We had been looking forward to Porto for various reasons, but mostly for the port. We expected it to be a nice and interesting city but I was surprised about what a fantastic, liveable city it was. The route of my long run is a good way of describing why.
Our Airbnb was in an old area of the town that is slowly being “gentrified”. There are many grand old buildings, still ripe for renovation, interesting shops and bars but ne’er do wells shouting at dustbins are common. I ran from here some 7km down the wide Avenue da Boavista that leads to the sea, passing increasingly big villas, posh shops and restaurants. It was a misty morning, so all this was shrouded in a glowing orange light. Just before the beach is a large, semi formal, park with ponds and ducks……… and chickens……. and one pack of stray dogs that made me change my route and quicken the pace.
The sea front is a collection of clean beaches, all with reasonable looking bars and cafes. These beaches run to the mouth of the Doruo river and the old fortifications that protected it. The riverside is varied. On the Porto side it has parks, a small area that holds an obviously productive fleet of small fishing boats, old warehouses, new apartments and some big public buildings. On the other side there are the grand port houses of the brands we all know and love, then I hit some less well kept old warehouses, and, finally, a new marina and a bunch of cafes. Once back across the river it was up a bloody horrible hill to the old town, with lots of great old buildings, some narrow lanes and some broad roads and squares containing magnificent statues and more grand buildings. Joining the two sides are a number of bridges; each represent some great engineering, but the Ponte Luis I and the Ponte Soa João represent the best of their day. It is beautiful, vibrant, varied and well set up to enjoy on foot, by bike or by public transport. It was a really lovely 36km and it helped me renew my enthusiasm for running which had been severely depleted by too many cobbled bloody hills. In hindsight it would have been even better had I remembered to put the insoles back into my trainers before I started out. Bugger.
The city is a solid reminder that, whilst Portugal has been through a tough patch, it was once perhaps the most powerful, and certainly the country that lead the way in exploring the “ new world”. Like every great nation in history, there are ups and downs, driven by a change in technology, different political decisions made at home or abroad, or, sometimes, just bad luck. Being great once doesn’t mean a nation will always be great, only that it has the potential to be great again if the right decisions are made at the right time. Until that time we can be great through the way we behave and Portugal is a great example of this, welcoming all, and looking after rich and poor. They didn’t choose austerity, (cutting services to the less well off). Rather they chose to invest wisely and create an environment where small businesses can thrive and are growing well. I think my old country sometimes looks to its past too often and doesn’t understand the importance of the present. We are meaner for it.
The FTs did FT type things. Firstly we went to Graham’s Port house for a tour and a tasting which is very much worthwhile. We were shown around by a charming and knowledgeable 26 year old who claimed to survive on a diet of port, whiskey, cigars and beef, and we learned a lot. We also observed that the port industry has a touch of the Raj about it. Men of British origin, driving around in Landrovers, hopping out to exchange pleasantries with the exceptionally hard working locals who do the harvest (and also travel to France to do the wine harvest there as they get a better wage and French people are lucky enough to be able to choose to not do such back breaking work.). It seems to work well, by all accounts though, and the owners are said to take a very responsible approach to their duties to the land and those who work for them. I would like to own a port vineyard! I have chinos, blue shirts, a hat and love to chat, so am completely qualified.
At the tasting, I discovered that port can be worn as a perfume. I don’t know what I said, but at some point I said something funny enough to reduce J to snorting whilst she had a gob full of some fine port….. so I got to wear it. The smell is great…..the stickiness, well that’s less great.
We also popped our cherry with Airbnb “experiences” and booked ourself on to a tour of Porto’s secret bars and a class to learn how to make Pasteis de Nata The first was fine; the bars were all in the area we stayed in, they were ok but not amazing and the wine was interesting but not outstanding. I am pretty confident we would have found all the bars and all the wine on our own over the course of our stay.
The Pasteis de nata class was great fun though, and I look forward to baking them back at home (😂😂😂 – J) We all got to do bits, and I got very anxious if people were not following instructions for their bit as I was looking forward to the end product. ‘For goodness-sake, whisk faster! You heard what the lady said will happen if you don’t. It’ll go lumpy and I don’t want lumpy nata!!!’ Six year olds nowadays eh!
Whilst the creations were in the oven, I popped out to get the perfect accompaniment to them, Ginja, much to the delight to three Korean girls in our class who seemed to be as big fans of Ginja as I am. The Nata were ok, the Ginja good and the experience lots of fun…….. except if you were a lazy 6 year old.
