Just in case anyone is wondering whether we have disappeared off the end of Europe we are alive and well in Lagos in the Algarve. The long silence has been one of the effects of being battered by Storm Elsa. Almost a full week of rain and wind with no sunshine at all has meant that I couldn’t charge my laptop. I’ve been in blogging withdrawal. Today the sun came out in magnificent glory and life has returned to my wee Macbook Pro. So, here is a quick recap of our travels since the last time.
The Camper Park at Vera is called Carpe Diem. We stayed for two nights, seizing the day by meeting up with our friends Pam and Jeremy for lunch and enjoying a proper catch up. Our main reason for stopping in the region was to see them and we were thoroughly cheered by our outing together. The great thing about good friends is being able to pick up where you left off as though nearly two years hasn’t really passed since you last saw one another.
The next day we took a day off travelling and explored the little town. To be honest it doesn’t have much to excite a visitor unless you want to look at an old bullring with a museum of bullfighting. Personally I would rather do almost anything else. We did appreciate the supermarket and the chance to fill up with LPG and cheap diesel but we managed to resist Iceland and a selection of UK food items. Melanie and Biz, who were there when we arrived, gave in to the temptation of mince pies and other Christmas goodies. They left soon after, possibly because they were afraid that we would raid their food cupboard.
On one of our walks with the dogs we became aware of a dog following us. It was clearly well cared for and had a collar and a tag but it was out on its own and looking for company. Unfortunately, being a dog, its preferred method of making friends with other dogs was to attach its nose to their behinds. Our dogs found this unacceptably intrusive, especially as it did it constantly all the way down the road. Eventually, trying to walk agitated dogs became unbearable so we decided to walk back to the camper park. The mutt followed, still attached to Boo’s behind. When we got to the park and opened the gate, the dog ran in ahead of us. To our shame we shut the gate quickly and went away to complete our walk leaving all the motorhomers, who were sitting having a quiet afternoon, to the merciless pestering of the chronic bum sniffer. When we got back we saw that Pedro had it on a rope and was on his phone, presumably calling its owner. We walked by with a look of innocence and as much dignity as we could muster and shot back into our van before we could be questioned about our guilty part in the drama.
Carpe Diem is a beautifully designed and very well managed motorhome park so we don’t want to be negative but we think its position makes it more suitable for a quick stopover. Other people obviously felt differently and were settled in for the whole winter. There was a friendly, holiday atmosphere around the place and we felt a small pang of sadness as we decided to move on.
The next day we set off in the direction of the Sierra Nevada. The route to Portugal from Almeria involves either the coastal towns or cutting through the mountains. We decided against the coastal towns because they are hooching with motorhomes, cafés serving full English breakfast and a lot of new and busy motorhome parks. Many people love the south of Spain but we weren’t in the mood for its delights, thinking instead of happy times spent in the Algarve. I realise as I write this that there is very little logic in the decisions we make when we’re travelling because I distinctly remember writing about the Algarve being too full of motorhomes on a previous visit. Still, on a long tour we allow ourselves to set logic aside and just go with the mood of the moment.
Looking on CamperContact online we found a beautiful looking place up in the mountains promising peace and tranquillity. We drove through the mountains, loving the incredible craggy scenery and imagining settling down amidst beauty and country walks. The first hitch came when we took a wrong turning off a motorway roundabout and had to take a ten mile detour. The second was getting lost because the alternative turn off shown on the satnav appeared not to exist and the third, after miles of driving on narrow roads, was discovering that although the place was indeed very beautiful, there was nowhere safe to walk the dogs. There was also almost no mobile signal and it was only 2 p.m. We realised we would be sitting for hours in the motorhome staring at one another so we decided instead to move on to our next planned stop.
Campillos is a little town we have visited before. It’s very attractive, very Spanish and has a neat and free motorhome parking area with services. The last time we were there we found ourselves alone on the parking and thought we were in heaven until the whole town started partying and went on until 4.00 a.m. After our long drive through the mountains we knew that we would sleep through anything so we were prepared to risk the possibility of another street party in exchange for a rest and a friendly welcome. To our amazement we arrived to find a massive meet of a Spanish Motorhomers Club. We got tucked in next to a French motorhome with a trailer, the only other non member of the group and considered the chances of all 40 or so motorhomes engaging in loud frolics until the early hours. We decided that we were too knackered to care, ate some dinner, went for a walk and fell into bed.
As it happens the motorhomers were polite, quiet and very fine company. The next day Shirley wandered over to watch them cooking an enormous paella for the whole group and got a lesson in paella making, Unfortunately it was delivered in Spanish and she only learned that this recipe contained chicken and Valencian beans.
My treat was meeting our French neighbour at the service point and finding that I could indeed manage a pleasant conversation in French, having decided earlier in the trip that my brain had decided to trim down its store of knowledge as threatened by the expression “use it or lose it”. We discussed trailers, children, grandchildren, the dangers of touring Portugal when the cakes and bread are so good and we don’t want to end the trip several kilos heavier, the difficulties of remembering what you learned in school and the joys of being retired and having all the time in the world. I returned to the van in high spirits as the man had not uttered one word of English and I had held my own. To be fair, he had spoken slowly and repeated things using other words when I got stuck but it felt good.
