Tuesday 5th November – Alcoutim to Castro Marim (24 miles)
We awoke to something falling on to the floor in the bedroom, it was dark inside the van because all the blinds were closed. I turned on the small LED light above the bed and discovered that the small travel alarm had fallen off
shelf above my bedroom window, strange, it had never done that before and it wasn’t as if we were being battered by winds, I asked Shazza the all important question “Did the earth move for you” sho told me in no uncertain terms that it hadn’t, thank goodness for that, I have heard of people who walk in their sleep but never that ! And it would have been somewhat of a disappointment to have missed such an event……..!!
Having picked up the three pieces of the clock from the floor and re-assembled them, I noted that it was still only 6am, too early for the morning rituals so back under the duvet for another hour or so. I don’t know if it was the sound of our alarm click falling to the floor that woke the neighbourhood but the Cockerel started and wouldn’t shut up, even though the sheep were telling it to give it a rest, the goats and their bells decided to have a bit of a shuffle around which woke the dogs and then that bloody church clock decided to chime in, perhaps it wasn’t too early for our morning rituals !!
We had decided yesterday evening (Shazza told me it was a ‘WE’ decision) that today we were going to head for a place called ‘Monte Gordo’ where they had a beachfront campsite, more importantly it had washing machines ! So I had duly programmed ‘Snoopy’ to take us to said location. Now we know that the general rule about campsites is not to arrive before noon so we had plenty of time as it was only a one hour’s drive. However, what ‘we’ had decided yesterday evening and what ‘we’ were actually going to do today was a totally different matter ! I was informed that ‘we’ had now decided to stop just 3 miles from this campsite location on another ‘free’ Aire in another Portuguese town. So I re-programmed ‘Snoops’ and after we had ’emptied and re-filled’ as appropriate we set off. Initially the roads were of the ‘bumpy and very noisy’ type and very steep with plenty of hairpins thrown in for good measure but nothing that ‘Big Momma’ could not handle. However, ‘Snoopy’ wanted to take us along a route that the co-pilot did not agree with so we rather foolishly ignored ‘Snoops’ and followed the co-pilots guidance, well ‘we’ have made this mistake three times now and I don’t think we will be making it a fourth time !! “Of course it was a beautifully scenic route” I concurred with my beloved co -pilot, “Of course ‘Big Momma’ was more than capable of handling every ascent, descent, twist, turn, bump and rumble” I concurred again with my beloved through bone shaking gritted teeth “However, I do believe that the new, well tarmaced smooth looking road that we were running parallel with was perhaps the road that ‘Snoops’ was telling us that we should have been on” I commented. Fortunately, ‘snoopy’ found an appropriate intersection at which we could join this nice new smooth well tarmacced road. After a short pause to replace our fillings in our teeth we were soon on our way again, much to the approval of ‘Big Momma’, ‘Snoopy’, ‘the Pilot’ and I believe the ‘Co-pilot’.
As we entered ‘Castro Marim’ it looked impressive with not one but two castles standing high and proud at the top of the hill overlooking the town. Even if ‘Snoopy’ hadn’t have once again delivered us to the front door of the ‘Aire’, we could hardly have missed it !! We parked up and discovered that Brian & Carole were also there, although it wasn’t too much of a surprise as it was quite close to where Brian had re-filled with LPG (or GPL as it is referred to in Portugal) and he had already mentioned that they may stop there. There was no sign of Tom & Karen though, they had probably moved on to one of their favourite coastal hideaways. We also later met up with another couple from Yorkshire whom we had met at the very nice ‘Aire’ at ‘Mina São Domingo’s’. That is the thing with this sort of travelling, once you hit the Coastal Route you tend to keep meeting people you have met elsewhere on your travels.
