Thursday 30 January 2014

Happy Chinese New Year from Tavira

Spring blossom 
or actually, Cabanas de Tavira which is a small former fishing village about 7km from Tavira proper. We moved to Camping Ria Formosa on Monday. It's a nice campsite, well ordered with spacious shower blocks and hot water in the clothes washing sinks - a real luxury. Unfortunately, the majority of the pitches are small so we're feeling a bit hemmed in. Perhaps we've previously been spoilt? It's much quieter here than at Alvor. The staff are making improvements, as at Alvor, but here it's putting in a new row of washing-up sinks rather than pruning eucalyptus trees with chainsaws!

Tavira town is appealingly pretty. Its architecture along the river front reminded me a little of Venice and there are many tiled houses, each with its own repeating design. Along from the Bus Station, there is a tiny one-room museum detailing the history of the town's water supply, and we caught our first glimpses of the Roman Bridge shortly after. A shallow amphitheatre has been created in a square in the centre and the wrought-iron bandstand on the shaded promenade has to be seen to be believed. It is surrounded with a mossy moat that includes little fountains and is dedicated to a poet. The musicians have a little bridge over the moat to get to the stage!

We've had two fabulous walks today and yesterday, firstly out from Cabanas along the beach of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa and then back along part of the Ecovia, then today the same walk but the other way around. We didn't get back to Bailey until it was practically dark yesterday so wanted to see the last part of the walk in daylight! It feels like Spring has well and truly sprung here. The tree pictured above, in full blossom, is just up from Cabanas' harbour front and is one of many. The Parque beach is a stunning golden sand with cacti, white flowering broom-like shrubs and lots of samphire. We saw several cute little wading birds that might have been Dunlins, or might not. They left these tiny footprints.

Footprints in the sand 

The Ecovia is an ambitious cycle path that crosses Portugal from Spain to Cape St Vincente along the Algarve. It makes use of quiet minor roads and, in the section we can see here, seems clearly signposted although apparently this isn't so true of the whole 214km route.

We remembered that we spent last Chinese New Year at the Hailsham Tennis Club Quiz. If it's happening again this year, we hope you're all having fun!

Tuesday 28 January 2014

A month in books - January

Tiny caravan bookshelf!
Yet another month has flown by already and we're now at the end of January! Perhaps appropriately, as we arrived yesterday in what should the the last of our Portuguese campsites, I have finally got a Portuguese book reviewed below. It is by Jose Saramago. We saw many of his books in the gorgeous Lello bookshop in Porto back in September and the one I finished today, albeit in English, is the last reviewed in this post. I still haven't finished the German language book though! I've photographed Bailey's tiny bookshelf to illustrate this post but, joy of joys, Camping Ria Formosa doesn't just have a book exchange, it has a whole library, complete with comfy chairs. I may be here some time!

The titles link to their respective pages.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes **** An interesting book which examines what we think we know about ourselves and our personal history and, in contrast,  how others see us in the context of the same events. I liked the story and the character developments, but unfortunately didn't see Veronica's behaviour as particularly outrageous in the first part of the book so consequently had to 'play catch up' later on in order to understand our protagonist's sense of victimisation. Barnes' does come across as self-consciously trying to be profound when he launches into his periodic philosophising. I didn't think that so much of this added value to the novel though, leading these passages to feel more like excessive padding by the end.

The Long Firm by Jake Arnott ***** I'm definitely becoming a Jake Arnott fan. Although The Long Firm has different subject matter to my previous read, House Of Rumour, the novel is just as well researched I think and I love the way he intertwines the lives of fictional characters with historical facts and personages. The presentation of 1960s London is spot on. At the time of reading, I wasn't totally convinced by the inclusion of the final chapter with its deep sociological arguments as it did not seem to fit with the style of rest of the book. After reflection though, I think it does work but that I was reading to fast to allow for the passing of so much time in Harry Stark's world!

