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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Nazaré – Home of BIG Waves

This adventure should be prefixed by a little credit to my flatmate, Ricardo. Oceanographer, surfer, extraordinaire. Since we started living together in March, he’d been telling me about Nazaré and the waves. I’d read a couple of articles he’d sent me. I was impressed, but just not all that moved. Then I woke up one Sunday with an almighty hangover. Seeing me as a sliver of a shadow of a man with a headache, he made his move and put on the film about Garrett McNamara’s first trip to Praia do Norte and the North Canyon surf area. Since then, I haven’t shut up about wanting to go there. Fast forward about three months and I was in my girlfriend’s car passenger seat, excitedly anticipating seeing it for real. I should point out at this stage that I was not going to surf, owing to the fact that I swim ever so slightly less effectively than a brick, but with equal downward momentum.

The road to Nazaré from home, in Lisbon, is remarkably easy. You find the I-8 road and you keep on going. It has its sweeping turns, but is generally a straight road, and has some lovely countryside either side, dotted with windmills (the old and the new kinds), rivers and streams, and so on.

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On such a clear day, after less than ninety minute on the road, including a few minutes getting fuel, we were coming in to Nazaré itself. I had my google map at the ready, to tell us how to get to the hotel. We wound around tight little seaside streets, stopping to let the old folks of the town pass by as we did. Then, 2 streets from our hotel, we realised that Google were sending us on a path that involved going the wrong way on a one way street. We stopped for a moment, gathered our thoughts, and decided to approach from the sea road, to the south. That was all going swimmingly, when we found that the road was closed to accommodate a Christmas market. Finally, we called the hotel and received some advice. First, that we should just ignore the one way streets and go the wrong way and secondly, that the hotel’s parking area was attached to a partner hotel, which we’d already driven past twice. Fortunately, it’s such a small space, that this entire process took us only 10 minutes, so we laughed to ourselves and dropped the car off for the night. We arrived at our hotel, the Mar Bravo, which ended up being a lovely place to stay and very reasonable, considering its location and their rather good breakfast (more on that later). As we went up in the lift on very much the wrong side of the building, we wondered to ourselves how on earth we might get our partial sea view, and then I opened our window to be greeted by this:

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As partial sea views go, this was about as good as it gets.

With night falling rapidly – it is early December, after all, I managed to persuade Ana to take the funicular to the top of the cliffs and to walk down to the lighthouse to see the waves, even if in the dark. The funicular was open until midnight, even at this time of the year and we arrived with just 4 minutes until the next departure. We paid our 2.40 euros for the return journey and found a seat (after the ticket seller finished his cigarette). Priorities, you know? The ride to the top takes only about 3 minutes, and the view gets more impressive as you go up, but getting a photo is quite impossible, owing to the reed bed, growing alongside the car.

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Once at the top, at this time of the year at least, you are greeted by a slightly insane looking nativity set up. This is made slightly better by the abundance of country folk, who are essentially cowboys in this context. It feels a bit like a Playmobil acid trip, but is at least more joyful than a lot of the more sombre nativity set ups.

 

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But after leaving this technicolour model Bethlehem, the view down to the equally bright Nazaré seafront was quite spectacular.

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Walking on around from the miradouro, we found ourselves in the square of the church of our lady of Nazaré. It’s beautifully illuminated at night, and so we stopped to grab a few photos.

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Checking my google map, I could see that it was not very far from here to the lighthouse so, in spite of the now pitch darkness, I led my lady on the winding path down, alongside what we were later to realise was the steep slope to Praia do Norte on one side and a sheer cliff drop on the other. I used my phone as a torch, so that we weren’t mown down by the occasional cars speeding up the road. When we arrived at the lighthouse, we could see pretty much nothing apart from this sign, affirming the danger there, should we stray too far from the roadway.

