessert. Looking at my watch after lunch, we had about four hours until our train was to depart for Lisbon. We quickly paid up and made our way up hill towards the Croft Port wine cellars. The rain had finally abated, so it was a pleasant walk up the historic, cobbled streets.

Walking into the Croft winery, you are struck by the history of the place. No doubt that is their intention, but nevertheless it feels entirely authentic. The staff are excellent and quickly filled us in on what times the different tours were, in which languages and how much everything cost. We elected to take the Portuguese language tour, for which we had a forty-five minute wait, with a cost of ten euros per person. This also included a taster of three different ports. The first up was a chilled ‘pink’ port, a new creation that was fresh and is designed for aperitifs or cocktails. We sat and drank it by the roaring fire in the corner as we waited for our tour to begin. After that, we received a ruby port, which was also delicious, if very different from the pink.

The tour of the cellars was fascinating, explaining everything from the origins of port wine – where brandy was added to maintain its condition as it made the long journey across the Bay of Biscay to England – to the different soil types in the Douro region and the way in which this affects the flavour of the grape. We also learned that vintage port is so delicately balanced that it should usually be consumed within a week of opening, which was a big surprise for me. After thirty minutes or so, we left the cold cellar and, leaving the best til last, we got to try a fantastic tawny port. With the tasting done, we then bought a bottle of the pink port to serve to guests at the lady’s birthday dinner in March and jumped in another Uber to Campanha station.

It was with heavy heart that I left Porto. A beautiful city with much to do and see and, even in the cold and rain of February, a place that I felt quite sure I would want to revisit with more time on my hands.

If you’re planning your own trip to the Porto region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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São Miguel – An Island Adventure – Part 2

Day three started much like day two, with a hearty breakfast and too many clouds in the sky. This time there was no rain and the forecast intimated that the cloud would clear before eleven. With so much to see, we decided to brave the elements and hit the road, anyway. First stop: Lagoa do fogo – The lagoon of fire!

Like most places on the island from Ponta Delgada, it was only a short drive of about twenty-five minutes up to the top of Lagoa do Fogo and, as we left the highway and began to drive around the winding roads leading up to the viewpoints at the top, some workmen who were doing some forestry work looked at us in disbelief as we went. We didn’t really realise why until we started to make the final ascent, pulled over and were presented with this view:

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Yes, there was the first of what were to be many rainbows that day, but besides that, visibility was near zero. There was dense fog and we were inside a cloud. So far, not so very good. Feeling a little disappointed, we checked the weather in the Sete Cidades lagoon, further to the west  (our pre-planned second stop of the day anyway) and saw that the sky was a bit clearer. So we decided to head out and miss Lagoa do Fogo. As we careened round the winding road that hugs the side of this mountain the sky began to clear and we saw a park entrance up ahead and decided to stop and go in to check it out. Right in front of us as we parked, we realised that we now had a stunning view out over a patch of farmland to the coast and another rainbow.

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The park itself was a really interesting place, with more hot spring-fed pools that you could bathe in (alas, we hadn’t brought swimming gear!) as well as a wonderful lush forest, channels where the spring ran through the park and a visitor information centre with information in a variety of languages about the volcanic activity of the islands and the rock formations found there. Sadly, the path to the source of the spring, which was said to be very interesting, had been closed off due to the heavy rain, but it was a beautiful place to explore for half an hour, nonetheless and only cost two euros to get in. There was even a caldeira you could get really close to, to watch it bubbling. Though not too lose – a warning side advised us that the water could reach 100 degrees and more.

From here, it was back on the road to Sete Cidades, the place I was most looking forward to seeing on the whole trip. It was only around twenty minutes from Lagoa do Fogo, so very easy to get too and, as we were driving, the weather gradually cleared up. As was becoming completely the norm in the Azores, I didn’t really take my eyes off the scenery as we drove, you see something amazing that often.

Before long, we were off the motorway and heading up to a miradouro – a viewpoint – called the “Miradouro do Rei” the king’s viewpoint. Before that, though, we’d heard about an abandoned hotel from some friends of mine, where the views over the Sete Cidades lagoon was even better. Suddenly, it appeared at the side of the road and we pulled in to the car park, still somewhat unaware of just how beautiful the spectacle awaiting us would be. We climbed the still-carpeted and very smelly stairs, ducking under jutting out pieces of metal and made our way to roof, to behold a view that I can honestly say filled me with awe.