Castro Marim was a strange, non-descript sort of place, on one hand it looked fairly modern but it still had that impoverished feel about it. It also looked as if this town had two castles, although we later discovered that one was more of a Citadel type affair, more of a Convent occupied by Nuns but it reminded me more of places that I had seen in Tunisia, perhaps it was just the honey coloured stone, whatever it was it added a rugged sort of charm that would need to be investigated at closer quarters. We climbed first to the strange ‘Citadel’ looking place, unfortunately when we reached the top the large wooden doors were firmly closed and their was evidence that some sort of renovation was taking place. We were able to walk along the long outer wall which gave good 360 degree views across to the Castle and beyond into Spain, on the other side the view was of vast Salt Flats for which this area is famous for. From there it was a steep descent and then another climb to the Castle. The doors were open and for the small charge of just €1 each we were able to walk around inside. They had attempted to keep what original buildings there were and it was not difficult to imagine how it would have looked in its day.
What was nice about this place was that from our vantage point on the ‘Aire’ we could view both the Castle and the Citadel.
This was the first Aire that we had stayed on where we met our first ‘long termers’, people that had arrived from elsewhere and made this there primary ‘Winter’ sanctuary, they had to move on the 2nd Saturday of every month due to a large local market but apart from that this was home for them for several months at a time. We met ‘Nathan’, probably in his early forties, he was our immediate neighbour, a fellow ‘Brit’, a builder by trade who had sold his business in the UK, bought a plot of land in a small Hamlet in France, between ‘Limoges’ and ‘Poitiers’, and built his own bungalow. Although he was not ‘officially’ employed he still ‘got roped in’, as he put it, to do local work for those who needed his skills. He had no official business so no official income so say no more !! He came to Castro Marim, and the local area, every year in the Winter. He had a Fiancée who still lived and worked in the UK but who came across for three days every month and for ten days over the Christmas and New Year period. She would use one of the budget Airlines and fly in to ‘Faro’. Nathan would pre-position his Motorhome on ‘Faro Island’, when he saw the 2pm budget Airline fly over towards the Airport he would depart his parking spot on the island and by the time his Fiancée had passed through the ‘immigration control’ he was waiting outside the terminal in the van to collect her. Nathan proved to be a useful source of information for little places to stay all along the Algarve, I hope I can remember some of them !! Melvin was also another ‘long termer’, we did not get to know too much about him, he was much older than Nathan and I would hazard an educated guess that he was retired and other than knowing that he had been married, he occasionally referred to ‘his ex’, he was a solo traveller. Like Nathan, he enjoyed his football and was a frequent customer at the local ‘Sports Bar’, and from what I could gather not just on the nights that there was football being televised !! They were both extremely friendly, had a good sense of humour and enjoyed a bit of banter but they were also very willing to impart their local knowledge to us. Castro Marim was not the sort of place that I would personally want to stay for any extended period of time but for them it had all the facilities they needed, both on the ‘Aire’ and within this small but friendly town.
We had not had a proper restaurant meal since being on the ferry on the 13th October so we decided that it was now time to sample the local fare. Nathan had not used any of the Restaurants in town, he preferred to cook his own meals, we actually saw him chopping some fresh ‘Coriander’ and preparing a meal outside his van, this was no Beans on Toast existence. He was however able to recommend a bar/restaurant to us, he told us that the Portuguese couple who owned it were very freindly and that the ‘wife’ spoke good English, we also later discovered that the bar part of the establishment was one of his and Melvin’s local watering holes.