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We stood for a few minutes, trying to make out the waves that we could hear so strongly thumping against the rock face below. But it became clear that we weren’t going to see anything that night and so we started to walk back up the hill to the funicular station. It was time for dinner. The hill up to the station was a lot steeper than I’d perhaps realised on the way down, so I was getting pretty out of breath. The cold air burned our lungs a bit and we were glad to arrive and head back down to the level of the south beach. We strolled along and stopped for an aperitif drink at a café while we checked out Trip Advisor recommendations for somewhere to eat. After some discussion, we agreed on the no 5 rated restaurant of the city, “A Tasquinha.” What an excellent decision it would prove to be.

We arrived, fifty metres up one of the streets running perpendicular from the beach front and found the place half full. Seemingly all of the clientele were Portuguese. A cheerful waiter showed us a few empty tables and we chose a spot in the window. In the menu they had a crudely taped photograph of an “arroz de tamboril” – monkfish rice in English. Both of us widened our eyes at the sight of it and we ordered two of them from the waiter, as he arrived with some bread, olives, butters and cheeses. He stopped us in our tracks, and recommended that, instead, we ordered one monkfish rice pot and a portion of fried king prawns, which were served around a portion of homemade Russian, as they call it here (essentially cubed boiled potatoes, coleslaw-ish vegetables and a creamy mayonnaise-based sauce). His suggestion sounded sensible and also worked out cheaper. We had munched our way through about 80% of the bread and the exquisitely marinated olives, and made a start on our drinks (white wine from Alentejo for me, 7up for her, as not much of a wine lover) when the mains arrived.

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The monkfish rice was full of king prawns, mussels, clams as well as the aforementioned monkfish and rice. The flavouring was tomato based, with fresh coriander leaf and black pepper giving it an edge. The flavours blended really well and even I refused the offer of piri piri when the waiter brought it over. That never happens. The service was exactly what we wanted it to be, attentive when required, but also gave us our space to enjoy the food. When we came to dessert, we were thoroughly full, so settled for just a couple pieces of fruit and a coffee. As we were leaving, fully intending to head back to the hotel, the waiter got chatting to us and asked us why we were there, how we’d got together and I explained that I was now rather rooted here in Portugal and planning to stick around. He then offered to tell us of a bar we’d enjoy, both for decor and music and directed us to the Trombone Voador – the Flying Trombone, in English. So we decided we could manage a drink before heading back.

It was only a couple of streets over and as soon as we walked in, we could see that it was a place that had been together with no small amount of love. There were musical instruments mounted all over the ceilings, the lighting was low without straining the eyes, and the bottle collection was impressive. Feeling incredibly British, we ordered two very different gins and relaxed at a comfy table. The barman took extreme care, as he added fresh fruit and herb leaves to skewers, tailored to the taste of the gins we had ordered, mine stronger and hers a little more delicate and fruity. On the tv and super high quality sound system we had a semi acoustic session video by the Goo Goo Dolls, followed by various acts from Jools Holland, which created a really nice ambience. Our one drink lasted over 90 minutes and I’d certainly go back and recommend it to anyone who visits.

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With our drinks done, though, it was a 5 minute walk back to our hotel, and for a good night’s sleep, ready to wake up early the next morning and go to see some waves. The rooms in the Hotel Mar Bravo were very comfortable, and we slept right through, starting our day with breakfast. It was a pretty good spread, with a variety of cold meats, hot scrambled eggs, cheeses, yoghurts and the usual breakfast fare. Astoundingly though, for Portugal, the coffee was from a diabolical Nescafé machine, and tasted as crap as you might imagine it did. Not to mention that it had no caffeine or awakening potency.

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Fortunately, though, my infantile excitement saw us through, and so we set off after breakfast, first to pick up the car and then to head back up to the lighthouse where we’d been the night before.

