Tavira – The ‘Other’ Algarve

My first weekend off work in almost four months, so what on Earth was I doing not just out of bed, but in a train station at 8:00 on a Friday morning. Of course, it was time for another adventure. I don’t know how it happens with my readers, but whenever I go to a train station and need to buy my ticket from a human being, I invariably have to wait for my 50 second transaction by people who take so unfeasibly long to get through their business, that I imagine them asking questions like: “so this train, what’s that?” or “which is quicker..?” and then producing a list of 40 or 50 different options for their journey. But anyway, with a couple of minutes to spare, I made my way to the front of the line, submitted my simple request – to the salesman’s relief – and headed up to platform four or Entrecampos station to wait for my train.

More or less bang on time, the Alfa Pendular to Faro rolled in. It was to be my first time on this, the flagship train of the Portuguese network. Even at that ungodly hour and with limited coffee propping my eyelids open, I was fairly excited to jump on board. I pretty swiftly found my seat, got settled with my magazine and we were off. The train took off, speedily charging through Alcantara and sweeping out across the 25th April bridge. I gave Lisbon a wave goodbye and by a quarter to nine, we were speeding through Setubal and onward to the south.

LisbonTrainBridgeCollage

Owing to the raft of people who didn’t know how to interface with a ticket office, I’d been unable to buy any refreshments for my journey before boarding and my experience of such disasters on British trains had taught me that I was in store for an unpleasant and expensive pseudo coffee and water which cost more per millilitre than molten gold. Thankfully, this is Portugal and for only 3 Euros, I returned to my seat equipped with a decent cup of coffee, an orange juice and a bottle of water for later. I got comfy and read my magazine, occasionally glancing out at the countryside roaring past my window or left, up to the LED speedometer, informing me of our rapid rate of advance – often around 235kph. In what seemed like a very short time, we rolled in to Albufeira and, finally, Faro.

The last time I’d been here, I was 9 years old. On my first family holiday abroad, landing at the then still quite new Faro airport and staying in the British micro colony of Praia da Rocha. It had been lovely as a 9 year old boy, sunshine, scorpions (which I cruelly poked with sticks at every opportunity) and warm(ish) sea. But in retrospect, it was something of a hellish vision. For all the beauty of the beach, with it’s starkly cut rock-grandeur and the mildness of the climate, it was exactly the kind of Brits-abroad chicken burger fest I was hoping to avoid. So this time, I jumped off the train and took my extra 26 years of wisdom on to a train east. To Tavira.

Inifinitely less finessed and filled to bursting with (mainly) Portuguese tourists, our ageing little train pulled out of Faro station within a matter of minutes and started the gentle stroll along the coast, hugging the water as it went. As if a metaphor for the slower pace at which every element of life chugs along here, in the heart of the Algarve region, no-one – myself included – seemed to mind the trains slow and steady progression through Olhao, and other places, finally stopping off at Tavira. A large handful of us jumped off and, with a quick consultation of my map, I was off down a street named after a doctor, towards the heart of town. A leisurely 10 minute stroll, and a couple of beautifully flowered squares later, and I was buzzing my way in to the Tavira B&B.

A quick chat with the owner, a quicker change out of my jeans – it was a full 10 degrees hotter than Lisbon – and I was out and off to a recommended local restaurant to try some fish. I was, after all, on the Mediterranean/Atlantic coast. I found myself in the Avenida restaurant. Described to me as being just like it was 30 years ago, it seemed like it was a restaurant from 30 years ago, whcih was just fine with me. I ordered some bread and olives to start and my travelling companion ordered a plate of mixed grilled fish, while I had octopus and vegetable stuffed pancakes, simply because I’d never even heard of such a combination before. The olives were obviously local, the main courses excellent and the bill, considering we were now well and truly in tourist country, during the Easter weekend no less, was more than acceptable.

With lunch done, it was time to wander a bit. Tavira is a really tiny place and consists of just a small few streets on one side of the river, with a further few across the other side. With much of the old town on the side nearest the station, I decided that was the best place to explore first. At the bottom of the main road into town, you are abruptly stopped by a pedestrian zone, which backs on to the river. In the middle is a column, with a water feature to one side with cafés and restaurants dotted around. It’s from here that, if you bear left, you can walk up one of the oldest streets and find the old castle.

