Monthly Archives: November 2016

Curiouser and curiouser


I am living in a country that needs signs on the motorway dictating no cyclists, tractors, children playing, or horses and carts. And then another, much larger one, to remind you NOT to graze your cattle there. On the motorway! 

A country where night falls promptly at 5.30, with a bit of a thud and it’s either raining or not raining with nothing in between – no such thing as drizzle, or a light shower, just full on rain. Or not.

A country where I’m told, that if eat enough of the strange rubbery custard mixture that fills every cake here, I’ll get used to it and even grow to like it. And that if I want a pedicure, it is suggested I go and see the chiropodist.

But I like the unfamiliarity; there are puzzles here to be worked out constantly. Why are they doing that, or what does this mean? How are they able to cook every piece of fish to perfection, and then turn any slice of meat into fossilised shoe leather? I’ve watched Masterchef – I know which one is supposed to be harder.

And I like the dottiness. We took a run out to Spain last week and this gave me the opportunity to find more Service Station Shit. Check out these utterly terrified looking squeeze-toy chickens. What child could you hate enough to buy one for?



Our campsite is small and cosy, with spectacular views. It is mostly peopled with ex-pat Brits and several French couples. They come each year to over-winter here, some in camper-vans, but more and more having bought little bungalows, chalets, or converted caravans. They have well established gardens and patios, with fairy lights, cacti and huge terracotta pots.

My favourite neighbours are called Terry and June (Terry and June! I shouldn’t enjoy that as much as I do, but I am very immature). There is also an old surfer-type dude from Holland – called Hans, naturally. He wears a necklace and shorts and very little else, and drives a beat up old camper that he’s painted beach scenes on, then glued shells and rubber octopi on top. When he heard I was an artist, he asked me to paint a cactus on the other side. I said yes, mainly because I liked the plastic penguin sticking out of his petrol cap. Apparently, he has three different girlfriends that he brings over in rotation, and is a travelling troubadour (and you think my life’s good!).

We all went for a hill walk yesterday, organised by Sylvie – an ancient Geordie lady with a steely spine and wrist supports. We saw a snake and ate strawberries from a tree, though these are usually turned into a liquor. We should have waited until they had been, because it was like eating faintly fruit-flavoured gravel.

Afterwards, we all convened at their favourite cafe for beer and cakes, while they organised new trips out for the following week. It struck me that this is what retirement is like for people who can’t quit. Sylvie has a tandem. They’ve all trekked across New Zealand. They have forced themselves to like custard made of rubber. They are indomitable, even by time.


Sylvie and crew fit in well here because the locals are no less formidable. Little old ladies in black hats and head scarves stride purposefully down the roadsides, hefting small carts of produce to sell to passers-by. The fishermen we saw hauling in the catch on the beach, at Vieira de Leiria, were not young either.

One chap – who must have been well into his seventies –  was in charge of scooping the fish from the net into the plastic trays that were piled up onto the truck. I counted eighty, and he bent and scooped more than once for each tray, moving at a relentless pace. It took over an hour and he never paused for breath once.



While we were still on the coast, Steve’s brother, Simon, and his wife, Alison, flew over to see us for a few days, and they kindly offered us a boat trip out exploring the Ria Formosa lagoon. Simon likes boats. He’s always had boats. He and Steve partially grew up in Southend, and even Steve had a boat when I met him. So this seemed like a good idea all round.

The lagoon is created from the shelter of several long, thin islands, some inhabited, some little more than half-submerged mudflats littered with seabirds. The trip was supposed to circle these allowing us to see the wildlife, stop off for lunch at one of the islands, and get an informative and educational understanding of that part of Portugal.


That might have been our experience – had we not Carlos as our guide, who clearly thought of himself as a bit of a showman. Which is what the job entails, I realise that, but he may have taken this to extremes. For instance: rather than give us the information about the Islands, he told us that we would only remember it if we worked it out for ourselves, by answering a series of questions as we went along. Sounds like fun, right?


Well, not so much. The questions were all ones we couldn’t possibly know the answer to, and if we did, then we wouldn’t have needed a guided boat trip in the first place. Nor was it especially effective, because I can’t recall much of what he actually told us (other than how pissed off I was when he asked all the men their occupations then declared he wouldn’t ask the women about their work because ‘they didn’t have to‘).

This question and answer bit took up a fair whack of time. At one point he actually stopped the boat, took out the key and dangled it over the side of the boat. We were not going any further, he declared, until someone got this right – ‘on which date did the Islanders protest against the government for giving fishing rights to the Spanish?‘ I think. Maybe. Can’t even remember which island, to be honest.

He went round the boat asking each of us to guess the date. Surprisingly, out of the 365 days we could have picked, all 13 of us got it wrong. So he went round again. ‘Think,’ he barked, ‘think like a Portuguese.‘ We genuinely had no idea what this meant.