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Arriving at the lighthouse, we were delighted to see that the small museum there was open and so we were able to get some really nice views on to the ocean, both sides of the rock that juts out, holding the lighthouse in place between praia do sul and praia do norte. It was just 1 euro to get in and the exhibits there are very nicely put together, with displays on the history of Nazaré, as well as its more recent fame as a hot spot for tow in surfing and huge waves. While we didn’t see any of the monsters that made Garett McNamara so famous around these parts, the waves were still substantial, and the force you could see, hear and feel as the water crashed into the land was quite intense. In the pictures the waves look so small, but the smallest of them was around three metres, the average sized ones around six metres and the biggest we saw in excess of 10 metres. This video will perhaps do them more justice. The real shame was that there was no surfing happening, as I really wanted to see people, ant like in perspective, riding these monstrous waves.

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As time wore on, I had to return to Lisbon for work so, after a tactical stop in a café for a real cup of coffee after that dreadful nescafé rubbish, we were on our way. Just as my break seemed that it couldn’t have got any better, we realised that we were driving through Alfeizerão, the place where one of Portugal’s most famous cakes – Pão de ló – is very famously made. I told Ana to look out for any places selling homemade Pão de ló and, just as we were about to leave the town, we found one, so I managed to bring one back, undercooked, and creamy in the centre, for my colleagues to try. My first visit to Nazaré – but surely not my last – had been a great success!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Évora – History, Bones and Gastronomy

The end of my first full month in Portugal had arrived and with it, my first pay cheque. Time then, for an adventure. One of the great things about living in the heart of Lisbon, is that it’s so very easy to get out of the city, via one of its many transport hubs. Thanks to some of the spending that went on in the 2000’s, the Portuguese rail network is a fast, clean and broadly efficient one, meaning that the 100 or so kilometres to Évora is quickly and easily traversed in no small degree of comfort and, all importantly, at very little cost.

Something terribly exciting about that is that this presented me with my first opportunity to cross the Tejo on the mighty 25th April bridge. Sadly, many of the photos didn’t come out as well as they might have, due to the huge girders that make up the bridge, but you can still get a sense of the scale of the Tejo estuary and the spectacular views of it from the bridge, here. Not to mention the great figure of Jesus, overlooking the city from Almada.

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Leaving at 5pm after the clocks had changed for daylight saving to Western European Time meant that, as the train rolled in to Évora at 6:30 or so, it was quite dark. The first thing we noticed after Lisbon was the quiet. Évora is a small city and, compared to the nation’s capital, there was an almost eerie silence as we edged away from the train station. We followed my google map to our hotel and dumped our stuff, before heading out for a look at the city by night. As I’m told is often the case here, there was a throng of students in the centre, chanting and generally having fun. We walked down a side street to a sprawling, vaulted bar in one of the old buildings called Bar Amoeda. It’s a really nice place, with interesting, locally carved furniture in the shape of livestock. Odd, but it had a really nice atmosphere and was playing decent music. They also sold Sagres preta – the South of Portugal’s only black beer and a very good one.

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After a drink here and a walk around the old town, we stopped in a café for a quick bite to eat and, as the city seemed to be winding down, we headed back to the hotel for a sleep. In the morning, we woke up to this view:

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The Hotel Dom Fernando is a 1970s-built hotel which, at the time, was probably a very grand place indeed. Before booking it, I noted a lot of guests complaining on Trip Advisor about its style, harking back as it does to former days of splendour, while seeming a little bit run down in modern terms. This was absolutely what appealed to me and you really had this sense of the hotel in its heyday and, at the same time, far less “sterility” than you might have in one of today’s foremost hotels. The pool looked lovely, but it was far too cold to go in. Breakfast was also top notch – a very important feature of any lodging. Do look it up if you’re in Évora.

With breakfast demolished, it was time to get a look at this historic city by day. As it was opposite, the Parque de Liberdade seemed like a good place to start. Essentially a palatial garden on the edge of the medieval city wall, it was still alive with flowers, even on the first weekend in November. How spectacular it must be in summer. But the thing that really strikes you is the style of the architecture. Évora had been a stronghold during the period of Moorish occupation in Portugal and it was in evidence right from the off in the obvious influence the Arabs had on the architecture here. The band stand, the park office, both bearing classic Arabic style.

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But for the crosses etched into the balcony facade, this would be equally at home in Tunis.

