So, it’s now two weeks into our little sojourn at Donkey HQ and we have well and truly settled into the rhythm of life here. Aside from the morning and evening feeding, grooming and mucking out of the donkeys we’ve had an interesting and varied week.
We celebrated Kerstin’s birthday last Sunday with a cycle into town for some lunch followed in the evening by some ouzo we’d brought back from Greece last year and Kerstin’s homemade quince crumble with a carton of Ambrosia custard we’d had kicking about in the van for several months.
The following day we took a walk up to see how the vacation donkeys were getting on with their temporary families. Flor and Luna were saddled up to take the young children for a spin around the outside of the enclosure.
Not wanting to be left out the other donkeys followed us along the inside of the fence. All was going well until Olivia decided to vault the fence to join us. If there is going to be any trouble you could put money on Olivia being in the centre of it. She’s a bit flighty and none too bright. She’s intellectually challenged shall we say and always acts before putting her very modest little brain into gear. After untangling her from the fence she joined our little party looking very pleased with herself indeed. She raced up and down, backwards and forwards like a dog.
If donkey show jumping was ‘a thing’ in Portugal then Sofia should sign Olivia up.
All of Sofia’s donkeys are a range of ages but she has four (Romano, Jeko, Mokka and Margarida) who are known collectively as ‘the oldies’. From time to time as a change of scene for them we can take two or three of them down to a large area of grazing in the valley a twenty minute walk away. I call it Donkey Day Care.
It also gives Romano a break from Mimi. Mimi is like an annoying younger sister to Romano. She follows him everywhere and she hee-haws if she is separated from him.
She has been here for over a year but the other donkeys can be mean to her so she sticks like glue to Romano as he is the only one who seems to have any time for her. Mimi is rapidly becoming one of my favourites. She’s super friendly but with a really cheeky naughty streak. I’m pretty sure it was Mimi who dragged my jacket off the side and trailed it around the floor of the stable last week.
It’s also been a musical week this week. Tim was invited to play with a friend of Sofia’s who has a small group and who had been booked to play at the Christmas Market in Aljezur at the end of the week.
And we were invited to a choir practice. Now I’m no singer but thought I’d give it a go. Tim came along as well. It was all very civilised with wine and nibbles on arrival. On hindsight we could see why the wine was a necessary part of the evening. Making numerous bizarre animal noises all featured as part of the warm up exercises. Had it been a team building event in a work situation Tim and I would have been heading straight for the door whilst muttering several expletives. The wine did the trick though and we barked, mooed, meowed and oinked along with everybody else as if it was a perfectly natural thing to do. We were even disappointed that the next practice won’t be until the New Year.
Since meeting the inspiring Colfer family a few weeks ago and reacquainting myself with wild swimming I’m going for a dip whenever I can. There’s a small lake a five minute walk away in the valley where I have braved the cold water most days. It’s cold enough to give me ‘ice-cream neck’ (the same as ice-cream head but there’s no way I’m going to put my head under as well).
On our day off we took a trip on the bikes to Amoreira beach.
We had the whole beach to ourselves so I didn’t feel too stupid trying out some yoga before a swim in the estuary.
The yoga and the swim was followed by guilt free toasted sandwiches and chips at a cafe in Aljezur.
More music ensued on Thursday with a lunch for all the people who live locally and have helped with the donkeys this year. It was like a garden party in the sunshine but without the dressing up bit.
Then the finale of the week was the Christmas Market in Aljezur. Our friends Di and Chris who are doing a multiple month trip of France, Spain and Portugal arrived this week and we met them at the market for a catch up over a mug of Gluhwein.
Well, our first week back here at Donkey HQ (aka burros & artes) has flown by. We were last here two years ago and coming back we wondered if we would feel the same about the place as we had back in 2016. We had intended then to stay for about three weeks but ended up staying eight as we enjoyed the whole experience so much. When we arrived we left the van at the bottom of the hill and walked up to the top of the drive in the sunshine smelling that fragrant Portugal smell. And there they all were. The long eared ones. How happy was I to see them all?!
