It’s raining again. Time to update the blog then. We’ve had a bit of a hotch potch of a week with a mixture of city life in Coimbra, beach life in Nazaré, village life in Óbidos, coastal life in Vila Nova de Milfontes and now van life in Alvor on the Algarve.
So first up then was a bit of city life in Coimbra. And I mean a bit………..just a little bit. We were feeling a little bit tired of sightseeing and couldn’t really drum up too much enthusiasm for a full on expedition. That’s one of the drawbacks of fulltime travel. Burnout!
After a quick scoot up through the botanical gardens (most of which were closed off due to storm damage) to the university and a coffee and a mooch round the alleys and narrow streets of the old town we were done.
We were in need of a change. Nazaré fitted the bill perfectly.
Ever since seeing several Youtube videos of the big wave surfing at Nazaré we knew it was somewhere we wanted to see for ourselves someday. With our very own eyes!
Well, that someday had finally arrived. We got parked up at a tolerated parking spot in the town by late afternoon with just enough time to hoof it up to the point to have a look see before it got dark. The last couple of surfers were heading back in but it really didn’t matter as it was great to see where it all happens.
It’s a euro to go into the fort where you can get out onto the roof and watch the waves from on high.
It was fab and well worth seeing even without the surfers. Now we just need to go back when there is some big surf.
So after beach life came village life at Óbidos. And what a perfectly charming compact little gem of a town it is too.
Completely enclosed by medieval walls it was just a pleasure to explore.
We didn’t feel it had sold itself out to tourism too much either. Just a couple of streets with the usual gift and craft shops, restaurants and cafés.
You don’t want to walk the walls if you are the least bit shaky about heights. No handrail and a sheer drop of over ten metres in parts.
Wall walk or not we think Óbidos is definitely worth a visit. Get there early and you’ll practically have the place to yourselves at this time of year.
So then came coastal life at Vila Nova de Milfontes in the Alentejo region.
For those of you that know your geography you’ll have sussed out that we have missed out a big chunk of Portugal. Namely Lisbon and around. We debated about doing Lisbon. We really did. But after the fabulous time and weather we’d had in Porto, followed by our burn out in Coimbra, we decided Lisbon can wait for another time. I expect it will still be there next year, or the year after. Or whenever we find ourselves back in Portugal. Anyway, a bit of coastal walking was on the agenda.
We walked a couple of sections of the coastal path south of Vila Nova de Milfontes over a couple of days. It forms part of the Rota Vincentina long distance footpath (a 340 kilometre walk from Santiago do Cacém in the Alentejo to Cabo de São Vicente in the Algarve).
Ah, I love it. It’s just beautiful. Steep rocky cliffs, sandy coves, pines, a carpet of green amongst the orange sandy soil and that smell. This is the fifth time we have come to this region of Portugal and I always remember the smell. I can’t really describe it. Kind of a sherbety smell. I think it’s the rock roses that grow here. Whatever, I absolutely love it. It doesn’t have quite the same effect on Tim. Probably because he is fed up with hearing ‘ah that smell, I just love it’ over and over and over again.
After a couple of days of walking we headed down to our old haunt of Aljezur but we didn’t stop as we’ll be back there at the end of next week on our next Helpx. We continued on down to the aire at Lagos for a bit of a reminisce. The fair on the aire put paid to that though. I have lost count of the amount of times we have turned up to an aire to find either the circus or the fair have got there first. No reminiscing was to be had then as it was getting late and we needed to find somewhere for the night.
Not wanting to go over old ground we plumped for the aire at Alvor as we hadn’t been to the aire or Alvor before. It’s fair to say that the reviews were mixed about the aire and we can now see why. It’s basically a piece of land waiting for development and being used as an aire in the meantime. It is in a great location though just behind a long sandy beach with some nice cliff walks towards Portimão. But it’s grim when it’s wet as the surface turns into an orange sludge.