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Walking round from here towards the northern edge of the park, you come to a partially collapsed fortification from the times when the city walls were more about defence than tourism. While looking at this crumbling structure though, I was taken aback to find at least 4 pairs of peacocks just going about their business in the park and, beside their play area, a full-to-busting lemon tree. This was one of those moments where the difference in the climate in my new home country really makes itself abundantly clear.

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Out of the park and across an entirely unspectacular car park, I found myself under the archess of the quite incredible church of St Sebastiao. Disappointingly it was undergoing intensive renovation (which will likely take some years) but from this one side, you could get a decent glimpse of the splendour underneath the covers.

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From here we wound our way through the maze of narrow streets, through the sprawling town square – formerly the place where more people were publicly executed than anywhere else in all of Portugal in the middle ages (yuk!) – and on to the Temple of Diana, as it’s called.

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Al fresco dining: more appealing than hangings.
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Very bright, old, quaint post boxes.

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Before the temple though, the imposing sandstone structure of the cathedral greets you. It’s a curious sensation wandering out of one of a sequence of narrow residential streets, with their small town white-with-yellow-trim colour scheme and suddenly being met by a small square and a 100m+ tall edifice, battlements creeping away to one side. In front of it stands a testament to the medieval past of the city in the form of a well, complete with an original bronze seal.

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Around the corner and you come to another square, with a magnificent walled garden, looking over the Alentejan countryside. In front of it stands the temple of Diana. It’s called this because the city was indeed home to a small cult of Diana during the roman period. The origins of the temple are murky though and rumours abound about it actually being dedicated to the emperor at the time or Jupiter, or both. Regardless, it is quite a building and the pillars, in particular are in remarkable condition.

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Just peeking out from behind the temple, as you look here, is the top of a very ornate church. While we chose not to enter, we did climb the tower of the neighbouring Palacio and the view was quite remarkable. The position is at the very edge of the city wall and, at the tower’s summit, you are stationed around 40 metres above the ground beyond the city walls. Thus you end up with vistas like this:

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All this walking, looking and photographing was making me hungry, so it was time for a snack. In Portugal, a snack almost always means cake. This time was to be no different, and we decided we ought to try a few Alentejan specialties. When in Rome and all that. So, walking down one of the many narrow streets, we happened upon a little café with some outside tables, ordering a curd cheese cake, an almond and egg bite (with what seemed to be near-raw egg inside) and a slice of caramel(ish) tart, with layered orchard fruits inside. Washed down with a couple of galaos (milky long coffees), they were all quite delicious.

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After our short break, it was time for more strolling, but this time with a little more purpose, we were off to the bone chapel. So we meandered through the streets in the general direction of the cathedral, where our day had more or less started.

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No trip is complete without meeting a cat

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The Chapel of Bones is a very different kind of place to anywhere I’ve been before. Constructed in the 16th century by the monks who used the church of Sao Sebastiao as their place of worship, the idea of the room is as a commentary on the human condition, mortality and more. The plaque as you enter, in Latin, advises you that “We, the bones that lie here, await yours.” It seems like grim reading, but you can in a sense appreciate what they were trying to say about human existence. It’s a very powerful and, in a way, even a beautiful structure. The morbidity is contrasted with the golden altar at the heart of the chapel and the ornate tiling of the perimeters. I won’t say more about it, but this place is really worth visiting if you’re in the area.

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Perversely, perhaps, I left the chapel feeling intensely hungry. So it was off to my first of two quite excellent meals on my full day in Évora. Having eaten really well far too much the previous day, we didn’t want anything too heavy and so, opposite the café where we’d enjoyed our cake earlier, we remember a small, boutique tapas – or petiscos – restaurant.

