Monday 30 December 2013

A month in books - December

We've been at the same campsite in Ourique for a month now and I'm running out of promising-looking English titles on the book exchange shelves.  This is the only thing I REALLY don't like about Serro Da Bica - the vast majority of the books are in Dutch! It is a Dutch campsite so understandable, but there are half a dozen whole shelves of books that I can't read. And it's so frustrating! So I've done something I haven't done in over twenty years and picked up a book in a foreign language! In lieu of rapidly learning Dutch, I chose to brush off my A Level German because there are about as many German books as English ones so immediately my choices are doubled! I initially and optimistically started with Cheng by Heinrich Steinfest because it had a great cover. Ten pages in I put it aside in favour of Die Bande O.N. by Hans Pille, a novella for older children. I'm progressing much better with this one and hopefully my vocabulary will be enough improved soon that I can restart the Steinfest.

Totally unintentionally I've read or listened to sixteen books again in December. Managing to complete two audio books is an achievement because, while they're great for commuting, they are so soporific when lounging in the sun! 

(All the titles link to their relevant pages on

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith **** 

Having listened to Child 44 on audio, I was pleased to pick up a copy of Agent 6 in a campsite book exchange, not realising that this is actually the third of the trilogy. I don't think it mattered that I've missed the second volume as the story flowed well on its own and the background narrative felt comprehensive without being awkwardly presented. I was interested in the range of venues visited - a truly international novel - and their historical setting. Agent 6 seemed to me to be less violently descriptive than Child 44, the first book making me feel quite nauseous at moments, which I did appreciate and I must now keep an eye open for the middle volume, The Secret Speech. 

Prophecy by S J Parris *** 

Historical mystery with a good sense of place and atmosphere including real figures from Elizabeth the First's court together with fictional inventions. The storyline was good and moved along at a good pace, but I found myself enjoying the book more for its setting than its plot. I would pick up other Giordano Bruno novels when I found them - a nice holiday read.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo **** 
One of my WorldReads from Sweden

At first read, there's nothing particularly amazing about this novel - the characters are well-rounded and come across as genuine people, the plot is winding and tricky, the writing is swiftly paced and draws you in. The surprise came when I realised that this novel is nearly fifty years old and, apart from the lack of technology, it hasn't really dated at all. Thanks to an interesting introduction by Val McDermid, I learned that its authors, Sjowall & Wahloo, were the trendsetters for the current way of writing crime novels. There are ten in this series - I'm going to track down them all.

Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt ***** 

Wow, this is a brilliant book! The device of 'notes for a novel' was a little offputting for the first few pages, but then it began to make sense and adds a feeling of immediacy and truth to the whole book. The narrator, a complete lost cause himself, is recording and judging those around him in a fascinating portrayal of despair and desperation. A lot of small things happen, most of them violent, and there isn't much of a storyline in an action sense, but the characterisations are perfect and I was gripped from start to finish. Easily as good as The Sisters Brothers, maybe better!

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido ***** 

This book is one of my WorldReads from Spain.
I read this on Kindle so didn't notice that the book was in translation from Spanish until I caught up with all the notes at the end. The translation is an excellent job - there's no sense of clunkiness or bizarre phrasing at all and the text flows fluently. It's perhaps no surprise that forensic science was first practiced in China and many great discoveries hail from there, but to understand that this kind of work was being done so many hundreds of years ago is pretty amazing. Garrido has done exhaustive research into medieval China with the result that The Corpse Reader totally immerses its readers into the culture and beliefs of the times. This is a fascinating read both as an exciting novel and as a glimpse into a fascinating hidden world.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn *** 

I loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which I read recently so I had high hopes for Dark Places too. However Dark Places for me was disappointing. The book is ok but I didn't think that it was in the same league as Gone Girl. Libby is essentially an unlikeable character and I didn't feel any particular sympathy with her so the will for her to succeed is lacking. Plus, the story itself wasn't a credible, perhaps because the main characters weren't as fleshed out. Runner and Libby seemed to be the only ones we really got to know. Hopefully, as we've already got it on the Kindle, Sharp Objects will be better!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green **** 

I saw 'romance' and 'young adult' in the descriptions of this novel before I read it, so was expecting a fairly light and schmaltzy book. The text is pretty simply written which belies its heavy subject matter and I liked the way the storyline emphasis is put on the blossoming relationship between Hazel and Augustus, rather than their suffering from cancer which is given a pragmatic approach. Hazel's level headedness in particular, raises what could have become a mawkish and sentimental book into a strong emotional novel. I enjoyed reading The Fault In Our Stars right through to the end and the only thing I wish hadn't been done as it was, was the Author's Note. In the Kindle edition, this rather blunt declamation of 'it's only fiction' is on the very next page to the moving end of the story and it felt a bit like a slap in the face! Perhaps this should be moved to the beginning of the novel or a blank page be inserted first to allow the reader a moment to adjust?