Of course it was dry when we arrived but it rained overnight. If you have a dog it would be a nightmare. I minced across it all this morning on my way to the beach trying not to get covered in the claggy orange stuff. One night was enough and we have decamped to a car park behind the beach a kilometre of so further east. We run the risk of a visit and a fine by the policía but that’s preferable to dirty shoes!
Ok, we’re all up to date now. Tomorrow we have a date with Tim and Jan who we have never met before. They started to follow the blog after meeting our friends Sam and Chris when they were working at a campsite in Scotland. Even though we have never met them we seem to have quite a lot in common.
Of course, you can never be too careful when meeting people via the internet so we are meeting up at a campsite.
The frontier town of Tui, our last stop in Spain before crossing over the border into Portugal, was anything but twee. The old town, topped by the cathedral and standing above the river Minho has a dilapidated but up and coming kind of air about it.
It’s all a layered mish mash of granite alleyways, compact housing (some derelict and some restored), stone walls, steps and glimpsed views of the river below.
On the hillside opposite Tui, on the Portuguese side of the river, Valenςa do Minho is reached via the handsome iron bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. He of Paris fame.
Hot tip – don’t go across the bridge in your van. It didn’t look wide enough for a car and van to pass and it is really busy with cars presumably trotting across the border into Spain – land of the twenty cents a litre cheaper fuel. Portuguese cars were queuing up to get into the Repsol garage in Tui. Eiffel had thought of us pedestrians though and conveniently provided a footpath on either side of the bridge.
Safely nestled snugly within its fortress Valenςa is just lovely. Touristy but lovely. If you want some new tea towels, towels or bed linen then this is the place to come. It’s one of those places where seemingly every shop sells the same stuff. But tourist shops aside the all but intact seventeenth century double ramparts and the beautifully restored buildings within the medieval town are undeniably worth some of your time.
Heading south from Valenςa towards Ponte de Lima it felt like a weight had been lifted. The endless urban sprawl of the previous few days in Spain were a distant memory as we wound up and down through farmland and terraced vineyards in all their autumnal coloured glory. We arrived in Ponte de Lima to find the car park along the river was flooded after all the recent rain but we managed to bag a space on the pavement in front of the cafes just as a car was leaving. We found a better place to park for the night after a quick recce of the town so went back to move the van. Only the policía had shown up by then. Oh poo. Several car drivers and one Portuguese motorhomer were clutching tickets in their sticky mitts trying to state their case but plod was having none of it. They hadn’t quite got to our van so we got in hoping for a quick getaway but a uniform appeared at the window before we could make our escape. Now, not being able to speak the lingo of the country you are in does sometimes have its advantages and it turned out that this time was one of them. After Tim apologised in English and waved his hands about a bit the policeman just let out a big sigh and gave us a dismissive wave to say ‘oh just get out of my sight’. Tim gave him a thumbs up, a big smile and we drove off without a fine. Excellent.
We stayed a couple of nights in Ponte de Lima as it’s a pretty little town with lots of tiny bars where the beers were €1 each and we managed to pick up some superfast free wifi and, as it rained for most of the time we were there, we had the internet to occupy us. We’d parked up at the large carpark at the edge of the town next to some sort of exhibition centre and all was well. We were amongst a few other vans and the police did a drive past every once in a while so obviously weren’t bothered about us parking there. Saturday night passed without incident. Sunday night we were rudely awakened at midnight by a gathering of youths in several cars right behind the van. Sunday night is obviously a day off for the police which means its race night in Ponte de Lima for any young person with a car and a tank of fuel. We didn’t feel threatened by them as they really weren’t interested in us but I guess they gathered where we were because we were under one of the few street lamps in the car park. We always feel a bit twitchy whenever anyone gets gung ho showing off their driving skills in car parks though as you never know when they may lose control and plough into something. Like us. Fortunately on this occasion their own cars were parked in between the speeding cars and us so if they were going to hit anything it would be their own cars first. Thankfully after an hour or so they left us in peace.
