Category Archives: Food

Travels in Portugal, The City of Évora

Evora Street 01

We arrived at our accommodation way too early to check in so we simply abandoned the car and made our way towards the city centre across a wasteland car park and a punishing steep hill which lead to the Praça do Giraldo, the main square of the city and where brisk but expensive business was being done in pavement restaurants and bars.

It was rather pricey (well, I thought so) in the swanky city bars so we moved quickly through to an adjacent artisan square and a bar that was busy with local people enjoying good food so we found a table and ordered a simple lunch with prices much more suited to our budget.

Évora is an interesting city and has a busy history.  The Romans conquered it in 57 BC and built the first walled town.  During the barbarian invasions Évora came under the rule of the Visigothic king Leovigild in 584.  In 715, the city was conquered by the Moors and during this period the town slowly began to prosper and developed into an agricultural center with a fortress and a mosque.

Évora was captured from the Moors through a surprise attack by Gerald the Fearless in September 1165 and the city came under the rule of the Portuguese king Afonso I in 1166 and then for a few hundred years or so it then flourished as one of the most dynamic cities in the Kingdom of Portugal.

Evora Roman Temple 01

With two days in Évora we didn’t plan do a lot of sightseeing today so after lunch we wandered through some colourful streets and collected pictures of doors and then strolled back to the hotel where we squandered the afternoon around the swimming pool and drank some beer and wine and played cards.

During the walk we had spotted a promising looking restaurant for evening meal, a simple, rustic sort of place popular with local people so we had no hesitation walking back there in the evening.  We enjoyed a medley of starters and the Kim had roast lamb Alentejo style once again and I had a salted cod with vegetables.  We had walked eight miles today.

Next morning after an average hotel breakfast we set off again into the city and before going anywhere interesting started, at Kim’s insistence, with a haircut because she complained that my thatch had become wild and untidy and I had to agree that she was absolutely right.

Shock over (the haircut an the bill) we went first to the a first-century temple, dedicated to the cult of Emperor Augustus and which unlike the rest of the Roman city has survived for two thousand years because five hundred years ago the structure was incorporated into a medieval development.  That building has gone now but the Temple remains.  It is not especially outstanding for a building of antiquity but remarkable simply because it is still there.

Evora Cathedral Roof

Close to the Roman Temple is the Gothic Cathedral of Évora and we purchased a combined ticket for the interior, a climb to the very top and to visit the cloister.  We made straight for the top where there were expansive views across the Alentejo and beyond, next we went to the cloister where there was a lecture from a cross Frenchman.

There were two sets of steps to the top and we started to climb.  Suddenly the Frenchman was ahead of us coming down.  He insisted that we were using the wrong set of stairs and that we should turn around and go to the bottom and let him continue his descent.  There was no official indication that he was correct but to avoid a diplomatic incident we did as he asked.  This however wasn’t good enough for him and he insisted on following us and giving a lecture on stair lane discipline.  He was wrong, he was definitely wrong and Kim told him so but that just provoked him to carry on.  I wanted to explain to him that I needed no advice from a Frenchman on lane discipline when they can’t even drive on the left hand side of the road, which is of course the right side of the road.

Evora Street 02

From the Cathedral we explored the narrow streets, stopped for lunch and then made our way out of the old city walls to see the Aqueduto da Água de Prata a six mile long sixteenth century aqueduct which once supplied water to the city centre.  Not as picturesque as the aqueducts of either Elvas or Tomar but impressive nevertheless.

By mid-afternoon we were tired of walking so we followed the city walls back to the hotel where we spent the afternoon at the swimming pool with a bottle of wine.

In the evening we returned to the same restaurant where there was an odd incident with an Eastern European lady diner who was dressed for a fine dining experience but finding herself in a rustic Portuguese restaurant with nothing on the basic menu that suited her she had a vociferous argument with the owner who eventually ran out of patience, invited her to leave and received a round of applause from all of the satisfied diners.

I had artichokes and cod stew and Kim had a salad and Portuguese slow cooked chicken.  We had walked nine miles today.  We had enjoyed our two days in Évora but tomorrow we would be packing up and heading back south to the Algarve.

Evora Roman Temple at Night

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Travels in Portugal, Estremoz to Evora

Estremoz,_portal

So reluctantly we left Elvas but although disappointed about that we were looking forward to our next destination, the nearby town of Estremoz.

