Tuesday, 19 April 2016

PORTUGAL, HAZY SHADE OF VINHO- Faro, Silves and Evora, Portugal

We were slightly apprehensive about leaving the UK and embarking on our Portuguese travels. Apart from small trips to see friends in Europe, we were complete babies when it came to travel knowledge in the area. We are so at home in Asia- we know how much things cost, places to avoid, who to trust, where to look for good food etc......all things we had yet to learn in Portugal. And organizing our finances in an area where we would have to at least double our Asian budget would no doubt be a challenge. 

After little research, we took the unusual (for us) decision of prebooking some accommodation in a couple of places, due to better deals on the internet and the busy Easter holiday period coming up. It was a bit strange to arrive at our guesthouse in Faro, the capital of the Algarve region of Portugal, not knowing what our digs would be like, and know we had booked in for 3 nights! We discovered a bit of a bizarre place run by an eccentric fat little man, who huffed and puffed up and down the stairs, and had raving loud arguments in his dressing gown with his wife in the front room! But they were friendly enough to us, and our tiled, old fashioned room was fine for a few nights. A bidet in the room was a first for us!

Really- what are you supposed to do with it?
Hotel in Faro, Portugal

Faro was so completely different from any place we have been. The old part was wonderful, with small windy cobblestone streets lined with Moorish style flat roofed houses opening directly onto the road, mostly white and gleaming in the bright sun. The town squares were filled with loaded orange trees, and the smell was sweet on the breeze. Apparently, it was founded by the Moors and destroyed by what was by all accounts an almighty earthquake which ravaged much of Portugal in 1755 (more about that later.....).

Old buildings, Faro, Portugal

Glimpse into someone's living room, Faro, Portugal
Beautiful doorway, Faro, Portugal

Local specialty, Faro, Portugal
Street scene, Faro, Portugal

We very quickly discovered the amazingly cheap, and good Portuguese wine- our first bottle costing us 85 Euro cents/AU$1.26. They call the cheap stuff “green wine”, or young wine, and it’s a bit sparkling, and delicious. It even came in mini Tetra pack size! Local beers included Sagres and Super Bok. One specialty shop we entered had an amazingly huge selection of Portuguese liquors, including a bottle of Madeira for 2000 Euro!

One of Portugal's beer

Handy "picnic size" wine

The couple of Baroque churches we visited were wildly ornate, impressive and different to us, but not quite to our tastes. We visited the small old town on  Sunday, so saw some of the church services, but found almost everything else closed and so quiet. It was amazing to see huge storks nesting in equally enormous nests on anything high enough to be safe on, including telegraph poles and the tops of church spires. We took a train to another coastal town, Olhao, to wander around more old streets lined with houses built for the sun. Sal was quite taken with the variation of tiles on many of the buildings, Rich less so.

Baroque church, Faro, Portugal
Chapel with random body parts, Olhao, Portugal

Giant stork's nest, Faro, Portugal

Lovely tiles, Olhao, Portugal
More tiles.....Olhao, Portugal

Traditional cafe, Olhao, Portugal

Very proud of their most famous son

Eventually, it was time to take a train to Silves, an enjoyable trip with views out to the dry scrubby red soiled landscape, with oleanders, olives, citrus, agave, eucalyptus and wattle trees. Another booking awaited, this time in a surprisingly cheap yet swish hotel with a pool, garden and breakfast included in the price. Our plan was to stay put over the busy Easter weekend -something we’ve not had to think about before, and relax and stay in one place until the holidays were finished. It has to be said, staying at the hotel felt very luxurious and extravagant compared to our normal style of travel!! We had a room overlooking the castle (as did the garden and pool), and after a few days getting into the place, we were able to alternate sightseeing, exploring, walking, eating, sitting by the pool and enjoying our room at night, nice and cosy with a heater. 