The Shell House by Linda Newbery ** Good premise for a novel - modern teenagers coming of age juxtaposed against their First World War contemporaries. The novel mainly discusses themes of homosexuality and Christianity and, while it is to be applauded for doing so openly and seemingly without judgement, I though that this was also its weakest point because Newbury does go on, and on, and on. I found the discussions that her protagonists have to be generic with no real sense of genuine teenage speech. Mostly however, I dislike the abrupt ending. After having read all that philosophising, to be left without a conclusion is to be cheated!

Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach *** I enjoyed the start of Heartbreak Hotel. The vignettes of the various characters are well-observed and full of life. However, once we actually got to the hotel itself, I thought the storyline lost its sharpness. Some people find their true selves, some rebound into immediately fulfilling relationships, Londoners slot comfortably into Welsh village life as if they were born to it and family turns out to be the most important thing after all. A very light holiday read!

Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard **** Pleasantly surprised by this thriller which was much more convoluted and well-plotted than I expected. It jumps between two main time periods - the 1940s and the 1970s - and I was interested in the differences in detail between the two. Subsequent generations of several families become involved in the intrigues which does mean I needed to keep awareness of who was who, but overall an enjoyable read.

The Purple Land by W H Hudson **** This fictional account of the adventures of one Richard Lamb, fish-out of-water Englishman in 1860s Uruguay was originally published in 1885. I liked its overtly flowery language which immediately transported me back to the era and made Lamb's constant attitude of 'I'm English therefore ...' easier to stomach. The adventures themselves are entertaining and perilous for our hero, and also generally caused by his falling for the most recent woman to cross his path. The descriptions of Uruguay and her political situation at the time were interesting as I had no real knowledge of the country prior to reading this novel. I don't think I would search out any of Hudson's other novels, but would pick them up to read if I spotted one on a book exchange.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides ***** Wow! I'm kicking myself for not reading this book ten years ago when it was originally published. It's fantastic. An epic tale of three generations of a Greek family who emigrated to America, Middlesex traces the family's story through a defective gene in their makeup. Eugenides writing is assured and detailed, as much a history lesson as a novel and with so many wonderful characters. All other books I read this year will have a long way to go to beat Middlesex.

The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov ***** I think this might be the best fantasy novel I have ever read. Dave spotted it and downloaded it for our Kindle and I am so glad he did! A deserved classic, I am told this is the book that inspired Mick Jagger to write Sympathy For The Devil (wooo wooo). The Master and Margarita tells two stories, in one Satan visits Moscow to create mayhem and lands several theatrical notables in a mental asylum including the eponymous Master who has failed to publish a novel about Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion. The second storyline is that of the Master's novel. The cast of bizarre characters are truly fantastic and I loved the descriptive sweeps of writing, especially the Ball and Margarita's transformation. The undercurrent of Stalin's dark Russia is always just out of sight but undoubtedly present and the Russian people themselves do not come out of this story well. Bulgakov didn't seem to think they needed much pushing from Satan to be bad!

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward **** It's hard to believe, having finished reading this book, that it only spans twelve days. So much of life is packed in that it's an intense read. Ward's writing is poetic and gentle which contrasts powerfully with the harsh lives and violent events she portrays. Her heroine, Esch, is the only daughter of a poverty-stricken family living in the Mississippi bayou. As Katrina is forecasted and even the wildlife departs the area, this family has no choice but to stay and no one to depend upon but themselves and their small community. Gritty, vicious and real, this is not an easy read, but is a rewarding one.

Ireland's Fairy Lore by Rev Michael P Mahon *** From the synopsis on the website I was expecting 31 Irish folk tales but this book is more of a survey of the influence of the faery folk on place names and Pagan traditions in Ireland. Rev Mahon was obviously widely read and quotes many medieval and earlier works as he traces the history of the fairies. This is interesting but I did find irritating his patronising assumptions that later Christian beliefs were automatically superior to these Pagan ones - especially at times where one has merely taken over the other. Also, the essays might be 'light hearted' by 1919 standards, but they've become considerably drier by 2014!