With some difficulty we found our rural accommodation and after settling in we set off into the town to explore.  I find that I am rarely disappointed with places that I choose to visit but almost immediately I knew that this was one of them.

I cannot fully explain it.  Maybe it was because we had really liked Elvas and this didn’t compare, maybe our expectation bar had been raised too high, maybe it was because we turned up in the middle of the siesta, I don’t know exactly what it was but we just didn’t take to Estremoz.  The guide book said that it was a town of dazzling marble but we found it dull and untidy.  Sorry Estremoz.

Estremoz Street

I suppose it didn’t really help that the accommodation that we had booked and came highly recommended didn’t exactly match the reviews.

We spent an hour or so around the town centre without finding anything of special interest so we hastily abandoned the place and made instead to the old town and castle which are high above.

This was an interesting place sure enough, the original town of Moorish Estremoz settled around the castle sited on the highest point around but very much abandoned now as the town and its residents has had the confidence to leave the security of high walls and battlements and spread out in the modern town below.  The people that are left cling on to crumbling houses with sinking roofs with views of the stars, cracked plaster walls and weather scarred timbers. If this place doesn’t soon get some tender loving care and investment then it will sure enough become a ghost town.

The walk to the top took us through neglected streets and gardens, some youths played football and tinkered with motorbike engines.  Litter collected in the corners.  They eyed us with suspicion.  I eyed them with equal suspicion.  I felt uneasy, I didn’t feel comfortable there.  By contrast at the top was a five star Pousada hotel which to me seemed hopelessly out of place. Extravagance amongst poverty just seems incompatible and wrong.  There was a bar/restaurant with a roof top terrace with good views over the marble quarry spoil heaps and we liked it there so being a confessed hypocrite I booked a table for dinner later that evening.

So in the late afternoon we returned to the accommodation that we didn’t really like very much and spent an hour or so around the swimming pool that only someone with a disease death wish would have considered using.  I understand that Lord Byron used to swim the Grand Canal in Venice but I doubt very much that he would have risked this stagnant water. We sat and swatted away the flies, drank some wine and waited for evening and a return to the castle restaurant which turned out to be excellent despite the fact that some people thought it was acceptable to smoke cigarettes in the room and the owners and staff didn’t seem to mind.

Estremoz Sunset

The food was good, Kim had roast lamb Alentejo style and I had black pig pork cheeks. It was quite expensive. We had walked nine miles today.

We slept well but at the breakfast table there was a plague of flies of Biblical proportions which meant that everything was completely inedible including the tea and coffee so we abandoned it as soon as we could, paid up, left and set off or the city of Evora. We didn’t even look in the rear view mirror as we left, we were just glad to leave. Sorry Estremoz.

Just a short ride out of the town we arrived in the small town of Evoramonte with an impressive castle sitting at the very top so we left the main road and drove into the village and took the single track road to the castle. Inside the walls was a small community with a church and a graveyard, more crumbling houses and a few tourist shops.

Evoramonte Castle Walk

The castle is rather unusual, it doesn’t look like a medieval castle at all but more like a German World-War-Two concrete bunker or a modern farm grain silo, very stout and very strong but also very ugly. We paid the entry fee (senior’s rates) and climbed to the top. There were some magnificent views over the plains of Alentejo but today was exceptionally windy and as a gale whistled through the stone battlements it was even quite difficult to retain balance and not get blown away and over the top.

Evoramonte was an interesting short stop over but now we continued our drive to Evora, the capital of the Alentejo region and the largest city in Portugal south of Lisbon, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had high expectations of Evora as we drove in and found our hotel close to the centre.

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Travels in Portugal, The Garrison Town of Elvas

Centro-Histórico-Elvas

Very close to the border with Spain is the fortress city of Elvas and after leaving the delightful city of Beja we stopped off there on our way to an overnight stay in Estremoz.

As it turned out my pre-travel research let me down rather badly on this occasion because this was a place that would have been good to stay longer but we found ourselves restricted to only an hour or so in what had become at this point a bit of a cramped and overly ambitious schedule.