I’m in donkey heaven. I can’t really explain what it is that I find so appealing about donkeys. I love that they’re not too big. The hang-dog expression that they so often put on. The hee-hawing. Those silky long ears. That they can be stubborn. That they are definitely cheeky.
I’m a fan of terriers even though they can be difficult sometimes and donkeys seem to share some of the same traits.
It’s great to be back here and we (I say we but it’s more me really) have been spending time reacquainting ourselves with the eleven that we already know and getting to know some new ones.
Seven of the nine new ones are brown and to my untrained eye look like identical septuplets. After spending the last week with them though I am beginning to be able to tell them apart but I’m not quite there yet.
Anyway, the long suffering readers of this blog will know all about where we are but for any of you new readers who are wondering what all this donkey thing is about I’ll just get you up to speed with a quick recap. Sofia, our host, who owns the donkeys runs different donkey trekking tours mainly throughout Spring, Summer and Autumn. Anything from a two hour gentle walk along the beautiful tracks surrounding donkey HQ to multi day treks along the Rota Vicentina on the Atlantic Algarve coast.
This is no cash cow business though. Sofia is passionate about and cares deeply for her donkeys. Many are elderly. Others have come from poor beginnings with ‘issues’ that only time, care, love and patience will improve.
So we’re here to help in the day to day care of the donkeys, do a bit of maintenance and generally help out wherever help is needed.
This week has been a busy one.
Sofia was offered the loan of a large piece of land three kilometres away big enough for half a dozen donkeys to enjoy a vacation. It was mostly fenced but Tim and I spent a couple of days repairing some areas, clipping back vegetation which interferes with the electric fencing, creating an entrance and generally making sure the whole area is donkey proof.
The two families who will be looking after the vacation donkeys came down to Donkey HQ yesterday and we all walked them up to their new holiday home.
Flor, Luna, Kiko, Olivia, Xiquito and Emil will stay in their new home for a few weeks at least.
One of the amazing things about the area around Aljezur is the sharing of skills, the helping of neighbours and the exchange of goods. For example, the French neighbours came to collect a trailer load of donkey manure in exchange for three big bags of carrots. It’s only fair. The donkeys produced it so they get paid for it in carrots.
Whilst we were fixing up the fence for the holiday donkeys we met Dan, a yoga instructor who has been living on a friend’s piece of land in his camper van for several months. He invites people to join his free yoga classes to share his love and knowledge of yoga. It’s a kind of gift economy whereby no money changes hands.
He invited me to join their morning yoga class. How could I refuse an opportunity like that? I left Tim to the rest of the fence and spent an hour throwing out some shapes on a yoga mat with two other would be yogis. And hallelujah, I managed to touch my toes for the first time in probably thirty years. Later on in the week I’ll gift them something in return. I haven’t thought of what yet!
It’s certainly an eclectic mix of people living in the area with many cultural, music, art, dance and theatre events to get involved with.
If we didn’t have our next Helpx starting tomorrow I think we may well have just stopped another week. And maybe another. And then another. We’ll never know.
We knew about the place. Had heard good things about it. Read some really positive reviews about it. Seen some cool photos of it. But. Would it be for us?
People stay here for months at a time. Some never leave. Images of a cliquey commune came to mind. A kind of retirement village. And I suppose it is. Kind of. But not quite.
Location was a factor too. We like to walk and sometimes cycle without having to drive the van anywhere. Situation wise it didn’t look too promising on either front.
However. You can surprise yourself sometimes.
A day goes by. You talk to a few people. You get a good vibe about the place.
Another day goes by. More chatting. Interesting stories. Different lives.
Another day goes by. More stories. Music shared.
It seeps in.
A few more days go by.
Ok. Whoa. Stop right there Jane. I don’t do woo woo and I’m getting just a little bit too woo woo for my liking!