We took two day trips. One to Viana do Castelo, an hour to the north, a place that I last went to in 1992. As part of training at Sandhurst, each cadet must spend a week of the first leave on an adventure training course to get a qualification (the unit expedition leaders course mentioned earlier) and a week of the second leave on an expedition. For me, this second one was being on the crew of a 55ft yacht, sailing from Lisbon to Gosport…… in December. The weather was truly awful and we were the only yacht out on day one. Even the ferries had stopped. We had to run back to port after a few hours, but on day 2 went out again and time meant we had no option than to keep going. By the time we got to Viana do Castelo, after 3 days and nights of tacking into wind hitting 55 knots and huge waves, our courage had been truly tested. The paratrooper who had never been sailing before and declared it ‘a bit of a poofs game’ on the flight out to Lisbon had been reduced to shouting ‘this is fucking crazy’ as he crawled along the deck back to the cockpit. The ships doctor had been put ashore as he was so ill, the SAS man had been ripped off the helm when a huge wave broke over us, that also took away our down buoy, which took an hour of battling to recover, and all but me and the skipper had been dealing with violent sea sickness. The calm water of the port of VdC was one of the most welcome sights you could imagine. The sun came out the next day, we walked to the large church at the top of a large hill and drank cold beer in the nearby hotel, we ate ashore and learned Portuguese traditional dancing in the evening. From that day, the place had a special place in my heart and I couldn’t resist going back. It is a nice town, and the hill gives great views over the Atlantic, but they say you can’t cross the same river twice, and the memory was better than the return. There are lots of very lovely towns in Portugal and this one is only in the top half. I did enjoy a 10.30 am beer in the same spot that I had enjoyed one some 25 years before.
As I sat drinking my beer, remembering in reasonable detail the previous visit, I rather indulgently asked myself the question ‘what would I tell the 22 year old James to do differently if you could jump back in time to that terrace 26 years ago?’. The answer. Very little. I would have liked to be kinder to some people, and I now know my rather basic humour was often offensive, but the people I know and love have not held that against me. I would have liked to properly know my father better than I did, and spent more time with him in his final days, but I learned to do things differently because of that mistake. There have been challenges along the way, but the cliché about the things that don’t kill you making you stronger is very very true and I know those challenges have been as important, or more important than the easy stuff. I enjoy a very special life, living in a great place, working with clever and interesting people, married to someone I love who is also a great friend and companion. The fact that I get to do stuff like this, to me, shows that the path taken to date has been a good one.. I am indeed very fortunate. Perhaps there is just one bit of advice I would have passed on…….. never turn down a blow job………. (FFS —Ed.)
Perhaps I need to still work on the humour…….. ( yep – Ed)
The other trip was along the Duro valley to Pinhao, the centre of the port vineyard area. The journey is beautiful, and for most of the way, the small narrow gauge train hugs the side of the steep river valley (sit on the right on the way out for the best view). At Pinhao we ate well, visited another port house and took a trip up the river, sharing a sailing boat with a lovely couple called Hydie and James, with a skipper who was the son of a family who owned a small ‘subsistence’ port vineyard. This is a great way to see the valley.
We also had a very very small world moment. As we walked to our port tasting I saw a couple trying to get a picture of themselves so, as I nearly always do, I offered to take one for them. We then got chatting and through a series of questions discovered that they had stayed in Fulford Folly in Bundanoon. What are the chances of that! Nerds, please don’t give me the formula for the answer…
The train trip back was less good as we had to stand nearly all the way. Top tip. If you do the same, get a taxi one stop up the line from Pinhao and guarantee yourself a seat. Pinhao is carnage.
On the edges of all this, in Porto, we got to sit in a beach bar and watch the sunset, enjoyed listening to some incredibly talented buskers (I will now stop and take time to listen to good buskers in my home town, rather than scurrying by because either our busy lives dictate we must, or in fear of being mistaken for a bloody tourist rather than a fortunate local), realised that food and booze costs 3 times less if you stay away from the tourist areas, that Uber’s are the only way to travel in Porto (new cars, great drivers who all speak English and have an interesting back story and it’s very very cheap) and I realised that I really love a good 10 or 20 year old Tawny port. This last point is important, as, whilst I have always liked port, I have been scared by drinking huge amounts of cheap port at the end of mess dinners and have had some incredibly bad hangovers as a result. Drinking truly lovely port has allowed me to slay those demons.