I noticed in the morning that the van next to us had a bright lime green dog bowl outside their van. I thought ‘I bet they don’t have a dog’. I don’t think it would have been much of a deterrent for any would be thieves. The bowl gave it away really as it looked brand new and had fresh clean water in it. Our dog’s water bowl only ever stayed clean for a millisecond before one or other of them had slurped from it and dunked a mucky beard in it and then slopped most of the water all over the floor leaving bits of mud or gunk floating in the water left behind in the bowl. Anyway, I couldn’t imagine any self respecting rabid guard dog drinking out of a lime green plastic bowl.
Monday dawned with wall to wall sunshine and by ten o’clock it was wall to wall cars in the car park. The huge fortnightly market including livestock and birds was in full swing.
After a quick stroll around we escaped to the hills of the Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only National Park, to make the most of the change in the weather with a bit of walking. In the first year of our trip my favourite country visited was Portugal. Then it changed to Slovenia in the second year. Then this year after visiting Scotland it was a joint tie between Slovenia and the Highlands of Scotland. After a few days of walking in the National Park around the little granite village of Soajo my favourite country is now back to Portugal. How fickle am I?
Tourism has only really lightly touched this area as the village caters mostly for locals with a couple of cafes, two hardware shops, a bakery and two mini markets. Some of the housing has been restored for holiday accommodation and there is a little tourist information office in the centre of the village but it doesn’t feel too much like a holiday destination. Not at this time of year at least.
Shepherds still walk some of their cattle up through the town in the morning to their pastures returning again in the early evening. Flat capped elderly men mingle in the village square and inside the cafes chewing the fat. Black clad widows tend to washing or sit outside their front doors enjoying the warmth of the sun.
We enjoyed three days here at the excellent aire on the edge of the village with a view of the twenty or so espigueiros (grain houses) on the rocks overlooking the valley beyond.
We frequented the cafe owned by Manuel who was born in the village but left at the age of fourteen to live in New York and work as a truck driver for forty years before returning to the village ten years ago. He was a very modest chap shifting from foot to foot whilst telling us, in perfect English, a bit about his life and life in the village. Or I should say poifect English as he had a New York/New Jersey twang. Think Marlon Brando in The Godfather!
We said a cheery Bomdia to anyone we met on our walks and one couple out tending their vines chatted to us in French telling us they had both been born in the village but had lived in Versailles just outside Paris for thirty two years and had returned to the village to retire. I would have never expected I would be practising my French in a tiny Portuguese village.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the area and in a way I wished we’d stayed longer but the need to press on south was strong as we only have a couple of weeks before we need to be in the Algarve for our next Helpx.
So onwards it was then to Portugal’s second city, Porto. We stayed at the cheap as chips Campismo de Salgueiros campsite on the coast five miles or so south of Porto. It’s a tad scruffy and has dated facilities but the welcome was warm, the showers were hot and it was just a mere three minute walk to the beach. €7.10 a night with EHU, €4.75 without. What’s not to like?
It was actually a great place to be and we could have spent a week there had we had more time as after you’ve done Porto there are plenty of cafes to frequent and beach walks to be had. A bus would have taken us into Porto but as it was a lovely day we decided to walk in and get the bus back. From the campsite it was about a two hour gentle stroll (the route doubles up as a cycleway too) along the seafront and along the banks of the river Douro into Porto and was an excellent way to arrive as it brings you in on the southern side of the river with splendid views across the water to the UNESCO Ribeira neighbourhood.
We couldn’t have had a better day weatherwise and I think we saw it at its best. I can’t say we did anything cultural (not unusual for us) as all we did really was poke about and mooch around in all the nooks and crannies that make these sorts of places fascinating to explore.
We loved it and would definitely recommend it as a weekend city break. You can take in a cruise on a barcos rabelos, one of the traditional boats used to take wine down the river from the Douro port estates or join a tour of one of the many port wine lodges or just drink it all in from one of the many pavement cafes lining the waterfront.
If we hadn’t walked into Porto we wouldn’t have discovered Afurada, a compact area of colourful fishermen’s houses about four or five streets deep behind the small marina on the south side of the Douro which wasn’t mentioned in our guide book.
We knew it was going to be something special when we saw the clothes drying area next to the river and the community washing tanks nearby.