DSC_0009 DSC_0006 DSC_0001

Beyond the stairs, you end up at a community culture centre, where an enthusiastic woman came out to tell me, in beautiful English, about the programme of culture and music they had for the weekend. I thanked her for the information and walked on up a narrow street of near identical whitewashed buildings, but for one with a door with a cute piece of street art on it. Every now and then a glorious view would peek at you from between the buildings on the left, as you got higher up over the city.

DSC_0015 DSC_0017 DSC_0024

Reaching the top of the hill, I saw that there was a camera obscura here. While unable to take any photos inside, for obvious reasons, it was a really nice thing to do, especially as I’d never been in one before. I found myself regularly forgetting it was a live picture of the city, projected onto the lens in front of me and then, as a person moved, the realisation hit me squarely in the face again. The lady giving the tour also a slightly vicious way with the cane she was using to point to different landmarks, so I made sure not to make too much eye contact. The other really nice thing about it was that it was set up inside the old water tower. A great way of utilising architectural heritage in an effective way.

DSC_0025

From here, I wandered the streets at the upper end of the city, looking for the way in to the castle. When I eventually found it, I was quite amazed to see that the entire centre coutryard had been turned into a beautiful flower garden. There were several men at work even as I walked around, keeping everything pristine, and I’m really not sure that any of my photos do any of the flower beds justice. I was also able to climb up various sections of the battlements – no British-style health and safety here, folks – and the rugged nature of the ruined parts, destroyed like so much in Portugal in the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755, was quite a sight.

DSC_0042 DSC_0048 DSC_0052 Pano_0007 DSC_0034 DSC_0035 DSC_0036 DSC_0037

Love the sentiment, but that grammar... yuck!
Love the sentiment, but that grammar… yuck!

With the castle fully inspected, it was time to cross the Roman Bridge over the river and to take in the views from the tallest building in the city, the only high rise hotel, which had been recommended to me by the cane wielding woman in the camera obscura. As the only multi storey building in a city of duplexes and bungalows, you might fear that the Porta Nova hotel would be something of a monstrosity, but happily enough, it’s quite elegantly put together and sits behing much of the riverfront property, on a little plateau, so it doesn’t look too bad at all. I walked in and sat at the pool garden bar out the back and had a beer before the cocktail bar on the roof opened. When it did, I jumped in the lift and made my way to the 10th floor, for a quite breathtaking view over the city.

Pano_0008

After a few minutes of staring out over the horizon, I went back down and walked through the town, past the Roman bridge and the huge Irish bar opposite, past some really interesting architecture, including one huge, arched building, of which all but the facade has completely caved in.

DSC_0055 DSC_0029 DSC_0060

After the walk, I was beaten. So, suffering with a cold – always during the holidays!!! – and having woken up stupidly early, I retired for a nap. In the evening, I went to a Portuguese Goan restaurant, ordered the firiest thing on the menu to chase away my running nose and beat a hasty retreat back to bed.

Friday started with two pieces of excellent news. The forecast cloud cover existed only in my weather app’s imagination and my cold had indeed been beaten into submission by the brute force of chilli and ginger. I went out onto the B&B’s lovely terrace for breakfast with a smile on my face and tucked into my melée of cheeses, hams and breads, washed down with Algarve orange juice and powerful coffee. After a quick shower and remembering to put my swimming shorts under my regular shorts, it was off to the town and the trip to the beach. A quick covering of sunblock, making sure my book was in my bag and I was off.

Tavira is a city where the beach is actually somewhat disconnected from the city itself. The river flows all the way down to a small inlet of water that sits behind a small ‘island’ which separates it from the sea. The easiest way to get there is to board a ferryboat at a pier, just along from the Roman bridge, next to the old fish market, now a food hall for artisan local cuisine. But as I arrived, there was some commotion. The boat, it seemed, was not running, other than every 2 to 3 hours, as it was not yet high season. So it was a 2km walk down to the jetty, where boats still left every 15 minutes or so, even at this time of the year. At first it seemed like a hardship, but the pleasant weather, sea breeze and the chance to get a closer look at the thing that Tavira was originally founded for – salt mines – made it quite an enjoyable walk.

Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years
Salt has been mined here using much the same methods for a couple thousand years

Arriving at the jetty, after a 30 minute walk, I bought my ticket for the unbelievably low price of 1.50 Euros and boarded the waiting boat. I watched a crab acrobatically climb along a wooden pillar belonging to the pier at water level while the boat filled up with other tourists and then we were off. The short glide across the still water to the island was quick and before long we were at the huge beach island, dotted with huts and small houses which people from far away evidently used as holiday homes.

DSC_0069 DSC_0066

Jumping off the boat and wandering through scrubby pathways among the trees, I saw a huge number of these little holidays homes and, after a few minutes, passed by a row of restaurants and cafés, before coming to a huge stretch of beach. Way down to the right was the beginning of the national park – the Ria Formosa – home to a huge number of northern Europe’s migratory birds during the cold season – but before that was an enormous stretch of beautiful sand. I put down my towel, read my book and relaxed, just what was needed. I also afforded myself a wander, a very brief splash in the freezing cold Atlantic water and a lunch at one of the grill restaurants – at less than 20 Euros, including a huge caneca (mug) of beer, not bad for a resort town. There are also a couple of attractively painted lighthouses, dotted along the coastline. Despite the fabulous weather, there were surprisingly few people on the beaches. The lady who owns my B&B told me that the resort has become really choked during July and August in recent years, but in April, it’s just perfect for a relaxing break.

DSC_0085 DSC_0091 DSC_0098

After catching the boat back and finding something for dinner, I had a few drinks in a couple of different bars, mostly half full and not holding any tourists, due to the season. Eventually, I found a hugely lively place, full of locals, playing Pink Floyd loudly and filling glasses with whatever you wanted for very little money. It was a great, friendly atmosphere, in spite of my limited Portuguese. I sadly can’t recall seeing any sign for the name of the place, but it was just along from the bridge, on the castle side and was certainly the night life highlight. Before I knew where I was, it was 3am and I was just 7 hours away from my bus to Faro, to connect with my train home and it was time for bed. But for Tavira and I, it was definitely not good bye, but more “See you later”.

Adventure in Malbork: A Really, Really Big Castle

So Easter and Spring were upon us, so it was time to don T-shirts and short trousers and head out for another adventure. Ah, but wait, in Poland, sadly, Spring has been lost for some time. Missing posters were up everywhere, while my winter coat was increasing its value for money score daily. But the Easter holidays were here all the same, which meant that we could not be held back – another adventure had to be had!

Once again, many of my colleagues & friends had disappeared off somewhere – this time to Vienna – so it was just Pam and myself that ventured off to the train station and onward thence to Malbork! Before the station, we visited Bydgoszcz’s finest purveyor of sandwiches in Canapa, where we feasted on baguettes, panninis and decent Italian coffee. After this, we were prepared and made our way along Dworcowa, to buy tickets.

A small few moments and ticket & provision purchases later and we were aboard the train on platform 3. Our compartment mates on the TLK InterCity express were some giggly, but seemingly pleasant, teenage girls. We stashed our coats and other belongings and stretched out in the warmth of the train cabin. Then, just as the clock hands were about to show our departure time of 10:13, the door slid silently open and in walked a penguin. I mean, of course, a nun – not a real penguin. As with all religious entities, I felt a tightening in my throat and a general sense of unease, as I offered to help her stow her bags. She accepted my kind offer and sat down with no sign of fright at my heavy metal band t-shirt or surprise at my Jesus-esque features. Perhaps this would not have any effect on proceedings at all, I mused to myself. The train set off on its journey out into the snow covered countryside of Kujawsko-Pomorskie and we all continued our light hearted chatter while sister whatever-her-name-was maintained her vow of silence. After a few minutes though, she began to make cross actions in the air, fairly wildly, muttering under her breath the Hail Mary in Latin and then fidgeting with her rosary beads, accompanied by Our Fathers. Travelling in the presence of a fruitcake – can’t beat it! Needless to say, I ratcheted up my casual swearing and looked out the window at the pretty snowscapes, so as not to catch her creepy gaze.