Porto was our last call in Portugal, a country that we knew very little about when we arrived, know slightly more about as we leave, and one of the things we know is that we really, really like the country.
It has some quirks (like Avis saying that they never answer phones in the rental offices and to alter your booking you must go in…..), but it is welcoming, easy, has great food and wine, is seeping with history, is very affordable and is stunning.
From Porto it’s off to Bordeaux………. On Ryanair.
What have the Romans every done for us?! Provided a rather marvellous stop on the way to Coimbra; that’s what.
There is a place about 30 mins south of the town called Conímbriga, which was once a thriving Roman town and is now a well preserved bunch of Roman ruins. It’s outstanding feature is the amount of very well preserved mosaic floors and how clear the layout of the buildings is. It is easy to feel a strong connection with our forebears at a place like this and I thoroughly recommend going if you find yourself in the area.
Coimbra itself is an old University town, on a hilltop with cobbled streets…… (You see the theme here?) As we had seen one or two similar towns we decided to do something a bit different and kayak 18km down the beautiful Mondego river. It was a Saturday and the guy we met from the tour company built our expectations up by telling us that his company was taking 200 people down the river and another company was doing similar. ‘It will be chaos’. We asked the reasonable question if it was an unusually high number, but no, it is always very busy on a weekend in July or August. We decided that chaos was obviously their business model.
Once on the water, it was bloody funny to start with. Think the Dunkirk flotilla meets the Monty Python sketch about the race for people with no sense of direction. For the first 20 minutes it was carnage, with people going sideways across the river, capsizing and getting stuck in the bank . Human soup…. and lots of the humans are stupid. Let’s not forget that we were going downstream so all you had to do was sweet fuck all and you would eventually get to your destination.
Fortunately, 18km is a long way and there is plenty of river so we soon found ourselves often alone in a beautiful and peaceful environment. We stopped for our picnic on the bank, and a beer at bar on a river beach and had a lovely day. I would thoroughly recommend it. On a weekday.
In the evening we managed to get some really great food at a small place called The Fangas Mercearia Bar before having a wander around the old town. We came across the annual Onion Festival that featured a bunch of stalls selling onion related food, a big stage with nothing on it yet, but I am sure would have soon featured onion related entertainment, in front of which old people sat either waiting for said entertainment, or merely waiting for death. One man bucked the trend and he was dancing with an imaginary partner to an imaginary band. We didn’t stay long.
We then wandered back home, up the same hill we had walked down due to the lack of any other options. Somehow I was in trouble for the steepness of the hill. Somethings, I will never understand.
Before we left, we managed to have a bit morels an explore and realised that we could have spent a couple more days there as we had only just scratched the surface. The university is incredibly handsome and impressive, there are some fascinating old buildings and some great old churches.
We did pop into one old church, the 10th Century Se Velha in it’s cloisters there are two stone graves side by side. A rather grand one to some nobleman who had a load of cash, and a very small one, to a man who had dedicated much of his life to encouraging religious tolerance, diversity and inclusion. It seems we have been getting it wrong for a very long time.
Obidos is another medieval town with big churches and a castle, sitting on a hill. The streets are old and narrow enough that most do not allow cars, so we had to park outside the walls and wheel our backpacks in (yep.. our backpacks have wheels as well as shoulder straps and it’s great). Wheeling anything on cobbles is not so much fun and, as we entered the packed streets we saw that there was a small strip of paving slabs down the centre of the road that offered an easier time of it. Hurrah. The challenge is, it is only a narrow strip and only fits one person/bag on it, so if you meet someone coming the other way it’s a game of nerves to see who stays on it. But there is also a moral element to this. What if the person coming towards you deserves the ease of the strip? Perhaps they are pregnant. Perhaps they use a walking stick. Well, we missed our hotel on the first pass so did pretty much the entire street twice. On the return journey, I was staring off mother’s with prams, old ladies with zimmerframes, in fact anyone who looked less frightening than the angry wife stomping behind me………..
When I say ‘we missed our hotel’, we missed a hotel that would have been ours if we had been here there on May 19th 2019……. You see, we’ve been booking lots of hotels recently, including one for my cousins wedding on May 25th 2019 and it seems we then had a calendar issue. We discovered this fact after a conversation along the lines of:
“Hello, we have a room tonight”.
