The Rain Across the Spanish Plain

Sometimes exploring an area in depth can make you realise how woefully ignorant you are, that there are so many world heritage status places you’ve never heard of-or at least-that I’ve never heard of.

Portugal’s Evora is one of these.

We took a couple of days’ beach break, just down the coast from Lisbon, at Caparica, where Lisbon-dwellers come at weekends for sea and sand but precious little else, Caparica being Lisbon’s equivalent of Southend on Sea. On the camp site you could have been fooled into thinking it was snowing, if the temperature hadn’t been 28 degrees, so much fluffy seed was blowing, blizzard-like across the site and settling, ankle deep on the ground or in heaps of white fluff inside the van.

Next, Evora.

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This walled medieval town is a pristine vision in white and ochre, packed full of whitewashed churches, monasteries, ancient university buildings and a wonderful, 15th century aqueduct which begins low, at the top of the town and lengthens as it descends. Homes have been made between the arches:

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The town is quiet, the gift shops awash with knick-knacks, but few buyers. I take pity and buy a small, red, cockerel embellished wine cork for a gift. There are a few other tourists. Did they, like us, stumble upon Evora? Or did they research it at home and make a special pilgrimage here?

For reasons that can best be described here

we need to turn towards the north and make our journey home. As yet it isn’t urgent but I’m aware that it may become so. We set off towards the Spanish border and Badajoz, which we’ve passed by on occasions but have been told is worth a visit.

The weather, never reliably sunny this trip turns overcast once more, but the journey is beautiful-rolling hills and vast cattle ranches, the road quiet and peaceful and we arrive at lunchtime.

The aire at Badajoz is brilliant; easy to locate, a convenient situation just across the River Douro from the town and services all provided free. Little wonder it fills with vans by the evening. We wander across the attractive footbridge, through the gate of the city wall and across towards the ‘Alcabaz’, the citadel which dominates the town from a high vantage point above the town. By this time it is raining and with an afternoon to spend we fritter some of it in a cavernous bodega.

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A return to Spain means a return to tapas, a variety of tasty snacks offered with every drink. Though we’ve lunched it seems rude not to stay and enjoy the fare-and it is raining outside the bar. Badajoz’s cloistered square is beautiful.

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Zipped into raincoats we brave the rain to stroll around the domineering Alcabaz, then it’s back to the aire, where some local residents whose house adjoins it have decided to share their music with us. Freddie Mercury’s vocals are blasted for an hour or two, but since I’m not averse to a bit of Queen myself I think it could be a lot worse…

Next day it’s on to Valladolid, where we make several circuits of the one way system before locating the motorhome parking bays. It’s a quick stopover and our sincere apologies to the parking authority for our inability to pay the 9.50 euros fee, but having managed to retrieve my bank card from the machine when it was stuck I didn’t feel up to giving it a second go!

Onwards and upwards…

 

 

 

 

Turning Portuguese

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The first time we visited Portugal was with a tent, a giant, swish ‘pyramid’ tent that we’d borrowed from Husband’s colleague. I had to crawl in and hold the central pole, getting hot and sweaty while Husband hammered the pegs in outside. On a site at Ancora [north Portugal] where an interested neighbour ‘advised’ us on where to have our doorway, we pitched under some sap-dropping trees that stained said tent for ever, resulting in our having to buy the colleague a brand new pyramid tent when we returned. [We’d also torn the fabric attempting to dry it out in a French motorway services car park].

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This was also the trip when we visited Porto by train from Viano do Costelo, buying return tickets and discovered on our return to the station to get back, that the train ‘does not return from here’. We had a wonderful, dockside meal and returned on a ‘milk’ train, from a different station at about 2am.

During this and subsequent visits, with various vans we’ve done the major must-sees of Portugal: Porto, Lisbon, Guimares, Coimbra, Sagres, Faro-

Mostly we’ve found the west coast to be more pleasant and less developed than the Algarve, but there are exceptions.

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Portugal, like Greece is one of those countries that never fails, with luscious countryside, beautiful historic cities, reliable, warm weather, delicious food [including the famous ‘pastel de nata’ custard pies], a gorgeous coast line and friendly people.