Image

Relief came when we arrived at Tczew (non Poles – try saying that one!). This was where we changed for the onward journey to Malbork. We jumped off the train and went for a refreshment break and to stretch our legs. It looked like a pretty nice place, with a cute little shopping centre and a reasonably smart station, complete with a far-too-tempting-smelling bakery!

Image

Image

It was a good thing we had decided to stretch our legs as, when we returned to the platform for our connecting train, it was packed. So we all piled in to the overcrowded Malbork train, and had to stand in a very sweaty, cramped area. Luckily, we were getting off at the first stop, after just 22 minutes. So, after wobbling about for a bit, here we were:

Image

The first thing that strikes you about Malbork, is that this place is going to be pretty grand. Right from the buildings at the train station itself, everything screams “look at me!”

Image

After marvelling at the ornate station building, we took the short walk over to the main event, the castle itself. The town/village of Malbork itself is essentially one shopping street, with a number of cafes and restaurants and a Pepco (who sold me a new set of sunglasses for 10 Zloty & which I’m sure I will have broken before Spring properly arrives).

Just after the shopping street there are 3 interesting things to see. First there is a lifesize statue of some king or other, on horseback, with a scepter, a sheathed sword and (typically) a powerful moustache! Next is a strange underground river waterfall-weir-thing. Secondly, there is a really nice scale model of the castle itself, complete with a helpful plaque explaining the significance of the Virgin Mary on the eastern facade. Lovely.

Image

Image

Image

In the background, you could already see the castle, which absolutely dominates the town. As you can see, the model is a really good job. From here, we took the short walk around to the church opposite the castle. The church has some really interesting, very modern stained glass which sadly didn’t photograph well at all, without a flash. It of course came complete with the customary JPII statue outside and had some really interesting architecture, being as it was made almost entirely of red brick, to match the castle, except for a quite beautiful, wooden bell tower.

Image

From here, we walked around the dry moat walls, slightly awestruck by the scale of the fortress. Malbork is Europe’s biggest brick castle and you really get the sense of this as you walk around it.

ImageWe walked around, staring at some of the details of the facade, until we came to the ticket office, where we paid a very small sum of 19 Zloty for a winter, post 13:00 ticket and went in to the castle, over the wooden gate bridge.

Image

Once across the gated bridge, you are faced with the enormity of the wall of the castle itself. Not only is it colossal, it’s also armed with 2 sharp-toothed portcullises and any number of solid metal gates, with guard doors so small that Pam was suited to them. Not an easy place to burgle then.

Image

ImageAfter all this, one might be forgiven for thinking that you were in the castle. But no, this is the beginning of the citadel. The initial fortified area, where castle staff and the like lived. Here, we found a number of places where you can get food or drink, an amber workshop (the main trading commodity of note in this part of Poland in the middle ages) and various defensive units, such as cannon! This is also the area of the castle where I befriended a cute little feline. First he buried himself in my huge winter coat to protect himself from the wind. Then, when I went to put him down, he claw-poked my chin, before climbing onto my shoulder and perching himself there for a good 5 minutes. As you can see from the photo, I really didn’t mind!

Image

From the citadel, we walked across another gated bridge, this time made from stone and brick, into the central castle complex itself. Here, we found an ornate central courtyard with a beautiful carved bird, atop a huge well. This was surrounded by 5 stories of corridors, leading into individual chambers, kitchens, storehouses, chapels, alehouses and so on. It’s a really stunning place.

Image

Image

ImageImage

Image

After looking around all of the intricate rooms (besides the armoury, which was unfortunately closed for renovation), we decided we ought to pay a visit to the architecturally ingenious toilet. In Teutonic castles, these were wooden seats, over an open hole which dropped all of people’s… “stuff” directly down into the wet moat. It meant no-one had to deal with the human waste and made the wet moat even less appealing for would-be attackers.

Image

ImageFrom here, we realised that the castle was soon closing, so we decided to return to the outer citadel, where there was a restaurant, which sold food based on traditional recipes from the time of the Teutonic knights. We arrived and were quickly told by the head waiter, in excellent English, that the mushroom soup was all that was left. So we ordered one each. When the mushroom soup arrived, it was well stocked with mushrooms of different kinds, as you’d expect in Poland, but also with chicken and chicken bones, which we found a little more surprising. It then became apparent that, in those days, there were no vegetarian soups. My kind of era! The soup was delicious and provided exactly the warmth and energy required on such a cold day. We also received rather excellent crowns!

