Douro Valley’s Alchemy – Pinhão

Douro Valley’s Alchemy – Pinhão

Portugal… Name three things it is most famous for… The Algarve’s coast and golf courses may be, surfing on the wild west coast definitely and….. of course the Douro Valley and its Port. 

Who can go to Portugal and not be enticed into the world of this rich tawny nectar that has a subtle elegance like no other drink? If this your preferred tipple and in fact, even if it is not, why not explore the Douro Valley and its magical energy that will have you submissive to its power! Come with us as we sample just a tiny part of Portugal’s third largest river and its elixir of red loveliness as we take a little detour from our route north, to Pinhão.

 

 

Picture Perfect Douro Valley

At 557 miles long (897km) Portugal’s Douro Valley competes with the Tagus and Ebro rivers for supremacy. And with its curvaceous mountains arching above the sparkling blue waters and acres of fertile terraced farms, it may win. Tuscany has its rolling hills and larch trees framing the landscape although the Douro has a canvas with a 3D quality that if it were a book would most certainly jump out at you. 

There is nothing flat or bland about this landscape. Carved, chiselled and moulded, these ridged hillsides have been shaped by hand to maximise the soil’s nourishing minerals and the sun’s rays. If there was ever an epitome of man and nature working in harmony, the Douro would be it. Our blessing is the result of this partnership creating the most sensual flavour of Port imaginable.

 

 

Whenever you visit, the Douro will offer you something enchanting.  In early spring the shade of new terraces being crafted into the hill side create their own vision as the season takes hold for another year.  As the summer months approach, new growth begins to alter the view as vines begin to bear fruit and flourish in the Iberian sun. Can you imagine autumn and how the vines change into golden and deep red hews? How incredible this changing tapestry is. Each season a different perspective, each year a new vista as the land shifts to man’s demands. This really is the ultimate living landscape.

With its origins in Spain, the Douro courses its way through the valley until it reaches its final destination at Porto and its paternal Atlantic. And along this entire stretch of waterway, vineyards stand proud as they perch on the ridges high above the water’s edge hoping to attract the sun as it warms the soil and sweetens its fruit.  This is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world and the Douro has also made it into the World Heritage list – just two reasons alone for making a visit here.

 

 

Douro’s Alchemy – Pinhão

So what of Pinhão? Well it might be small in stature although this gorgeous and typical working town really packs a punch. As you travel up the river or on the N222 east from Peso da Régua, you’ll not miss this thriving heart of the Douro valley. On the northern banks of the river, this town scales the slopes, optimising its position for the passage of the sun. 

As we approached it by road we were welcomed by the town as it clings to the sides of the mountain with boats buzzing up and down the river. Its bridge that magnificently arches over the sparkling blue waters, is larger than life. As you cross it, you enter a world of local industry, productivity and pride as the farmers tend to their land, their vines and their produce. There is so little tourism here, despite the three daily cruise boats that moor up overnight waiting for their passengers’ Quinta tours. We spotted only a couple of tourist shops which was so refreshing. I’m sure during the high season this might well change although for early spring it was lovely to walk around the town without that commercial edge. 

To make the most of your visit, here are 7 ways to fill your time in this little part of heaven. 

 

1. Drive the N222 from Peso da Régua to Pinhão

Whilst perhaps not specifically ‘What to do in Pinhão’, given that the N222 route east from Régua to Pinhão is one the best routes in Europe, it has to be on your list of ‘must do’s.  From Peso da Régua, you take a right turn before the two iconic bridges from where you begin your enchanting journey. Although only 30 minutes driving time, this is one of those roads you need to savour as if it were a divine glass of Port; unlike a chaser that is downed in one, this route demands to be sipped with an awareness of how it affects you. And visually it certainly delivers.

A full view of the Douro is seen at all times as you weave around the architectural mountains that hold such precious secrets. The vista comes alive when we see sailing boats and cruise boats navigating the water looking for their own version of paradise. As you turn left towards Pinhão on N323, your destination is in sight; the allure of Pinhão soon becomes evident as you see this small town clinging to the mountain side offering its magical invitation to sample something so much more than its Port. Your road trip, whilst short, gives you such an amazing introduction to the soul of the Douro and cannot be missed.  If you need more convincing, check out our gallery below by clicking the image.

 

 

2. Visit the viewpoint of Casal de Loivos

High up in the hills above Pinhão you will find the secret gem of Casal de Loivos. This is an incredible panoramic vista across the Douro mountains and river. Not only will you be breathless from the climb or cycle up there, the scenery will steal your words and your breath. See the river snaking around the natural curves in the valley that it has carved over thousands of years. Observe the iconic sculpting of the land for the vineyards which are more shapely than a buxom lass. This picture perfect view will leave you in no doubt about the Douro’s majesty.

A word of warning. Whilst the viewpoint is only three miles away, it is at least a mile and a half of gruelling almost vertical roads. There is a longer route that you can take by taxi, car or bike, although, if like us you take the short cut, be prepared to either be extremely fit or have your electricity on full power. It was one of the most challenging cycles we’ve done for a long time. 

 

 

3. Take a Port tasting session at Quinta do Bomfim

Of course a visit to this region would not be complete without a tasting session. And what better a place than the family run and high class Quinta do Bomfim. Run for generations by the Symington family, this stunning Quinta (farm) has poll-position right along the northern shores of the Douro. This traditional estate with its white-washed walls, terracotta roof tiles and wisteria dripping pagodas, is a joy to visit.

You enter the Reception area and are greeted with the warmth of a family member and offered the options. You can have a guided tour, which you must book ahead of time or simply sit out on the terrace with views over the river and enjoy a tasting session. There are a number of tours you can enjoy depending on your time and interest. Starting at €17pp (which includes tasting) you can explore the processing area, see how the vines are nurtured and how the red alchemy is created. 