We find Lisbon much changed, with the addition of hideous cruise ships blocking views and throngs of tourists everywhere. Our previous visit was quiet and we were able to stroll the narrow lanes without stepping around selfie-takers. To anyone intending to visit Lisbon and considering an open top bus tour I’d say, ‘Don’t!’ You pay 11 euros to inch along for hours in stifling traffic, a woman wailing Fado songs in your ears. You get to see very little and anything of interest is zipped past or around before you’ve got your finger on your camera shutter.

I can get no purchase on the Portuguese language whatsoever. Spoken, it sounds eastern European with lots of sch, z and cz. Written, it looks remarkably like Spanish and meaning can often be deduced. We know we must take care not to speak Spanish to the Portuguese in spite of so many words being similar, nevertheless Husband is inclined to say ‘gracias’ instead of ‘obrigado/a’ for the first few days. My own knowledge of Portuguese is restricted to ‘obrigado/a’, ‘Bom dia’ and ‘ola’ so it is fortunate that almost everyone here speaks English very well indeed.

The Portuguese are fond of tiling the outside of their homes, which can look beautiful or tawdry; railway stations, hotels, churches-no building is safe from this treatment.

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And neither are the bone-shaking, tooth-grating streets, which are tiled in cobbles.

The Portuguese countryside is strewn with cork oak trees, the cork continues to be harvested and goods such as cork handbags can be seen in the shops. Perhaps the backlash against plastic will see a resurgence of the cork industry? It does seem to be a versatile material with useful properties: lightweight, water repellent, attractive.

In recent years, wildfires have decimated much of Portugal’s forests and evidence of this is everywhere.

Orange and lemon trees abound, in gardens, parks and along the streets. They are all hung with tons of fruit which nobody seems bothered to pick, the ground around the trees littered with fruit just as the plums lie fallow in Gloucestershire.

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Before using the [very quiet] motorways you must register your bank card and attempt to forecast how much toll you will be using, which is tricky. Otherwise you can register at the first ‘portagem’ [toll booths] but then you’ll have no clue as to what is being deducted.

We’ll soon be leaving Portugal and crossing back to Spain-but I’ve no doubt at all that we’ll be back!

 

Santiago de Compostela-for Philistines.

Travel along Spain’s north coast and you will be guaranteed stupendous views, beautiful beaches and the sight of a great many ‘pilgrims’ trudging along the Camino de Santiago, following thousand upon thousands of sunburst signs as they make their way towards their Mecca, Santiago de Compostela.

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In true martyr-ish style, wholly in line with Catholic traditions, this Easter’s weather helps them on their way by being utterly appalling. This part of Spain is renowned for wet weather but this year’s exceeds all expectations. The entire country is deluged with torrential downpours while the UK basks in unusual warm sunshine.

Groups of walkers line our route, clad in voluminous, dripping capes that cover them and their rucksacks, giving them the appearance of soggy, deformed camels. Many have walking sticks and a fair number use Nordic walking poles. Is this a true dedication to the cause of suffering, I wonder?

The pilgrims come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities and ages; entire families with children, pairs of young girls, single people. Many meet up along the way and travel together, like the two young American girls with a short Portuguese man we met on one of our [non pilgrim] walks. Some look grimly determined, some chat as they walk, others sport beatific smiles as though already transported by their ordeal.

The nearer you get to Santiago, the more pilgrims there are, waiting at crossings, standing on corners, munching things, looking at phones.

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We’ve waited until Easter is over to visit Santiago and arrive on the Tuesday after, thinking it will be less fraught to negotiate the traffic, but we are still caught out by a parade of some kind and must effect a slow crawl through the narrow streets to find the camper-stop, which is situated up above the city-at least we can’t be flooded out. It is well organised and well used, a manned entrance cabin, tickets, a useful city map, water and emptying supplied.

Since there is no sign-from any source-that the rain is going to abate we don raincoats, grab umbrellas and run for the city centre bus, which takes us down into the heart of what is a beautiful, elegant place, wet or not.

Santiago seems designed for rain, cloistered walkways abound and there is no shortage of drains, into which rainwater gushes or tips from rooftop spouts. Crowds accumulate in the worst showers, huddling in doorways or squeezing into tiny shops selling religious icons and souvenirs.

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We are spoilt for choice for our naff shelf collection [read here].