‘A Tasan Medieval‘ is owned and run by Antonio and Ligia, Anotonio running the front of house, bar and restaurant, whilst Ligia, his wife, is the Head Chef, well the only chef actually, she prepared and cooked the Portuguese food herself. From the outside it was a plain and simple looking place, no neon lit signage just a pretty plain name over the door. You entered through a covered outer sort of terrace, tables and chairs placed in rows leading up to the inner part of the restaurant. Once inside there were tables that were layed for dinner, nice dark red tablecloths with all the cutlery and glasses neatly set upon them. Antonio greeted us, a rotund chap with a big warm freindly smile, being the only customers he gestured that we were free to sit anywhere we chose. He presented the menus, asked us what we would like to drink and then he disappeared, returning with a bowl of bread, a bowl of olives, a small plate containing two small tins, one was Tuna paste and the other Sardine and a bowl of what looked like feta cheese marinated in Olive Oil and Garlic and of course our chilled bottle of wine. We ordered our meals, Shazza elected to try the Steak with ‘Medieval’ sauce, a house special, whilst I ordered their version of a Mixed Grill which was an ‘Iberico’ Pork Fillet and a rack of Pork Ribs, these came with no sauce, no sticky BBQ dressing anywhere in sight, both meals came with fries and a salad. Shazza’s steak was ordered as ‘Medium’ and was cooked to perfection and whilst she was unable to identify what ingredients were in the sauce she said that it was absolutely delicious. Now I am a self confessed carnivore, any sort of meat and whilst I have had ‘Iberico’ ham on several occasions, this was usually in an Italian restaurant as a selection of ‘Antipasta’ (salami’s and cheeses). What arrived on my plate was not swimming in grease, the pork fillet was succulent and tender and the pork ribs were thick with meat and the taste of that meat was just indescribable, it was delicious. Neither of us could eat any dessert although I did indulge in an ‘Irish Coffee’ and Sharon an ordinary coffee. Now those of you reading this who know me will know that I have a passion for ‘Irish Coffee’ and I have become somewhat of a self-confessed critic. My Irish Coffee has to be made with strong Italian Coffee, it has to be piping hot, only ‘Jameson’s’ Irish Whisky is to be used and the cream has to be thick enough to drink the coffee through and for the cream to last until almost the last mouthful. I have drank Irish coffees all over the world and without any exaggeration this Irish coffee ranks amongst one of the best that I have ever tasted !! Ligia came out of the kitchen and we complimented her on the meal. She stood talking to us for quite some time, her English, albeit with that foreign slant, was excellent and she had learnt this when at school. She was telling us that she was born in the same house that she still now lives in with her own children, two boys aged 17 and 28 years and that she has lived in Castro Marim all her life. This was to be our last night in Castro Marim, which, until this meal would probably have been pretty forgettable, it was not just the meal, it was not just the comfortable, neat, tidy yet informal dining experience, it was not just the friendliness of both Antonio and Ligia it was all of that put together, what a nice way to end our visit to this little piece of Portugal.
Thursday 7th November – Castro Marim to Vila Real de Santo Antonio (3 miles)
You know that old saying “Never Judge A Book By Its Cover”, well that certainly applies to our next port of call on the ‘Aire’ at ‘Vila Real’ (as it is known rather than by its much longer formal name), this is not the best looking ‘Aire’ that we have stayed on. It is also the first ‘Aire’ that we have had to pay for, €4.50 per night, which includes all the basic services and ‘free WiFi. If you want 12 hours of electricity (8am-8pm) that comes at an additional cost of €2.50. But, this really is a fantastic place to park up, for many reasons, where should I start ? It looks directly across the river into Spain, it has a Ferry just five minutes walk from the Aire that takes you across the river, it has an ‘Intermarche’ supermarket just a five minute walk away, it has a nice marina with a lovely long promenade running alongside which has some nice coffee bars just five minutes walk away, the main town with all it’s shops and pavement restaurants are just a ten minute stroll………….
As for the electricity, we have been living off the solar panels now for 13 continuous days and this has more than met our needs. We charge our iPhones and iPads on a daily basis and charge the ‘Dyson’ hand held Hoover as and when required along with the iPods and Kindles. We have watched a couple of episodes of ‘Death in Paradise’ from our DVD collection on the TV (as opposed to the laptop)’ we use the shower in the van and all of this powered from the leisure batteries that are topped up with the solar so we are quite pleased that we have been pretty self sufficient. We still have not had to re-fill the LPG and this has been used to power the fridge and freezer, cooking using the hob, grill and oven and for heating the water for washing the pots and of course our showers in the evening and washing in the morning, although we have had a total of six nights on campsites so this reduced the gas usage. Although we do not need to re-fill just yet, we know that there are 3 LPG stations as we leave this location so we will play safe and top up. We still have not had to re-fuel yet in Portugal and as most of our trips will be short hops I don’ think we will be needing Diesel any time soon
We went for a walk around the town and found a wonderful fish market, we bought the largest ‘Longoustines’ I have ever seen and when we got them back to the van Shazza prepared them ready for cooking later this evening. She is going to flash fry them with Olive Oil and Garlic and some salt and pepper, served with a tomatoe salad and fresh bread !!