We arrived around mid morning and parked the car close by to the impressive city aqueduct.  The Amoreira Aqueduct has a length of over seven thousand metres from its spring in the nearby mountains.  It is the longest and tallest aqueduct in Iberia. It is a truly impressive piece of sixteenth century architecture that was constructed to supply the frontier garrison with fresh water as the city wells became inadequate and one-by-one dried up.

Elvas Aqueduct

To reach the centre we passed through one of the many garrison gates that were designed originally to keep people out but were now easily accessible and we quickly discovered that we were in one of Portugal’s hidden gems.  Elvas is located in the far east of the country and of the Alentejo region and it seems that many tourists rarely consider visiting which is a shame because those like us who make the journey are rewarded with a fascinating town rich in history and beauty.

But wait just a minute because that would make it one of those Instagram destinations that I have previously complained about?

A border fortress city naturally required strong defences to protect the country and Elvas is among the finest examples of intensive usage of the trace italienne (a star fort) in military architecture, and has been a World Heritage Site since 2012.  A star fort is just that, a celestial shaped design which made it easier to defend and difficult for besieging armies to successfully attack it.

Elvas, it turns out is the biggest fortified town not only in Portugal but all of Europe. Inside the fortress town we walked through the ancient whitewashed streets, cobbled streets which were painful to negotiate in tourist sandals and  along narrow passages lined by houses with blistered wooden doors, shutters thrown back like the wings of butterflies basking in the sunshine, sagging washing lines groaning under the weight of the dripping laundry, the rich aroma of lunch time cooking seeping out from open windows and outside of the front doors pots of flowers in various stages of bloom and decay.  Fabulous.

Elvas Street 01

At the top of the town we arrived at the ancient Moorish castle which has had the benefit of considerable and extensive renovation and we paid the modest fee to climb to the top of the battlements and enjoyed expansive views over the plains of Alentejo and the neighbouring country of Spain.

Walking down from the castle we made our way to the Praça da República, which in Portugal is sort of the equivalent to the Plaza Mayor in Spain but rarely ever so noisy or busy and we found a spot in the sunshine to join local people for a lunch time drink and a simple lunch before it was time to move on.

Much too soon really, I would gladly have stayed in Elvas for much longer and an overnight stay but we couldn’t rearrange our schedule now so we returned to the car and headed in the direction of nearby Estremoz.

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Travels in Portugal, Across the Alentejo to Beja

Beja Landscape 01

After three excellent days on the south-west coast of Portugal we were rather sad to leave before setting off inland so after we had settled the bill and driven away we first of all headed north towards the smart seaside resort of Vila Nova de Milfontes where we stayed for just about an hour or so before reluctantly setting off east.

After a short while we stopped for coffee in the delightful village of Cercal where they were preparing for a festival, a tomato festival as it happened, which was to take place next weekend.  The region is famous for tomatoes as it happens and this was another narrowly missed party.

Now we were in the Alentejo Region and soon we were in an Iberian wilderness with miles and miles of open countryside and barely any inhabitation.  One of the poorest, least-developed, least-populated regions in Western Europe, the Alentejo has been dubbed both the Provence and the Tuscany of Portugal. Neither I would say is entirely accurate, it is more subtle and nowhere near as busy as the poster regions of Italy and France and the charms of this land are made up of wheat fields, cork oak forests, wildflower meadows and tiny white-washed villages and absolutely no ‘A’ list celebrity villas..

Alentejo Map

First we drove through endless miles of cork oak plantations, bark stripped trees with vivid orange scars and without any sign of human activity and then the cork gave way to olive groves.  It is an interesting fact that olive trees only grow well in the Mediterranean region (there are some attempts to grow in the Americas and the Far East but these are not especially successful) and Portugal is one of the leading producers (Spain is the World’s largest producer with annually over five million tonnes).  Interestingly (or not) I have an olive tree in my garden in England which continues to grow quite vigorously but sadly without fruit.

After the olives then the grapevines twisting away like Chubby Checker until giving way further east to open countryside where fields of golden stubble stretched out forever all around us as far as the eye could see until they finally met the yonder big sky.  Long straight roads took us between towns and villages and for a time through the mess of marble quarries where spoil heaps decorated the countryside in an unsightly sprawl.  This area of Portugal is the second largest source of marble in Europe after Carrera in Italy.