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel ***** 
One of my WorldReads from France

Beautifully atmospheric evocation of a small town in First World War France, initially shielded from the immediate outrages of war, but as the fighting drags on, the town finds its own horrors. I love Claudel's writing although I am not sure I would rave about Grey Souls in the same way as I did Brodeck's Report as I thought it missed the otherworldly aspects of Brodeck. Interestingly, Dave preferred Grey Souls and cited exactly the same reason but from the alternate angle!

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning ***

Not the standard plot for a detective novel but the sprawling storyline made it difficult to remember who everyone was and why or whether they mattered. From the synopsis on the back, I was expecting more of a literary novel. However, it's only the subject that leans towards literature, the writing itself is standard for the mystery genre, complete with some pretty gung ho dialogue at times. While Dunning spends a long time building up his plotlines at the expense of rounded characters and, although this book passed a couple of days reading time ok, I found it ultimately to be unsatisfying.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury **** 

Hard to believe this book is over fifty years old! I loved the imagery, especially of the scenes with the carnival folk and the frightening descriptions of the Illustrated Man. The story rattles along mostly at a good pace although I did find the more intense segments of moralising slowed the tale unnecessarily. The Sound Of Thunder very-short story is also included in the Audible download I listened to. This was also interesting, but obviously not such a developed work as Something Wicked.

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld ** 

Sadly a rather dull thriller which I found to be neither 'elegant' or 'spellbinding'. The patronising misogyny throughout is infuriating and the main characters are so two-dimensional that I didn't really care about them from half-way onwards - I just hate to leave a book unfinished! Perversely, several supporting characters are well-presented cameos. With sharp editing, the premise of The Death Instinct could have been the stopping-off point for a much stronger thriller, but there seems to be so much extraneous history crammed in that its points are dulled. A shame.

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews *** 

This book is one those that used to reliably fly straight out the door when I had my bookshop years ago. I thought it would be more 'chick-lit' though and never bothered to read it. I picked it up on the campsite book exchange yesterday and finished it this morning! Very readable, the story is bizarre and horrifying, and the only bit I really didn't like was the ending which was rushed with several far-too-convenient elements and yelled 'buy the sequel'. Unfortunately this spoilt the book for me as, otherwise, it would probably have got a Good four stars. Instead it's an OK three stars.

So that's my December! I've got a couple of English books on my shelf still to read - The Shell House by Linda Newbury and Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard - both of which I expect to be solid three-starrers but I might be pleasantly surprised. We've also bought a Kindle 'boxed set' of the first four Sjowall and Wahloo books. The one I've read is duplicated but it's still a great price for the remaining three. Plus, of course, I have the two German books mentioned above - will they be in January's finished list?

Finally, does anyone else follow +Mary Okeke's blog? She's a reviewer of African literature and has recently posted her reads for 2013. Top of her favourites list was Neighbours by Lilia Momple so I'm going to try and pick up a copy.

Friday 27 December 2013

A Dutch Christmas in Portugal

Several new motorhomes joined us since my last post so there's a bustling little community
A busy Serro da Bica 
of nine campers here now, 17 people including Herman and Albertje. Everyone is Dutch apart from us, one other English couple and Frithjof who is German, but all the Dutch people speak good 'Engels' and are more than happy to switch between languages.

I'm glad we didn't follow my whim of spending Christmas day on the beach though. I know the weather in Portugal isn't anywhere near as bad as it has been back home, but heavy rain set in at about 5pm on Christmas Eve and just kept coming - all night! We managed maybe a couple of hours sleep between us as, with the awning blowing around and the rain thundering on Bailey's roof, it sounded like a hurricane outside. The awning escaped most of its pegs before morning so water got in. However, Bailey coped just fine and we stayed cosy and dry, if wearied.

Christmas Day began with coffee and Buterkoek in the bar. One of the other campers, Peter, had his birthday and joining a group for coffee and cake is a traditional Dutch way to celebrate. We braved the much-lighter-by-then rain afterwards for a hour's walking which meant I got the chance to try out my new Marmot waterproof trousers. They're perfect - comfortable, warm and stayed completely dry throughout the walk which is more than my previous Peter Storm pair ever managed. Well worth the price!
The house at Serro da Bica 

