Have Bag, Will Travel
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When I woke I was encouraged to see strong sunlight leaking underneath and around the sides of the curtains and I turned over and slept a while longer confident in the certainty of a good day. When we finally got up however there was some cloud and by the time we had finished breakfast and set out for the day it was overcast and threatening to rain. We should have got up earlier!
On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive thirty kilometres or so inland to the city of Guimarães which is ranked second in the country’s most livable cities survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso. As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto is third.
We joined a deserted motorway and with the weather less than promising I drove at an appropriate Sunday morning pace because there wasn’t any need to rush. I encouraged everyone to have ‘blue-sky thoughts’ and it must have worked because by the time we arrived and parked the car (free on Sundays) there was a brighter sky and little hints of sunshine.
As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’. In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.
Today Guimarães is a busy and important University city with an industrial base of textiles and metallurgy. It was quite relaxed this morning with groups of men chatting on street corners and waiting for the wives to leave the churches scattered in little clusters along the streets. The city is clean and smart and since Portugal and Slovenia and were selected to host a city as the European Capital of Culture in 2012 Guimarães was chosen by Portugal to represent the country. Slovenia chose the city of Maribor.
We walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a castle, a palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century castle where there were some musicians playing tradional songs inside the delightful leafy gardens. In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work has gone into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.
The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations. In the middle of the castle was a keep where there was a stiff climb to the very top which was slightly perilous and hard work but the reward for tackling it were some excellent views of the countryside and the city including the football stadium where Rio Ave had narrowly beaten their neighbours only two days before.
After the castle we visited the Palace and without explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them. Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds. At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.
The sun couldn’t quite manage to make a full appearance but there were bits of blue sky here and there and the weather was pleasant and warm enough to sit outside in the garden terrace of a trendy little restaurant selling fair trade products and local handicrafts and we had a drink in a charming shady garden surrounded by herbaceous plants, herbs and fruit trees and with the relaxing sound of a water fountain close to our table.
From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.
At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. At Largo da Oliveira is the old Town Hall and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine erected in 1340 standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed, and it then sprouted immediately. We walked right the way through the streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães and returned to the car.
Maltese fishing boats are called Luzzus and are are brightly painted in shades of yellow, red, green and blue and the bow is normally pointed with a pair of eyes.
The most popularly accepted legend is that the eyes date back to Phoenician times, from around two thousand two hundred years ago, when those great seafarers and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean established a trading-post on Malta.
The eye is believed to protect the fishermen from any harm when they’re at sea. On either side of the prow will be the carved and painted eye of Osiris, the Phoenician god of protection against evil – an example of ancient myth in modern times.
In his book, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’, Norman Lewis recounts how the Guardia Civil in Spain took a dim view of the eye of Osiris…
“He (the policeman) called over another fisherman. ‘What purpose do you imagine those eyes on the boat serve?’.
‘We regard them as a sign against evil’
‘The evil eye, as you call it, doesn’t exist’ the captain said, ‘Paint them out'”
An alternative version is that the eyes of the boat which generally look down will guide the men to the best fishing waters.
Eyes like this were once common on fishing boats in Greece but the practice has all but died out there. Eighty years ago fishing boats in Mediterranean Spain and the Algarve in Portugal also used the symbol of the eye but, apart from Malta, the only place to be sure of finding them now are on traditional boats called Jabega in the port of Malaga, which was also once a Phoenician trading city.
When we went to bed the sky was clear but at some time during the night the clouds must have rolled in because when we woke the sky was heavy with mist and weather prospects looked desperate.
We hoped that it might improve during breakfast but we had to admit that this was most unlikely especially as the clouds thickened and the rain began to fall even more steadily. Postponed from day one we were planning to visit the beaches today but it seemed pointless to wander aimlessly from damp town to damp town getting thoroughly wet and feeling miserable so we agreed instead to change our plans and return to Porto where at least there would be churches and museums where it would be dry inside and if the worst came to the very worst probably a shopping centre or a covered market and we could look at shoes and sparkly things.
After checking out we drove a couple of stops down the metro line and found an empty car park and left the car all alone without any sort of automobile company while we waited for the tram to arrive. The driving rain slowed to a drizzle but it stayed with us for the entire journey into Porto first through farms with irregular shaped fields, no doubt the result of years of complicated inheritances, then wild meadows, pine-woods and copses of eucalyptus trees on a journey frequently punctuated with stops at every village en route.