We visited at the end of March and arrived at the Quinta at 1530. There was a tour we could have joined at 1630. Although on this occasion we decided to sit outside and enjoy the spring sunshine. We had a menu of Ports and wines to choose from and together with the team’s insightful descriptions we headed for a 20 year-old Vintage Ruby, Dow’s Tawny and Dow’s 1992 Special Edition Tawny. Each glass was amply filled and you can choose to your palate or your purse. Of course there is a shop should you want to take a bottle or two home. What a lovely place to come and experience the history of Port and how this Quinta conjures up their own special little bit of heaven. 

 

4. Take a trip on a traditional Robelo boat

Walk along the riverside promenade and you see traditional barrel carrying boats – Robelos and less traditional craft waiting to take you for a toodle up the river. There’s no pressurising, no offensive pushy salesmen trying to get your business. You can take a trip for an hour for €10pp or 2 hours for €20pp and a free glass of Port.  It’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two and you go east along the river, beyond the passage of the cruise boats. It’s a great perspective to see the valley from the river watch the cormorants and red kites make the most of the Douro river’s treasure. 

Check out our short video footage below.

 

5. Eat traditional Portuguese food

It was my birthday whilst we visited, so we were  looking for a nice place to grab some lunch. And there are some bars along the riverside and a hotel up by the bridge. Although our eyes were caught by a lovely riverside establishment – The Writer’s Place. Housed in a traditional Portuguese railway worker’s home, this family-run restaurant pride themselves in home-cooked food, great views across the river and great service. There’s a range of meals available and if you visit you will be satiated without doubt.  

 

6. Pop into the Train Station for a story of the Douro

Who would have thought that a train station could have told such a story? Well Pinhão’s certainly does. Over and above it being a place to take the train to either Porto to the east or Pocinho this station is like a storyboard. Around the entire outside of the station are archetypal blue Portuguese tiles each one depicting an element of life on the river and amongst the vines. It’s beautiful to see and very atmospheric. Oh and whilst you’re there, there is a little Port shop that sells a wide variety of bottles that have a slightly cheaper price tag than perhaps those of the individual Quintas. 

 

 

7. The Butcher is a must

After Port tasting, you could be forgiven for thinking the gastronomy experience was over. Although no.  If you cross the road from the station, you will find the three, red canopies of the local Butcher. Yet he is no ordinary Butcher. This is another place where fine art is practised, the art of smoked meats. Qualifier Quinta das Borracas is a special visit because the minute you walk through the flyscreens, it is as though you have entered an entirely different world. A small counter is filled with meats and goats’ cheese of every dimension and hung around the walls are every shape of smoked sausage you can possibly imagine. Lady Gaga would be  proud to be seen in this place for sure. 

As you approach the counter you are instantly greeted by Senhor, who brings out a sheet of paper and starts to carve small samples of the cured ham and sausage that he proudly displays in front of you. Then a silver, metal urn appears with two small mugs. And he deftly pours two glasses of white liquor, which is his own apple and honey wine and is as chilled as a winter’s day. It accompanies the meat you are sampling so nicely. And for only €18.50 per kilo for the thinly sliced  meat, you are drawn in by the flavour and it is futile to not make a purchase, which will not break the bank.  And served with crunchy bread and some cooling melon, you have a wonderful reminder of your visit to this tiny artisanal butcher that you could so easily bypass.  Put it on your list and savour the flavours of his artistry.  Check out our little gallery below to whet your appetite.

 

 

Parking and Staying

If you come to Pinhão by road, do bare in mind that there are not many places to park. It’s a riverside town so space can be at a premium especially during the busy season. There are some places along the water’s edge and also up on the main road. 

For campers and motorhomes, we did see some vans parked at the far end of the waterside promenade, although the road down is steep and narrow for vehicles longer than 7.5m.  We spent the night around the corner, across the tributary (41.1868, -7.55087), which out of season is fine. Although once the main cruising season begins, the area is swamped with coaches waiting for the hotel boats so they can ship their visitors to their Quinta tours. 

If hotels are more your thing, then there are a number of hotels we saw, including the Vintage House Hotel by the main bridge and the LBV House Hotel at the other end of the town. Here is a list that might help you make up your mind. 

 

 

 

Our closing thoughts on Pinhão

Pinhão specifically and the Douro as a whole are wonderful places to visit.  We so nearly missed it off our list as we journeyed north. And boy are we glad we didn’t. So whether by cruise, by road or by bike, allow the Douro to warm your soul with its poetic hillsides and musical tones as the river carries you through a living and breathing land. Allow the magic of Pinhao to wash over you as you absorb its authentic charm and feel like your life has been blessed with just a little bit of alchemy.

 

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7 Highlights of Évora

7 Highlights of Évora

Come to Portugal and immerse yourself in so much more than golden sand between your toes. Whilst the beaches entice any sun seeker, Portugal cries out to be heard on the historical stage. A saunter inland will open up a history lesson that will give your Portuguese experience a depth and context that will not disappoint. And it is the Alentejos region’s capital Évora that offers our classroom today… Come on in and check out our highlights of this ancient capital steeped in Roman and Gothic ghosts.

 

Where to find Évora

 

Évora is one of those places that whilst is built up on the outside, offers a compact and charming presence on the inside, sheltering its Roman ruins, cobbled streets and ample churches by protective city walls. Évora sets the scene for battle, conquests and supremacy which vibrate in its very foundations. And such is its importance that it has earned itself UNESCO status and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns network according to Wikipedia.

No more than 2 hours away from Lisbon, Évora is in easy reach, albeit probably not in a day trip. We headed east from the coast at Comporta for a bit of a beach break and found some amazing off-the-beaten track routes through rural Portugal. Surrounded by landscape littered with ancient megaliths, Évora has a real tale to tell going back 5000 years!

The Roman’s took charge of Évora in 57BC where baths and much of the city walls remain as a testimony to this period. Nearly 600 years later the Moors conquered Évora and they ruled for over 400 years until the Portuguese took charge in 1166. Much of Portugal under the reign of King Alfonso was released from Moorish rule and its identity today is significantly shaped by this epoch. Since then Évora has endured more battles and each time it seems that this small town has been a stalwart standing the test of time and war. 

