Portugal – Alvor in the Algarve

Another week has flown by and we can’t quite believe we’re nearly 5 months in to the trip.  We’re now in Alvor, further west along the Algarve coast and the least built up section of this rather touristy part of the Algarve.  Alvor is lovely: a small fishing village on the Rio Alvor with a large estuary that is now a nature park.  It is a short walk along a boardwalk to the sea and the neighbouring beaches are magnificent: clear waters, red cliffs and sea stacks, and seaside villages with cobbled streets rising steeply from sandy beaches.

These are by far the most magnificent beaches we’ve seen so far and the waters here are calm, so we’ve been out SUP-ing early morning, exploring sea caves and navigating archways between sea stacks.

We’ve cycled more of the Ecovia cycle route, in both directions from Alvor, and yesterday went just about all the way to the most southerly tip of Portugal: somewhere where we’ll return after our trip up to Lisbon (Brenda and Sharron & Fraser fly in to meet us in Lisbon next week).  The coast towards Cabo de Sao Vicente gets far more ragged, with sharp cliffs and crashing waves.

We’ve also explored some of the wine farms of the Algarve and stopped for chicken piri-piri in Guia, reputed to be the best chicken piri piri in the Algarve.  The Aquaforno has been put to good use, as we have been practising our bread baking, making beer bread and yoghurt bread, as well as plenty of oven roasted tomatoes to have with salad.

Portugal – the edge of the Algarve

We finally managed to persuade ourselves to leave Spain and promptly fell in love with Portugal.  We’re staying in Tavira which is magical.  Although there are tourists, it still feels like a thriving fishing village and while it is really quite a large town it has the feel of a village with its cobbled streets, many flower filled squares, Roman bridge over the river which provides a harbour to the fishing boats, beautifully tiled houses, numerous churches and overlooked by a ruined castle.

From here we’ve explored the route of forts along the Rio Guardiana (which forms the border with Spain) built initially by the Phoenicians as a main line of defence and also gone inland into a world of rolling dry hills, cork trees and emptiness.  Just north of Faro we visited the ruins of a grand Roman villa dating from the 1st century AD, complete with baths, temple and beautiful mosaics as well as the remains of wine and olive presses.  Nearby is a magnificent church, the Igreja de Sao Lourenco de Matos built in the 16-1700s: plain from the outside, the interior is completely covered in azulejos, blue and white hand-painted tiles.  Also close by is the crazily rococo baroque mansion, the 18th century Palacio de Estoi, now partly derelict and partly restored into a posh hotel.

We’ve also explored the Rio Formosa natural park, a marshland lagoon system which includes salt pans and islands, through which meanders a cycle route (which in fact continues the length of the Algarve); a route which also takes in enchanting fishing villages filled with white-washed cottages and cobbled streets and olive and orange groves.

Spain – Cordoba, Montilla and surrounds

Journeying north once more to Cordoba province, a land of olive groves and ancient architecture, we camped amidst the olive groves just outside Santaella in another friendly campsite (this one providing free breakfast every morning!).  Here we had problems with the towing electrics of Bambi and we were touched by how helpful everyone was.  One evening we had most of the campers in the site gathered around our car, testing various different combinations of towing adaptors and all pulling up their own cars to help us check whether it was a problem with our car or not; we also had local electricians pop past after hours to take a look and a local mechanic clear 2 hours in his day to see us.  Unfortunately it meant that we also got to see the sights of all of Cordoba’s industrial areas – not the highlight of the trip!  We did eventually get the electrics sorted and are really grateful to Rick and Mathilde at Camping La Campina for all their help with translating, phone calls and network of helpful people to ensure we were safely sorted out.  Also thanks to Lolly, who put her English studies to the test while acting as translator for her father the local mechanic and who gave us a guided tour of Santaella while her father was looking at our car.