Nearer to the city the farms shrunk to smallholdings and on the urban outskirts further still to allotments and gardens but everywhere there was an abundance of fruit and vegetables.
The tram arrived in Trindade and we could see outside in the street that it was still raining and people were hurrying by sheltered under umbrellas so we stayed underground and changed lines for a couple of stops to San Bento. It only took a few minutes but when we emerged from the subterranean metro system it was a whole lot brighter and there was only the odd spit of rain. We visited the train station, which today was being used for its more traditional function and then we walked towards the direction of the river down the Rua de Flores.
Here there were small shops and traditional bars and cafés side by side with derelict and decrepit buildings with rotting timbers, rusting balconies, cracked tiled facades trying in vain to disguise years of neglect and so many washing lines that laundry could almost be a national pastime. The road channels were grubby and the buildings were grimy but it wasn’t without a certain charm and the defiant message from the residents seemed to be “Come and visit us if you like, we know it’s untidy but this is the way we like it!”
This lady seemed especially pleased to welcome us to her city…
As we walked to the end of the street there were spreading patches of blue in the sky and things were beginning to brighten up. We were heading for the City’s covered market but when we arrived there it had clearly been closed and unused for some time and on the map we located its modern replacement but it was back in the direction that we had walked so we abandoned the idea of visiting it.
Miraculously the sun was out now, which was good news for Micky because it meant that we didn’t have to take the church visit option (Micky doesn’t like churches) as we passed underneath Igrija de São Fransisco, one of the few medieval buildings in Porto, ignored a multi-lingual beggar and continued on to the Douro.
Not only was the sun out now but it was hot and as we walked along the side of the river shutters were being thrown back in the apartments and more washing was beginning to appear on the balconies. This change in the weather cheered us up no end and on the Ribeira near to the Ponte Dom Luis we selected a restaurant with outside tables for a drink and a convenient place for an application of sun lotion. Now it was really hot and the waiter was encouraged enough by this to begin fussily laying the outside tables for lunch and brought out table cloths, plates, cutlery and menus and then began to look for customers.
He should have looked up because just out to sea the sky was blackening with alarming speed and it was obvious that we were in for a drenching. Sure enough the cloud rolled in like a fleet of water bowsers and the heavens opened. He had to clear the tables a lot quicker than he had laid them and without the attention to detail either and soon the rain was bouncing off the pavement like shrapnel. The patio umbrellas proved little protection against this Atlantic squall as the rain drove in sideways and soon we were forced to take shelter inside.
It passed by however and as quickly as it had started it stopped again and the blue sky advancing from the west chased the clouds away inland and within only a matter of minutes the sun was shining, the pavements were steaming and the washing was coming back out again. That was a close shave because rain could well have meant an afternoon around the shops but at the bridge we were able to take the fair weather option and we crossed once more over to Vila Nova de Gaia.
“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” – Mark Twain
People have always travelled to other parts of the world to see great buildings and works of art, to learn new languages, to experience new cultures and to enjoy different food and drink…
…In 2008 I flew to Athens and in the departure lounge queue behind us was a couple of girls and one announced to the other that ‘I only go on holiday for three things, to get drunk, get stoned and get laid’, I had to see who this person was and when I turned round she turned out to be so unattractive that I was tempted to say ‘Don’t build your hopes up, if I were you I would concentrate on the first two!’ but she was bigger than me so I said nothing of course!
In 1936 the League of Nations defined a foreign tourist as someone travelling abroad for at least twenty-four hours and its successor, the United Nations amended this definition in 1945 by including a maximum stay of six months. In early 2010 the European Commissioner, Antonio Tajani, unveiled a plan declaring tourism a human right and introduced it with the statement that “travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life.”
Young English elites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Rahs really) often spent two to four years travelling around Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour.
In fact the word tourist has its origins in what used to be more correctly called the Grand Tour of Europe, which was a term first used by Richard Lassels in his 1670 book ‘Voyage or a Complete Journey through Italy’ and after that it came into general usage to describe the travels in Europe of wealthy young men and women in the years of the Enlightenment where it was quite normal to take a gap year (or four) in the quest for a broader education.
Lassels was a Roman Catholic priest and a tutor to several of the English nobility and travelled through Italy five times. In his book, he claims that any truly serious student of architecture, antiquity, and the arts must travel through France and Italy, and suggested that all “young lords” make the Grand Tour in order to understand the political, social, and economic realities of the world.