When we passed on the Saturday there was just one lady with a face mask on presumably cleaning the tanks with bleach but on the Sunday it was a hive of activity with washing being scrubbed, slapped and soaked in the tanks. It’s amazing that this tradition still lives on.
As the campsite didn’t have a washing machine we’d carried our washing the half hour walk to the nearest laundrette that morning and we’d been feeling mightily pleased with ourselves at getting three weeks worth of washing done whilst troughing pizza slices and pastel de nata’s from the Lidl next door. That was our work for the day done!
Anyway, the Afurada was a joy to saunter around.
We’d arrived after the lunchtime rush but it was still pretty lively with the charcoal barbecues in front of the restaurants still in full flow so we stopped for some lunch.
I don’t really do fish but I had the sardines cooked on the grill. I’d like to say I thoroughly enjoyed them but I’d really rather have had grilled courgettes! Still it gave me my weekly dose of omega 3.
So, another week has gone by and we’re heading further south now to Coimbra.
Our last visit to this part of Spain in April 2017 was but a fleeting one to take the ferry from Santander back to the UK. We said then that we would come back at some other time and explore more of Northern Spain. And here we are. I was happy to be back here for no other reason than to stay at the ‘elephant aire’ again. The toll free A8 motorway crosses right across this region close to the coast so it was just a mere six or seven kilometre detour. Situated on the edge of the Cabárceno Wildlife Park this free aire is, we think, a great stop before or after the ferry or at any other time really.
We did get our walking boots out this time though and followed a path up the hillside which eventually crests the ridge of the hill for a superb view of the bay of Santander below and then further on for about a kilometre to a peak for more views across the countryside.
It was about a three and a half hour there and back trip and gave us just enough time go and see the elephants again before it got dark:)
Santillana del Mar is billed as one of the most attractive towns in Spain with its collection of 15th to 18th Century stone houses.
We had a beautiful sunny day to see it and there is no denying that it is an attractive village but it felt a little bit too twee and perfect, a tourist town with all the many associated restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and coach parking areas. Maybe we were having an ‘off’ day but it didn’t hold our interest for long.
Even though the Picos de Europa mountains were calling me (not so much Tim!) we could clearly see the white stuff on their peaks and we felt we’d left it a wee bit late in the year to explore them this time. (Queue a huge sigh of relief from Tim).
We decided to stick to the coast instead stopping off at different points along the way and to enjoy a bit of coastal walking.
We’ve had mixed weather over the last week from warm sunny days to squally rain and one overnight storm where, once again, reinforcements were needed to retain possession of our roof vents.
New elastic hair bands were deployed and tightened, the suction cups were resucked and the washing line was affixed from skylight to toilet roll holder in the bathroom. The belt, braces, stockings and suspenders approach.
We’d had a beautiful sunny day with a fabulous coastal walk but big black clouds loomed up late in the afternoon and we had a similar sleepless night to one we’d had in Greece last year where we thought we were actually going to take off. Thankfully by the morning it had all blown itself out.
You see some curious things when travelling to new places but tractor surfing is probably up there with extreme ironing. We’d seen tractors on the beach scraping up the seaweed when we were in St Jean de Luz in France but in Spain they take it to the next level. We were quite far away so the picture isn’t great but it all looked a bit dangerous.
Three tractors with a comb like contraption attached to the back were being buffeted around in the surf whilst trundling back and forth into the waves dragging in the seaweed.
We’d seen a lot of seaweed seemingly being used as mulch come fertiliser in the farmer’s fields but we’ve also seen it left in lots of little clumps on wasteground too. I haven’t been able to find out anymore about it though so it will remain a mystery.
Another unexpected sight whilst out on a coastal walk was a spectacular blowhole on a little island off the coast.
The waves were crashing up the coast that day and we probably wouldn’t have seen it on a calmer day.
It’s a rugged coastline which reminded us of parts of the Cornish and Pembrokeshire coast.
There’s not a complete coastal path as such but there are plenty of coastal walks to be had using the towns as a starting point.