Highlight of the day was our Christmas meal for which we (almost) all gathered in the bar at 5pm. The other English couple won't come to the bar because 'they all speak Dutch' but everyone else was there. Albertje and Herman had arranged the tables with cloths and candles, red and green Christmas napkins and it looked lovely. I wrote out the menu afterwards and all the courses took up two days of my pocket diary - coincidentally, we both felt as though we had eaten a good two days' worth of food! First course was Albertje's homemade Hummous with mini toasts. Then we had Herman's Soup which was similar to a minestrone but with chourico pieces and meatballs in it. Everyone had seconds. Then the main course was a delicious Hachee which is a thrice cooked thick beef stew, vaguely similar in taste to the Greek Stifado. Albertje had been cooking this over the previous two days so we all already knew how good it smelt! The meal is traditional Dutch cuisine, but not traditional for Christmas Day. However, with so many mouths to feed here, it has become the Serro Da Bica tradition and several of this year's guests have been previously and returned. The Hachee was served with roasted rosemary potatoes, rice, spiced red cabbage, pears poached in red wine, and stewed apple. Everyone had at least seconds of all this as well. Then, when you would have thought no one could eat any more, our hosts served a rich dessert of whipped cream with multi-coloured jelly cubes, topped with a conserve of Albertje's homegrown strawberries. Phew! The Dutch have a fantastic word (which I've probably spelt wrongly) - 'outbouken'. It means to sit back and let your stomach hang out after having eaten too much. We all practised 'outbouken' with a small liqueur to finish! Dave had a Portuguese cognac and I had a white port.

We rolled back to Bailey and slept for about ten hours!

Monday 23 December 2013

Bread Soup recipe

At the time of writing, on the Serro Da Bica campsite in Ourique, Portugal, we were getting a
 delivery of a small loaf of freshly baked brown bread six days a week. Most days we ate about three-quarters of the loaf so I started to look around for recipes to use up the remainder. Waste not, want not and all that. This frugal bread soup recipe is vaguely based on an idea in the book Portuguese Homestyle Cooking that I first mentioned when we tried its Baked Salmon recipe. The soup recipe in the book is called Acorda a Alentejana (page 44) although if you know the original, you might not recognise what I actually ended up creating here! The texture of my soup as I served it was similar to a coarse mushroom soup and it was delicious!


3 inch pieces of chourico (ends and curve of a ring)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried parsley
salt and pepper
1 vegetable stock cube
1 pint water
day-old brown bread (I had about half a small loaf)

Heat the chorizo in a saucepan until the oils start to run.
Add the garlic, herbs, seasoning and crumbled stock cube. Add the water and cover the pan. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.
When the stock is simmering, remove the crust from the bread and tear into roughly inch-square pieces.
Remove pan from the heat and add the bread, pushing it under the liquid. Recover the pan and leave for five minutes so the bread can soak up the stock.
When the bread cannot absorb any more stock, stir it to break up the bread into a thick sort-of puree.
Serve immediately while soup is still warm.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

We saw an otter!

A welcome sight at the end of a long walk 

We nearly didn't go for a walk today because, apart from a half hour of sunshine this morning, the sky has been overcast most of the day. The weather here has changed over the past week from practically guaranteed sunshine to anything between full sun and brief heavy rain showers. The two photos that accompany this post were taken only a day or so apart. It's still much, much warmer here than for the poor souls we left back in the UK though, so mustn't grumble!

Back to today. We set off for a little stroll about half past three and achieved an hour-and-a-half walk which took in tricky narrow goat trails high above the river Mira, rocky river banks, the edges of ploughed fields, and dusty tracks. I love how the scenery here can change with seemingly every corner. As we passed the abandoned watermill near our campsite, Dave stopped suddenly as he had spotted a ripple in the water. His immediate thought was turtle, but the animal soon turned out to be an otter. We were both delighted - neither of us is a particularly quiet walker so I think we often scare off potential wildlife sightings. I have never seen a wild otter before, only rescued captive ones in enclosures. We watched for probably five minutes as the otter dived and swam around, seemingly oblivious to us on the bank. Then, later in the walk, a second ripple resolved into a turtle who had slid back into the river at our approach but then took its time about swimming away under grasses.

I guess we're not going walking today 

Other walking 'triumphs' this week include discovering a new place to ford the river by improvising rock stepping stones. It was a bit scary at the time and I think we both felt euphoric afterwards! Yesterday's four-hour picnic walk enabled us to eat our bread and cheese lunch on the bank of a gorgeous babbling brook. This was all the more surprising as most of the route had been fenced-in dusty tracks, but just as we got to about half-past one, turning a corner revealed the perfect picturesque spot. I've improvised a way to attach our Picnic Rug to my candy-striped Picnic Set Rucksack - like the one linked, but PINK! (It's still that one you got from The Pier, Adrienne, do you remember?) So we can have perfect picnics with our gingham-edged plates and tartan rug.