The primary purpose of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance and an an introduction to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, before museum collections went on tour themselves, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music and it was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor. The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance as the historian E.P. Thompson observed, “ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”
While the general objective of the Grand Tour was essentially educational (and this probably what mum and dad thought that they were forking out for) they were also notorious for more frivolous pursuits such as getting hammered, partying heavily and sleeping with as many continental lovelies as possible and so began a tradition that thousands of holiday Brits continue to this day in the party hot-spots of Europe.
When young men on the Grand Tour weren’t misbehaving like people on a stag weekend to Amsterdam they were mostly interested in visiting those cities that were considered the major centres of culture at the time, primarily Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.
The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend some time in smaller towns and up to several months in the three main cities on the itinerary. Paris was considered the grandest and most cultured city and was usually first en-route and tourists would rent apartments for several weeks at a time and would make occasional visits to the countryside and adjacent towns.
From Paris, they travelled south either across the Alps or by a ship on the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and then they would pass on to Rome or Venice. To begin with Rome was initially the southernmost point they would travel to but when excavations began at Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 the two sites also became additional major destinations on the Grand Tour.
Other locations sometimes included as part of some Grand Tour included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States. However, these other spots lacked the cultural and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and the substandard roads made travel much more difficult so they were not always the most popular.
Some of them didn’t have vineyards either so I suppose that might have reduced their appeal somewhat.
The British it seems have always been rather keen on travelling abroad and we have left our mark all over Europe (and not just through football violence either) in Nice one of the first and most established holiday resorts on the French Riviera, the long esplanade along the seafront is known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais and in many other historic resorts in continental Europe, old well-established palace hotels have names like the Hotel Bristol, the Hotel Carlton or the Hotel Majestic, reflecting the predominance of English customers.
In fact there are nearly three hundred hotels around the world called Bristol. They take their name from Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803), the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who spent most of his life travelling around Europe enjoying the best hospitality money could buy. What a good life that would have been, to be sure!
This sort of thing really appeals to me; both the exploration and knowledge and having a really good knees up at the same time and I have become determined to travel as much in Europe as I possibly can. There are forty-six countries in Europe and I have only so far been to twenty-nine so I am just over half way towards my objective of visiting them all.
Ryanair was Europe’s original low fares airline and is my favourite which is lucky for me because the airline has over eleven hundred low fare routes to one hundred and sixty-one destinations in Europe and North Africa. In the last three years I have flown thirty times at a very reasonable average cost of £40 return all inclusive.
Not all of these flights were with Ryanair of course and I have been forced to use others but I generally find that these work out more expensive. A return flight to Athens with Easyjet for example costs £120 and my biggest bargain so far was with Ryanair to Santander in Cantabria, Spain at just £10.02 return. To put things into some sort of perspective it costs over £80 to go to London on the train from Peterborough with National Express and for that you are not even guaranteed a seat. That is about .90p a mile and on that basis it would cost approximately £1,800 to go to Santander and back by train!
In 2015 the most visited country in Europe was France, followed by Spain, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany. Spain made the most money out or tourist revenues and on average the Germans spent most while away from home. The most visited city was London (although as usual France disputes the official figures) and the most visited place was Trafalgar Square, followed by the Eiffel Tower and then the Vatican.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, which has its headquarters in Madrid, produces the World Tourism Rankings and is a United Nations agency dealing with questions relating to tourism. For the record I visited Trafalgar Square in 2008, the Eiffel Tower in 2005 and the Vatican in 2003.
“The ancient handsome litter of the sea front had possessed its own significance, its vivacity and its charm. A spirited collection of abandoned windlasses, the ribs of forgotten boats, the salt wasted, almost translucent gallows on which the fish had once been dried, the sand polished sculpture of half buried driftwood … was now abolished at a stroke” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
On Wednesday the weather was still excellent so we decided to drive west to the secluded beaches all along the coast on the way to Portimão.
First we drove to the pretty little fishing village of Carvoeiro, which was stunningly beautiful, especially when viewed from the hills on either side of the town, so we walked all around it and from the cliffs we admired the village layered with white-washed villas and buildings, undulating in perfect harmony with the natural rocky landscape.
The beach was small but sufficiently spacious when there aren’t many people about to share it with and it was fringed with shabby seaside cafés, inviting seafood restaurants and the homes of local fishermen whose colourful boats completed the picture postcard scene.