After twenty minutes of just standing and appreciating perhaps the most stunning view of my life to date, we got back in the car and drove in to the lagoon itself, across the narrow road that runs across the water. We were about to stop and jump out for a closer look when the rain returned with a vengeance, fat raindrops pounding the roof of the Clio. We decided to look for somewhere for lunch but, curiously, there didn’t seem to be anywhere besides a pizzeria and the missus was fully against pizza in the Azores, so we looked up the next town over, and decided to take a look at the seaside town on the north-western tip of the island – Mosteiros.

Arriving there, we’d found a restaurant on google maps that was highly recommended for its seafood – something we’d yet to really try on Sao Miguel. We parked up, now bathed in sunshine, and went inside. The dish of the day, roasted octopus looked incredible, but the restaurant had run out, completely. From the options left, we both decided to try lapas – limpets – for the first time. Here they were grilled in the shell. First we had a bean and pasta soup which was excellent, and I tried the local beer Especial, for the first time. It was perfectly drinkable, if not memorable. Then the lapas arrived. So many people in the restaurant were commenting on how great they were today, which made us feel quite anxious to try them. In the end though, they came out, wonderfully presented, smelling strongly of the sea, but neither of us really liked them, the texture quite rubbery and the insides exploding onto the plate in an alarming fashion. From the opinions around the restaurant though, it was strictly that we didn’t like them, not that they weren’t great.

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It being distinctly low season, Mosteiros had the feel of a sleepy town. Few tourists besides us were wandering the streets and the local people were relaxing over lunch or outside the cafe kiosk in the small town square. The town was quite pretty though, with a church much in the style of the one in Ponta Delgada, and a curved harbour, with a black volcanic sand beach at one side. Beyond this there were some rocky outcrops with some seating where we stopped to watch the setting sun descend towards the water for a while.

After our walk, we decided to head back along the coast road to Ponta Delgada, so we could relax a little before our final dinner on the island. On the way we were to stop off at Europe’s only tea plantation. Not far from the tea place though, we saw a lookout point over the sea and decided to pull over to take in the breathtaking views.

It was only when I got back in to the car that I realised there had been about ten thousand midges waiting for an idiot like me in the air. They were biting my neck, my face, my arms. Dreadful. We spent some ten minutes killing them before driving on. We stopped in the tea place, as planned and tried the only tea made in Europe – for free! It was quite delicious, so we bought some to bring home and some more to take as a gift for Ana’s mum. Sadly it was very dark and I got no pictures. Then we arrived at the hotel and, as the Azores is such a reasonably priced place, we decided to do something we’d never done before. We booked a table at the number one restaurant on the island on Trip Advisor.

Called Quinta Dos Sabores, the restaurant is a concept restaurant and can cater for vegetarians and vegans as well as omnivores like us. You call and book – it’s the only way you can get a table and they ask you a few questions about what you like. Then they design a menu for you. The dinner menu is six courses of some of the best food I’ve had in my life. The lady who runs the place is extremely welcoming and has an interesting back story, having lived previously in Recife in Brazil, Lisbon and Alentejo. Besides wines and spirits everything is sourced from within a kilometre or so of the restaurant and the quality of the ingredients shines through in everything they put in front of you.

You can read about the restaurant here. I have to say that every word of praise is justified and it ranks among the very best meals of my life. I won’t bore you with a description of everything we ate, but I will say that the steak course was not accompanied by a steak knife, because the meat was so tender that I could easily cut it with a butter knife. And I will also mention that the baby carrots that came with the fish course were perhaps 1.5 centimetres long, but still had more flavour than any carrot I’ve ever eaten before. It was the best way I could possibly imagine to finish my trip to the Azores and I sincerely hope I have the chance to return.

After dinner it was off to bed, then breakfast, then returning the car, then the short flight back to Lisbon. If you are living in mainland Portugal or even the UK (direct flights from Stansted) I implore you to visit the Azores before tourism really takes hold. As yet, there is still so much that is untouched and such natural beauty I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in Europe on such a scale. Food is outstanding wherever you go and, best of all, it’s so affordable. I will certainly be going back!