This is what it looks like inside a deep mine marble quarry.  I didn’t take this picture of course…

Alentejo Marble

We arrived in the city of Beja just as the siesta was beginning and doors and shutters were closing tight as we walked through deserted streets searching for our hotel we eventually came upon it and it turned out to be a delightful family run place in the middle of the busy city.

We liked it, we only had one night in Beja and we were already regretting that it wasn’t two so with only limited time to look around the place we set off immediately onto the street. In mid afternoon the temperature was rising and there was a stifling heat so we weren’t surprised to learn that Beja is statistically the hottest place in all of Portugal.  Later that day someone told me that if it was 40° in Lisbon then it would be 45° in Beja.  Thankfully it wasn’t quite that hot today.

Beja Street

Away from the modern city shopping centre Beja was a delightful place with a labyrinth of old streets with flaking wooden doors and rusting iron balconies, it is a place of classic elegance even though it perhaps gives the appearance of being slightly past its best.

The walk took us past Roman excavations and remaining parts of the medieval city walls with detours into churches and museums and an interesting art gallery but all the time we were making our way to the highest point in the city and to the tallest castle in Portugal.  There were one hundred and fifty steps to climb to the top of the granite and marble tower but that didn’t bother us, last year in Bologna in Italy we climbed five hundred to the top of the Asinelli Tower and two hundred and fifty at Milan Cathedral.  It was a climb well worth making because from the top there were massive views in all directions across the Alentejo plains.

Beja Castle 01

A town like Beja is a real find, not really on the tourist trail so booking an overnight stay in a place like this can be a bit of a gamble but this one really paid out.  From the castle we explored more streets as we began to look for somewhere suitable for evening meal later.  We found what we were looking for close to the hotel, a simple sort of place with plastic menus and good Portuguese food so we had no hesitation in returning there later.

Kim ordered beef ribs and I had pork with clams which seems to be a popular combination in Portugal.  We had walked seven miles today.

We should have stayed an extra night and spent more time in Beja but the next morning we had to leave soon after breakfast because we were driving to our next destination, the town of Estremoz.

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Travels in Portugal, A Tourist Train and A Siesta in Odeceixa

Odeceixa Train

The accommodation in Odeceixa was in a wonderful position overlooking the Atlantic Ocean but it was two and half miles from the village and unless you like spending all day on the beach it was lacking in sightseeing opportunities.  Neither of us like spending a full day at the beach.

Getting to the village was relatively straightforward but parking at the beach was at a premium so I was reluctant to give up my spot for a couple of hours just in case it wasn’t there when I returned.

We could have walked I suppose but it wasn’t an attractive walk and it was along a narrow main road.  The easiest alternative way to get to the village and back was on a shuttle service on one of those pretend tourist trains which I dislike so much but as it was the only option to taking the car and risking the parking space I had to accept that this was the only sensible thing to do.  It was only a short ride and at only €1.50 return fare exceptionally good value.

Odexeixa Street 01

As the day got progressively hotter the time was approaching the afternoon siesta and we arrived to curiously deserted streets as though someone had declared a national emergency and everyone had left town in a hurry.  Across the narrow lanes abandoned laundry remained hanging on overloaded balcony rails, starched and bleached by the sun, occasionally a loose shutter kissed a window frame and a whispering pigeon looked for a shaded spot to spend the afternoon.  A bed sheet had lost its peg on a washing line and was dragging lethargically in the dust so I rescued it.

As we walked into the village it was so quiet that I could hear the paint lifting and splitting on the wooden doors, the gentle creaking of rusty shutter hinges, the squeaking complaints of rattan as sleeping residents shifted a little in their balcony chairs momentarily disturbed by the the faint crack of seed pods in the flower planters.

The concept of an  drowsy afternoon siesta is not something that I am unfamiliar of course with but I think that I can say that I have never before seen it so rigidly observed; not in Spain, France or even Greece but here in Odeceixa and across the whole of the Alentejo the entire place completely closed down for the afternoon.

Even the local statues were taking a rest.

Odeceixa Statues 01

The empty streets were decorated with lazy bunting as it seems there had been a festival the weekend previously which didn’t really surprise me because we have a habit of turning up in a place when the party is over or will be taking place shortly after we leave. Odeceixa was no exception to this rule.