The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane **** I loved immersing myself in MacFarlane's descriptions of the wild places he visited around Britain and Ireland, finding this book even more inspirational that the previous one of his I read, The Old Ways. While I don't think I'm personally up to sleeping out on iced over tarns, I would love to discover for myself some of the places he so eloquently describes. My only real disappointment with this book, which may be more true in the Kindle version I read than for a paper version, is that the text suddenly ends at around 77% to be followed by an extensive bibliography and index. I've now several further titles to search out, but I mistakenly thought I still had hours more MacFarlane reading first!

Piranha To Scurfy by Ruth Rendell **** I'm not generally a short story fan but I enjoyed this collection. The eleven tales range from the mysterious to the macabre and I particularly appreciated the two novellas, Piranha To Scurfy and High Mysterious Union. Rendell is an astute observer of a particular type of middle-class Englishness and these two stories certainly showcase her writing. Piranha To Scurfy reminded me of an Alan Bennett Talking Heads sort of person, albeit even darker! The Beach Butler was my favourite of the short stories.

The Sorrow Of War by Bao Ninh *** This novel of the Vietnam War is interesting for its graphic depictions of the war as it really was for the North Vietnamese soldiers, a civil war between North and South with the Americans an anonymous mass threatening from a distance but rarely the focus. Ninh's writing leaps around in time without any attempt to coherently link events for the reader which gives a fantastic insight into the mind of a soldier destroyed by war, but also makes this a difficult book to understand. Perhaps that is its point. The love story between Kien and Phuong, both little more than children at the war's outbreak, is movingly tender when set against so much violence and their loss of innocence could just as well apply to the whole country that was ripped apart by over a decade of conflict.

The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco ***** A brilliant book, certainly one of the most difficult I have ever read and not least because of how much GCSE Latin I have forgotten. The Name Of The Rose is billed as a murder mystery but is also so much more. The mystery plot is interesting but what kept me gripped is the amazing portrayal of medieval life with its insane yet deadly serious theological arguments. Dozens of different sects, all of which claim to be the true Christians, gain or lose power and prestige dependent on the current definition of religious truth. And woe betide any man finding himself on the 'wrong' side - torture and death await. Women, of course, are practically sub-human so are not even afforded the right to argue! This is a fantastic book that beautifully illuminates a bizarre world, one I am grateful I did not experience first hand.

Thin Men, Paper Suits by Tin Larrick *** Pleased to have been steered towards this new collection of short stories by a timely tweet from Tin himself. I enjoyed his first novel, Devil's Chimney. In this collection, we meet a variety of shady and not-so-shady characters - drug smugglers, murderers, professional assassins, detectives and police officers. Most of the stories, apart from one in Amsterdam, are set around the Eastbourne area where I live so I enjoy spotting the local references. The tales all have interesting unexpected twists although I did find a few to be stretching plausibility a little too far and, as the stories are so short, the characters are not as rounded as they could be in a full novel. My favourite story was the intricately plotted Taylor's Dummy, and I also particularly enjoyed the title story, Thin Men Paper Suits and the poignancy of Detective At The Door.

Blindness by Jose Saramago ***** Feeling completely steamrollered by this amazing novel! I listened to a BBC America audio, via Audible, and, although it was an English translation of the original Portuguese, the text retained its poetic quality, horrific and beautiful. Perhaps Margaret Atwood crossed with Cormac McCarthy! I appreciated the 'no names' device - the woman with dark glasses, the first blind man, the woman nobody knows - as it aided understanding their world. The philosophising throughout is very moving and I thought that the calm narration by Jonathan Davies was the perfect way to immerse myself in this dystopian city.