With Évora’s colourful past, each building knits together a visual storyboard to entertain its visitor and these are the magnets that draw thousands of tourists each year. We took our bicycles in to the city, which is not to be recommended as the streets are steep, cobbled and a lot of them are one-way making it difficult to reach places. So we suggest using the map below to do a self-guided tour. Click on the map for an Interactive Tour of Évora.

 

Évora’s 7 Highlights

 

1. Aquaduct

The Roman Empire is known for its engineering prowess and the aqueduct is one of their legacies still visible today. And Évora’s aqueduct is a great example of their genius. We were lucky enough to be able to park alongside this magnificent and ancient symbol and just a two minute stroll through the city gates, and you can walk the length of the structure to its origin (38.57596, -7.91292).  What is lovely to note is how the houses are built into the arches. There are examples of this throughout the town; modern supporting ancient, what an interesting symbiosis. (38.57147, -7.90975)

 

 

2. Praça do Giraldo

Évora’s beating heart can be found in the Giraldo Square. Not really square, more of an oblong, although characterful none the less. It is here that you will find the Tourist Information office which we suggest is your next station stop for a map. A useful phrase is Posso ter uma mapa por favor? Can I have a map please? (38.57063, -7.90941)

From here you can look up towards the regal Saint Antonio church, which has so much personality yet is dressed in simplicity compared to the Gothic architecture that frames the Square’s edges. Giraldo invites you to stop for a coffee and people watch or may be indulge in a Portuguese Nater, especially good if you have a sweet tooth.

 

3. Roman Temple and Cathedral

Perhaps one of Évora’s most famous landmarks are her Roman ruins. (38.57259, -7.90729). The temple known as the Diana Temple is in the heart of the museum quarter and somehow conveys a robustness about the Roman Empire. It has itself so much history with its identity changing throughout the centuries. Its role has evolved from being part of the castle, an abattoir and a log store. The ruins are in a remarkable condition and with the backdrop of the Cathedral and the little park, it’s a lovely area to hang out for a bit.  Do check out the view from the edge of the gardens, overlooking Évora’s rooftops and to the city’s exterior. 

 

4.  Town Hall and Roman baths

This old palace is now home to the political hub of the town and its area. This is a magnificent Square bordered by a church and financial buildings.  Entry into the Town Hall is permitted for free, as are the Roman baths, which we wish we had visited. (38.57228, -7.90963)

 

5.  Chapel of Bones

Aside the Roman ruins, Évora’s other significant draw is the Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones. (38.56873, -7.90884)  For a €5pp entry ticket you can get access to this most eery and yet fascinating place of worship and meditation. This tiny 16th chapel in the grounds of the Church of St Francis is a thought-provoking visit. Built by monks as a solution to the growing number of cemeteries around the town; they interned the bones and in a bid to honour the dead, decided to put them on display within the structure of this building. 5,000 corpses today form the fabric of the chapel; bones and skulls don the walls, the pillars and the architrave. It is the most bizarre form of art; art that holds a message for its viewer, prompting them to think beyond the visual display in front of them – the transitory nature of life. The Chapel makes you reflect on the journey of life and how we rush through the days without pause for the moment. It’s a sobering visit. 

 

6.  Church of St Francis

Whilst dropping in to pay your respects to the bones, you may be forgiven for feeling so overwhelmed that you miss the Church of St Francis, which is the main body of this area. It sits on the roots of a church dating back to 1200’s. Its Gothic design is impressive and as you walk into the longest nave of any Portuguese church, its gilting will wow you. There’s gold everywhere. It really does deserve a short visit. 

 

7.  Cycle/Walk around the city walls

After the reflections from the Chapel of Bones, heading to the gardens just beneath the church brings your mind back to the beauty of the world. (38.56734, -7.91001).  There were lots of repairs going on when we visited, although I imagine it is full of splendour in the summer months. With its bandstand and peacocks, it’s a lovely place to wander. And from here you can access part of the upper walk around the walls, feeling the past beneath your feet. And then continuing your route on the lower level, you can trace your steps back to the beginning of your walking tour and end up at the aqueduct once more.

 

 

Évora – our conclusions 

If you love history, culture and context, then Évora will be a great place to visit. If you need a break from the coast, Évora will satisfy your need for curiosity – just for a day. Its cobbled streets are not just atmospheric, they are a piece of history’s jigsaw that will leave you understanding just a little more about Portugal. It will leave you richer for standing in the footprints of our ancestors before we head back to the inevitable draw of the western sunsets and crashing waves. We highly recommend this little detour in your Portugal tour. 

 

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Sightseeing Silves, Algarve

Sightseeing Silves, Algarve

The ancient capital of Portugal’s Algarve, Silves may sit inland 10km away from the golden beaches and rocky coastline, although don’t be fooled, this town packs a mighty punch.  Whether it is history, archeology, bird life, street art, walking or cycling, this Algarvian town has it all.  And Silves is definitely worth a diversion away from the sand between your toes.

Like so many coastal destinations, the real joy of a country’s culture and natural beauty can often be found just a little way inland. We found the same in Spain and France. And Portugal is no different. At one end of the Algarve you have the lure of Loulé and at the other Silves. Both will delight you and transport you back in time as you immerse yourself in just a little bit of Portuguese history.  

Our first visit to the Algarve was not blessed with joyous memories; in part I think this was just the space we were in 15 years ago, deep in the seat of our corporate merry-go-round. So revisiting of this part of the world seemed important to test out our past perceptions and reconnect with the country’s true values. 

As we approached Silves after a week along the Rocky Algarve, the hilly fortress and cathedral stood proud and providing a vista that we were sure would surprise and delight. Although as we drove over the bridge and along the outer rim road, there was definitely a deja-vous moment. Slowly memories popped in my mind as we moseyed past the Parça Al-Mutamid and flash backs of our previous visit tumbled back to me. We had been here before…. so what new adventures could we have all these years on? Well plenty I can tell you, so if you’re ready, let me tell you a bit about what you can experience in two or three days in this little gem of a town.