Disappointingly, I can’t remember the name and nor can I find it on google maps, but it had the most wonderfully unpushy staff and, despite being really nothing more than a small room with a few tables outside, the menu was super. The waiter made some recommendations based on our need for something not too filling and we ended up with roasted sheep’s cheese with fresh oregano leaves, cod (not bacalhau!) sliced thinly, battered and fried and a mixture of scrambled egg and thistle, which was very accurately described as tasting like a more intense asparagus. He brought out two white wines for us to try and the birthday girl selected a quite stunning Chardonnay. The wine and food, we were reliably informed, all came from within a 30 km radius. And it was all excellent. And it cost less than 40 euros in total. A bargain.

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After a quick trip back to the Dom Fernando to freshen up, all that was left was a dusk/night time walk around the city before dinner.

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The city wall is really quite imposing at night and you can easily see why it’s ranked as a UNESCO heritage site. After our walk, it was time for one more meal at Momentos restaurant. This was one I’d read about before we began our visit, where the chef is famous for his use of all local, all organic ingredients and working with blending flavours. First he brought out a trial plate for each of us, of a shot glass of his special recipe tomato soup, accompanied by a poached quail egg on mini toast. It was all terribly indulgent. We once again were presented with a couple of white wines to try and settled on a great one (though not as fabulous as the afternoon’s Chardonnay) and my main course, which exemplified perfectly the owner’s philosophy – a fresh anchovy and grilled pear salad, with strawberries, spinach and rocket. It was stunning.

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After our meal, it was a gentle walk back to the hotel, accompanied by a friendly stray dog. I felt terrible leaving him outside the hotel, but there was nothing we could do for him. With an early start beckoning, we retired for the night. In the morning, after an early breakfast, we made the short walk back to the train station and wove our way through the countryside back to Lisbon.

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Finally, Évora is a charming place, with history in abundance and an immense amount of delightful gastronomy. We wondered whether it might be a lot busier in the summer months, as it did seem there was not too much going on in the evenings, besides for students. Nevertheless, it was an appetising first taste of the Alentejo and it is certainly a region we will return to.

2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 2 – Lisbon

Waking up to grey skies in London is something that feels kind of different to everywhere else, particularly where we were staying, in the heart of the city. It was a Monday morning, so at least everything had come to life, with suits walking hither and thither, trying to look important (or just awake – it was 7am!) I was not short of sympathy as, at 7:05, with our train tickets to the airport bought, we trudged to the Sainsbury’s Local and grabbed a couple of cinnamon danishes and coffees. Then it was back to City Thameslink, under the ground and onto the platform to wait for the train to Luton. The 10 minute wait gave us time to ingest breakfast and generally wake up/stop feeling sorry for ourselves.

The train rumbled in, and we boarded, still toting the dregs of our coffees. Sitting down at the table, I realised I had managed to cut my hand open on something and was dripping blood on our table. This was not a stupendous start to the next stage of our journey. As luck would have it, the ticket inspector of all people showed up fully armed with plasters and, with a cheerful bit of chit chat, I was patched up and feeling so much the better for a bit of customer service – and on a British railway service, too! Exiting the tunnel under the city, speeding north towards Luton, it immediately started raining. That classic, British spitting, which looks like nothing, but renders everything soaking in a matter of minutes. Lisbon could not come soon enough.

The train journey was swift and eventless and, before long, we were on the bus chugging up the hill to Luton Airport, with all of its hideous orange livery, as the home of Easyjet. Of course, the orange livery is the only thing not to like about Easyjet, especially when you are as unfortunate as myself to be more accustomed to flying Ryanair these days. With a couple hours to wait, on arrival, we opted to head to the observation deck and watch the planes defying the drizzle, trying to second guess where the bronzed passengers, clinging to their coats for dear life might have been a couple of hours ago. After that, it was time for a sandwich and then time to fly. The flight was smooth and short and before long we landed in Lisbon. Clambering down from the plane onto the Lisbon tarmac, my Polish winter coat felt immediately superfluous. Damn.

Lisbon is one of those airports where you have to wait for a bus to take you to the terminal building. Nothing annoys me more than when the bus journey takes 3 minutes, when a walk would have taken… 3 minutes… so it was nice when we realised that the landing area for low cost airlines is actually about 3km from the terminal. The driver sped around the roadway on the bendy bus, with all the passengers standing in varying states of calm and alarm. But everyone made it in one piece and the passport control process was mercifully swift. From here, there was a surprisingly common sense connection to the metro, ticket machines which spoke English and, in half a jiff, we were speeding down the metro track to the centre.