“No you don’t”
“Yes we do”
“No you don’t”
“Yes we do…. And here’s the confirmation……………bugger………”
The team at the Luv’ Books guesthouse were fantastic. They got us out of the heat, gave us water and helped us find a new hotel….. which as a last minute booking in the height of summer was a little more expensive than we had hoped…..
Obidos is a pretty town which was much more comfortable after lunch when the coach loads of visitors have moved on to their next destination. As it is the birthplace of Ginja and has many Ginja producers In the area, there are many, many Ginja stands on the the main street, all selling shots of the lovely stuff in either plastic or chocolate cups. The latter is lovely but I quickly realised that the calories in v calories out equation is much easier to balance if you stick to booze. The sacrifices we have to make!
The evening was reasonably sedate, with a walk up to the battlements to watch the sunset (reached by a narrow stone staircase with the castle wall on one side and certain death on the other, then dinner in our hotel. In this we rather failed. As we were staying in a nice ish hotel, we decided to give the hotel restaurant and fado performance a go and ended up in tourist hell. Now that is a huge exaggeration, but the scoff was mediocre, the wine expensive and the Fado was………. Well it was obscure reggae played in a fado style. That obviously have a thing for obscure reggae in Portugal.
I managed a reasonably pleasant run the next morning as, despite the town being on a hill, our hotel was near the bottom so I could head down country lanes, around small villages in a reasonably flat environment. In one village I came across a stray dog, as I had done on a few occasions, either individually, in a pair, or as I later did in Porto, in a small pack (that was rather unnerving and involved me backing off very very slowly, then very very quickly). It’s hard to tell the intention of a stray dog as mostly they come with rather incessant barking but occasionally with a wagging tail. In my attempts to be seen as dominant I said firm commands in bad Portuguese or Spanish, and they mostly tried to lick the salty sweat of my legs. Poor dogs….
The hotel (a converted convent called ‘The literary man’) managed to redeem itself in a major way at breakfast as, besides the normal stuff on a breakfast buffet, …… it had chocolate cake….. hurrah.
We then hit the road to Coimbra, a University town about 2 hours northish
I had never heard of Tomar before looking at where to go in Portugal. In this, I am probably less well informed than the average Burberry wearing, hot hatch driving, UKIP voting ne’er do well, as Tomar is the ancient HQ of the Christian fighting organisation the Knights Templar, an organisation that has been adopted by bigots and racists throughout Europe. The headline is that they were European Christians who fought in the crusades, were very good at fighting but even better at raising money so had a lot of influence. They lasted for about 200 years, when in 1312, King Philip IV of France took advantage of the public’s growing distrust of the organisation (fuelled by mysterious initiation rights) to outlaw and persecute them. His motivation was the fact he owed them loads of cash and getting ride of them got rid of the debt.
They went underground, have loads of spin-offs who claim a relationship (Free Masons for example), and are surrounded in mystery... a mysterious, wealthy organisation that fought Muslims - a great fit for misappropriation by people who use incredibly poor spelling and too much upper case to spread hate on social media.
Whilst all this is true, and the knights were probably people who felt they were superior due to their religion and skin colour, they left a lasting legacy behind in the form of grand buildings throughout Europe (Temple Bar in London for example). In the centre of the Convento de Christo, on a hill overlooking Tomar, is a wonderful example of this in the shape of the Knights Templar temple. It is impressively large and ornate, and despite being occupied by Napoleon’s army who burnt anything they could to keep themselves warm, it is remarkably well preserved. Successive Portuguese kings took a liking to the place and the temple is now surrounded by beautiful cloisters and a Covent for monks.
We were shown around by Luis, the owner of Tuk Lovers, a small company that does tours on tuk tuks. The thought of spending a few hours on a tuk tuk with a stranger isn’t the best one for me but Luis was superb. Charming, knowledgeable, funny and enthusiastic, he was also well connected enough to secure the keys to a rarely visited underground room once used for complicated initiation ceremonies. We also zoomed out to the part of the aqueduct that once fed the convent that was an exceptional feat of engineering, straddling a valley.