And we went out for Sunday lunch this week too. Together with Herman and Albertje, and Fritzhof who at the time was the only other guest here, we visited the Cafe Central da Alcaria in the nearby village of Aldeia. There is a little bar area inside and terrace space at the side of the road, but once you walk through the bar, it is like stepping inside someone's home. Which is pretty much what we were doing! A back room is whitewashed and has large tables to seat maybe three groups of up to about six people each. The menu comprises of 'meat' or 'fish' and you need to both place your order the day before and specify what time you will arrive. Our table chose 'meat' and one pm. Fatima, the owner, had created a tasty kale soup for starters, followed by delicious slow cooked pork with chips, rice and salad. Dessert was a selection of fruits, fresh from the garden, and also a slice of Buterkoek (recipe to follow once I've made it myself) which Albertje had baked and taken as a gift but which Fatima insisted on serving some of too. We then sat out in the sun for coffee and I spent the rest of day dozing in my sun lounger with an audio book. Bliss!

Thursday 12 December 2013

A cloudy day in Ourique

In a "shock, horror" storyline, we were actually awoken this morning by a faint pitter patter of rain on Bailey's roof!

Dave walking the river Mira
on a sunnier day
I think this is only the second day we've had rain since we left Britain and it was only very light, so we carried on with our day's plans undeterred. First off was a visit to a little market in the village of Santana da Serra, about a ten minute drive away. Around two dozen stalls were set up selling a variety of fruits and vegetables, clothes, pottery, live chicks, plastic containers and tools. The clothes stalls were interesting in that they only had quite formal items including skirts, trousers and thick woollen cardigans. It's easy to spot the tourists in southern Portugal at this time of year - we're the ones in shorts and t-shirts while the locals sport scarves, gloves, hats and coats! Unfortunately we were too early to spot many of said locals. Unlike British markets which generally start at the crack of dawn, we learned that Portuguese ones don't really get going until closer to lunchtime.

After lunch, with the rain gone but the sky still overcast, we chose to set off on what was intended to be a short 'getting out of the house' stroll but which turned into a lovely two hour walk and explore along the river. We were musing on a our good fortune, sat on a large rock at the turn-around point and trying to think what we would have been doing had we been back home. Apart from my needing to be at work, it being a Thursday, we realised that even had it been a weekend, we probably wouldn't have ventured outdoors and certainly not set off across the South Downs. We can both be discouraged by grey cloudy weather and generally choose to remain indoors on such days at home, whereas here we feel 'outdoors' already, mainly I believe due to the fantastic surface area of our Bailey Orion given over to windows. Plus, of course, it's considerably warmer here. The blustery breeze of the past couple of days has faded completely and I don't think Bailey's heater even turned itself on last night. I'm not sure how we will adapt to this loss of activity once we get home again. Obviously a complete lifestyle-change would be the perfect answer, but financial considerations don't make that an easy decision on any level.

Sinterklaas gifts! 
On a completely different and less philosophical note, Dave kindly pointed out, yesterday perhaps, that there are only two weeks left before Christmas. Neither of us are feeling particularly seasonal - even less than we usually do! However, Albertje has put up decorations in the bar at Serro da Bica and we joined in the 5th December Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas last week. (The link goes to Wikipedia if you want to read more about the tradition and its history.) For us here, the day meant we got to try small spiced biscuits (I initially thought they were pepernoten but kruidnoten are more likely) which Albertje had baked together with slices of a spiced cake with a almond-paste layer in the centre. We also got given the pictured pottery bowl presents - apparently all children get presents on 5th December! The smaller of the two has made a perfect ring dish and they are cute mementoes of our time here. Perhaps when we move on, we should fill them with the profuse prickly seed pods that get attached to our clothes every time we walk along the river?

A sad note to finish as I report the sad demise of our slow cooker which chose to give up the ghost on Sunday, part-way through the cooking of Dave's not-famous-enough Rogan Josh curry. Fortunately, we already had our new Clatronic EKP 3405 Hotplate  so the curry was saved and Herman very kindly took the cooker surround apart the next day to see if he could repair it in his workshop here but to no avail. We've googled up and down the Algarve, searching out a replacement and have come to the conclusion that Portuguese people don't use slow cookers. There are a few pressure cooker-like devices but we're a bit wary of them, Dave having witnessed a pressure-cooker accident some years ago. Therefore, as I finally get to the point, if anyone is coming out this way in the near future (and doesn't have a baggage weight limit!), could they put this Crock-Pot Slow Cooker  in their luggage?!