So that's it for January. Seventeen books this month! I am delighted that two books I have released through BookCrossing have been found and journalled by others - Hello and welcome to ShirleyW and dickenscharles! Now, still on the shelf awaiting me I have Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Jottings by Liz Smith.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

We have visitors!

Dave pointed out that it's well over a week since my last 'proper' blog post - he refuses to count the recipes - and therefore high time I got writing again. I guess we've just been having too much fun!
Padaria do Wini

This morning saw Dave driving to Faro airport at stupid o'clock so his daughters, who have been staying nearby in a lovely apartment for the past few days, could get their flight back to the UK. It's been great having them around and felt like a little holiday within our holiday. We took them to Lagos for a morning although not to the bookshop this time. Instead we caught a glimpse inside a completely gilt-covered little chapel while wandering the streets. Padaria do Wini did warrant a second visit, this time as a substitute for lunch. Between us we put away three slices of various cheesecakes and one honey and almond cream slice!

We also retraced our walk across the gorgeous beaches to Portimao Harbour and along the boardwalks here in Alvor. Yesterday, something new for all of us was a visit to Silves, formerly the Moorish capital city which has a stunning castle-palace at the highest point of the town. It's huge walls have been rebuilt and it is now possible to walk around part of the complex and gaze out over the surrounding countryside. The archaeological museum in town has an extensive display of finds from the local area including many pots, coins, ancient axe heads, beads and, their pride of place, a deep Moorish well which forms the centre piece of the museum. 

Not everything has been wine and roses this past week though. One of Bailey's ceiling lights finally submitted to gravity last Tuesday. The screw holes for it had only been drilled into the ceiling insulation which has gradually worn away. We had re-tightened the screws a few times previously, but this time left us with nothing to tighten them in to. I was disappointed at the manufacturer's corner cutting and sought advice from the very helpful souls on the Caravan Talk forum. Our successful solution (touch wood) was rawl plugs from the Chinese shop held in place by super glue from Pingo Doce. A section of shelf trim had also popped out so this has been glued back too.
Yellow flowers in Silves

Back to happier topics! Does anyone recognise these little flowers? The blooms are each about an each long and the plants are absolutely everywhere at the moment. I guess they are weeds but it's beautiful seeing large areas turned bright yellow along the cliffs and across waste ground. This plant had even got a foothold peeping through a high wall in Silves.

Finally, I can't remember if I've mentioned the petrol price website here in Portugal before? It's a fantastic resource for tourists and residents alike. Every petrol station in the country has to publish their petrol, diesel and LPG prices daily to a central government agency who then update Precos de Combustiveis Online accordingly. The result is that instead of potentially spending €1.41 for diesel this morning, Dave took a small detour and only paid €1.29! Why don't we have this in the UK?

Sunday 12 January 2014

Halfway today

Dave informed me this morning that today is exactly halfway through our epic voyage so,
Menina e o Cão
(Young girl and the dog)
by Teresa Frazão 
depending on viewpoints, sadly half has already passed us by OR, yippee, there's still a whole half to go! This is amazing as I feel we could already been away for a lot longer than the calendar indicates. Salamanca and Caceres could have been several months ago and Aguilar might even have been a previous year! We still love our lifestyle in our Bailey caravan and agree that undertaking our journey was definitely the right decision. We're both getting on fine together which was one worry before we left that turned out to be false! On the negative side, Dave's not finding the caravan seating particularly comfortable during long evenings and that wretched Thetford hob's refusing to light until at least the third match is frustrating me. However, the positives massively outweigh the negatives. We're both far more active than we would have been in the UK, enjoy our walking and the sunny days, are generally relaxed and happier, and appreciate the whole outdoorsiness of this life. Plus, I've definitely got my bookworm vibe back!