Before tourism this was a very small and intimate fishing village and in 1965 a foreign resident wrote about the place; “the mode of living remains essentially medieval”. Well, in 1986 it was a bit more modern than that but still very quaint and although I have never been back I understand that now, thirty years on, it has lost any resemblance whatsoever to its modest origins.
Leaving Carvoeiro we took the scenic coast road west that ran adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean along an orange ridge of rugged sandstone cliffs. All along the route there were beaches and secluded bays and after a short while we stopped at Praia Vale de Centianes, which from an elevated position looked totally idyllic in a Robinson Crusoe sort of way.
We parked the car by a stairway but found that about half way down it had been blocked off by someone who had wedged a fishing boat into a rocky entrance gorge that completely prevented people from passing. This wasn’t going to stop us however so we bypassed the obstruction by climbing down the cliff in a tricky little mountaineering manoeuvre before rejoining the steps, which wound endlessly down through the rocks until we reached an enclave surrounded on all sides by towering rocks. At the bottom was a perfectly secluded beach, which we had all to ourselves and we laid out our towels and lay in the warm November sun.
Not long afterwards we found out why the steps were closed because the tide started to rush in quite quickly and the troubled turbulent sea was being funnelled in by the cliffs on both sides, which had the disturbing effect of intensifying the power of the waves.
Obviously the beach was quite dangerous in winter and the boat blockade was there for a good reason, which was to prevent foolish people like us from going down there. The sea rushed in quite quickly so we gathered our possessions and made for the steps and by the time we had reached the boat the whole bay of previously golden sand was completely submerged. That was a a bit too close for comfort so we decided that we wouldn’t risk any more deserted beaches and returned instead for an afternoon at Armação de Pera where we shared a beach with local men attending to their fishing nets and getting ready for work.
This was to be our final night in Portugal before we set off on the drive home so tonight we drove to the nearby town of Silves for an evening meal. Silves was once the capital of the whole district that was still referred to as late as the nineteenth century as the “Kingdom of the Algarve” and standing proudly on a hill the thousand year old town is practically the last urban area before the mountains of southern Portugal rise up dramatically like an impenetrable wall behind it.
It was quiet tonight and didn’t look too promising until we found a pleasant little fish restaurant that was busy with local people and we interpreted this as a good sign. A man dining alone could see that we were having some difficulty with interpreting the impenetrable menu and he offered us assistance with what little English he possessed and based on his recommendation we enjoyed a very tasty traditional fish of the day meal.
After dinner we drove back to Villa Estrella and had more beer and at some point in the evening there came the point where we had had obviously far too much because we decided that we were enjoying ourselves so much, the weather was so much better than expected and Anthony couldn’t bear to leave without saying goodbye to the girls from Leeds so we foolishly agreed that we could probably manage the drive back in two days instead of three and we would rather like to have an extra day in Portugal.
Fuelled by excess alcohol, common sense was completely abandoned, thrown into a bonfire of insanity and although Tony claimed to be running short of Portuguese cash we calculated that between us we had enough Escudos to support us for the additional day. We were also encouraged because the map that we had, which to be fair was not an especially good one, suggested that the journey home was motorway all the way so this really shouldn’t be a problem at all! How naïve we were and we had no idea how much trouble was coming our way!
And that was how we came to abandon our carefully made plans and spend a fourth day on the Algarve. We drove again to Albufeira and Richard and I looked around the back streets once more and Anthony and Tony walked the entire length of the beaches, several times, looking for the girls from Leeds. In the afternoon we walked along a path on the top of the high cliffs to São João with spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, which was a brilliant blue under the strong winter sunshine.
Later we took up position at a table overlooking the beach and quite simply, just wasted the rest of the day away.
Anthony found the girls he was looking for and I think they were a bit surprised to see him on account of the fact that by about this time we should have been well on our way to Madrid. He arranged to meet them that evening and then we all returned to the villa to pack our bags so that we could get a good early start the next day.
We returned the empty bottles to the lady at the shop and again she invited us to buy as much bread as we liked and she looked rather disappointed when we explained, as best we could, that we were going home tomorrow so didn’t need any.
I felt bad about that and I have always wondered if she managed to sell the additional supplies that she had obviously bought in especially for us.
Have you ever recklessly changed your travel plans?