São Miguel – An Island Adventure – Part 1

When my girlfriend asked me if I’d prefer a gift or an experience, this Christmas, I didn’t even really feel I had to give her an answer. When she told me, six weeks before Christmas that she simply had to tell me what the surprise was, ahead of time, I relented. And so, she revealed we were going to the Azores. Now the Azores has been one of those places that I remembered hearing about as a young boy, and thinking of as something exotic – almost otherworldly – and certainly somewhere I’d never have the chance to visit. They are a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the largest of which, and the one we were to visit, is São Miguel.

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The possibility of visiting the place has really opened up over the past couple of years, beginning with TAP starting to offer low cost flights both to São Miguel and to Terceira island. Following on from that, Azores Airlines, part of SATA, and Ryanair both jumped on the Lisbon-to-the-Azores-for-not-much-money bandwagon and tourism to the islands has skyrocketed, particularly during the summer months. But we were travelling in December. Would it be a wash out? We would find out!

We arrived on December 28th, after the obligatory Christmas festivities had reached an end. We arrived at about 11:00am on the Ryanair flight from Lisbon, which ran remarkably smoothly and suffered from surprisingly little turbulence for a winter flight that was almost exclusively over the ocean. Having left Lisbon in bright winter sunshine, we arrived to thick fog. But we weren’t to be deterred by that. And so we went to the Ilha Verde desk and claimed out silver Renault Clio, which was to be our wheels for the weekend. I strongly recommend booking this in advance, online. We got a slightly cheaper price and a much cheaper deal on reducing our insurance excess to zero. It’s worth shopping around online before you arrive.

From the airport, both complete strangers to the islands, Ana asked me to switch on the GPS to find directions for our hotel. I did so and then, within about three minutes, we were pulling in to the covered car park of the Azoris Royal Garden. We checked in within about five minutes and were in our fourth floor room in less than ten. From leaving home to dropping our bags, we had taken around five hours. Highly impressive. We dropped our stuff, took rain proof gear from our bags (as the sky looked a little angry) and headed out to explore the town of Ponta Delgada on foot.

Looking out to sea from the sea front, you can really begin to appreciate that you’re in the middle of the ocean. All you can see is the expanse of water, rolling away from you seemingly endlessly. The sea front also had a seating area, a small sort of shopping and restaurant area which hugged the edges of the water and the old gate, which is little more than a ruin, but still retains pride of place in a square in the city centre. The wind was also formidably strong, creating waves that relentlessly battered the sea walls and nearly took my head off at the top of the seating area.

After being blown around like that for around half an hour, we decided to grab some lunch and made a beeline for a restaurant we’d had recommended to us by one of Ana’s friends. So we strolled over to Tasca. Tasca, as anyone who’s been to a Portuguese or Spanish speaking country will know, means simply a small, informal, local restaurant. They’re everywhere in Portugal, and so the name is fairly uninspired. But the moment you walk in, you know this is not going to be just any old Tasca. Famous for its petiscos – Portuguese tapas – we were too hungry to go for that, so we decided to order a starter and a main course each. Which might have been an error. I had the selection of local sausages to start, which involved chourico, alheira, morcella (black pudding) and a dollop of migas (dissolved bread with herbs) and a slice of cassava. To follow, I’d already ordered a steak, with a side of fries. As you can see from the pictures, neither was in any way small.

Both dishes were beautifully cooked and the quality of the meat, in particular was really striking. They were washed down with a glass of terra de lava wine from one of the other Azorean islands, which lacked the delicacy of continental Portuguese wine, but was still a lovely drop. Ana ate plumas for her main dish, a fatty and delicious cut of pork. She faltered before finishing, while I just about managed to demolish both plates. But after a coffee, we decided we were in very definite need of a stroll back to the hotel.

As we went back, we passed the fortaleza of Sao Bras, which is also now the island’s military museum. We didn’t go inside, but it has impressive views from outside. We also tried to find a whale watching company who would be interested in taking us out, but learned that there would be no days with good enough sea conditions until the Saturday – the day we were to leave. This is certainly something to consider for those hoping to visit the Azores and something we will think about when we return. Finally, we returned to the hotel for a night of relaxation ahead of the many miles we would cover in the coming days.

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Fortaleza of Sao Bras, along with military museum, Ponta Delgada

We woke up at about half past eight the next day and ventured down into our hotel’s ground floor to find breakfast. We were not disappointed at the range of plentiful hot and cold food offerings, including a large amount of local produce in the form of cheeses, cakes and more. A look out to the outdoor pool – which we were definitely in the wrong season to be using – told us that the weather had improved, but not by much. Nonetheless, we ate up and went back to the room to prepare for our first road trip, to Furnas.