 

What to see in Silves

1. The Castle

Well as obvious as it might seem, the castle is an instant draw. What is it about castles and their ancient history that bring out the intrigued historian in us? With its renovated walls that surround a large part of Silves in a protective embrace, you instantly get the feeling of tales of old. Battles, slavery, and torture – who would have thought that this tiny town could have such a story to tell.  A story that takes us back as far as 8th century when the Moors were the dominant force building their fortress on Roman fortifications. Although it has had some renovation work through 20th century, the castle is the largest in the Algarve. For €2.80 you can enter the castle and walk around its walls and take in the panorama in front of you. Or simply keep the statue of King Sancho 1 company, slayer of the enemy in 1189 and admire the castle from the outside with its blossoming cherry tree and blue sky background giving instant photographic appeal.  

Check out our gallery below…

 

2. Sé de Silves

Whilst you are perusing the magnificence of the castle’s conquests, you cannot ignore its Gothic neighbour. Silves’ Cathedral requires some neck straining as you gaze to is tower pinnacle. It was built in 13th century and despite being damaged by the earthquake in 1755, it has been rebuilt keeping its Gothic features. It is now on the Portuguese National Register of Monuments list and is thought to be one of the most significant Cathedrals in the region. Reason enough to take some time to admire it.

3. Street Art

As you wander around this compact and bijou town, you will be impressed by its colourful facades. The streets are undoubtedly full of history which somehow still feels etched into their brickwork. Although a more modern feature stands out from the ancient tales; the street art. Now I must stress this isn’t graffiti, this is genuinely beautiful pieces of art. From the Firestation, to the Electricity boxes and the walls adjacent to the Parça Al‘Mutamid. They each have their own narrative to tell and demand to be admired. 

3. Roman Bridge, Parça Al’Mutamid and Artaska Café

With a town so steeped in Arabian legend, it seems hard to imagine the role the Romans had on the area well before they conquered Portugal. Although their legacy is still in tact by way of the Ponte Romana, which today is being restored. It is a grand feature of the town, spanning across the Arade River and creating a stunning vista along the river walkway. 

Immediately opposite there is a famous landmark, although not in the same guise as its historical cousins. The Café Art’aska is a huge building that whilst dishevelled in nature has a real vibe going on. On a Sunday night this is the place to hang out and listen to some jamming and even partake with your own penny whistle if that takes your fancy. Imagine on a warm summer’s night, strolling along the Arade with the rhythm of music floating through the air. And add to that the chatter of storks that fly above you, who also call this place home, and you will instantly notice the appeal of this ancient capital grow, slowly and surely.

A short walk up the road will bring you to the Parça Al’Mutamid. This long stretch of park is so characterful and colourful. With its palm and pomegranate trees, fountains with floating figurines that depict characters from Silves of yesteryear and Muslim buildings that transport you back to an Arabian night, it feels quite surreal. It was created as a tribute to the Lord of Seville, Al’ Mutadid who conquered the Silves in 1053 and his son Al’Mutamid who was put in charge of the town at the tender age of 12! It’s Islamic feel is evident everywhere and you can almost imagine that you are not in Portugal at all. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

What to do in Silves

Apart from the obvious walking tour around the town or may be the Archaeological Museum if that’s your thing (37.188967 -8.438888), there are a couple of other things to whilst you are in this area. 

1. Partake in a Port Experience 

You can’t come to Portugal and not dabble in a bit of Port. When I saw the advert for a Port Experience, I was in! This is part of the culture and it had to be done! Well that was my excuse anyway. Crazily we didn’t ask the price and being next to the castle we did give a momentary thought to the bill at the end, although hey! So they arrived at our table with three ample sized glasses of port to try; a Tawny, a White and a Rosé. And we ordered a fig cake, which is also a local delicacy. Figs are super important to the Portuguese economy. Well the Port was delightful and we enjoyed it enough to purchase a bottle of the Rosé which appealed to both our palettes. The whole experience, which whilst sat underneath the shade of the castle walls, listening to the storks go about their business, cost us €10.00. The bottle we took home was only €9.50.  One word of warning. If you’re going to order the fig cake, make sure you share it with someone otherwise the laxative effects the next morning could have you running for the loo. 

2. Take a walk up to the windmill

The walks in the area have huge potential for those who love a good ramble. It’s not far out of town before you find quiet roads, gently rolling hills and miles of hiking opportunities. To reach the windmill (37.203102 -8.435254) you wander through countryside strewn with lemons and orange groves bordered by wild flowers and herbs. At the right time of year, the smells are just amazing as the orange blossom tantalises your nostrils. It’s a bit of a steep hike up to the windmill, although the views from here are just amazing. From the town it’s only about 45 minute walk, although lovely none the less. 

3. Cycle to Arade Reservoir

Equally rewarding is the 12 mile return cycle ride that takes you through rural villages who survive on their agricultural trade up to the source of the Arade river. The reservoir offers gorgeous views of this water scape and to sit beneath the pine trees and take in the vista or cycle some more around the plentiful footpaths, will certainly while away an afternoon. 

 

Here’s our gallery…

 

Where to stay and eat 

1. Camping 

As we travel in our campervan, staying at Silves is easy. There’s two great little Aires, one either side of the town. Parque do Castelo is an excellent and well run Aire for €9.50 which includes EHU and free wifi. Showers are extra – 50c per person and washing machines €4. You are within walking distance of the town and the Windmill from here.

The second official Aire is beside the river on the other side of town (37.185115 -8.445415). I’m unsure of the prices or services.

If you wanted to go wild, then you can stay outside of Silves some 6 miles away, by the Arade Reservoir I mentioned earlier. There are two spots; one just beneath the reservoir (37.236863 -8.378789) and another at the top of the hill in a small parking area that has some views. Neither have services, although these are available in Silves for a small fee. 