Tim has been saying for the last few days that I’ve gone a bit Bodmin (if you watch the Doc Martin series then you’ll know what I mean). This place has had a bit of an effect on me though.
We came just under a week ago believing it wouldn’t really be our scene and we’ve completely changed our opinion.
It’s not a campsite exactly. It’s not an aire either. It’s not even a combination of the two.
It’s unique is what it is.
But anyway enough of the love in with Mikki’s. How did our internet date go? As I wrote in the last blog, we were here to meet up with Tim and Jan who follow the blog and who are on a similar trip to us with their lovely dog Jade.
I have to say I was a tad apprehensive. We had a tenuous link via our friends Sam and Chris who had met them on a campsite on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. We seemed to have an awful lot in common though. And not just the similar names.
Well all I can say is we have had a cracking time with them. We’ve had a day out walking the coast.
Shared a couple of meals. Chatted about our different life stories. Chatted some more. Boy can I talk the hind legs off a donkey. In my defence I’ve been socially starved for over two months apart from talking to Tim (my Tim!). Tim is not generally a big talker so I make up for the two of us. It’s fair to say I haven’t shut up!
It all had to come to an end sooner or later though and our new best friends (sorry Di and Chris) hit the road heading east this morning. If we never hear from them again I’ll know they were just being polite! If we do I’ll try not to chew their ears off so much next time we meet.
And talking of ears we are ready and raring to go to start our next Helpx. We were there two years ago.
We’re going back.
I’ll have twenty new pairs of ears to chew off now.
We’re going to Donkey HQ again. Yay!
Oh, and before I go. After my yoga session with Niamh a few days ago I’ve been doing a little session in the mornings by myself. The results have been nothing short of astounding.
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.
Ok, so long time no blog post! It’s fair to say I’ve left myself somewhat lacking on the blog front over the past few weeks and have left my multitude (aka – handful) of readers in the lurch so to speak. Desculpe meus amigos!!
So, where are we? We are currently parked up on the cliffs above Monte Clerigo beach, just outside Aljezur, Portugal watching the surf roll in whilst the rain comes and goes in waves. Our time at Donkey HQ came to an end yesterday after eight donkey filled weeks and we were sad to leave but also ready to continue with our travels.
When we first embarked on our fifth Helpx assignment we didn’t think for a minute that we would stay for as long as we have but we had such an enjoyable time there that the weeks just went on by without us noticing too much.
We so enjoyed looking after all the donkeys and getting to know all their different characters. Romano, the wise old grandaddy.
Margarida, Miss Greedy.
None too bright Olivia – unfortunately I don’t seem to have aphoto of her:(
Xiquito, Olivia’s shadow.
Cheeky Emilio with the most beautiful ears.
Elfrieda, Martha and Isadora, the guest donkeys, or ‘Algarve 3’ as I’ve been calling them. Still sticking together and working as a team even after nearly two months at donkey HQ.
Jeco, the stoic little guy.
Xico, aka gnasher!
Steady Emil and friendly, inquisitive Falco.
And last but not least, and my all round personal favourite, Margalhaes now renamed Kali as no-one could remember or pronounce his name!
Sofia is passionate about her donkey family giving them a life that most donkeys in Portugal and around the world could only dream of.
They are so well cared for and it was a privilege to be able to be a part of their lives and routines for the time we were there.
Madan, our Nepalese housemate, has taught us much about Nepal and Nepalese cooking and we’ve enjoyed getting to know him. We now have Nepal on our list to visit in the future!
We also mustn’t forget the hospitality Sofia’s parents, Raban and Nelly, have shown us sharing stories of their colourful lives with us. Their zest for life at 81 years old is inspirational.
The small community we have experienced here has been one of neighbours helping and looking out for each other sharing ideas, skills, machinery, equipment and time.
It has been a fantastic learning experience for us and we are leaving with very happy memories and would definitely like to return in the future.
So, Kali says goodbye and wishes us safe travels on he next chapter of our journey wherever it will take us 🙂