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The first week in Ourique

Gorgeous view from Bailey at Serro da Bica
photo by Dave Greene
which rhymes so well I couldn't resist! We're staying at yet another brilliant Dutch-owned campsite, this one is called Serro da Bica and our hosts are Herman and Albertje. Again, we've pretty much got the place to ourselves - one other Dutch couple and a German man being our only neighbours - although Herman said that it's usually busier here at this time of year. Apparently tourist numbers are lower generally compared to previous years. Must be that recession still biting. Facilities here are a cut above the norm - there's even underfloor heating in the shower room for a couple of hours every morning. We also have a bar/library room where we all have the option to meet up of an evening. You'd like this, Dad! Herman rings a bell at 5pm, when he's got the wood-burning stove roaring away, which is our cue to trot over there for a hour or so of beer or port and olives. Last night was special because Albertje had baked delicious Sinterklass biscuits which are little spiced cookies to celebrate the 5th of December.

Banks of the river Mira,
photo by Dave Greene
Walking is the primary daytime activity here and there is a variety of maps to choose from in the bar, plus we also tried going off-piste - which nearly ended badly meeting a large dog in a farmyard! The first afternoon we explored a little of the gorgeous river Mira whose banks mark the edge of Serro da Bica. On the first full day, I packed a picnic lunch including a loaf of handmade fresh brown bread that is delivered daily. It's so tasty butter isn't needed with it. We set off on a 13km walk which doesn't sound too taxing except that the first half was mostly rock scrambling and following narrow wild boar tracks along the river bank in lieu of 'proper' footpaths. Great fun and the river here is beautiful. Rocks and autumn coloured trees, crystal clear water and red earth. Unfortunately most of the birds have gone south for winter but we saw azure magpies, red legged pheasants and evidence of an eagle owl.

Saturday night saw us going out to dinner for the first time since we've been away. Herman and Albertje drove us all to Café Restaurante O Novo Coimbra, a few minutes away. They had already got us salivating with much talk of the 'mirandesa' - a beef dish of the red cow which is served on vertical skewers with chestnuts and fried potatoes. Dave had this and was very impressed. I had javali, which is wild boar, in a very tasty stroganoff. I had not tried boar before. We're going back there on Friday and I think I shall have mirandesa then though - unless something else new catches my eye!

Do you remember my saying in a previous post that one of the problems we might face on such a long trip is only having British gas bottles which aren't compatible with those in ANY other country? Well to try and prevent this being an issue for as long as possible, we brought a camping gaz bottle that was still part-full from our last trip. It's done pretty well coping with most of the cooking outside in the awning until yesterday evening when it ran out. Replacing it was going to be expensive - 36 euros we think - so we have taken the advice of our Dutch neighbours at Evoramonte and have instead splashed out the princely sum of 17 euros on an electric hob. We generally have to pay a set amount for the electric hookup, regardless of how much energy is actually used so ... ! We are now the proud owners of a Clatronic EKP 3405 Hotplate which has just cooked an excellent Chicken Tikka Masala (recipe to follow) and fits neatly on the worktop in Bailey so no more chilly awning cookery!

Friday 29 November 2013

A month in books - November

Can you believe we have been 'on the road' for a month already? We set out to Bosham on the 29th of October and it's now the same date in November. One of five months gone ... but still four months left so that's ok!
As there's not a lot to do of an evening once the sun has set, I have certainly been getting through a lot of books. If you're friend on Facebook or Twitter you might already have spotted these reviews being posted in real time. If not, or in case some were missed, I thought I'd do a recap post of my sixteen reads so far. Here goes ...

(The title links go to their respective Amazon pages.)

Magenta Shaman by Lily Childs *** I enjoyed what there was of this novella but thought it felt like the beginning of a story, rather than a complete work in itself. I know that there is at least one other novella in the series. However, I would have preferred more to have been made of this opening.

The Village that Died for England by Patrick Wright *** Patrick Wright has taken the history and myth of the requisitioned village of Tyneham in Dorset as his central theme in this book but has created a work that covers a much wider scope. From the German Youth Movements of the 1920s to the Arcitecture Association of the 1970s, he wanders far from the main theme in order to explore all the influential factors, theories and people. While his research has undoubtedly been thorough, I found that the book has too much information and its sprawl becomes overwhelming. It's a fantastic collation of knowledge but I think it needed much stronger editing.

Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard ***** I initially chose this book due to its evocative cover art and being aware that it is a classic I 'should' read! I didn't realise Ballard had written it so recently so was pleasantly surprised not to have to wade through 'British Raj' style writing as I had expected. <br/>Empire Of The Sun came across as young adult novel, both due to its language and the age of its primary character, Jim. I appreciated this as it did help to keep a slight distance, I felt, from the truly horrific scenes being played out. However, the undercurrents and allusions of the text give the work depth and help to make sense of the complete confusion that must have been so frightening at the time. Jim's sheer energy and enthusiasm for life is incredible and I thought, among all the great characters portrayed, he really did carry the story through. It was interesting, having learnt about this aspect of World War Two through the eyes of the novel to then also read a short interview with Ballard about his genuine war experience.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn **** Dave downloaded Gone Girl on to our Kindle months ago and loved the book. I've been meaning to get around to reading it ever since, especially as everyone else who's reviewed it was raving too. And for once, the book does deserve the hype. I liked the two-person viewpoint and the characterisations were brilliantly done. Perhaps the plot does unravel a little by overthinking after the books is finished, but it thunders along at a great pace and made for an entertaining couple of days reading.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy **** I started though the first part of this book thinking that it was a bit 'gentle' for a Cormac McCarthy tale. Lester Ballard has a horrendous life, being even more in poverty than those around him, and I had been feeling sorry for him. Then I discovered a little more about Lester ... The descriptions of the town and its people are evocatively written, as is the countryside around it. I like the flow of the short chapter scenes. This is another wonderful Mccarthy story, saddening and thought-provoking, beautiful and horrific.

Love Me by Garrison Keillor *** Picked up whilst travelling and this is a pretty good holiday read. Amusing and somewhat poignant but nothing too deep or taxing!  

Madonna by Mark Bego *** A breathless, gushing biography of the then recently famous Madonna in which, for author Mark Bego, she can't put a step wrong. We get interviews with a school friend, a couple of film directors, Jellybean Benitez and the woman herself. It is fascinating to read this portrait of Madonna giving the impression that she had already conquered the musical world when, with the benefit of nearly thirty years of hindsight, we know that she would go on to achieve so much more! 

Capital by John Lanchester ***** For me, Capital was reminiscent of If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon Mcgregor, both books being set along a single street and with a mysterious undercurrent throughout the work. I thought John Lanchester threaded his stories together beautifully with just enough connections between them but still maintaining the alienation of our contemporary society where neighbours are unlikely to mix. His characters are real, rounded people and I enjoyed the time I spent within their London.

NW by Zadie Smith *** I started out enjoying NW but unfortunately the book lost interest for me towards the end when it began concentrating solely on Natalie's story. I liked the interplay of characters earlier on and Smith's observation of life and speech is, as always, spot on. Perhaps reading NW straight after Capital was a mistake as both are primarily London novels. I thought NW was good but I had high expectations which it ultimately failed to meet.

Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell **** Having been a great fan of the Sharpe TV series all those years ago, I don't think I've ever actually got around to reading any Bernard Cornwell book before. I expected something much fluffier and certainly not the (I believe) well researched and interesting tale that unfolded. I am now a little wiser about this important period in European history but still feel as though I have been entertained rather than educated! Harlequin was a World Book Night choice for 2012 which is how I found the title, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the novel to a wide readership - not just those who have a particular interest in history.

And that's it for now. On the shelf still to be read I've got The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel and Prophecy by S J Parris. Expect me to publish reviews of these over the next few weeks and you can see a random selection of reviewed titles in the box at the bottom of the page. Click on any of the book covers to read more!

Tuesday 26 November 2013


View across fields to Bailey at Camping Alentejo 
Another Dutch-owned campsite for our second base in Portugal. Perhaps I should have downloaded a Dutch language course from Audible instead of the Portuguese one! Camping Alentejo is 3km from the pretty village of Evoramonte and our nearest town is Estremoz. The site is small, with good-sized pitches, is surrounded by cork oak fields and, although it is right by the N18, the traffic noise hasn't bothered us. The reception/shower block is an eye-catching building - architect designed apparently - and best of all, the door closes properly so there's no horrendous draughts to contend with while showering! We've had clear skies most nights and the stars are incredibly beautiful plus, the first night here, we heard owls hooting. I was delighted to see book exchange shelves in reception so have undertaken a spot of BookCrossing here - you can see my latest releases in the widget down the right-hand side of the blog. And, while I remember, please check out the blog of fellow BookCrosser Jacob who is in Wisconsin. I enjoyed his post On Judging A Book By Its Cover which is just so true!

Interesting windows, Estremoz 
We've visited several towns while we've been here, all of which begin with E. I'm not sure whether alliteration is a popular local pastime? Elvas was highly recommended to us from Camping Beira-Marvao but we were underwhelmed. It's a nice enough medieval town but I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps I'm getting blase? Estremoz on the other hand was much more my style. Fun architecture included this restaurant with its variety of windows and, because of the amazing marble quarries just out of town, the whole town seems to gleam white. 

Walking has been a feature of our stay here. The campsite provided a 'map' of a two-hour walk that we've undertaken twice, once in each direction. And Dave also created a walk of our own setting out along the tracks from the deserted Evoramonte railway station. No tiles at this one! There's a couple of photos on Facebook together with pics from a fourth walk - up (and up and up) to the castle and old town of Evoramonte. Part of the castle surround is an open-air theatre space with granite block seating. The actors would need to be pretty amazing to distract audiences from the draw of the view. The gift shop was surprisingly decent and, amongst other local handicrafts, has fab shoulder bags and jewellery made of cork. I passed on buying, hoping there'd be more variety in touristy Evora. There was but at hefty prices so the birthday presents I hoped to find are yet to materialise.