We started up the car, then the GPS and we were off towards Furnas. What immediately impressed us was how easy the road network on Sao Miguel seemed to be. I don’t know if it;s the same on other islands of the Azores, but there is a very efficient circular road, with highway standard surfaces and multiple lanes, with arterial routes criss-crossing the island to connect the main settlements and places of natural beauty. It means that even if someone is not an overtly confident driver, they ought not be deterred from hiring a car to explore the island (especially as local transport appears infrequent). The hotel we stayed at, too, was under a kilometre from the entrance to the highway, so in spite of the 40km between us and Furnas, we were there remarkably quickly, spotting some beautiful countryside along the way and also encountering at least six separate weather systems en route.

Once in the general area of Furnas, we passed a number of ‘Caldeiras,’ places where volcanic gas is emitted from below the ground, often accompanied by plumes of smoke and a strong smell of sulphur, as we would find out at close quarters sometime later. But first we headed for Parque Terra Nostra, where we were planning to take a dip in a pool whose water was rich in iron – and so was coloured a shocking orange brown – and also to walk around the extensive and beautiful gardens. First we came to the pool. We paid our 6 euro entrance fee, and an additional five each for towel hire (though we were reimbursed two euros each on returning our towels) and changed our clothes before descending into the water. It was gloriously warm, especially at the points where it poured into the pool from the underground piping system. It was extremely peaceful sitting in the warm, brown water, watching the steam rise into what was a rather chilly day by comparison, at 15 degrees centigrade. The water is as hot as 39 degrees when it enters the pool and so feels very warm against the skin. The iron is said to have therapeutic properties, but who knows if that’s correct or not. It was a fun experience.

After the pools, we dried off, changed and explored some of the gardens. We would have needed a huge amount of time to see all of them, but we felt we got our money’s worth as we tramped around for an hour or so. Some of it looks positively other worldly.

From here, we drove around to the nearest Caldeira, where we saw volcanic vents with names of saints, demons and more besides. We met a friendly stray cat and we became nauseated by the overbearing fragrance of sulphur. But it was fascinating to see. Some of the signs warned us of water temperatures of up to 100 degrees C. Definitely not for bathing, then.

After this, the plan had been to go a restaurant nearby and to try the famous cozido a portuguesa, which is cooked using geothermal heat, in one of the thermal vents. But, having breathed far too much horrid smelling sulphur in already, we decided instead to follow up another restaurant recommendation that we’d both been very excited about before coming to the island, The Associacao Agricola. It was something of a drive from where we were and we were both starving, but we hoped it would be worth it. And we were right. The restaurant’s plan is to provide locally raised, grass fed beef, with high welfare and an altogether humane approach to farming. The results are supposed to speak for themselves. And so it was. I had the house steak with three pepper cream sauce and my missus went for the same steak with mustard sauce. We took a half bottle of fruity Dao wine to accompany it. The steak was honestly the smoothest, most tender steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was like silk. If you are a lover of steak and you haven’t eaten here, I’d dare say your life is as yet incomplete.

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Desserts were also simple and deliciously made. We considered coming back to the restaurant again, even though we had only one more night on the island. We ultimately didn’t, but I would have had no regrets if we had done. It was genuinely stunning how good the steak was and, a month on, I still find myself thinking about it on a nearly daily basis.

After the steak, it was time to drive back to the hotel, in the company of a rather lovely sunset. Once we got back, we took a bath and then went to the hotel’s bar for what were really rather excellent cocktails, for a good price, from an excellent barman. After that, it was time for bed, for the next day promised trips to the fire lagoon, the seven cities lagoon and some seaside towns, too.

If you’re planning your own trip to the Azores, take a look at the Brandt travel guide, here:

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 3 – Évora Monte

Hardly settled back in to Lisbon life after a relatively traumatic, but necessary, work stint in not-so-jolly old England, we found ourselves presented with a public holiday. This meant that both I and my lady would be free, together on a day that wasn’t a Sunday. Not wishing to look this near miraculous gift horse in the mouth, I was delighted when she suggested we go to see the castle at Évora Monte.This was proof positive that, if you go on about something often enough for long enough, someone will eventually listen to you. So we hopped in the car and hit the road.