On the tour we heard about a 3 day Portuguese music festival about 5km out of town, hosted by a small village and aimed at celebrating/showcasing young Portuguese talent and this presented an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. We thought it might be a little like Bundanoon Winterfest, but warmer…. And with more Portuguese people. We were the oldest people on the bus by about 25 years and most seemed to be camping for the duration. In the village there were a number of older people but mostly they came in the form of the locals who looked on with a mix of amusement and bewilderment. There were venues in the square, in files, in halls and in back gardens. There were food trucks, booze stands and stalls selling clothing made from the pubic hair of yaks and dyed in various shades of brown and orange that only those really annoying young middle class travellers wear on the gap years to go with their dreadlocks and ability to talk hippy bollocks.
It was a very, very Portuguese affair and one of the bar people said that she thought we were the only none Portuguese there. Real adventurers! Well kind of……… we got rather cold and left well before midnight, just as things were warming up, talking about being too old to be cold…….
Next stop, Obidos and the home of Ginja!.
Portugal, like the rest of Europe, has history everywhere. We’ve always known this, but our stint in Oz has made it all the more apparent. Historical tourist attractions in Oz are things like the first graffiti, a date and initials carved into rock on Garden Island in 1788, or a village that hasn’t been completely rebuilt 30 times since its foundation in the early 1800s. They are interesting, often beautiful but few and far between. Then again you don’t come to Oz for the history (unless you are a palentologist). You come for sun, beaches, great food and wine, beautiful countryside, a great lifestyle, the wonderful mix of cultures……. Etc etc…..
So being in an environment of castles, medieval towns, Roman ruins and a landscape that tells a story of centuries of farming feels very special. J and I were lucky enough to travel relatively frequently when we lived here and also spent time living on the continent, but I really don’t think we fully appreciated the amazing history around us. If you still live in Europe, travel as often as you can.
We Left the medieval/Roman town of Evora and traveled to Castelo de Vide, a couple of hours North East and checked into a Quinta (farm stay) a few km outside the town.
Our fall from the luxury of the Olive wasn’t too far and the Quinta was set amongst lavender fields, had a lovely pool, and a lovely room. They also had home made Ginja. I really like Ginja,
We arrived late afternoon so popped into town had a quick wander and a beer, the brought snacks for an evening picnic by the pool (in a supermarket that made Balmain Woolworths look good for my UK friends, Woolworths is a supermarket in Oz, a bit like tescos. It not the home of pic’n’ mix, and cheap shit that we all grew up with).
For the second night running we found ourselves enjoying wine and snacks, watching the sun go down and feel very, very fortunate.
After my morning run (up another steep, cobbled bloody shitty twatish bloody hill and a lovely breakfast, we left early as we had two fortified towns and one castle to visit. The first being Castelo de Vide, the second being Marvao and the last being Castelo de Almoural before arriving at Tomar, about 2hrs to the North West.
In all three, we noted a few things. Firstly, there are so many historical things around, even a 12 century castle may not warrant any real tourist infrastructure. The castle in Castelo de Vide was pretty much left to it’s own devices: no entrance fee but very little information or upkeep. Secondly, health and safety isn’t really a thing in many places. In some ways this is refreshing, especially if you live in Oz where it is very much a thing, and In many ways, too much of a thing. However, if you are a man rather intimidated by heights (or as the Royal Marine instructor said on my unit expedition leaders course, shortly after I had to unstick my limbs from a rock I had become far too attached to on the Aonach Eagach Ridge ‘you have a strong desire to ensure your own safety), being high up on a wall with nothing between you and certain death other than the chance to say ‘fuuuuuuuuuuuck’ on the way down, sucks. I spent a reasonable amount of time ‘very focused’ as we explored the various places and had to dig deep to maintain my dignity in front of J.
All that said, all three are most definitely worth a visit for their history , their location, the views and their beauty.
The last is a small castle set on the river, only accessible by boat. The principal reason it is only accessible by boat is the obvious lack of desire to build a small bridge over the 10ft gap between the mainland and the castles island, which I can only assume is to control entry, to differentiate between this castle and everyone else’s castles and to keep grumpy old men employed as ferry boat drivers.