Temple of Diana, Evora 
Visiting Evora was the main reason for our stopping in this part of Portugal because we both wanted to see the Roman architecture. The Temple of Diana is in a square in the middle of Evora. No real fuss or build-up. We turned a corner and it's just there! The columns are huge, towering above the stone base which in itself rises several feet above street level. Unfortunately we couldn't find the Roman baths. If you go to Evora, don't waste your 50c on the map from the Tourist Office - it's useless because not all the streets are named so start diverting down side roads and you'll soon get lost. Interestingly lost, but lost all the same. Fortunately Dave's phone has a GPS map thingy which found us. Instead, put your 50c towards the most delicious Pastel de Nata from the Pastelerie Violeta (on Rua José Elias García near the theatre). We got a bag of assorted savoury and sweet pastries for lunch which we ate sat on a bench in the sun. Perfect!

The cathedral is refreshingly plain with only a couple of spots where over-the-top gilt is in evidence (and yes, I do mean gilt, not guilt!) The ticket we bought also included entry into the attached sacred art museum which has artefacts mostly of the 17th and 18th centuries and here gilt is much in abundance. I liked the stunning golden embroidery on the vestments but some of the statuettes are bizarre to say the least. One, of a baby Jesus asleep on a cross that was resting on a skull, was decidedly creepy! Other areas of Evora that we liked included the tranquil public park space with elegant pairs of peacocks wandering around. There is an ornate bandstand and a beautiful partly-ruined Moorish building that I'm not quite sure what it was, plus a tall ivy covered tower that was evocative of fairy-tales like Rapunzel.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Arrived in Portugal - Beira

Tiled wall panel at Beira railway station 
Warning - Long post - Ensure comfortable seat!

Leaving Caceres presented us with a couple of not-so-pleasant moments. Firstly Dave banged his nose which then refused to stop bleeding for several minutes. Then the casing shattered on one side of the MotorMover as we pulled out of Camping Caceres. Grrr. Fortunately the drive to the border was breath-taking. Stunning autumnal scenery over the hills and we saw so many vultures. At one point there were eighteen together, all wheeling in a tower above each other in the sky.

Once through the border crossing, we overtook a man leading a horse before the smallest roads we've yet attempted with Bailey led towards Camping Beira-Marvao, our first Portuguese stop and definitely our favourite campsite so far. Its entrance is a steep sandy lane which nearly stranded us part way. The tranquil quinta site is owned by Annick and Rudy, a very friendly and helpful Dutch couple. They are harvesting their olive crop at the moment so frequently all we could see of Annick was her feet peeping out below tree branches at the top of a ladder! The pitches aren't marked so there's freedom to set up anywhere. The shower block is pretty new and has the Citizen M of camping showers - they're brilliant! The first evening, we walked into the nearest village, Beira, where we were very pleasantly surprised by being charged only 70c each for a small beer (which I ordered in my best Portuguese). We saw an abandoned railway station with several incredible blue and white tiled panels including the one shown above which depicts pride in local trades. The whole place felt distinctly eerie - perfectly maintained yet completely deserted

Next morning, after Dave had undertaken a lengthy bicycle reconnaissance, we chose Castelo De Vide to visit on our first afternoon. It's a perfectly picturesque medieval town with incredibly steep and narrow cobbled streets, tiny houses with thick wooden doors, and its own castle tower. We visited a one-room archaeology museum where the guide talked at great length about the varied local historic sites. We saw ancient pottery, beads and beautiful arrow heads which were almost like jewels, they were so delicately crafted. We did some food shopping including a delicious pineapple cake and another local cheese, this time a sheep's cheese from Queijos Fortunato. As dusk fell, we decided to put up the awning - perhaps we should have started a few minutes earlier as this got somewhat fraught in the dark! However, it was well worth the effort as we have since done all our cooking out there on the camping stove so are preserving our precious caravan gas. Temperatures are falling rapidly up here this week with a couple of nights dropping to below five degrees. it's reminding me of Gocek in Turkey because the early mornings and nights are cold, but its still almost t-shirt weather in the afternoons (if we can get out of the wind!). However, several sights have been positively spring-like - there's young lambs in many fields and I posted a photo on Facebook of purple crocuses on the edge of a footpath.
Baby lambs near Beira, 
photo by Dave Greene 

Day two saw us driving around ancient sites including a six metre tall menhir, a grass-roofed stone shepherd's hut and several lake-side graves marked with stone slabs. I'm not sure if the graves would originally have been by water because the river has been dammed to make the lake. And I think I saw an eagle overhead when we were by the menhir. None of the birds have got close enough for a good photo yet. Several motorhomes were parked at one end and we walked round for a couple of hours after eating our bread and cheese picnic on its shore in the sun. Idyllic!