2. Accommodation

If you are looking to stay in a hotel or Air BnB, then check out these options with Booking.com

3. Somewhere to eat

We love France’s style of Plat du Jour – often a canteen affair with basic food cooked well for a phenomenally cheap price. Well Portugal has these too. We were recommended to go to Casa Velha, which is opposite the Town Hall in Silves. They offer, every day a three-course meal for just €7.50, including wine/beer/port. Just asking for the ‘Camping Menu.’  Whilst the food is never going to be gourmet we thought the ambiance of the place and their service was great. Their fish dish was amazing – Portugal seriously knows how to do fish. 

Check out our gallery below.

 

Our conclusions on Silves

On our travels we continue to love heading inland to experience the heart of a country and its rural culture. It is here we find hidden gems that seem to only fall to the cutting room floor and not make the glossy magazines. We feel that way about Silves. Charming, characterful and full of charisma and most definitely worth the detour for a day or two. Walk the cobbled streets and listen to the chattering storks whilst knowing that somewhere, somehow Muslims, Roman and Christians placed their feet upon the same stones as you.  

 

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5 Algarve Coastal Hiking Trails

5 Algarve Coastal Hiking Trails

Portugal’s Algarve coastline is ready to astound you, appeal to your inner artist and challenge you in more ways than you can imagine. Join us as we hug Portugal’s coastal fringes in pursuit of visual experiences that are set to blow our tiny minds.

We’ve seen some stunning sights around Europe over our three years on the road, although none so evocative for me as the rich experience of the coast. There’s something that grabs me deep within when I hear the sound of the crashing waves pounding against the rocks, the seagulls’ cries as they skim above the brilliant blue seas and the contrasting colours of the sand against the ocean. It truly brings out the poet in me and I find a seaside fix almost a necessary dosage to my inner happiness.

So you can imagine my delight when we started to explore the craggy Algarve coastline. From a previous holiday 15 years ago we knew that the south west was pretty spectacular, although had no idea about the bits in between. It was like visiting Willy Wonker’s Chocolate factory. 

We have hiked the coast, taken a gazillion photos and exclaimed in sheer delight at the wondrous sights before our eyes. Mother Nature playing a starring role in her shaping of this most southerly coast of Europe. Here we share our thoughts on the routes we’ve taken from Algarve central at Armacão de Pera to Alvor. 

 

Portugal’s Coastal Geology

Now I don’t intend to complicate matters with the composition of this Algarve coastline. Let’s keep it simple! This coastal region is a predominantly limestone with karst features along this southerly edge, blended with rich mineral deposits. Whilst over thousands of years, the land has been battered by winds and waves that sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean, the Algarve coastline is also significantly shaped by seismic activity due to the Loulé fault that lies through the region.  There is also a fault line that lies off the coast and these have had and continue to play a huge part in the shaping of this coastal beauty.  The Lisbon earthquake was a massive event in 1755, although in 1969 the Algarve was hit particularly hard. Smaller events are noted and undoubtedly affect the coastline together with its weather buddy. (For information of Portugal seismic activity you can check out this website which gives up to date information.)

During the winter particularly the seas take on a personality that seems something like a tempestuous teenager. Enormous waves forming way out at sea, roll in tune with the fresh winds as they hammer their way to the coast. Crashing and thumping their full weight onto any shore and cliffs that happen to get in their way. This southerly coastline slowly buckles beneath its force and decades worth of natural forces slowly make their mark on the landscape. Leaving for us a stunning coastal perspective that puts one of its beaches in the Top 100 Best Beaches in the World. 

So geology lesson over, let’s place our focus on the beauty that these natural forces continue to carve for our delights. For this particular post, we explored what is known as the Rocky Algarve due to the craggy and gnarly limestone artwork that is evident here. Giant and sheer cliff faces defy access to those who wish to conquer the land and yet conversely the little bays, coves and caves that have formed thanks to the relentless pounding of the seas, is enough to have your heart melting. 

 

Our 5 Coastal Hikes

 

1. Armacão de Pera to Galé

Easy beach walking up to 6 miles return (approx)

Heading east to west, our first hiking recommendation is from Armacão de Pera. This is a tourist town just 50km west from Algarve’s capital Faro. From its peninsular at Galé, this arcing bay is wall to wall sand that can often look like a scene out of a Desert Monthly magazine. With mounds of sand moulded by the incessant winds that blow on-shore, camels are the only thing missing from this evocative painting. The town, whilst certainly a tourist hot spot, has its areas of authenticity; namely the fishermen’s huts from where they still launch their boats from the sandy shore as there is no harbour here in Armacão.  Beach walking is extensive around here and it is possible to reach Our Lady of the Rock fortress and peninsular, which offers great views back across the town. Although a little bit of road walking is necessary to reach it.

 

2. Alabandeira to Our Lady of the Rock

Medium difficulty – some clambering required. 75 mins duration and 4 miles return

We wilded overnight at the parking here for two nights. What an incredible spot with waves crashing to the twin beaches below. At low tide they are worth checking out. Just thirty seconds to the west you will find the most incredible archway that offers great views up and down the coast and it is especially beautiful at sunrise.

The walk to the east from the parking area took about an hour and fifteen, including photostops and using the orange dots that mark the way, you can deviate to the edge of the cliffs for some amazing views. There’s a number of blow holes that you can just about see into on tip toes and the cliff line and secret beaches are incredible. There is one point where you are required to climb down the cliff on a rough path, and then scale up the other side. At times the path is narrow and eroded, although unless you have vertigo is doable.

The destination is Our Lady of the Rock which is a peninsular on which a fortress was built to protect the area from pirates. A chapel was also built here, which was partially destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The 16th century chapel stands today and has the most staggering views perched on this small peninsular at the mercy of the sea gods. And as such it is a monument of Public Interest Patrimony. 

The walk back will take you significantly less time without the indirect route and photos  – I made it back in 30 minutes. 

Click on the image below for our Gallery of Pictures.

3. Albandeira to Benagil Caves

Easy to medium difficulty, 5 miles return taking 2.5 hours 

Heading west from the car park area, you get a chance to savour the magnificent view of the archway, which like most things looks so different at various points in the day

The views will have you wowing pretty regularly and with a path that is continually bordered by wild juniper bushes sheltering all sorts of wildlife, you will be in for a natural world treat.