Like most things in Lisbon, the metro is a beautiful set up. The lines have colours and names, just as they do in London, Paris, or anywhere else, but they also have beautiful symbols associated with each:

The interior of the metro stations is also often quite ornate, as well as modern and practical. After a quick change from red to green, we arrived at our destination in Baixa-Chiado, right in the heart of the Lisboa district. We jumped out and found ourselves in a bustling street, full of people and the temperature at a happy 14 degrees. A welcome change from blustery 5s and 6s in London and Bydgoszcz’s minus 10!

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From here it was a remarkably short walk to our hotel: Duas Nacoes (2 nations) themed around the partnership of Brazil and Portugal. It was a simple place, but in a truly excellent location and they did a mean breakfast, too. We had a small juilet balcony, looking out to the street.

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Putting our bags down reminded us that we’d barely eaten at all so far that day, so it was time to find something to eat. The sandwich place opposite seemed pretty easy to negotiate and so, to get something fast, we walked in. I managed to ask the lady behind the counter in Portuguese if she spoke English. The response was laughter from her and her colleague and a flat “no”. I ordered a chicken sandwich (chicken is ‘frango’ in Portuguese – where the hell does  that come from?!) and a drink and sat and waited. Food showed up promptly, was cheap and really tasty, so we evidently made the right choice. Then it was time to explore! Turning left at the end of our street, we could see an enormous arch at the end of the road, so we decided to investigate. We were really unprepared for the grandeur that awaited us there.

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After this quite spectacular triumphal arch, you find yourself in a truly enormous square, facing out to the river Tejo, in front of you. And of course, Lisbon is the gaping mouth of this huge river, flowing out into the Atlantic, beyond. It’s quite a sight. I was also impressed by the signs for “The world’s sexiest toilet” – but I didn’t have go. Sorry.

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In spite of the menacing-looking grey skies in these images, it was a warm day, with a gentle breeze coming in off the river. It felt most un-February-like for a pair of northern Europeans. After marvelling at the square, the monuments and the water for a while, we decided to head back inland and to explore the city a bit.

I was told two things about Lisbon before going there. The first is that you really should explore without a map, as it’s an excellent place to get lost. This is absolutely true. We stumbled upon countless gardens, artworks, pieces of remarkable architecture, without ever really trying. The other thing I was told about was that when people say Lisbon is built on 7 hills, they are SERIOUS hills. This is also absolutely true. I cannot imagine how slippery some of them would be in the rain. If you come here, prepare for a leg workout!

Walking up Avenida de Liberdade (freedom avenue to you and me) we walked past some fountains, museums and hotels. Lost of which was very grand. Then, over to our left, we spotted a stone stairway, tucked away, leading up to one of these famous hills. We decided it was worth investigating.

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Once at the top of these stairs, the only way to go was up. So, 10 minutes later and we had walked perhaps 200 metres up this oppressively sheer hill. Once at the top though, we were on the edge of one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city – Principe Real. We walked around the large church there and then up to the very top of the hill and to the Jardim de Principe Real (a public garden). Not only was the garden itself quite beautiful, it also had a spectacular view out across the city to the hill of Alfama, and St George’s castle.

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And a picture without my mug stinking the place up.

From here we walked past the historic hill climbing tram, the undercarriage and support stilts of which may give you some idea of just how steep these hills really are.

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From here, we walked down Avenida de Liberdade, back into the city for cake and then a short rest and freshen up in our hotel. In the evening, we went for a walk to find dinner and happened upon a quite huge seafood specialist restaurant. Tragically I can’t remember its name, but all they seemed to sell was seafood and I ate a quite sublime whole sea bream, washed down with a cold beer. After that, we decided to turn in.