You could easily spend weeks exploring the north west coastline but as inclement weather had been forecast we swung a left inland effectively chopping off the North West corner of the country. We were into Galicia now and part of the Galician coast is called the Costa da Morte because of the number of ships pulverised against the rocks during stormy weather. We didn’t fancy any more sleepless nights on a windswept coastline lying awake wondering if we would survive the night so thought it best to cut our losses and get further south. We couldn’t leave this region without visiting Santiago de Compostela though.
After the supposed discovery of the tomb of St James the Apostle (Santiago to the Spanish, Saint Jacques to the French) in the 9th Century, Santiago became Europe’s second most important religious shrine after St Peter’s in Rome. The cathedral is the showpiece of Santiago and at the heart of its medieval core and is mightily impressive but then the entire old town is impressive really.
A tightly packed feast of narrow lanes, Plazas, squares, monuments and ancient churches all of which is pedestrianized.
Our guide book says ‘uniquely Santiago is a city at its best in the rain’ and goes on to say ‘water glistens on the facades, gushes from the innumerable gargoyles and flows down the streets’. Mmm, yeah right. Water does gush from the innumerable gargoyles but quite often instead of flowing down the streets it drips down the back of your neck.
Still, we did enjoy our visit and planned on watching ‘The Way’ when we got back to the van just to get into the whole spirit of the El Camino de Santiago thing but then discovered we didn’t have it. Doh! I remember watching it a few years ago and was convinced we had it. Ah well, we can download it another time.
Our penultimate stop in Galicia before we hit the frontier town of Tui on the Spanish/Portuguese border was the little fishing village of Combarro to look at the collection of Hórreos (stone granaries) on the seafront. The town apparently has the largest collection of them in Galicia. We arrived at the aire which has a view of the bay about a mile outside the town just as all he cocklers were returning with their hauls.
So it was time to head for the Portuguese border. Alas, the rain has followed us:(
San Sebastián with its vast sweeping crescent shaped bay and fabulous sheltered sandy beach was our first stop on crossing the border into Spain. The aire at just €3.30 a night at this time of year is only a fifteen minute walk to Ondareta beach at the western end of the town and then a further twenty minute walk along the seafront into the Casco Viejo, the old town. We’d been looking forward to coming to San Sebastián as we’d heard good things about it and, apart from the change in the weather, we weren’t disappointed.
Yep, as mentioned in my last blog post, the run of good weather broke on our first evening in San Sebastián with bucket loads of rain coming down throughout the evening, overnight and into the following morning.
The balmy temperatures we’d had for so many weeks plummeted too which was a bit of a shock to the system. It had turned into hat and gloves weather. Still, all credit to San Sebastián it is still an attractive place in dreary weather and I can imagine it would be spectacular in warm sunny weather. We ended up spending three nights at the aire and made the most of any dry spells of weather we had to get out and about.
Basque cuisine has established a reputation for some of the finest in Spain but as regular readers of this blog will have surmised by now we are pretty much philistines when it comes to food preferring food of the pie and a pint variety rather than anything fussy or fishy. We weren’t averse to trying a pintxos and a pint though. Pintxos, the basque equivalent of tapas, are like little works of art lining the counter tops of the many Pintxos bars in the old town.
Seafood is the major ingredient for many of them but we did find a type of all day breakfast one and a mini burger one and the obligatory tortilla pintxos. We did push the boat out and try the bacalao (cod) as well but it was a tad chewy. Sorry but if you are into food and want to read about and see fabulous pictures of food then this isn’t the blog for you!
Anyway, it wasn’t all sightseeing we had chores to do as well with a three week backlog of washing to do. We found an excellent launderette five minutes walk away from the aire which looked almost new and had super fast free wifi. So in the hour it took to wash and dry everything I was able to upload all my photos, upload the last blog post and download some podcasts. Getting back to the van and putting away the still warm washing was very satisfying on a wet and dull Sunday morning. Getting those little jobs done without any stress of drama do help to keep spirits buoyant when you’ve been van bound by inclement weather for longer than you would like.