At last we seek refuge from the showers in the cathedral museum, where I am clucked at for photographing. The art works are fascinating and also slightly bonkers, as religious art can be. The topmost floor is open to the elements with rooms off, containing cases of bejewelled, silver or gold crosses and paraphernalia in abundance-a demonstration of the wealth of the Catholic church.

Another set of rooms has wonderful, wall-sized Belgian tapestries depicting country scenes of people carousing at Inns. The detail is worth studying-drinkers at tables, dogs stealing food, babies being fed, a man peeing up against a wall-all most un-ecclesiastical.

When we tire of the relentless deluge we get the bus back to our warm and cosy van.

Next day there is a lull in the rain, long enough for servicing the van, then we’re off to brighter skies, drier roads and a quieter time-and Portugal!

It’s not so far. We stop for lunch on a small quay by the River Minho, choppy waves in the stiff breeze.

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Onwards to Vila Cha, the latter stages of the journey corrugated by cobbled roads. After a series of winding lanes we reach our chosen site, but as we approach we realise-of course! We’ve stayed here before. This is not bad news-the excellent restaurant opposite the entrance is still thriving!

Ditch the Bucket-

By the time you read this we’ll be wending our way into the next adventure.

If anyone were to ask me what the most important ways to enjoy retirement were I’d have to say having adventures.

Adventures come in many forms. They may entail travelling somewhere, but travel is not essential to having escapades. All I’m saying is escape from routine is a requirement of happy life. It doesn’t matter what the escape is. A visit somewhere different, an encounter with someone new, learning a skill, joining a shared initiative-these are all adventures, as was the move to a new house we made last year.

A friend who, [by her own careful, clever planning], achieved early retirement tackles a different, arty hobby each year. Some enterprising older folks in Devon have established a business growing and marketing oysters-and have provided employment for many younger people along the way.

You hear a great deal about ‘bucket lists’. In my view these smack of the ghastly ‘targets’ that those of us who are retired are so relieved to have left behind. You don’t want your adventures to be a source of anxiety. It is a blessing to be flexible, to be able to change your mind, revise plans. As we age there are going to be many things we’ll never do, skills we won’t learn, marathons we won’t run, places we’ll never visit, foods we won’t eat, books we won’t read and plays we won’t see.

Three years ago we’d a mind to escape the chilly UK spring and take our camper van down to the Spanish Mediterranean coast where we would visit friends and find somewhere without too much development to enjoy some sunshine [not an easy undertaking, as those who know that coastline will know]. Passing heaps of scruffy snow in northern France we got down as far as Bordeaux and realised the temperatures were not likely to improve any time soon, so took the decision to turn right instead of left, aiming for Portugal. As soon as we crossed the border from Spain it was warm sunshine all the way. Result!

Of course much is published about the poor, subsequent generations and how we, the Boomers have robbed them blind and how they’ll be working themselves into their graves. Most of us, however have done all we can to support our children through further education and beyond, while also caring for aged parents. But having read that life expectancy is increasing by five hours per day I feel that our children and grandchildren, too will enjoy the benefits of retirement, albeit at a later age. I’ve pledged to do my utmost not to be a burden to them when they get there!

Until that time I remain unapologetic about enjoying our freedom. I imagine there may well be a time when I’ll only be able to enjoy the photos and the memories so I’m making sure there will be some to look back on…

 

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

What’s Cooking on the TV?

In its wisdom, the BBC has opted to schedule on Channel 2 a big, blockbuster ‘food season’. This is much heralded and promises to inform in ways we have never before been informed about-food. Yawn. Really? How many more programmes about food can we take? And how many more times must we be told that refined foods, salt, fat, fast food, takeaways, sweets, chocolate and the demon sugar will be the undoing of us?

Let me see. ‘Masterchef’, ‘Hairy Bikers’, ‘Nigella’, ‘Saturday Kitchen’ and on and on-the programmes exhort us to produce more, varied and extravagant meals using more, varied and exotic, unheard-of ingredients. We sit and watch, munching our takeaways or our toasted cheese sandwiches and nodding-‘mm, yes, that looks nice’. How many viewers rush out to the supermarket next day for Tahini paste, syrup of nasturtium seed or essence of wild boars’ scrotum? How many search online for a high temperature vacuum bath or a freeze-drying machine? Heston Blumenthal has much to answer for.