Odeceixa Bunting

There was a steep climb to the top of the village which took us through empty streets, a sleeping cat in the middle of the road who was clearly confident that there was no danger, the church (closed) and the cemetery (locked gates) until we reached the top and the village windmill, which is no longer required for its original purpose but is retained now as a sort of heritage museum piece.  It was closed of course.  There were wonderful sweeping views from the top looking east to the farms and fields and west to the crawling river and the sea beyond.

Odeceixa Windmill

We returned to the bottom of the village through more empty streets until we reached the main square where the shops were closed but restaurants and bars were still optimistically on the look-out for customers.  In a side street we found a little place to our liking and sat for a while with a beer and enjoyed a light lunch.

Two hours in the sleepy village was just about the right amount of time, especially during a siesta and we took the scheduled return ride on the pretend train back to the beach.

We swam for a while and while Kim lay on the sand and dried off in the sun I impatiently walked the entire length of the beach in both directions. Twice. I am not one for long spells on the beach these days.  Later we sat on the balcony for a couple of hours then packed our bags ready for departure the morning before dining again in the seafood restaurant.  We would be leaving the coast tomorrow so naturally in a fish restaurant adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean we both ate fish again tonight.

Not a lot of walking today, only three and a half miles.

Odeceixa Roof

Travels in Portugal, A Wild River and A Cliff Top Walk in Odeceixa

Odeceixa Fish Statue

The soft sound of the rolling sea, no longer a lullaby but now an alarm call, woke me early so once awake I dressed and quietly left the room for an early morning stroll.  I left Kim to sleep on.  The beach that was busy yesterday was deserted now and I felt like Robinson Crusoe as I walked across the pristine sand.  The tide had washed away all of the footprints.  No Man Friday.

To the north of the beach and across the Ribeira de Seixe there is a cliff top with views both north and south and it was our plan today to take the path to the top.  At breakfast the owner of the accommodation told us that we would have to wait until the afternoon for the tide to go out so that we would be able to cross the river.

I may have mentioned before that Kim can be rather impatient at times and she was not in the mood right now to accept the guidance and she didn’t want to wait for the water level go all the way down to paddling depth so ignoring the local advice from someone who had lived here all of his life and knew well the tides and the flow of the river and  at mid morning marched us off to the beach to find a suitable crossing place.  I thought that she was being rather optimistic but I said nothing, I find this is best, and she pointed out that there were people on the other side and they must surely have crossed the river somehow.  She chose to ignore the obvious fact that these people had either swum across or were already parked on the opposite side.

Odeceixa Beach

So we walked the length of the arc of the mouth of the river until Kim was finally satisfied that she had found a suitable crossing place.  In a previous life I am convinced that she would have been a jungle explorer or the leader of a wagon train going west in America.  I wasn’t nearly so confident but she sent me across first to test the depth and the current and after I had made a successful crossing she followed me over.

Odeceixa River

Once safely across and not having been swept out into the Atlantic Ocean we were no longer in the Algarve region because the Ribeira de Seixe marks the boundary with Alentejo, the largest region in all of Portugal.

We followed the path through a car park full of camper vans where people were sitting and enjoying the simple life and then continued to a steep path with shrubs and bushes on either side without flowers but with large deposits of tissue paper.  We wondered why this might be and came to the disagreeable conclusion that the bushes were the bathroom facilities for the camper-vanners simple life style.  We continued to climb but stuck to the middle of the path and watched carefully where we were treading.

A surprisingly short and easy stroll now took us to headland with magnificent views extending north and south and west over the sea as far as the horizon.  It had certainly been worth the effort.  We walked back the way that we had come across the cliff tops, through a pine forest, along the tissue trail and then once more across the river.

Odeceixa Walk

Having safely negotiated the river crossing for the second time we stopped now for refreshment at a busy bar near the beach and then continued our walking by turning in the opposite direction and headed south where thankfully there was no water to cross.

We walked for a mile or so but it soon became clear that there was little to see, the path stayed stubbornly away from the cliff tops and the views and the sand was soft and difficult to walk across in beach sandals so after a while we turned back and returned to the accommodation where after a swim in the sea we spent the rest of the day on the balcony enjoying the view over the Atlantic Ocean.