The Costa Vasca (the Basque country’s coastline) stretches for over one hundred miles and is a rugged up and downer flanked by wooded hills with plenty of little inlets and coves to explore. We spent a night at the aire at Zumaia thirty kilometres west along the coast from San Sebastián. I say aire it was really just a patch of land on the industrial estate by the river but it was free, felt safe, was surprisingly quiet and a ten minute walk along the river got us into the town. We didn’t know it at the time as neither of our guidebooks mentioned it but the thirteen kilometres of cliffs between Zumaia and Deba have been recognised by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and UNESCO as one of the planet’s great geological outcrops.
The near vertical rock layers of the ‘flysch’ as they are known are like the pages of a book revealing, layer by layer, the erosive actions of water and movements of land over the course of 50 million years of the earth’s history.
You really have to see them from sea level to appreciate them and we really enjoyed this natural phenomena.
We stopped at the aire outside the fishing port of Lekeitio where old Basque houses line the seafront and watched the locals clamouring to buy the catch of the day landed that morning.
I have to say we were a bit mopey (is that a word?) as the weather hadn’t really improved with rain coming and going and pottering about the fishing villages isn’t really the same unless the sun is out.
We cheered ourselves up though with a stop at Gaztelugatxe, an islet connected to the mainland by a manmade bridge and on top of which stands a hermitage dating from the 10th Century dedicated to John the Baptist, which had been recommended to us by Tim and Jan who follow the blog and are on their own tour of Spain and Portugal at the moment.
Gaztelugatxe means castle on the rocks in the Basque language and is the most popular place of pilgrimage along the Basque coast. Its religious rites are also tied to the sea. Devotional offerings are left by sailors and fishermen to give thanks to the saint for protecting their boats from the dangers of the sea. Even today when the tuna season begins the fishermen from nearby Bormeo still bring their boats into the waters nearby to ask the saint for good weather, good health and good fishing before heading for the tropics in search of fish.
The small church at the top is eighty metres above sea level and is accessed via a narrow path and over two hundred steps. For all you Game of Thrones fans out there the location featured in Season 7 as Dragonstone with a digitally created castle on top. It was worth the stop and did us for our exercise for the day too before we trundled along to Bilbao.
The aire at Bilbao is in a spectacular location on a steep hillside to the west of the city with magnificent views out across the city and surrounding countryside.
At €15 a night with electric it is well worth staying a night or two. A regular bus service will set you back just €1.30 each way and drop you right beside the river in the old town.
Once an industrial port city home to steelworks and chemical factories, Bilbao has reinvented itself over the last twenty years with many of the old shipyards and factories having been replaced by parks, riverside walks, cafés and new modern architecture.
The pièce de résistance of that new modern architecture is undoubtedly the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by the American architect Frank Gehry and completed in 1997 it transformed a derelict piece of post industrial wasteland right in the heart of the city. Its success triggered a revitalization programme of the city including the development of a new metro system and airport.
Now, we don’t normally do museums preferring outdoor pursuits instead but we made an exception for the Guggenheim as we were sure it was going to be worth seeing inside and out. We approached it from the north bank of the river and climbed up the steps of the Puente de la Salve for a view from higher up.
All I can say is it lived up to all its hype and is, I think, the most remarkable modern building I have ever seen or experienced.
All its sweeping curves are clad in golden titanium tiles and it is just fabulous.
Standing in the sixty metre high atrium on the ground floor it is just mind boggling how it was ever a) conceived b) designed and c) built. Just astonishing.
We enjoyed the various galleries but as with a lot of modern and contemporary art I don’t always ‘get’ what the artist is getting at so to speak but that didn’t matter as the building its self kind of overshadows what’s in it anyway.
So, with all that excitement all we had time for was to walk back along the river and have a mooch about the old town before getting the bus back to the van.
There you go, Bilbao surprised us as we’d always thought it was just a hum drum urban sprawl of a place and somewhere to get the ferry back to the UK. How wrong we were.
So that brought the end to our tour of the Basque region and it was time to move on into Asturias and Cantabria.