Baffled by our ignorance, he gave us a clue; ‘the Name Day,‘ he said. Er, what? ‘Every Portuguese town has its own Name Day.‘ Then he made us all try again. And do you know, that not one of us British, French, or Danish knew every single town in Portugal’s name days, and so nobody got it right (May 16th, in case you’re wondering). And so we didn’t have lunch on the island because there wasn’t time.

But we did get to putter along looking at the birds, with the sun shining down and the sea and sky a pulsing azure. We did get to sip strong, dark coffee and ice-cold beer on one island, and watch the Atlantic surf pound, on another. Despite Carlos, and because of Carlos, in equal measure, we had a great day.



Take Five


If you plan to visit Portugal then consider some of these: they are the five best places I have found so far.


This town is known as the Venice of Portugal for its waterways and gondola-like boats. Once used for fishing, they now carry tourists up and down the canals, offering them great views of the spectacularly pretty Art Nouveau architecture.


turquoise-house    pink-house

These make a change from the usual Portuguese coastal properties, which are tiled to within an inch of their lives as sensible protection from the salty sea winds. Many of these are delightful as well, but the majority make you believe you are still in 1975.


Nearby, the Costa Nova is the local beach. Stretching out on a thin spit of land, it has embraced the ‘beach hut’ theme and taken it to new heights.


The maritime history of Portugal is often celebrated in Manueline style (so named for King Manuel I, as it developed during his reign in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries). Apart from some truly great monasteries and palaces, the cobbled paving stones here often depict sea-faring themes. This street had sailor’s knot, anchors, boats shells etc., all embedded beneath our feet.



I know this is very touristy, but it was still rather nice (hence ending up rather touristy). It is a small town that is still enclosed by a medieval wall, which you can walk all the way around if you have a good head for heights. Which I don’t. So I managed half, and did most of the stairways on my bottom. This view shows the town from one end of the wall, with the castle at the other. Yes, I was that high up.


To celebrate its medieval history, the town throws a festival each year. On the day we visited, they were dismantling an entire village that had been built around the castle, including theatre, market, and jousting ring. They also sell some fabulously authentic-looking costumes in town, with lots of mini swords and things for the kids (pissed off I missed it, actually). Still a good place for some Romeo and Juliet moments, though.


view-from-castle medieval-buildingsold-doorway  gardens-near-castle


Without doubt, our favourite place. A river winds its way down to a wide, sandy beach with rock pools, a cave, great surfing, and a cafe.

In the crystal clear river, we saw elegantly wafting sea-slugs (that Steve says are so nice they have been upgraded to sea-hare), crabs and fish.

We had a choice of camping high on the cliffs, where we could look out on the tumbling waves and walk down to the beach and cafe, or on the other side of the riverbank, where it was quiet and serene.

beachsea-hare  crop-storm-clouds


On the day we had to leave the van to get her electrics fixed, we saw this town on the map and it had two stars, so we thought we’d see what it was like. We hadn’t had any internet for days, so we just fetched up at a fairly uninspiring looking town, turned a corner, and promptly had our minds blown.

This was there.


This monastery was commissioned by King John I, to thank the Virgin Mary for the Portuguese victory against the Castilians in 1385. It took nearly 200 years to complete, employing the skills of fifteen different architects, five of them being the best of the best. It is Portugal’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey, and it is astonishing.


hexagonal-room  window-view



In fact, beyond stunning. Just go there.


We’d arranged to meet up with Steve’s brother and his wife in Faro. The campsite we found was just outside the village of Moncarapacho, and we both made our way there independently, as I’d had to stop for petrol.

Despite the delay I got there first and – as Deirdre the sat-nav slut can be a cow – I assumed she’d taken Steve the wrong way again. Sure enough, I got a phone call from a very tired and stressed out husband saying,

‘I’m lost and I’ve no idea where I am; can you come and find me?’

Well, for once this was a thoughtful move on Deirdre’s part, as the ‘wrong way’ she took Steve past this place.


And the next day, he took me there too.

This young man has spent the last five years carefully carving, building, moulding and creating a museum honouring the history of Portugal – on top of his house.


His English was poor and my Portuguese consists of about ten words (most of which are usually seen on road signs – velocidade, for instance), so the best we could work out was that he did this because there wasn’t anybody else who had.

He started with the creation story, but included a monkey to signify Darwin’s theories too. Tactful, if weird.


Then we have the crucifixion. I particularly like the way the Virgin Mary looks as if she’s wearing a dress made of squirty cream.


And who could forget the Inquisition? Amongst some fairly painful looking scenes was this rather fetching witch.


And for those who didn’t make it through that time, San Pedro (St. Peter) was waiting for them in paradise. (Captions welcome for what the angels are thinking!)


He was a lovely guy, and the place was extraordinary, in the truest sense of the word. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, I’ll send you the co-ordinates. It’s worth it.