View of Silves castle

River through Silves town

Silves was a small, but lovely and historically interesting town. It was the Moorish capital at one stage, although there’s not much left of that era now, apart from the imposing castle, the winding street design and the badgir-like ventilation structures on the top of buildings . We had a lovely time wandering up and down the cobblestones hills, enjoying the architecture in the back streets, the bright colours and peeling doorways, the warm sun, beautiful blue skies and looking out at the views from the castle. The cathedral was majestic but quite disappointing- we were more impressed with the smaller churches we’d seen in Faro. Most days, the town was quite busy with package tourists on day trips from the beach areas, not far to the south. We were surprised how many tourists were around considering it was so early in the year. The biggest surprise, though, was the stream of motor homes on the roads and in the huge caravan parks around town. They seemed to be the equivalent to the “Grey Nomads” in Australia- Brits and Germans following the sun during the colder months.

Old sign, Silves, Portugal

Wandering, Olhao, Portugal

Detail on a Silves church
Silves street scene

Handsome local, Silves, Portugal

Local house with ventilation, Silves, Portugal

With the local market and Lidl supermarket a short walk away, most of our meals consisted of fresh bread, cheeses, salami, sardine pate, raspberry jam, avocado, tomatoes, strawberries and pears, figs and oranges- mostly local fare. We splashed out a few times and enjoyed meals in restaurants. The piri piri chicken was delicious, cooked on a BBQ in the street (and complete with bread, olives, wine, chips, chocolate mousse and coffee), but unfortunately turned from piri piri to pooy pooy the next morning! The sardine meal we had was another matter, revoltingly under cooked at first, and then just plain mushy and nauseating. When we mentioned this to the friendly waiter, he cheerfully said “Oh yes, it’s a terrible time to eat sardines, they are out of season- you should have ordered mackerel”! He could have warned us!

Typical lunch, Silves, Portugal

Splash out dinner, Silves, Portugal

Bacalhau, or salted fish, a national obsession

Fresh local produce

We made the most of these!

First time we've seen these since we used to pick them in Oz!

Two of the best days were spent on walks from the town- one up to a windmill on a distant hill we’d seen from our room window, walking through the fragrant orange and olive orchards and wildflower covered hills just starting to bloom. Cork is another native tree in the Algarve, and we saw the odd one here and there that had been stripped. Shops in town sold products made from the bark, including hats and bags. The second great walk was along a levada (canal), amongst wild lavender and loquat trees, until it suddenly ended in a locked orchard. We loved the glimpse into people’s veggie gardens and sweet backyards, and a detour to a ruin on a hill. The negative part of walking in the countryside was the big guard dogs most houses and farms had. We are not doggie people at the best of times, and the aggressive barking even behind gates had us wary to pass houses sometimes. The dog shit EVERYWHERE was also quite off-putting. Also, randomly, apparently dogs are allowed into church here!

Hillside windmill, Silves, Portugal

Common flower, Silves, Portugal

Surrounding countryside, Silves, Portugal

Butterfly on wattle tree, Silves, Portugal

Easter was a quiet time in Silves, with a midnight mass type service in the cathedral (we missed that), and a sweet, but sombre parade through the town on Easter Sunday. Priests held flags and sceptres, and set the slow pace. Most people held flowers, and people leaning out of their balconies added to the festivities by throwing flowers over the procession. We followed for a while, until we lost interest.

Children in Easter parade, Silves, Portugal
Easter parade, Silves, Portugal

Aftermath of Easter parade, Silves, Portugal

After a month and a half of temperatures below 10 degrees in the UK, it was a welcome change to be warm again and get our shorts out of mothballs! The weather in the Algarve was absolutely perfect at the end of March/start of April- around the low 20’s in the day, and cool at night. We loved being warm, but not hot and sweaty, and felt energized to be active. 


The bus to Evora, an important ancient fortified town further north, was quite convoluted, involving driving south to change buses to travel north again. Scenically it was pleasant, with a more agricultural outlook, orchards, including the ubiquitous olives, grand old quintas (farm houses), and more vineyards, as this is a major wine producing area. 