It was all vastly simple decades ago. My childhood diet followed a weekly timetable that varied little beyond which meat to cook for a Sunday roast or what was available in the back garden vegetable plot. Mondays would yield up something with the remains of Sunday’s roast, the remaining days repasts would revolve around Spam-with mashed potatoes, with chips, with beetroot or eggs from the hens at the end of the garden-omelettes, fried eggs and mash or chips. We children never questioned or grumbled. We had no dislikes and would clamour only for an orange or a banana since these were prized items [rationing was not yet a distant memory], although as I’ve mentioned before we were only permitted a banana if it was accompanied by a slice of bread.

If the first course was a little sparse there would be a vast rice pudding or a suet sponge for the purposes of filling us up. Meals always consisted of two courses. Not only did we survive on this regime, but we were relatively healthy and never became in the slightest bit overweight, still less obese, even though the occasional day out to the seaside would conclude with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.

How ironic that the more elaborate and fiddly TV chef meals become, the more the population capitulates to fast food and fry-ups, snacks and sweet treats.

Here in Portugal, where we have fled to escape the UK’s wintery temperatures we de-camped on our first evening-after five days of driving- to the village restaurant where we were shown a box containing assorted, gargantuan fresh fish, from which we selected our favourites. They were taken away and grilled with a little salt and served with a salad, crusty rolls and a plate of fried potatoes. No sauces, ‘beds’ of anything, snotty-looking foam or those stupid drips and smears dotted around the plates. The result? Completely delicious.

Site Behaviour

                ‘Flight Behaviour’ is a recent novel by the established American writer, Barbara Kingsolver. It is a noble attempt to use fiction to bring climate change issues into popular consciousness, although somehow it fails to grip the imagination. Barbara must have worked hard on her research, insinuating much scientific jargon and information into the story, but it is this very insertion of earnest scientific knowledge that reduces the impact of the story, rendering it clunky and uneven. The story concerns the plight of thousands of Monarch butterflies deflected from their normal migratory course from Mexico to the Appalachian Mountains, an event that is celebrated by the local community who are unaware of the catastrophe it portends.

                As I finished the book I reflected on the migration that we now make as summer comes to an end, in search of a warmer climate, along with hundreds of other Northern Europeans fleeing Autumn’s first chilly blasts. There are Germans, Netherlanders, Danish, Czechs, Belgians and more. They are here with us along the Mediterranean coasts of France, Spain or Portugal, filling up the camp sites and exhibiting what I now like to think of as ‘Site Behaviour’.

                After many years of staying on campsites, first with tent and now with a camper van, I’ve had plenty of time to study site behaviour and etiquette. Take shower blocks, for instance. It is customary to greet anyone you encounter within the shower facility, using the language of the host country. A mumbled, hasty ‘Bonjour’ is enough [since we are in France] and eye contact, if any, should be brief. You should not launch into lengthy discussions about the weather or travel plans, or which part of the UK you are from whilst your companion is applying deodorant or cleaning their teeth. This being France, shower blocks are not divided into genders so you must expect to have to sidle past a urinal or a man at a basin trimming nasal hair on your way into a cubicle.

                You may have to carry toilet tissue to the block with you, in which case no one will be in any doubt as to your intention. A way around this for those sensitive to anyone knowing their purpose is to stuff a wodge of tissue into your pocket. Years of less-than-luxurious travel have taught me never to go anywhere without a tissue in my pocket.

                Many [particularly women] make their morning/evening trip to the ablutions wearing such attire as they might habitually sport at home; in other words they wear a dressing gown, slippers and often-curlers. In Yorkshire, UK recently there was an inexplicable plethora of Onesies on show. Myself, I do not own either dressing gown or slippers, and have never mastered the art of curlers, so a version of day wear [shorts and T-shirt] suffices.

                A site is a transient village, inhabitants changing daily, their temporary homes, paraphernalia or pets a subject of interest for those already established. What might they be preparing on their elaborate barbecue? Why do we see the husband and never the wife? For some, the activity involved in setting up, building the awning, hammering in pegs, putting up a washing line, adjusting the awning, oiling the bikes, putting up a wind break, taking it down-these are the end itself, the reason for the trip. These scenes are the soap opera that is a camp site. Long may they continue!