There is one part of the walk that has the feel of someone’s back garden, as the path becomes landscaped and walled with the most divine wild freesias creating a heady scent that boosts any weariness that you may be experiencing.

Just around the corner comes one of the main sections of the walk and a big bucket list tick if you are determined to visit every one of the 100 Best Beaches in the World – Praia de Marinha. Used on advertising for the Algarve, this beach can easily rub shoulders with the best that Malaysia and New Zealand can offer. Steep steps carry you down to the beach from the cliff top and at low tide you are able to walk to the famous M Rocks.    

Continuing on from there, you eventually reach the famous Algar de Benagil. This is the must see of the area and sadly during the winter season when the seas are rough getting entry into this sea cave by boat or canoe is a no go. Still being able to get a glimpse of it from the clifftop gives you a suitable tease for what might be beneath you feet and have you rushing back to see it in calmer seasons.

Click on the image below for our Gallery of Pictures.

 

4. Alvor to Portimão 

Easy to medium difficulty, 7 miles one way taking 2.5 hours

Alvor has a brown sign off the main roads – we like brown signs as it always means there’s something pretty to see. And Alvor is delightful. It has many features; the town, which is predominantly restaurants enticing tourists to sample their fare. Then there’s the harbour and fishing area, where the traditional Algarve fishermen’s sheds take the beach hut to a whole new level. With locals chilling or mending their nets, this is a bit of culture right before your eyes. Alvor also has its sandy beach, its peninsular and then…. Then there are the rock formations. Of all the sections of coast we saw this was our favourite as at low tide you could get down and personally with these naturally carved pieces of art. Arches, stacks, tunnels and cliffs that look like Leonardo has painted its intricate layers of gold, yellow and orange streaks. Set against the blue ocean and the green juniper shrubs, this place will wow you. I felt like a child at a fun fair – not knowing which way to turn and certainly not wanting to leave. 

Up on the cliff tops, you can then walk miles – sometimes slightly inland, sometimes hugging the edges of this precarious landmass that is surrendering slowly to the sea. Whilst the sea may ebb and flow from your view, you will still be captured by the fields of wild lupins and daisies. Hoopoes and finches flying around you as you meander around the coast towards Portimão. A stop for lunch at one of the beaches is a must surely? 

And as you see the skylines changing from the natural architecture of the cliffs to modern, high-rise tourist homes, the feel of the coast does change. Although I still found myself marvel at the show th coastal fringes displayed.

However you feel about tourist destinations, Praia de Rocha will certainly help you overcome any dislike you may have the towering giants looking for the picture postcard view. The beach stretches out for 1km with its curvaceous bay and golden sands inviting you to strip off your shoes and walking socks and get down and dirty on the beach. Allow the grains of sand to wedge between your toes and feel the warmth of the day’s sun on the souls of your feet. Or if you prefer there is a boardwalk you can promenade along instead.

At the end of the beach, the personality of the area changes to a high class marina with identical apartments lining the water’s edge. Across the water you see Ferragudo and yet another masterpiece in the Algarve coastal gallery.  At this stage we decided to organise a taxi back, using the Uber app. For €7.71 and 10 minutes we were soon home with our feet up and a refreshing cup of tea. 7 miles was more than enough for one day.

Click on the image below for our Gallery of Pictures.

 

5. Carvoeira to Ferragudo

Cycle route taken – 10 miles round trip 1.5 hours

After the miles we walked this week, Myles’ foot injury from two years ago came back to haunt him – so no more walking for a couple of weeks. Instead we took to our bikes instead to capture the Carvoeira coastline. 

From our campsite we cycled 10 minutes into the village, which is charming. Its one way cobbled street, lined with elegant shops leads down to a pedestrian area full of vibrant bars. The golden sand beaches just implore you to place your naked feet upon its velvet covering.

If a beer tempts you, then succumb and people watch – even in February there was plenty going on. We continued up the west side of the village to catch a glimpse from the vantage point. Taking the quiet roads we cycled through the very neat and very smart area on the outskirts of the village, home to millionaires we’re sure. 

The Arriba da Salgadeira peninsular is amazing with views east and west show-casing its magnificent cliff face and hidden bays carved out by the pounding seas.

Our final destination was the Torre do Lapa, which is a 17th century watchtower, protecting the locals from pirates. It is one of many similar structures located along the coast, which on in the event of danger would send out smoke or fire signals to the other towers so they could keep alert to the dangers. From here we were able to cycle the 3 miles back to to the campsite happy in the knowledge that we had seen a bit more of the coast, without putting any pressure on Myles’ injured foot.

 

Practical Tips for Hiking the Algarve safely

As with any type of hiking, a few basic rules and common sense apply. Although given the precarious geology in the area it is worth being a little more alert to the dangers than on some other coastal routes.

1. If hiking out of season watch for slippery rocks as whilst the days are warm even in January, the nights are cold and there is often a dew.

2. During winter hiking take plenty of layers. The winds along this exposed Atlantic coast can be harsh, so be prepared.

3. If hiking in the height of season take plenty of water. Whilst there are cafés on some of the routes, dehydration can be a big issue, so walk responsibly. 

4. You are walking in an area with seismic activity, so be mindful that tremors could happen at any time and create crevices in the rocks.

5. Keep away from the cliff edges – whilst it is tempting to get up close and personal, the cliff fringes are delicate. 

6. There are areas that have been cordoned off with wooden barriers. Observe them, they are there for a reason. In the Benagil area there are fines for anyone caught climbing over the fences.

7. Make sure you wear solid walking shoes and not the flipflops we saw so often! The cliffs are stoney and uneven, so caution is required. 

8. There are orange blobs and arrows to follow so you shouldn’t get lost, although I suggest taking your phone with the app maps.meFor walking this is far better than Google Maps as it shows footpaths and will guide you back should you loose your way.