Vila Real (Portugal) – Ayamonte (Espana) on foot !!
After the usual morning rituals I went across to the nice young lady at the ‘Aire’ office, well a portakabin really, and paid my €2.50 and she connected me to the electricity supply. Now we can save some LPG by running the fridge/freezer and water heater on electric. We can now also charge up all of our gadgets en mass and have a play around with the TV Satellite system to see if we can get anything other than BBC World !!
We had decided that today we would take the foot passenger ferry across the River to visit the neighbouring town of Ayamonte in Spain.
The ferry runs on the hour from the. Portugal side and on the half hour from the Spanish side and it is just a twenty minute crossing. however, we had to remember that Spain is One Hour ahead of Portugal, now that was weird !!
We sat on the upper deck to appreciate the views and the early morning sunshine, once it broke through some of the cloud.
There are a number of town squares in Ayamonte, each have their share of pavement Cafés and Restaraunts. Probably not too visible on the photograph opposite, but around the inner edge of this square there were lovely white and blue patterned marble bench style seats. With the palm trees surrounding the square, they gave shade out of the sun and permitted some peaceful opportunities for ‘people watching’.
We explored each alleyway as they all had something different to offer, then we came across the traditional indoor ‘Mercado’ (Market).
These were great places, even just to look around. Not that Shazza just looked !! Yesterday’s wander into the ‘Mercado’ in Vila Real cost me €20 !!
We had looked but we had not bought anything, well there has to be first time for everything !! However, as if she could read my mind, we just about to leave when we saw what looked like some sample pieces of ham marinaded in Olive Oil, so we each took a piece, it certainly had the texture of a ham. A chap stood next to us, who had also had a sample of these bite sized tasty morsels, informed us that it was dried and salted ‘Tuna’ and that he had only ever seen it prepared this way in this region of Spain (Andalucia). He told us that you buy it in blocks and cut it into very thin strips, he liked his on fresh buttered bread but it could be served as a snack with a drizzle of Olive Oil and washed down with a nice glass of wine !! That was it, he had said the two magical words that were music to Shazza’s ears, Food & Drink, SOLD ! she picked up a block of the dried and salted Tuna and I was instructed to pay the lady behind the counter, why I couldn’t pay her in front of the counter I will never know ? (Okay, like a joke just not funny, I know !).
Seeing all of this delicious looking produce had made me feel hungry. We had not eaten breakfast before we left, although Shazza did have a banana ! Don’t tell ‘Dave’ as i am sure it was his snack for on the boat ! So we found ourselves a nice little cafe overlooking a nice little square so that we could eat and people watch at the same time, yeah who says men can’t multi -task ?
There is something very relaxing about enjoying a small snack, drinking wonderfully strong coffee and people watching in the warmth of the sunshine. However, we still had lots of exploring to do. We had done the window shopping, checked out the market, enjoyed the Cafe culture and supported the local economy, again ! We also liked the feel of Ayamonte, yes there were traces of the tourist element, evidenced by the Multi-lingual menu’s, but this small Spanish Town on the bank of the River had managed to retain its Spanish charm. We wandered away from the centre and wound our way up, down and across the residential areas, the town houses and apartment blocks looked pretty plain from the outside, but we peered, discreetly, inside doorways of some of the houses and went inside the communal vestibules areas of some of the apartment blocks to discover wonderful tiled areas, some festooned with plants and flowers in large ceramic pots and looked up at the decorated internal balconies where the occupants could sit outside but out of the heat of the sun, probably much more appreciated in the summer months when temperatures soar into the high 30(c) degrees. It had been lovely to come and see this small but very Spanish town but there was no more to do or see so after three hours it was time to make our way back, the short distance, to catch our ferry back across the river to Portugal.
The weather forecast had shown that we were due to have some rain around four o’clock, we could see the sky darkening as we sat waiting for the boat to depart. No problems, loads of time yet as we can now put our watches back by one hour !!
To be continued…………………………