En route, I decided to have a look for restaurant recommendations in the town. We soon discovered there were pretty well none at all – it’s just that small – so we decided to eat in Arraiolos. This time though, with my lady in charge, she selected a restaurant on the edge of town, called ‘O Alpendre’ – The Porch, in English. We arrived starving, a state in which we would not be permitted to leave. We waited for a few moments for our table to be readied and then sat, immediately presented with boiled quails eggs in oil and vinegar with onions and herbs, a delicious molten local with a cloth bag full of freshly baked, warm bread, some presunto ham and some olives. Looking back, this might well have sufficed, but still feeling famished, we ordered a steak and a portion of lamb, each served with various ‘migas’ – bread softened and mashed into a sort of terrine, with herbs, vegetables and seasoning.

The whole meal was delicious but, as I really ought to have learned by now, the Alentejan portions were enough to cause even a particularly hungry lion to need a power nap. This was perhaps, not the best fuel for a hike to a castle mount!

Leaving the restaurant, it was little more than a ten minute drive onward to Évora Monte. This I knew, having been somewhat amazed by the completeness of the structure, as I headed back from Estremoz on my previous castle trip. On the way, we did run in to one surprise though, in the form of Azaruja, a train station which had been abandoned and borded up, probably on the old Évora to Estremoz line. It seemed remarkably well preserved, compared with the tired, rusted looking rails in the road. The platforms were totally overgrown with the dry long grasses of the area and we saw no examples of any civilization in the immediate vicinity.

But it wasn’t long before we were pulling up at the bottom of the castle mount. I reassured Ana that it’d be much more fun if we climbed the whole castle hill from the bottom. She would come to regret listening to me on this matter, but never mind. As you arrive in Évora Monte there is a café, a bus stop and a mini roundabout with an old mill stone fastened to it. That really is about it. It’s a tiny village, which serves to make the grandiose nature of the castle all the more imposing as it looks down on you.

There was nothing left to do but to climb to the top. We walked past the handful of residential properties which cling to the hillside, stopping occasionally to take in the browns and golds of the Alentejo countryside from the many viewpoints on the way to the top. When we arrived at the level of the castle itself, we noted that there were adverts for both an adega, selling local wine, and a store with locals handcrafts. We didn’t stop off in either though and instead strode on up to the castle gates.

Then we walked inside. What I was immediately struck by was that this castle, much like Estremoz, a few weeks earlier, was still very much home to a living, even thriving community. But, unlike Estremoz, which was really quite a large city and had a lot of the main municpal functions of a city nestled around the castle walls, there was almost nothing here. People must actually live in quite extreme isolation – the roads out of Évora Monte’s castle certainly aren’t anything to shout about. As a place to visit, it was great. We walked half the length of the city walls, from the front gate to the rear, stepping down next to the city’s clearly active cemetery. Walking back across to the exit of the castle, we saw livestock, a local society of some kind and then simply houses. Even the castle keep seems still to be occupied as a residence. I’d certainly recommend Évora Monte as a place to visit, but cannot imagine how odd it must be to live there!

If you want to plan your own trip to the Alentejo, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, below:

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 2 – Estremoz

Fresh from a long and well earned sleep, after our previous day’s exertions, wandering around the high, hill top castle of Arraiolos, we wandered over to the other side of the road, where our hostel had its breakfast laid out. Hostel breakfasts can range from out-of-this-world to get-out-of-my-life, so it was good to arrive and find a range of fruit juice, a coffee capsule mahine for REAL cofffee, breads, cheeses, ham, sausage, jam, butter, cereal and more besides. We sat in the little courtyard outside and thoroughly stuffed our faces, preparing as we were for a much heavier day, in terms of walking, that day. Faces filled, it was time for a quick shower and then off to the bus station and, in fact, the same stop even, to wait for the bus to Estremoz.

The city is a fair bit further from Évora than Arraiolos, sitting some 51 kilometres away and is a mere twenty from the Spanish border. While all of the castles in the region had a role in protecting Portugal from the Spanish at various points in time, we had a feeling that this one might have been more significant. The bus rolled out of the station more or less exactly on time and we were again amongst a huge group of about six total passengers on board. The route followed the Arraiolos route and then veered off, following signs, mainly, for Espanha.