9. As so often stressed in any nature walk, “Take only pictures and leave behind only footprints.”

 

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Bella Italiano – Our Highs and Lows

Bella Italiano – Our Highs and Lows

 

Buongiorno e benvenuto!

Italy has been our home for over three months in the last three years and it’s been an experience of Highs and Lows. One thing we adore is the language. I’ve had some great teachers along the way from a Campsite Receptionist, who is now a friend, to camper neighbours who shared their local knowledge.

Imagine the scene; Emilio in his 70’s, looked like he had come straight off the set of an Italian Mafia film and his younger wife Anna by at least 15 years, who fulfilled most of the duties, not in a subservient way, just as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. They spoke very little English, so between us we spoke French, pigeon Italian and the odd word of Queeny’s tongue. What an incredible hour we had together and thanks to them, had some amazing experiences in Tuscany. They even gave us their phone number is case of any issues whilst in Italy. And oh boy! Could we have used that half a dozen times in the last month.

During our time here, we’ve experienced Lakes in the guise of Garda and Trasimeno, stayed in a volcanic crater just outside Naples and overnighted outside a Benedictine Monastery up in the mountains; we had two free, wild jacuzzis and mud wraps in the mountains – courtesy of Tuscany’s natural thermal springs. We’ve watched the sun go down on our lakeside ‘home’ in Umbria and watched it rise through Tuscany’s evocative poplar trees.  We found flamingoes on the Po Delta together with a few million midges that must be on their winter retreat from Scotland. We’ve seen Pisa’s tower lean a bit, Florence’s iconic Duomo Cathedral and Pontevecchio bridge, been treated to sunset in our beloved Venice and visited the iconic hillside towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino of wine fame.  And that’s before we mention the Cinque Terre and the famous Stelvio Pass which was hair-raising and brilliant all at the same time. 

And then we had adventures of getting ripped off in San Marino’s tax haven principality, had our bikes stolen from a public space in Lucca, been subjected to the worst roads and motorways we’ve ever been on and took part in a chaotic, free-for-all junk-yard derby that made Delhi look like an empty supermarket car park.  Sadly our road-trip south, which had the intention of experiencing Pompeii, Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, was thwarted by the crowds, crazy-frog drivers and a bit of rubbish navigating on my part. How we came away sane and unscathed is beyond us.

Although despite all this, I have to say that each time we return to Italy, we love it a little bit more. I think our first visit scared the be-gesus out of us. Once you know the rules for navigating Italy mindfully, then it’ll end up being a fabulous experience. So you must come and make up your own minds.

Check out our Interactive Map below for all our Italian highlights from 2016-2018.

 

 

Our Italian Realisations

As we reflect on our Italian adventures over the years, we’ve learnt a few things about our pizza eating, pasta making friends:

  • They have little road sense or road politesse 
  • The country seems strapped for cash and lots of the seaside towns in the south are really run down and unloved
  • Drivers NEVER make eye contact behind the wheel of their cars
  • They disregard any rules of the road – in fact there are no rules
  • They think nothing of driving on your side of the road and overtaking right in front of an oncoming vehicle
  • They love honking their horns
  • They will only fix Toll roads, the rest are at the mercy of time and grass
  • They don’t seem to worry about volcano eruptions or earthquakes – if it happens, they get on with it as they live in one of the most seismic active areas of the world outside New Zealand
  • The north/south divide seems to be opposite that in UK. The north is definitely the most wealthy and most populated with BIG tourists sights. Whereas the south seems to be more rural, less commercialised and where fewer tourists come
  • Italy has by far the best sunsets we have ever seen – there must be something about the seismic dust that makes it so evocative and romantic
  • And talking of romance, Italy has the most romantic vibe of all countries we have visited. Love seems to be expressed everywhere in the most idyllic of places – except behind the wheel of a car
  • And above all, we’ve found some of the sweetest, kindest and most wonderful people here.

Our 14 Highlights

1. Venice

Well you can’t say Italy without immediately thinking about Venice. And whilst it suffers hugely from both tourist erosion and flooding, somehow this community seems to continue life as if there were no problems – typically Italian. With its canals, gondolas, bridges and islands, Venice has to be seen both by day and by night.  Both deliver a completely different vibe.  Check out our experience here.

2. Dolomites

Northern Italy that rubs shoulders with Austria and Switzerland is all about the battle of the mountains. At one end you have the Dolomites with their towering spikes that can be seen for miles, to the more femininely curvaceous Alps at the western end. Both mountains spectacular in their own way, each offering a unique personality and Italian experience. Either way you will hold you breath and gasp. 

 

3. Stelvio Pass

When we think of Italian roads, the image isn’t good. Although think again when you ponder on the driving challenge that is THE STELVIO PASS. We’ve driven a couple of Europe’s ‘most dangerous roads’, although I have to say this was the most challenging of them all. Not only is the road in good condition, it is one of the most beautiful things you will ever experience. Driving from Bolzano is a must, if nothing more than to save your brakes. The wiggles that snake up to the mountain’s snow line are just so testing; one after another, after another. It is exhausting especially in a motorhome, although out of season most definitely doable and we highly recommend it. Check out our footage here.

 

4. Lake Garda

Nestled in the bosom of the Alps, Lake Garda is the largest of all the Italian Lakes and whilst it is incredibly busy, even in September, it is a great experience. Whether you choose to do it by car, bicycle (using any one of the ferries), kayak or moped, Lake Garda is a gift that keeps on giving. Intense blue waters, northern winds that provide the sail power for the windsurfers and atmospheric villages that cling to the lakeside edges, Garda has it all. Limone is a delight, Gargnano charming and Riva in the north, buzzy.

 

5. Porto Venere

Sat on the eastern fringe of the Cinque Terre National Park, Porto Venere has sadly been missed off the ‘Famous Five’ list. And it is beyond our comprehension why. With its harbour, peninsular and iconic Gothic church, its narrow alleyways full of characterful houses, Porto Venere is supremely more beautiful than the ‘five’ in our opinion. With fewer crowds to affect your experience, this is definitely one to put on your list.  Check out our footage here.