Luckily we did get time to explore the area:  an amazing network of rolling olive groves, vineyards and fields of onions, garlic and wheat.  We spent a day exploring the wineries and bodegas of Montilla and were really lucky that Lagar Blanco (a “lagar” is the name for a wine press, housed in an old building overlooking the vines) stayed open after normal closing time to give us a full tour and tasting.  Montilla is known for its Pedro Ximinez grapes, used to make the dry (but unfortified) Fino, a cousin of the more famous Jerez sherry, for which the Montilla area is famous. The young wines are stored in giant cement containers and then transferred to oak barrels where young and old wines are mixed and fermented into Fino, the nuttier Amontillado, Oloroso and the deliciously sweet and syrupy aged Pedro Ximinez.

We also visited the Roman city Ecija, now a vibrant white-washed town of winding alleyways and tiled houses.  The Roman mosaics discovered there, displayed in the local history museum, itself housed in a magnificent former palace, are some of the finest in the world.

The highlight of the area, however, is Cordoba.  Although rather tourist infested (this is by far the most touristy town we’ve visited so far, but we did happen upon it during the “Fiesta de los Patios”, when Cordoba’s houses open their flower filled, tiled patios to the public, meaning that it was high season in Cordoba) it is a magical city: founded as a Roman colony in 152 BC, it was then invaded by Muslims in the 700s and by the 900s was the biggest city in the West.  The centrepiece is the Mezquita, a gigantic Mosque complex now containing a cathedral (dating from the 16th century) beautifully decorated and with a wonderful courtyard of orange trees alongside.   We also enjoyed wandering through the narrow streets of the medieval jewish quarter, visiting numerous flower-pot filled colourful patios and soaking up the atmosphere away from the main tourist trail, where Cordoba comes to life as a vibrant student town.

Additionally, a few kilometers outside of town set on a hillside overlooking Cordoba in the foothills of the Sierra Morena is a 2nd Muslim city, the Medina al-Zahra, constructed in the 900s, designed as a capital to be even more sumptuous than Cordoba.  Unfortunately it was sacked by Berber soldiers shortly after it was built and is now still an archeological excavation site, but the parts that have been excavated and restored to date are magnificent: intricately decorated Arabesqu archways, covered streets and complex living quarters, a palace and stylized formal gardens.  It was also sufficiently off the tourist coach route to mean that we just about had the whole complex to ourselves, which only added to its magic.

Spain – Cabo de Gata

The Cabo de Gata natural park, just north of the Costa del Sol, feels like a land time (and tourism) forgot.  In stark contrast to the built up highrises and tourist-tat infested beaches of the Costa del Sol, this stretch of coastline is wild and beautiful with crystal clear blue waters, sleepy white washed fishing villages and grand volcanic cliffs.  We cycled the winding coastal road from Cabo de Gata to San Jose, taking in two magnificent climbs (though not quite the climbs of the Sierra Espuna!) up to the Torre Vigia Vela Blanca, an 18th century watchtower on the cliffs.  The coast here is wonderful, with cove after cove set between volcanic outcrops and cliffs.

At the Cabo de Gata campsite we finally put our outdoor oven, the Aquaforno (see http://aquaforno.com/ for details), to use: we hadn’t yet been able to use it due to restrictions on fires in Spanish campsites, but Tim from Aquaforno helpfully suggested we get a gas fired paella burner to put inside to deal with the ‘no fires’ issue.  We are proud of the first loaf of bread baked in camp and look forward to finally trying out the pizza stone too!

Spain – enjoying the Sierra Espuna

We were very sad to say our goodbyes to all at Camping Sierra Espuna and El Berro.  We had a really amazing stay there and will certainly miss it.  Highlights from the past week include some amazing rides, particularly a day spent with Jan and Chantal exploring a new route through wonderful scenery and taking in some spectacular climbs as well as a (rather sweltering) trip out to the moonscape and jade lake of Barrancos de Gebas; having lunch with friends from the campsite in nearby Alhama de Murcia at a restaurant owned by a friend of Joel’s, who prepared a meal especially for us – each of the 5 courses more wonderful than the last; a day out at the coast, walking on the beach and driving windy roads to remote castles; disturbing more of the shy barbary sheep in the Sierra Espuna regional park; great trail running through the pine forests.

We’ve now headed back to the coast once more and have just set up camp in another park, the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park.