It was also a place where something happened that may well have lasting consequences on my life. Most people that know me will know that I am as keen on wasps as I am of heights and I flap around like an octopus’s shirt drying on a line in a hurricane if one of the black and yellow bastards comes close to me. Despite, or because of this behaviour, I have only been stung twice. Once on a holiday in Peebles Hydro in about 1978 and once whilst sitting by a pool in Argentina during our last adventure in 2008. On this occasion, I think a wasp had been having a drink of pool water from my belly button as I dried off after I had been swimming and had been caught between rolls of tummy as I sat forward. My hate and sympathy for the little bastard came in equal measure. Whilst I remember the incidents I don’t really remember any significant pain and I think my fear of them comes from my father, who used to swell up like a very angry balloon if he got stung. Anyway, as a stood on the battlements of ….. castle looking along the river, one of the Bogans/Chavs of the insect world stung me just above my knee for no other reason than shits and giggles…… and nothing really happened. It hurst a little at the time, itched and went hard for a few days, but that’s it. Is this the same for everyone?. So now I am going to try to be a man, and forget 48 years of instinctive behaviour and be less of a kitten. We shall see.
The theory will be tested in the next stop: Tomar
Castelo de Vide to Castelo Almoural
Is this the ultimate first world problem? Needing a break from your holiday. Our travelling was getting a bit tiring and we needed a break….. Sounds awful doesn’t it…..
The thing is, we had planned practically nothing before we left and we had realised that at this time of year some of the places we wanted to go can be challenging. Trains, planes and hotels are full, or getting close to it, and we were reminded that even with smartphones, the organisation stuff takes time. Then there is the getting up to see stuff, do stuff or simply move to the next place. I realised that I hadn’t slept later than 8am on any day so far, as I was running or having my days off running to coincide with a move or a trip requiring an early start.
So, as mentioned in my last blog, we decided to find somewhere reasonably interesting, on a train line that had an affordable hotel with aircon, wifi and a pool. The result was the Évora Olive hotel, and it was perfect.
Evora is approx 90mins east of Lisbon, has a population of about 60k and is hugely rich in history.
The Évora Olive hotel is small, new and just inside the walls of the old city. The opening of the outdoor pool, 4 days before we arrived, marked the end of its build, even though it had been open for 2 years and it was the first hotel we of the trip (all Airbnb til then).
I do love the whole Airbnb thing; the sharing economy, meeting the locals, spending the holiday dollar in the community…… blah blah blah. But proper sheets in a proper hotel is proper marvellous. For the first time on the trip our pillows weren’t filled with the insides of slaughtered teddy bears, rather ducks that had been made naked. We had fresh towels every time we decided we didn’t give a stuff about the environment. In 44c, the pool was perfect as were the cold beers and G&Ts. The staff were great, the food was great, the location was great, it was beautifully designed and the bed was huge. The only bad bit was the music by the pool. A mix tape of well known pop songs from big names (U2, Radiohead, the Beatles)…….. done in a reggae style. And it wasn’t even a mix tape: it was a Spotify play list that kept repeating and as they only had the free version, it was interspersed with fast talking ads in Portuguese. I considered throwing the speakers into the pool…….. whilst the noisy French children were in it.
The town is pretty perfect too. It is a UNESCO World Heritage town with medieval wall, wonderfully preserved old white painted buildings along narrow streets, Roman ruins (including a large temple) and great places to eat and drink. Out back of the council office is a well preserved Roman bath, but you can only see it when the council office is open, coz it really is just out the back. There are no tickets, no information, just a door you go though to a wooden platform overlooking the baths. History; it’s bloody everywhere over here.
So mostly, we wandered the streets, enjoyed some free music (performed as past of a festival) and ate and drank well. And tried to keep cool.
Evora and around
My favourite place was a small café in a back street that had a back wall made from the old Roman wall and stayed open late serving great Pasteis de nata and ginja so good that even Mr Creosote would have found space for. A great combination…………. And we went every night
We also found a great place that loved doing things with vegetables (Momentos). Mostly in Portugal, it’s meat and potatoes with a few token veggies, which is not great for J and not too good for a man trying to be a bit healthy as part of marathon training (our ‘5 a day’ invariably come in the form of fermented grapes). This food was a wonderful break from the norm, with tuna for me and fig and goats cheese salad for J. As a bonus, as I had become the restaurants 1000s Facespace follower whilst working out how to book, George the owner/chef treated us to a glass of local bubbles to celebrate. We liked George.
A great highlight was a trip to see some of the Neolithic standing stones south of the town. We were taken there by the very knowledgeable, charming and multi-lingual Mario, owner of Ébora Megalithica (http://www.eboramegalithica.com/index.html) who taught us more about our Neolithic ancestors in 3 hours than we had learnt during the many years we lived in Wiltshire and were surrounded by all manner of ancient sites. It is incredible to be able to touch stones that our forebears has also touched some 12,000 years before and had no doubt been touched by every generation of man since then. I find this is enough to put the hairs up on the back of my neck, in a good way.