The next morning started with my real reason for being here – a job interview. So, shortly after breakfast, I donned my smart clothes and left Ania to do some additional sleeping – she’s a professional, where this is concerned – and trudged back up Avenida de Liberdade to Cambridge School, where I was hoping to get my next teaching job. Situated next to a huge cinema, it was quite a grand building. The security guard waved me in and I went to reception, where I was to fill in a formal application form and some other papers. Then the interview started. A 4 man panel of interviewers took turns to ask me questions and it seemed to be going ok, if not spectacularly. Then they started talking about contracts, which confused me. Finally, all became clear when they offered me a position for the next school year. I was delighted, accepted the position and left with a huge smile on my face.

When I got back to the hotel, Ania was still asleep, so I crept into the room and changed out of my smart clothes, before waking her up and telling her we were going to see the castle. We left our hotel and turned right, walking up to the ominous hill of Alfama. But all was far less ominous when we realised there was a completely free of charge glass elevator up to near the top of the hill. We shuffled in with an old woman ahead of us, who was sure to speak to us in rambling Portuguese, which we naturally understood none of. We waved her off and began walking in the direction of the castle itself. Walking through the gate, you begin to get some idea of how old this place is!

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The weather was really nice, despite some threatening clouds approaching across the horizon and, with little time to explore the inside of the castle, we simply made our way around the perimeter, taking in the sights of the narrow streets, some of which are about 800 years old.

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After much meandering around the streets, we turned a corner and a great vista opened out in front of us. We were standing above rooftops, as the steep slope led out in front of us to the water. We were at the portas do sol (gates of the sun). This is supposedly the most breathtaking of all the views in this city of landscapes and, even with all the cloud cover, it didn’t disappoint. I can only imagine how glorious this will be with the full glare of the summer sun.

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After stopping to take in the spectacular views – and rest our hill weary legs – we wound our way round the hilly road and began to feel very hungry. We must have walked past 30 coffee shops and closed Angolan restaurants, orange trees, schools, dodgy old electronics shops, but nothing passing for a restaurant. Then, as all hope was fading and we rounded yet another winding cobbled hill street, we saw the Cantinho do Fatima. It really looked just like any other small, inconspicuous restaurant, but we were starving and went in.

Once inside we were presented with the options for the EUR 7.50 per person lunch menu of the day. I ordered something with veal and Ania something with turkey in a cream sauce. I was relieved to speak French, as the lady serving us knew no English at all. We sat and were presented with our starter of soup and bread along with a half litre jug of wine. The soup was a simple garden vegetable affair, but quite tasty; the bread soft and fresh. The wine too was quite palatable and the main course, when it came was enormous, comprising a large portion of meat with sauce, chips and rice. We eventually turned down our dessert and simply had the coffee. But for 15 Euros, we’d eaten more than we could (or probably should) have at an ordinary lunch. The fact that the place was rammed with locals when we arrived, I always like to think, is a sign of a quality place.

From there we descended from the hilltops of Alfama back down to sea level and walked along to one of the main train terminals of the city Santa Apollonia. Also one of the main hubs for metro connections, it was a big, grand old place.

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And that’s when it started raining. And when I say raining, I come qualified to identify serious rain, as a Brit. This was serious rain, the kind of rain where you could barely see about 15 metres in front of you. The only positive we could find was that this was an excellent excuse to dive into a café opposite the station and try our first tarte de natas. It was a custardy masterpiece, with the café owner handing us a cinnamon shaker to sprinkle the spice to our tastes. 

We decided to wait until the rain stopped. Then until the rain simply slowed down. Then we realised we were going to get soaked, and so we went out into it and tried to hug the walls, and canopies of grocers and cafés, all the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, there are days like this in February, and the rain didn’t let up until we had gone to bed in the evening. It was a shame not to see more of the city, but there would be more opportunities for that. In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we were greeted by sunshine as we headed down to the metro for our return to the airport. The 4 hours of flights and 6 hours of transfer time at Stansted ahead of us was not very appealing, but it had been an excellent trip.

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