Later that day we went out on a voyage of discovery. Shirley had seen a sign advertising an International Piano Competition in the town that very weekend. Eventually we found the sign and looked up the address on Google Maps. To our amazement it was being held in a school about 50 yards from where we were parked. Casing the joint early that afternoon we found another couple doing the same thing. Between us we managed to find the hall it would be held in and were told that we could return just before 4 p.m. to hear the semi finals. Amazingly, sitting in on this event cost us absolutely nothing and we were entertained by three superb pianists. So, to recap: we stayed for the weekend on a motorhome park with free services, made friendly and interesting connections with other motorhomers, received first class entertainment and it cost us nothing, zippo, zilch. In exchange for all this we spent 20€ in the supermarket and left feeling thoroughly blessed.
Our last stop in Spain was just west of Seville in a little town called Umbrete. We stayed here because our first planned stop was Tavira just over the border into Portugal and the motorhome parking had no services. Umbrete was near enough the border for us to fill up our tanks, our spare water bottles, empty all waste water and toilets and arrive in Tavira the next morning fully prepared for a few days parked up beside the town. Melanie and Biz were there ahead of us and they were enthusiastic about the joys of a stop there so we duly picked up their excitement and began to imagine the wonders of our stay in Tavira. As we motored along, the place took on almost mythical proportions of delight until we found ourselves referring to it as Blessed Tavira.
Tavira is lovely. The town is cute, there are lots of interesting shops and coffee shops, walks along the Rio Formosa, a ferry to take you over to the Isla Tavira for 2€ return and, joy of joys, a wonderful market right beside the motorhome parking where you can go every morning and buy your food fresh. We had a fabulous 5 days there only a little diminished by wandering dogs and persistent beggars. Here we found ourselves struggling with our liberal values and our desire to spread a little kindness. When several men each day knock on your door and ask for money it is clear that giving to one will only open the flood gates as they communicate the possibility that another person might get lucky with that British motorhome in the corner. We really had no idea what to do and eventually had to resort to shouting “No” as they approached. This shout set the dogs off barking and the beggars scuttled away. We haven’t seen this anywhere else in the Algarve and it left us feeling uncomfortable. Fortunately for us, Melanie and Biz were next door and we felt completely safe. Having said all that, Tavira really is lovely and we would definitely return.
Leaving Tavira we stopped at the workshops of Carlos Rita, the brilliant fixer of cracked & damaged bits of motorhome bodies, to get a quote for five (yes five) areas of bodywork that need repairing on our van. Most motorhomes are coated in a kind of hard plastic and small areas that were probably slightly damaged when we got it have started to creep and break up and we have a hole where a man in a van reversed into us and left without leaving his details. All the damage is small but to protect the value of the van we need to get it done. We were met by Carlos’s son Pedro, who mercifully speaks excellent English and was able to discuss what needed to be done and explain how it would all work. The quote was a bit more than we hoped but Pedro’s excellent explanation made us realise that the job is also a lot bigger than we realised. Holly would need to be in his workshop for three days but Pedro explained that we can sleep in her each night in the secure yard. Carlos has done work for us before and it was excellent, so we booked the old girl in for cosmetic surgery at the end of January. We now have the perfect excuse to hang about doing not very much for weeks while we wait for our turn in his busy schedule.
A strange thing just happened while I was writing that – I accidentally hit the button that activates the camera on the laptop and was met with that horrifying image when you see yourself concentrating and frowning. That unexpected sight made me realise that the motorhome is not the only thing that could do with some filler and a respray…. I need a moment to recover from the shock.
The Algarve is only about 90 miles from East to West and it is easy to wander about trying different places and exploring. Our next stop is an old favourite and it is where we will be spending Christmas. We’re parked up on the motorhome parking at the Municipal Sports Stadium at the edge of Lagos town. Here, for 3€ a night, you can park up, spread yourself out, sit outside, put up your washing whirly, fill up your tanks at the services for 2€ and even do your washing in a big Miele washer, also for 2€. This is the ultimate cheapy Christmas and we couldn’t be happier. It’s a friendly place where motorhomers greet one another kindly and keep an eye out for one another. On the first night we were here, a Frenchman from a van nearby came out to point at the front of the van. I got out and he explained to me that we’d left our lights on. As it happened we hadn’t – it was a trick of the light when the sunset reflected off the glass on the lights. He apologised and I tried to tell him that we really appreciated his kindness and concern. In a place like this motorhomers look out for one another and it feels good. From here you can easily walk into town or to the many café bars at the marina. You can even go swimming at the big Municipal Pool across the road. As I write this Shirley is in the stadium watching a football game with Melanie and Biz who have just turned up. Our friends Mary and Jacqui are parked nearby and we have booked to have Christmas Dinner at Lazy Jacks, a favourite bar and restaurant and all round happy place.
So there you have it. In two weeks we have travelled 450 miles, made connections, made appointments, and experienced two ferocious storms. We’ve seriously doubted the wisdom of driving 2500 miles through dreadful weather and even felt quite down hearted when we’ve been stuck inside for days on end and then, almost miraculously, everything has changed and we’ve spent the afternoon in the sunshine in summer clothes. Our spirits are lifted, we’re feeling healthy and fit and life is good in Holly the Motorhome. Today is the first day of the slow return to the light of summer. The shortest day is over and we can look forward to new beginnings.
Happy Christmas from Portugal! Feliz Natal!