Today we went for a stroll from Camping Alvor, through the town and onto the boardwalks which project out across sand dunes for several kilometres. They end at small lighthouses on artificial boulder walls marking Alvor's harbour entrance. The walk started off being more overcast than sunny, but by the time we had got to the sand, the sky had blue patches and the sea looked beautifully blue too. We saw some tiny possibly-crab animals in pointed spiral shells at the water's edge. We sent photos to Dave's daughter Gemma, a marine biologist, to identify them and apparently they are tiny hermit crabs. The sculpture pictured is part of a mini park of six on Alvor harbour front.

Yesterday we visited Monchique which is a spa town part-way up a mountain in the Serra de
Annoyed hermit crab 
Monchique range. The healing waters have been famous since Roman times and locals still make wooden folding seats in the Roman-style. They are on sale to tourists in several of the gift shops and don't look at all comfortable. We drove to Foia, 900 metres up at the top of the mountain, but the famed view out to sea was obscured by low cloud. To compensate, we toured the large store of Regional Products where we bought some local cork gifts for folks back home and Dave found two striking pendants that are surf jewellery from Australia. I guess any region's products qualify! The pendants look great with his black t-shirt and suntan. Returning to Monchique, we ate our picnic lunch in a pretty terraced park by the swimming pool complex. There's some interesting sculptures dotted around Monchique including several in the park and a set of five 
Jorge Melicio bronzes in a square.

However, we did have a few worrying moments this week. Unbeknown to me at the time, Dave lost a filling at a pizza restaurant on Monday. (For foodies, the restaurant is called La Piazza and the pizzas were excellent.) Over the next few days, the broken tooth got very painful so, eventually, a dentist had to be found. Jutte Meycke at Clinica Dentaria Ma Partilha was brilliant! Dave phoned her at 2.30 (yes, really!) on Friday afternoon and within four hours he'd had his appointment, been x-rayed, the bad tooth was out and a replacement was in. How's that for service?

Now we're cosied up in Bailey listening to Steely Dan and the gentle pitter patter of rain on the roof. I don't mind it raining at night, just as long as we get our sunshine back for the morning. Roll on the Second Half!

Tuesday 7 January 2014

On the Algarve - Alvor

We finally dragged ourselves away from Ourique intending to go to Camping Canelas in Armacao de Pera. We had visited a few weeks previously and liked the site, but on our return it just didn't look as nice and most of the pitches in the area we wanted were already taken. Deliberations in the car park led us to turn ourselves around and head on to Camping Alvor instead, following the recommendation of a Dutch couple we had met at Evoramonte and Dave's meticulous research.

Gorgeous sandy beach at Portimao
Alvor is a much bigger site than any we have previously used in Portugal. There are cute wooden sculptures of vehicles on most of the junctions - a train, an aeroplane, a tractor - and the pitches are a good size. Those of you following my reading will be pleased to know that there's a book exchange in Reception, and perhaps even more pleased that I've swapped for Doctor Zhivago and Middlesex, both of which should slow me down a bit! We have set up Bailey in the Quiet Area but the whole site is remarkably silent, especially after dark, but except for the dogs barking in the town nearby. (What is it with barking dogs in Spain and Portugal?!) We can hear the sea at high tide though - first time I thought it sounded like strong wind and was worried about the awning again. Opening the blind revealed absolutely no wind at all so we eventually worked out what we could hear!