Gardens and aqueduct, outside Evora walls

This was our first experience with Air B and B, and we were very impressed. We don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but in Portugal, for about 20 Euros/AU$30 per night, we had great rooms- clean, spacious, sometimes with our own bathrooms, access to facilities such as kitchens and washing machines, but with a personal touch. We found it was not only a great money saver (we wouldn’t have been able to stay in Portugal so long if it wasn’t for these places), but also almost as good as Couchsurfing when it came to local knowledge and company. 

Our first host was welcoming and made us feel at ease in our private little studio on the top floor of her old house. We were even lucky enough a few days later to be around for a house party, where the place filled up with Portuguese friends and food, and we were able to drink and taste some special dishes from people’s kitchens.

Our first stop in Evora was out to find some reasonably priced nosh for our dinner. It took a while, as inside the city walls, Evora is, in parts, a very touristy place, but after ending up back nearly where we started, we found the perfect place. A local’s joint with farmers and trades people, no English, 1.20 Euros/AU$1.75 for a litre of local red, and BBQ chicken and marinated pork dish with rice and a chips for about 4.50 Euros/AU$6.50 each. We sat there outside on the street enjoying ourselves immensely- even more so when a local guy took a shine to us and bought us a whole nother litre of wine!

The whole walled city of Evora is UNESCO rated, having been the grand residence of the Portuguese kings in the 15th century. It has roman ruins, white washed houses, azulejos (Portuguese style blue and white tiles) everywhere, and despite the hike up hills to get anywhere, was quite charming.

Roman ruins, Evora, Portugal

Manueline style church, Evora, Portugal
View of cathedral and Roman ruins, Evora, Portugal

Strange figures on church top, Evora, Portugal

Back street of Evora, Portugal

Water outlet, Evora, Portugal

Perhaps the most startling sight in the city is the 16th century Chapel of the Bones, a creepy place built and decorated with the skulls and bones of humans, apparently to remind the monks that “Life is transitory”. Almost as interesting was the attached bizarre collection of nativity scenes, and Baroque representations of religious figures.

Inside the Chapel of the Bones, Evora, Portugal
Creepy bones, Chapel of the Bones, Evora, Portugal

Folk nativity representation, Evora museum

Folk nativity representation, Evora museum

Baroque representation of Jesus, Evora museum

One down side to Evora is the atrocious bus system. Getting around town was confusing to say the least, and taking a bus further afield impossible in most cases. We were very disappointed, as many interesting sights lay within a day trip of the city, but there was no way for us to get to them. We were, however, lucky enough to hook up with a fellow Air B and B couple from USA, who had a car, and offered us a lift to see the 7,000 year old cromlech (megaliths) at Almendres (that’s 2000 years older than Stonehenge!), a 45 minute drive from town through lovely cork plantations.

Cromlech, Almendres, Portugal
The size of the rocks, Almendres, Portugal

Walking around Evora was a blur of churches, azulejos, other more modern tiles, cafes, stops in the sun, venerable old decorative houses, and following the intact timeworn walls.

Cathedral, Evora, Portugal

Baroque church, Evora, Portugal

Backstreets of Evora, Portugal

Moorish style windows, Evora, Portugal

Lovely doorway, Evora, Portugal

Clouds rolling in, Evora, Portugal

Picture of the dead, Evora, Portugal

Azulejos, Evora, Portugal

Most days we stopped in our favourite restaurant, and hung out there enjoying the craic and the wine. People were so generous to us, often buying us drinks, and in the case of one farmer, offering us a place to stay, sampling us some delicious strawberry wine, and leaving us a pile of his home grown olives!! He was quite taken with Sal in particular, calling her a “Special human”, and Rich the perhaps not so complimentary “Ancient boy”!!

We also enjoyed the coffee shops in the day as break from all the walking. We learnt that we don’t like the “cafe”- basically an espresso that is drunk down quickly at a counter, but preferred the “galao” more like a flat white coffee that could be savoured outside on the pavement in the sun. We tried a few snacks too, such as the unique chocolate salami, pastel de nata (Portuguse custard tarts), bifana (thin pork sandwich) and Evora’s famous empadas de frango (mini chicken pies).

Chocolate salami!!!

We were ready to leave Evora after a week, and head for the big smoke of Lisbon and beyond..........