The third day we started by walking. Annick and Rudy have created a selection of maps of walking routes around their campsite. They have a Google Earth map on one side and English language directions on the back. We took a short detour around the delapidated village of Cabecudos which has a stream running right through the middle - complete with stepping stone ford. Dave went off on his bike again in the afternoon - he's now done over 1000km since he bought it so well worth the investment. I tried a short (10 minute) jog and my leg was ok so that's encouraging.

We winged a walk on the fourth morning which looked like it should have been a loop on Dave's phone, but the track petered out into brambles so turned into an out-and-back instead. Dave had pain in his back from about 30mins onwards which I blamed on him getting cold while cycling on the day before and he blamed on getting cold while being on the laptop earlier in the day. One good and bad thing about Camping Beira-Marvao is that the wifi is only available outside reception. There are nice tiled bench-tables to use and the signal is strong, but it gets bitter sitting there for any length of time. This sounds bad but is good because we don't dwell online but go walking instead! (I'm supposed to be using this trip to rescue my eyesight after all.)

I was expecting Sunday to be ultra religious in Portugal, as in Spain, but Annick assured us the supermarket, Pingo Doce, would be open all day and it was - 8.30am to 9pm! Swordfish steaks from the extensive fish counter made a delicious dinner with sauteed potatoes and red peppers. In between shopping and eating, we tried another of the provided walk maps. Unfortunately, having walked for an hour and a half, we then found a padlocked gate right where a left turn should have been so had to retrace our steps instead of completing the circuit. I am missing ordnance survey maps and the security of yellow arrow footpath signs. Walking back home, we would have hopped over the gate. Here, you're likely to be confronted by a large, loud dog!

Then it was Monday and the last of our Beira days. We finally got to Marvao. Perched as high up as it is possible to get around here, the views are certainly marvellous. We weren't sure how far we could see - maybe fifty miles, maybe a hundred. Breathtaking - but almost completely deserted! One art gallery was open so I got my first culture dose from the papier mache sea-and-island paintings of Rui Da Rosa and we saw the courtroom of Mouzinho da Silveira, a very important Portuguese personage! Other than these, we weren't actually that impressed with Marvao so went back to Castelo instead.

And now it's Tuesday so I end this post with an appropriate YouTube!

Friday 15 November 2013


Plaza Mayor in Cacares
Our journey to Caceres was marked by the first of several firsts! We pulled into an aire by the forecourt of the wrongly named Hostal Mirabel to eat our first en route picnic in Bailey. Corner steadies down, table laid, lunch ready - rapid and civilised! Driving through hills we saw wide areas of autumnal trees with beautiful yellows and oranges. There were also frequent sightings of large birds that may have been vultures. I haven't got around to googling them yet. They elegantly soar and hover alongside the motorways and are mostly dark coloured with white patches under their wings.

Camping Caceres was easy to find and we discovered that its baffling website mention of each pitch having its own bathroom was not a dodgy translation but meant just that: a small lockable shed bathroom with a wc, sink and shower inside and a water tap and washing up sink outside. A table and four chairs are also provided and most pitches are flat hardstanding. I undertook my first continental BookCrossing forays (another first!) by utilising the Libros shelves in Reception. However, the wifi was irritatingly sporadic and the whole site, while functional, was a bit too concrete for our liking. It was hot though! Sunday lunchtime was warm enough to eat al fresco (the third first).

Street in Caceres medieval quarter
photo by Dave Greene
Caceres has a tranquil medieval old quarter with a few museums within its walls but, unusually and pleasantly, no tacky tourist shops. They are all out in the modern streets! We visited a small army museum that had aerial photos of the surrounding towns. Particularly interesting was a series of Caceres images taken some twenty years apart and showing how the town had grown since the 1920s. Narrow cobbled streets are steep and, having not already seen Castelo De Vide at this point, we thought the medieval atmosphere was well preserved! There's a spacious Plaza Mayor just outside the walls where we stopped to have a coffee and I took the first photo illustrating this post. The second picture shows one of the cobbled streets in the old quarter. There's also pleasant tree lined promenades into town and, on the Sunday, a group of around 300 cyclists had gathered. We weren't exactly sure of the reason but it seemed to be organised by something along the lines of Bespoke. There's an interesting commercial town centre and we managed to get some of our groceries in little shops. A locally-made cheese, Queso de Casar, has an almost fruity tang and, at Dave's insistence we also tried a vibrant orange fruit called Kakis. They're persimmons and are delicious!