The first couple of days in Alvor were heavily overcast and rainy so that was quite a disappointment. However Sunday was bright and sunny so we set off, parking just above the beach and walked along the sand to Portimao marina. The town of Portimao is meant to be ropey but the marina is pleasant and the beaches are fantastic - wide stretches of flat sand with striking orange and yellow sandstone cliffs. Facebook friends will already know that we ate our first ice creams of the trip whilst sitting on the beach and then paddled in the sea on the way back to the car! We nearly didn't leave enough time to get back before the tide came in though. We had to wait our moments to run around a few jutting rock edges between the waves.
spooky 'eyes' mural on a wall in Lagos
Tuesday saw us driving to Lagos, a pretty little seaside down which is just a tad more upmarket than Alvor. There are several hippy arty shops and more of a German influence especially the Padaria do Wini which is a tiny German Bakery hidden away among the side streets. We discovered it through a FreeMap in Alvor which was fortuitous as we probably would never have stumbled across it by accident. There's a delicious range of German cakes and desserts including proper cheesecakes. Well worth a visit (or two!). I was also pleased to discover Livros da Ria Formosa, a multilingual bookstore with both new and second-hand books, mostly in Portuguese but with English, German and Dutch titles too. I only bought two books and one was published by Forgotten Books which is a project of which I was previously unaware. I'm going to check out their website properly soon but it looks to have thousands of books that I have not yet read! Plus I got myself a gorgeous handknitted woollen poncho that is blue and white and very cosy. So at the time of writing, it is half-past nine at night and I'm sitting out in the awning, snug in my poncho, and happily typing away!

Wednesday 1 January 2014


Which is not an expletive but a Dutch specialty! Oliebollen, translating as 'oil balls' are 
A small me with tall eucalyptus trees
photo by Dave Greene
traditionally served only at New Year and are said to be the forerunner of doughnuts. Wikipedia describes them much better than I can but basically an oliebol is a deep fried dough ball containing chopped dried fruit. They are served dipped into icing sugar. Albertje seemed to spend most of New Year's Eve making many oliebollen for the bar in the early evening and another camper, Willi, spoke of having made seven hundred of them each New Year when she managed a large campsite in the Netherlands. Willi doesn't even like oliebollen! Dave and I managed to eat ten between us - they're quite small - and they're nice enough but I think Dave summed up well when he said they would be better served freshly cooked and hot rather than cold as is traditional. Cold oliebollen are very oily indeed!

Having spent our customary couple of evening hours in the bar from five to seven, we had a few hours to kill before the New Year moment itself. We should have had dinner, but were already too full (see above) so now have yesterday's salmon and pesto meal to eat tonight instead. How frugal! We (almost) all reconvened at eleven-thirty for a bring-a-plate gathering with Herman covering the bar tab which was kind of him.  In preparation for Bailey being chilly on our return, we stuffed the bed with a hot water bottle kindly given to us by our friends Kim and Chris before we departed. (Yes, Kim, you were right!!)

Our New Year was very civilised with much interesting conversation and bonhomie - we learned one of our fellow campers had been a Royal Marine frogman, another spent forty years in the Merchant Navy.  We now also have a standing invitation to a beautifully situated Swedish guesthouse.  The Dutch don't have a version of Auld Lang Syne so we got a year off from raucous singing. Odd to spend a New Year's Eve without any music though and, as the TV here is tuned to Dutch Sky and their New Year was already an hour past, there was no centralised countdown either - just Albertje keeping an eye on her watch. There was an awful lot of kissing though - thirteen people times three kisses each! 

Since we didn't get to bed until well gone two o'clock, we're both being laid-back today. I had 
Concrete arrow pointing skywards
photo by Dave Greene
thought about a walk for our final full day in Serro Da Bica, but we haven't gotten around to it. Perhaps we will have to pop down for a last look at the gorgeous river Mira tomorrow morning before we depart. It feels strange to be packing up the awning to leave here after having been stopped for five weeks. Previously, moving on seemed the natural thing to do, but maybe we have got ourselves too well settled? I hope we can remember all the things we need to do to get underway?

We think we will definitely come back to Serro Da Bica at some point in the future. A video we saw of the campsite in the springtime, flooded with flowers, was particularly memorable so maybe a return should be on the cards for Spring 2015.

Tomorrow we head to the coast - to the seaside! Dave's daughters are coming out to visit us in a few weeks time and our friends Chris and Marta have recently put ashore in France and are driving this way too. But in the meantime:

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar! 

Feliz Ano Novo!

Happy New Year!