Odeceixa Tree in Sand

In the evening we dined again at the sea food restaurant.  Kim had Padron peppers and I had a simple tomato salad and then we shared a lobster, crab and prawn rice and I received instruction on how to crack a lobster claw from a helpful waiter.  It seems that you don’t just smash away at it because bits of flying shell can be a hazard to other diners and it has to be covered with a cloth before applying the hammer.  How was I to know, lobster is not a main ingredient of my regular diet.

We had walked seven and a half miles today.

Lobster

Travels in Portugal, Carvoeiro to Odeceixa

Bordeira Beach 02

We left Carvoeivo quite soon after breakfast.  We didn’t have a long journey ahead of us but we planned to stop a few times.  I had liked Carvoeivo, I wasn’t disappointed by the changes in the last thirty-five years but I was ready to move on.

The route took us past the busy cities of Portimão and Lagos but we stopped at neither pushing on instead to the resort town of Praia da Luz.  This is another in the string of old fishing villages that have turned to tourism to replace the tuna but what marks this one out is the incredible story of Madeleine McCann and it has become notoriously famous for the location of the alleged abduction and where a few English detectives, who probably can’t believe their luck at being assigned to the case, now spend their time on permanent vacation inventing new, ever improbable, leads that keeps them permanently sunning themselves at the  expense to the UK tax payer.  Every year when the funding is about to stop they come up with another unlikely lead which keeps them going for another twelve months.

Nothing will ever come of these pointless investigations until the parents Kate and Gerry finally have the courage to confess what they really know. No one knows who is protecting them from justice or why?

It is an untidy sort of place with nothing really to commend it, I stayed there with my family in 1994 but it really wasn’t worth a revisit.  I had high expectations of the next stop at the village of Burgau, I walked there from Luz twenty-five years ago and I remembered a dusty but charming fishing village with one shop and a single bar.

Then…

015

and now (same shop I note)…

Burgau Algarve

It was inevitable of course that I would be disappointed and sure enough there are several more shops and bars, the fishing boats have gone and the beach is covered in sun-beds and parasols.  We stayed for a while but declined to find somewhere for coffee and carried on driving west instead.

004

We should have skipped Praia da Luz and Burgau and visited the southernmost town of Sagres but we didn’t and I regret that and when we reached the far south-west we immediately turned north looking for a wild Atlantic beach.  We were driving now alongside the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park and although we knew there were unspoilt beaches there it was difficult to find a way down to them.  I suppose this is the whole point of a protected area of land and coastline after all.

Eventually the road strayed close to the shoreline at a place called Bordeira so we left the main road and made our way through the dunes to a car park and a wide sandy beach.  Every now and again we come across somewhere that has the WOW factor and this turned out to be a very special beach and when I get around to reviewing my top ten stretches of pebbles and sand then Bordeira is certain to squeeze in there.

Bordeira Beach 01

We struggled across the soft surface of the dunes sinking ankle deep in the energy sapping sand until we reached a welcoming beach bar where we stopped for refreshment before walking some more close to the rough sea where surfers courageously rode the waves and then returning to the car and completing our journey to the seaside village of Odeceixa.

We arrived there about mid-afternoon and I was surprised just how many cars and camper vans were parked close to the beach.  This place was very popular.  We found the accommodation and lucky for us there was allocated parking.

I confess to being a little shocked, the room was in a local restaurant overlooking the beach, it was simple, it was basic, it needed decorating, it was remote and I immediately wondered if I had made a mistake and that three nights might be two too many.

After a walk to a local bar we spent the afternoon on the balcony of the room.  There was no denying that this was an idyllic location overlooking a wide sand beach which was busy but not overcrowded.  Almost all of the people on the sand and in the surf seemed to be families with young children and it seemed to me that everyone seemed to know how to look after it.

On the sand leave only footprints…

Leave Only Footprints

We allowed the afternoon to tip over into evening and we waited for the sunset to end when the burning sun dropped suddenly and finally into the sea, darkness fell and we enjoyed a fine meal in the restaurant, Kim had fish soup followed by Tuna steak and I had Algarve shrimps and grilled sardines.  We had walked four miles today.

There was no modern air-conditioning system in the room so we slept with the windows open with the gentle sound of the sea and the tide as a lullaby which was much nicer than the monotone hum of an electric motor.

Odeceixa Sunset