A fairly rapid fifty-five minutes later, we were hopping off the bus and in Estremoz. Rather than the castle dominating the skyline where we disembarked, instead was a towering cement factory. Luckily, that seemed to be nowhere near where we were going, so we jumped off the bus and crossed the road to find an interesting and unusual looking square building, adorned with beautiful azulejos and the name of the city. It took us a few minutes to realise that this was an old train station. A cursory look at Portuguese wikipedia told us that the station had been built in 1902, and had been in use until 2011, when it was decommissioned. It was pleasing, though, to see that they’ve kept it in such great condition since.

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After taking in the building, it was down the road towards the town and a quick stop off to get more coffee and a cake. While in Alentejo it’s always a good idea to get a queijada. Though it literally means cheesecake, it’s nothing like a cheesecake, at all. It’s simply a cake, heavily egg based (naturally, in Portugal!), with the quark from cheese added. It’s light, sits in a firm pastry case and is quite delicious.

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Turning the corner from the street with the bus station at the end, you come to a large square. There’s a section in the middle with a water feature, a small garden and a café with terraces. To the left though is an historic building which has been converted into a science centre, with sections for astronomy, natural history and more. We decided to take a look. The brilliant thing is that it’s been preserved so well, so the old features are really present and a part of the experience of visiting the place, including a lush courtyard in the interior of the museum and really cool medieval gargoyles. Almost superimposed on top of it, there are star charts, dinosaur skeletons and lots of other exciting science and nature-based elements. It must be a fantastic place to take kids, as there are lots of interactive exhibits, too. We didn’t have time to see the museum, so we decided not to go into the main exhibit, but I’ve definitely mde a mental note to return. You can find out about it here (in Portuguese).

Walking across the street, we saw a small food market, selling locally grown produce. I didn’t want to take any photos, as I wasn’t buying, but all of it looked terrific. Across the road was the town hall and now also town museum. In keeping with the spirit of the interior part of the Alentejo in mid summer, the sign on the door, in Portuguese and English, advised that in summer afternoon opening would be “erratic”. The building itself was quite attractive and had a fabulous coat of arms on the wall and more azulejos on the portal to the building next door.

After this, we only had to walk across one more square before we were standing at the edge of the castle walls. Where Arraiolos had been a town that had developed twenty metres or so below the old castle, Estremoz was something entirely different, in fact being a city that still lived and breathed within the castle and then nestling right up against the towering castle walls, too. As we approached the city walls, passing another local produce market, we came out alongside the defences, with a drop down to the farmland stretching out from the edge of the city and running all the way to the horizon. We stopped for a few photos and then went in to the castle through one of the arched gates.

Once inside the castle walls, we walked up the narrow street past the 700-year-old buildings – including the old prison, which has been turned in to a bar restuarant with a roof terrace – and then arrived at a huge, imposing tower, connected to a courtyard, with a wall facing out towards the countryside. In the middle of the square is a statue to the saint, queen isabel. In the tower there is now a pousada, one of the traditional hotels, originally set up for coachmen crossing the country in the middle ages. The pousada hotel looked wonderful and has rooms in the main tower which have what must be quite staggering views over the city. I made a note to stay there some time in the future. The castle keep is in remarkable condition and the surrounding buildings, too, look incredible for their age. There is even an adega with a huge collection of wines within the inner walls. Opposite is one part of the castle which has been allowed to decay, but it looks dramatic, nonetheless.

We decided to walk out of the inner gate and go to the viewpoint at the other extremity of the outer walls. When we got there there we found a beautiful church and stopped to take in the views. Walking back from here, we discovered a group of men and women sitting at a snack bar, drinking beer and sheltering from the sun in the shade. We decided it wasn’t a bad idea and went inside to join them.

The castle is quite amazing, largely because so many people actually still live their lives within the city walls. This is not unique in Portugal and, of course, Obidos is the most famous other example of such a place, but the big difference here is that this really doesn’t feel so much like a touristy place. It’s strange when you consider that the fortress had an important role in Portuguese history, with Vasco Da Gama himself once stationed here as a general in the defence against the Spanish.

After visiting all areas of the castle and having our beers to cool off, we decided it was about time for lunch. We took a walk around and found a sign, just outside the main gate, for a traditional restaurant offering local specialties. We decided to give it a try and were very glad that we did. My friend ate a bean soup, which came with what looked like a whole loaf of bread, while I had an açorda alentejana, with cod and egg. It’s a kind of thin soup with lots of herbs, a huge slab of bacalhau floating in it and a poached egg to keep it company. Again, there was abundant bread, olives and we picked up a half litre of local white wine. With coffees to follow, we managed to spend 16 euros, which was phenomenal value. Afterwards, as I paid the lady in charge, I asked if we was the chef and she replied that she was in fact the owner and had been running the place for more than 30 years. If you find yourself in Estremoz and needing something to eat, I would strongly recommend the Casa do Pixanegra.

