733 nights : 27,517 miles travelled : countries visited: 27
‘Perhaps the earth can teach us, As when everything seems dead, And then proves to be alive’ Pablo Neruda
Sorry Portugal. Lo siento. Pardon. Entschuldigung. Mi dispiace…… Desculpe Portugal! Our poor brains have hit a wall and we haven’t been able to remember even the polite basics of the language. I tried to buy some stamps in the post office and asked for them in Franglais with a German accent! It is not that Portuguese is particularly difficult but because after more than twenty countries, we have run out of grey cells for learning new words.
We didn’t see the Algarve at it’s best. Almost as soon as we crossed the border , the wind blew in and filled the sky with blue-grey cloud. Even so, we always feel energised by a new country and our senses pick out every difference. Fig trees growing in rust red soil. Half naked cork trees. An abundance of beautiful wild flowers. Spring is a wonderful time to visit Portugal.
We skipped across the southern coast, happy to leave the lively Algarve resorts to others. Towards the western edge we found a chilled out camperstop in Figueiro, an unspoilt village with a busy bar and a quiet track that led to a tiny beach. This was the first time we could imagine why people would escape a whole winter in one place.
We bounced off yet another corner of Europe at Cape St Vincent and in a way, this most south westerly point really did feel like the end of the world. This is where we turn north for the long trail home.
The Alentejo region has a dramatic coastline but we resisted buying surfboards and opted for bracing clifftop walks instead. It was just as exhilarating driving inland through ancient cork oak forests which felt like miles of English parkland. The cork oak sit in open pasture grazed by cattle in between, we loved it! The bark of the tree is stripped away every nine to ten years and it renews itself in that time. Only on the third harvest is the bark suitable for wine stoppers and a tree can be harvested for around 200 years. It would be tragic if this unique sustainable form of production were lost to plastic stoppers and screw tops so we have made a commitment to consume as much wine as possible….. ideally with cork in the bottle!!
We felt very at home in Portugal and we don’t think it was just the frequent threat of rain. Like Great Britain this is a tiny country with a rich history based on world exploration and battles with it’s neighbour in the middle ages. We joined the dots on a string of fortified hill towns through the interior .
We arrived in Evora just after Liberation day which commemorates the end of the modern oppressive rule of Salazar via a bloodless coup. We had seen individual carnations being sold everywhere and then learned that these are the national symbol of freedom as they were the flowers that soldiers put in the barrels of their guns in 1974.
Evora is an incredibly well preserved medieval town with a roman aqueduct and temple thrown in as a bonus. My day was made complete when we found a book fair set up in front of the cathedral…heaven! Graham was initially relaxed but I spent an hour talking to the town archivist, found an excellent history book translated into English…and best of all, we had to spend some money in a wine shop to break a fifty euro note to pay for my book. Happy times!
Elvas is closer to the Spanish border and so has impressive fortifications, but the 16th century aquaduct which brought water seven kilometres to the town is breathtaking .
We moved closer still to the border, so that we sat and looked out at Spain from the camperstop at Marvao . Tucked into the hill below sturdy town walls, we marvelled at how modern life sits around historic bones.
Tomar is a well preserved riverside town but what makes it special looms high above.
The castle and Convent of Christ was originally built by the Knights Templar but when the order was banned in the 14th century, it transferred to the Knights of the Order of Christ. Incredibly well preserved, it is easy to imagine medieval life within it’s walls.
Whilst the Order gained great wealth, individual poverty was an important value, here expressed in long dormitories of simple cells.
We have often spoken to people who have travelled all of Europe and then settled on one place where they feel most happy. We have so enjoyed the diversity as we have followed the trail that this was hard to imagine. Until we saw the Douro Valley. The dramatic patchwork of steep vines can be enjoyed in a few intense miles and feels like a world within a world.
One of life’s little ironies is that we keep visiting wonderful wine producing areas at a time in our life when we cannot tolerate a great deal of it! But it was fascinating to see the grapes for the production of Porto with vineyards loudly displaying producers names, some world wide brands, some unknown. We spent a blissful couple of days high above the valley at Quinta Da Padrela , a family winery which welcomes motorhomes onto the meadow and where Jose showed us the farm, the winery and the wine. Okay, you’re right…we didn’t just look at the wine! The hospitality and weather were so warm, we stayed longer than planned and wondered whether we had found our one special place in Europe.
We like to think that life on the trail helps us to make less impact on the environment. Despite driving a diesel engine, we do many less miles than in our life at home. Having to find and carry every drop, we are very conscious of water usage and food waste is negligible. Spain and Portugal offer many opportunities to buy organic produce and to recycle waste. Portugal has gone one step further and set high targets for energy efficiency and a multi-source approach to renewable energy. In 2016 there were four consecutive days where power was sourced from just solar, wind and hydro-generated electricity. Parabéns Portugal!
Pinhao is a quiet little stop along the Douro river and the train line that used to transport Port Wine to Porto. The station is decorated with wonderful Azulejo panels depicting the region and a shop offering local produce.
Having moved north, we were rocked by storms next to the River Lima in the Pineda-Geres national park. Kipper is quite keen to sit inside at any hint of rain and we were quite happy to sit with him! Eventually the skies cleared long enough for a walk and we were shocked at the damage done the night before. Eucalyptus trees were introduced to Portugal in the 19th century to produce pulp for paper making but being invasive they have created poor habitats for wildlife … and an obstacle course for us. A dip in the river was a just reward!
Ponte De Lima is an ancient town with a gorgeous Medieval bridge, lovely old streets, and a bizarre reminder of it’s origins!
Portugal feels larger than it is because there is so much variety and our interest was renewed with each change of region. It is much greener than we expected, much older than we thought and even more friendly than we hoped! It is great that the trail still manages to surprise us.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: We saw all sorts of things made from cork in souvenir shops. Graham’s favourite was a bikini he spotted in Elvira and has promised to make me one from some bark he found by the road. Personally I don’t think there are nearly enough raw materials there!!