 

6. Tuscany

What superlatives can I use to aptly describe Tuscany that won’t undermine its tend charm and infinite beauty? So I will conjure up an image for you that may entice you to this Italian region. Imagine rolling hills, carved with sunflower fields and poplar trees that cluster together along roads and driveways, that in the autumn mists and sunrise light offer you a scene out of Gladiator. With natural springs hidden in forests that bubble and soothe away your aches and villages perched on hills that offer a grandeur in their lofty status and wine oozing from the acres of vineyards that cover the land. Tuscany has romance at its core with divine beauty etched into every piece of soil. I defy you to not fall in love with this region. Volterra, Montepulcanio, Montalcino, Pomerance, Talemone, Bagno Vignoni and the White Whale of San Felippo Bagnoni. Deliciousness on a map.  Check out loads of footage we have here.

 

8. Po Delta

On the western coast, just a stone’s throw from the Venice magnet you come to flat lands that you wonder what beauty they can hold. Although for a completely unique and diverse landscape the Po Delta region is awash with wild life and salt-flats. And with this type of scenery you get flamingoes. Swarms of them – and mosquitos sadly. Although if timed right, a tour around the delta and Comacchio will give you a completely different perspective of Italy.

 

9. Alberobello and Matera in the south

The south has many undiscovered gems and given that most tourists go for the easy to reach northern regions, Alberobello and Matera are relatively unscathed by tourists.  Alberobello with its famous Trulli houses are quaint and one of the most unique buildings I’ve ever seen. White washed buildings and their round stone roofs transport you back in time as you wander around the cobbled streets of this UNESCO village. In contrast not more than 45 minutes drive away you have the rock village of Matera. Carved into the hillside with caves that dwellers called their homes Matera will delight you. Overlooking its river gorge, walks, bird watching and café culture will entice you to this place and make you wonder why you have never been before.  Check out our footage here. 

 

10. Paestum – Greek Temples

So many flock to Pompeii to see the famous, ancient Roman city and its fickle volcano Vesuvius.  Although it is for this very reason that we searched for something more authentic and not an expensive tourist trap. Heading past Naples, past Solerno and on towards Agropoli and you will find a far more genuine and less crowded monument. In fact Paestum is a Greek archeological site and its temples are in a great state, the best we have ever seen. It is definitely worth travelling a little further south to see this place.  Check out what we saw here.

 

14. Amalfi

The Amalfi coast is certainly beautiful and given that driving a motorhome along its roads is forbidden, we decided on approaching it by sea. We took a ferry from Salerno (where there is a campsite about 15 minutes down the road) and disembarked at the town of Amalfi. The town is, like many of it sibling resorts, crowded with coach loads of tourists, although if you get away from the main high street some of the views of the town from up above are great. Just for the sheer hell of it, we would highly recommend taking the bus back. Although it takes nerves of steel as the bus driver throws the vehicle around narrow lanes and steep overhanging cliffs, it is certainly an experience. Check out our experience here.

 

Making the most of your Italian adventure

 

1) Despite Italy’s reputation, do come as it is beautiful – if you plan ahead to the specific sites you want to see then it becomes much more pleasurable.

2) To cover Italy’s extensive miles, we suggest you take the toll roads and suck up the fees if you want to minimise brain ache and wear and tear on your vehicle. It’s not always pretty, although the ride is not pretty on some of the main roads.  Even the non-tolled motorways are shocking.

3) Italy has some amazing cities and palatial cathedrals, that rival Spain, although when visiting these Italian icons, stay in a campsite and take the bus. Crime here is rife.

4) Don’t make our mistake – pay for car parks and DO NOT park in side streets, even if there are cameras and other vehicles around.

5) If you go to Pisa, you’ll only need to see the main Cathedral and tower – there is nothing else – so an hour tops we would recommend.

6) Put Venice on the list, although stay at the site (if with a motorhome) on the inside of the city – Tronchetto, which is just over the bridge, that way you can experience Venice by day and night, which is very special.

7) See Florence out of season as the crowds are crazy and go early if you want to climb the Tower. Our advice for the best view of the city, is to walk to Michaelangelo’s statue, up the 167 steps – yes we counted them – the view over the entire city is exceptional.

8) Do not miss Italy’s eastern coast, south of Venice into the Po Delta. It is a nature lover’s paradise and a stunning natural environment, although keep away from the coastal towns as they are not pretty.

9) Bare in mind that any Italian with a motorhome will go away in it over the weekend, even out of season. So don’t expect to find Sostas (equivalent to French Aires) with much space.

10) Italian kids don’t go back to school until third week in September, so campsites are still classed as high season until then and then they close down anywhere from end of September to end of October.

11) I’m sure the Amalfi coast is lovely, although do not go in a motorhome unless you have a very strong constitution for driving. Campsites are limited and Motorhomes are not allowed on the Amalfi road. Go for a week’s holiday instead or even better, go on a cruise! It is the maddest area of Italy that we have experienced and that includes other main cities like Florence and Venice.  

12) Expect the unexpected here and you’ll be ok.

13) The fresh pasta and mozzarella here is incredible, as is their cheap wine. Stock on their baked beans found in larger supermarkets so that in your trip back up through western Europe you have supplies, as the French just don’t do Baked Beans!

14) Learn a few words of Italian as it is the most musical language ever and actually not difficult to converse with a handful of stock phrases. The best phrase I learnt was ‘Posso’, which means ‘Could I?’ From here you can say ‘Could I have’, ‘Could I pay’, ‘Could I buy’.  They appreciate the effort, even if it means you have to resort to Google Translate for the rest.

15) And finally, do come. We’ve not seen half of Italy yet and we still love it, you just keep your whits about you.

 

So our conclusion on Italy? There are many pockets of beauty in amidst some unlovedness, with crazy drivers and rubbish roads.  It is a bit like a sweet and sour dish. There are most definitely two flavours to Italy and whilst we will always go back, we do so with eyes wide open and our nerves braced.  For all our Italian adventures including Florence, this page gives you all our posts and videos. Italy in a nutshell.

 

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