With lunch eaten, there was little more than an hour to wander around the city before our bus back to Évora. So we wandered the narrow streets, my friend looked for a souvenir and, finally, we whiled away some time in a café in the town square, where I found a most disturbing looking statue of what looked like a young boy.

All in all, Estremoz had been a really worthwhile place to visit, packed with history and, more importantly perhaps, living history, as so many people were still living out their daily lives within the castle walls. I think, because of the isolation, it’s not somewhere I’d want to live, but it’s a really exciting and beautiful place to visit. Finally, on the way home, we spotted something we’d not seen too clearly on the way out on the bus, that being another castle, this time at a place called Évoramonte. So that one is on the list for the next time, along with Marvão and more besides. Watch this space for when I make it to them. For those readers who have made it over to Portugal but haven’t been to Alentejo, I implore you to take a look. It’s my absolute favourite and the slightly lower levels of tourism to the Lisboa region and the Algarve make such a difference.

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If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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Castles in Alentejo – Part 1 – Arraiolos

Imagine my situation. I’m on holiday from school but my girlfriend isn’t. My friend visits from Poland and she is more or less fanatical about Portugal in general, but especially about seeing new places and castles in particular. So I did the only thing I could do. I went castle hunting.

The question now was where to go, particularly as Portugal has more castles that most people have hot dinners in a six month period. A quick bit of scouting on the internet turned up this article. The trick then was to pick two castles that were sufficiently close together to make a 2 night, 2 castle trip possible. To make things more complicated, I’m not a driver, and we weren’t on the kind of budget to be able to hire a car. So we searched and scoured google maps and various local bus service websites and eventually decided upon Arraiolos and Estremoz. We booked accommodation in Évora, sandwiched between the two, booked return trains there and we were off.

The train ride to Évora is just over an hour and a quarter out of Lisbon. As you head south first, into Setúbal, it has the added bonus of the train cruising over the Tejo river inside the 25th April bridge, providing wonderful views over the river, the wider city and across to the Cristo Rei monument. Booking online with Portuguese railways anything more than a week in advance ensures some crazy prices, in this case, we paid 15 euros return, including a reserved seat (which you can select) in an air conditioned 2nd class carriage. It’s really a bargain.

We jumped on the train early on Tuesday morning and found ourselves in Évora at just before 10:30. We took the short walk in to the old town and our hostel, the Old Évora Hostel. Based within the old city walls, it’s a good place to stay. We’d chosen a twin room with a shared bathroom and, conveniently, the private rooms are located across the road from the dormitories, ensuring peace and quiet when you want to sleep. Breakfast is served in the main hostel building between 8 and 10:30 every day and is decent. The beds were cosy enough, there were abundant bathrooms and a fan is provided in each room – necessary with the Alentejo summer heat. The brother and sister team who run the place are extremely friendly and helpful and, though our room was still being cleaned at such an early hour, we were still able to drop our bags in our room and head back out.

From there we decided to head straight to the bus station, a mere 15 minute walk, just outside the walls of the old city. We arrived and found the ticket office, with the time now around 11:15. We asked about our bus and the assistant confirmed that it was leaving at 12:20 and that we should pay on the bus. So we decided we’d take this opportunity to grab a bite to eat, having not really had much of a breakfast. Opposite the bus station is a classic little Portuguese snack bar. Far from fancy, the owner was a kind enough fellow and he quickly made us a couple of bifanas, which we washed down with a cold coke, with the mercury already rising to over 35 degrees centigrade.

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With the snack demolished along with a coffee chaser, we were at the bus stand, with just 10 minutes to go before our bus left. We jumped on board as it arrived, paying a remarkably small EUR 3.05 for what ended up being a 25km journey. The route took us out of Évora, along the line of the city’s ancient aquaduct and between fields of alternating furry Alentejan cows and cork trees, with their distinctive bright under bark and the number emblazoned on the trunk, denoting when they were last harvested. The journey was pretty uneventful, aside from one particularly tight turn in a small village where I was made to feel decidedly glad not to be an Alentejo bus driver. After what seemed like miles of the same countryside, we suddenly spotted the walls of the castle and the keep at the top of a hill. We got ever closer until we pulled off the main road and the bus driver let us off in the middle of the small town. After a short stop at a Mini Preco market to buy extra water, we set off through the town, and finally between two beds of brightly flowering cacti up towards the castle on the hill top.