We also learned that Portugal has a bit of an issue looking after such priceless treasures. Most of the sites are on private land, and due to the legacy of the ’74 revolution and the memories of forced land acquisition by communists followed by the transfer of ownership back to the original owners after democratic elections, the Government is very unlikely to force compulsory purchase and land owners would rather die than give up land. The result is that there is no real control over the sites, so people hold raves on them, others chip fragments off the irreplaceable carvings and friggin New Age travellers damage them by throwing different liquids on them as part of their made up, magic mushroom generated rituals. It is such a shame that people find it hard to move on from entrenched positions that are now irrelevant……… but then again, I come from a nation that still has violence each year because of an event in 1688 and where many people feel superior to the rest of the world coz we once had an empire……. And won a football match 52 years ago…….
Nativities and Bones
A great activity to keep cool in any country is a visit to the cinema. Invariably they have good aircon. A bonus in Portugal is the population is too small to justify the expense of dubbing, so all films are with the original words and Portuguese subtitles. This not only assists in creating a country where most people speak good English, but also allows the FTs to go and see ‘Mama Mia! Here we go again’. What a great film, even with an intermission half way through…….. what a great feel good movie. Watch it if you can……. stand seeing a increasingly old Piers Brosnan try to sing and dance.
An interesting place to visit in Évora is the Soa Fransisco church. The interesting comes in 2 forms. The first is the collection of nativity scenes, donated by a couple who showed their devotion to the catholic church by collecting 2600 of them. Only the best couple of hundred are on display, and by-Jeff they are funny. I think the curator must have picked them for their humour value, though the serious faces of the more devout visitors suggests others didn’t share than view.
On the other end of the scales is the Chapel of Bones, which is just that. Not just a few bones…. A lot of bones. The whole place is built with bones and skulls. Religion is very, very fucking odd.
See pictures of both below.
Our last night felt really special. Whilst the hotel is technically finished, the rooftop remains under-exploited. It will eventually be an undoubtedly stylish cocktail bar, where beautiful people will jealously guard their roof edge tables, taking IG photos, sipping mojitos and smoking ( because everyone still does here it seems), but now it is just a great area with a few comfortable seats and tables, and the most wonderful view of the old town. J and I had this all to ourselves. We drank wine, had pizza brought up, listened to the bells of the multiple churches chime - all slightly out of sync….. obviously not Swiss – and watched the sun go down behind the ancient skyline as a front brought in some much needed cooler weather……. And we felt very, very fortunate.
It’s a wonderful place, Évora and if you haven’t been, go. Preferably in Autumn or spring when it’s not so bloody hot.
Now we head towards Porto, via Tomar, Obidos and Coimbra.
The first time J and I went on holiday together, in 1994, we booked it on Ceefax (if you are under 40 and not from the UK, google it!) and it was one of those mystery deals, costing £200 for 2 weeks in a place called Illetas on Majorca. The suburb was one of the nicer ones, removed from Palma Nova and with it’s own beach. We flew from Glasgow, which is remarkably handy to get to from my posting in Warminster……….. In Majorca we hopped on to one of those busses run by the tour company that drops people off at different places. We were pleasantly surprised by the standard of the hotels we stopped outside and got excited about our mystery place. We really shouldn’t have. We arrived at a huge block that had a feeling of anarchy about it as soon as we walked in and reminded us of the council towers we had passed on the way to Glasgow airport. In the room next to our ant infested hovel that featured cupboards hanging off the wall, no aircon and no real bed, there were a group of Geordie body builders busy using a rope to hoist the luggage of the extra people who were going to stay on the floor of their hovel but couldn’t afford the room. Jodie cried. All I could think is ‘thank fuck I didn’t book this’.
We got this feeling again as we arrived in our Uber at our Airbnb in Lisbon, set amongst €1 shops, building sites and graffiti. I had booked this, and was nervous.
I remember that one of its strong points was the fact it had a lift and we were a bit over lugging our packs up steep narrow stairs. It was a small lift, fitting one person and a bag, so I lugged my pack up steep narrow stairs to be met by our hosts, Mario and Fransisco, who were absolutely charming.
The apartment had been Fransisco’s studio, who had become an award winning advertising / film maker, after moving to Lisbon from Angola where he had been a soldier, hunter and guide. They had converted in into an Airbnb with two rooms and they lived somewhere else. They were lovely people who made us feel very welcome and left us a bottle of wine. The way to the FTs hearts.