ImageAfter this light appetiser, we were still feeling pretty famished, and so elected to find somewhere else to eat something more substantial. We went quickly to the souvenir shop to acquire some postcards and then walked around the sprawling perimeter of the castle, towards the river. When we arrived at the river bank, we saw our lunch-based saviour in the shape of a floating pub/restaurant. Readers of my previous stupid adventure blog will remember how much excitement this generated in Gdynia. So, we took a couple of snaps of the castle walls and hurried across the (very bouncy) bridge to inspect the eatery.

DSC_0239

When we got inside, we were confronted by a waiter who closely resembled Prince Adam from the original He-Man cartoon. With biceps as thick as my waist and an unimaginably deep voice (not to mention a severe-looking pudding basin haircut!), he showed us to the seating area and then came along to take our orders. As he did so he stood well within my half metre of British-culturally-acceptable distance. There was something macho-camp about the whole episode. I ordered the schabowy, which came in such a huge size that it required its own plate (there were boiled potatoes buried underneath) and my fried cabbage and surowka were each served on small side plates. This was my kind of meal. Pam ordered a very exciting looking zapiekanka ziemniaczana (a kind of oven baked potato dish, involving most of a chicken carcass, veggies, mushrooms and half a kilo of cheese). We staggered through our meals, aided somewhat by the cold beer and the imposing view of the castle across the river. Occasionally we were interrupted by the grunting of our burly waiter, but it was, in all, a great meal, good value and – all importantly – on a boat.

Once the meal was gone, we decided to be on our way back to the station and a small bar that we had heard good things about and whose sign promised a huge selection of local beers – always a good thing. Time for one last shot of the castle, from across the river then.

DSC_0240

We arrived at the charming Spizarnia and were immediately taken with the place. It was like the living room in a fun old aunt’s house. Nothing really matched, there was wicker furniture mixed in with dark wood, doilies on everything, huge pumpkins adorning the windows. Then there was the bar. On it were stacked tens of bottles of the many different types of beer they sold in this tiny establishment. Pam and myself pulled some chairs at a table in the corner and began to inspect the myriad beer menus that they had. As we did so, we noted that there were English, German and Polish speakers, all dotted around in this quirky little place. We regiestered too, that there was a genuine familiarity and fondness between the clients and the straightforward looking man in the overalls, behind the bar. I went over to him and ordered a dark beer for myself and an unpasteurised light beer for Pam. The barman asked me, very politely if we might speak in English (I always try, at least, with my Polish). He told me that he had a better light unpasteurised beer than the one I had ordered, that it was from just 4km up the road in the next town and that it was cheaper, to boot. As any of those criteria might well have sold me, I inevitably gave in. Pam confirmed it was a fine brew. We sunk into our chairs and enjoyed the gentle soul, blues and jazz music that came from the old record player in the atmospheric bar and began to understand why the place had received such high praise.

DSC_0246

It was then that I decided, finally, to look for when our next train was, as we had regrettably missed the one we had initially intended to catch, even before coming to this place. Then we realised it was a four hour wait. Drat.

So we decided to drink up and take ourselves back to Tczew, where we might find a bar in which we could relax and wait for the 2 to 3 hours before the train home to Bydgoszcz. After some kerfuffle with the ticket office, we had our tickets and boarded the slow train. We jumped off at Tczew and made our way out to the “town”. Beyond the shopping centre, seemingly, there was nothing. And we were stuck here for 2 and a half hours. It didn’t look good. I quickly consulted google maps, which gave me a choice of 2 local bars. As the name reminded us of the fine hotel of our hometown, we chose Pod Orłem. We found it, opposite this unfortunately named supermarket:

DSC_0250

Once inside the bar, we noted that A) we might be the first ever tourists in the place and B) that the guy behind the bar was a decent bloke who was only too happy to serve us beer. Fact C,  that the table next to us was full of insanely drunk tramp-people only came to light later when they tried to walk. Pub Pod Orłem proved to be a fine place to sit and chew the fat, at the end of a long day, over pints costing less than a quid in the Queen’s money. After that we headed to the train and slumped in the corridor, reflecting on a fine day’s adventuring!