Once at the castle itself, we first took a look around the keep, which is largely ruined. Still, it remains mighty impressive, and has helpful plaques telling you when the different parts were constructed and by whom. The city was founded at the very beginning of the 13th century and gained some renown for its tapestries and carpet weaving (more on that later). The castle was constructed in its current shape and size around a hundred years later, and extended throughout the 14th century.

The real reason people come to see the castle at Arraiolos though, is not for the keep. The real reason is the wall and the church. The wall is more or less 100% intact, including an impressive gate tower. Walking around the perimeter and looking out over what I’m not ashamed to admit is my favourite area of Portugal is quite magical. Standing between the battlements and getting an idea of just how far you can see and just how far down the surrounding lands are, you get a real sense of the imposing defensive position this must once have been. It also helps you to understand how it remains in such good condition so much later. The second item of interest is the church. A classic whitewashed building, it’s quite large, despite its dwarfed look in the middle of the sprawling castle walls. It’s still in use and kept in very good condition. The vaulted ceilings are beautifully kept, in particular. Some children who were doing some work in the church, manning the souvenir stalls in their school holidays were very helpful and keen to show off their English to us obvious foreigners. They sold me yet more cold water and my friend picked upa  fridge magnet of locally produced, handmade Arraiolos carpet work. Quite a unique souvenir.

We spent a full hour wandering around the walls, taking in the views and occasionally diving for the cover of the one tree, when the sun got too hot for us. After that it was back down through the town. As on the way up, the streets were more or less silent, locals far too smart to be out wandering around in such bright, hot midday sun. But our stomachs were rumbling, lunch was needed. I noticed on the way down that their bottle banks are all individually painted with colourful flower patterns. A lovely touch.

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As we were heading back in to the town, we recalled that we had passed a café that looked intriguing. It turned out to be a good bet as, even though the kitchen was all but closed, we were able to order the traveller’s friend in the form of the tosta mista. They also had some delightful, chilled local white wine. As we were ordering, I also noticed that they sold homemade jams, made of local fruit and helped myself to a jar of fig jam. All that, with 2 coffees added came to all of about 20 euros, and was delivered with genuinely great service from the staff. If you find yourself in Arraiolos and in need of a snack, you really should take yourself off to Teresa Alves.

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With lunch sating our appetites (my friend actually had to take two chunks of her sandwich for the road), we decided that, with more than an hour to go until our bus, we’d have a bit of an explore. We wandered through the old town and saw that some of it is a little run down, outside of the centre. Even that, though, lent the place a kind of rustic beauty. I’m not sure the occupants of the buildings would agree on winter nights, but it made for some interesting scenery. After we ran out of town (quite quickly, in fact!) we decided to keep walking along the country road. Without any pavement we made sure to make ourselves visible to the oncoming traffic and, just as I was beginning to think it had been a bad idea, we came across one of the many drinking fountains for travellers installed by the Portuguese royal family. Still with running water (I have to say I didn’t drink any), these things really are magnificent and you will find them all over Portugal, particularly on roads between historically important cities. They were installed to make traversing the country in the searing heat of summer a little more bearable for travellers and their horses.

We followed the meandering road back around to the town centre and stopped for a cold drink under the shade of some trees in the park, near the bus station until time to travel. The journey back, with tired legs and a different route, had a real glow about it. The afternoon sun setting behind the trees, birds of prey gliding over the fields and, at one point, a field of sunflowers that seemed to go on forever.

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Arriving back to Évora in the late afternoon allowed us a little time to relax in our hostel room before heading back out for a walk around the city and a bite to eat. I’ve already covered much of what there is to do in Évora in a different post, but here are a few pics.

Once dinner was done with though, we decided that it was time for bed. We anticipated (quite rightly) that the next day in Estremoz would involve a lot more walking. So it was back to the hostel and alarms were set for 8am. Then it was off to sleep.

If you’re planning your own trip to the Alentejo region, take a look at the Rough Guide to the area for Kindle, here:

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