My run the next morning showed that we were on the edge of the old town and perfectly located for exploring (though not running as we were on top of another bloody hill!) and eating well.
On the eating front, we decided to be brave, and throw ourselves into the small very traditional restaurants, catering for locals with, at most, a hand written menu. I thoroughly recommend this course of action. I ate tasty, fresh and interesting food, mountains of it, and we drank nice wine all for a few Euros. There was always someone who could speak enough English to help me get a broad understanding of what I was going to get. I use ‘I’ deliberately as being a veggie can suck a bit in meat loving Portugal. On the upside, Portugal’s colonial past means there is a large Indian community so we were able to enjoy some very good veggie Indian food.
Lisbon is a lovely low rise old city, with fascinating churches, cobbled streets, little old trams, funiculars, cafes and rather wonderfully, little places selling Ginja, a cherry based spirit that you get in a shot glass and gives your insides a lovely glowing feeling. There are places that just sell Ginja, so you pop in, say ‘two please’, get them, down them, then wander off, all in less than a minute. The ne’er do wells love them.
There is a tourist version too, which involves drinking out of chocolate cups, then eating them. I was torn between the authenticity of the former…………and chocolate. It is a disappointing day that doesn’t involve Ginja.
We also had beer for breakfast one day. It was at a small stand in the street. It just looked nice……
Lisbon food and booze
We broke out of Lisbon for a day trip to the very famous Sintra – the cool hilltop refuge of the royals and aristocracy. It was a bit too famous and felt like a tourist sausage factory. There are three bits to the visit; a fascinating Moorish castle, the village itself, and the Kings old house. This last one is a very OTT affair. It reminded me a bit of the kind of place a villain from a James Bond movie would have, if he were Julian Clary or Liberace. It was a dominating lump on top of a hill, it had a sweeping drive and a bit of a tunnel but was yellow and red and contained some of the oddest furniture.
I also kinda broke out of Lisbon on my long training run. I needed to do about 31km and found a route on mapmyrun that was just that, and took in the old town, some suburbs and the coast. Perfect. It was a bit hilly to start with, and whilst not always beautiful, if took me to some interesting parts of town that were safe. This is quite key coz just picking a route for that kind of distance in a strange town is not without its hazards. Think about the major cities you know, and the proximity of places where you can get a perfect latte to the places where you run the risk of being perfectly mugged.
All went well for about 25km, until I was forced away from the shore due to building works. I was pushed up hill and as I knew I had to get back up to our place at some point, plotted a new route that took advantage of this forced rise until I got home. Things you wish you hadn’t done.
Very quickly I found myself in places where latte was not an option, and the graffiti suggested the alternative was. I often judge places I run in by the cars I see and whilst I saw a few BMWs, they were so conspicuous I concluded that they probably belonged to the dealers. I have no photos from this stretch as my iPhone was put away and I ran like I knew where I was going.
I then found myself on the edge of a place with a few shacks below a cemetery, a bit like a small shantytown. I then came across massive earthworks that blocked my way, forcing me back down hill. At the 34km point I was at the bottom of the big hill I lived up. I had 1km to go. I walked. At this stage I noticed that the sweat running down my legs was pink……. The mild chafingI had been experiencing appeared to be less mild than I thought it was after 34km. Yuk.
Being from Sydney, we love a good ferry, and Lisbon has these too so we took one across the harbour to ………. It is near the base of ‘big Jesus’, a smaller version of Rio’s very big Jesus. I ate lovely fish and we took the elevator to the top of the hill before walking back to the ferry. …….is a very odd place. It has all the characters of a big town; tower blocks, trams, shops etc…….. but few people. It was all a bit deserted. We have found a few places like this and on my run I found a small enclave of old houses, set amongst new ones, most of which were boarded up. It showed just how tough Portugal has been doing it (in 2013, there was 40% youth unemployment and now it is 20%).
My last adventure was a haircut. Getting a haircut in a new country is always a gamble and this time I lost. Denzel’s skill for the trade matched his enthusiasm and I haven’t had such a dodgy Barnett since J gave it a trim a few years ago.
Portugal is getting hotter, as is the rest of Europe, so we have decided to head somewhere that has a hotel with aircon and a pool that is within our budget: Evora.
Lisbon and around