You’ll have heard the expression ‘Travel broadens the mind’. I must confess that until this trip I’ve never fully understood it – after all you can get your mind broadened by doing a course at a local college or reading a good book. Travel, I thought, gives you the chance to experience new places and things but you could easily return home with nothing more than good memories and less money. On this trip something new has come to our attention. Our version of normal has become way, way broader. After this we will be a whole lot harder to surprise. Read on for more of the story …
This tale begins on the Campismo (campsite) of Armaçāo de Pera. Many motorhomers choose not to use this campsite, preferring to stay on the motorhome parking at the football ground near the seafront. Three years ago we were knocked up (!) by the police there, early one morning, and given a warning for staying overnight. It seems that the football club doesn’t have a licence to allow motorhomers to camp in their vehicles, even though they ask you to pay 4€ for 24 hours parking. There is a sign in Portuguese telling you that you can’t camp but this is useless to the 90 percent of non Portuguese speakers who use it. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the police told us we must never park there again, so we haven’t. “We have your number!” they said and as they were wearing guns and looking stern we decided that the safest option was to take them seriously. Our only other choice if we wanted to visit the town was therefore the campsite. We always read reviews, if only to ignore them, and on this occasion we came to the conclusion that we were about to enter a miserable muddy place where the showers were cold and the facilities ancient. Why did we enter the gates of this apparently miserable establishment? – you might well ask. The answer is simple. A lovely beach, a sheltered sea front, watching fishermen set off from the sands and restaurants that offer that day’s catch cooked to perfection.
We got a lovely welcome from the lady on reception who invited us to choose our own pitch. “Anywhere you like!” she announced brightly. What we didn’t expect was a truly enormous campsite (600 pitches) with no obvious plan or order. You simply find a spot, pull up and make it your own. It took us about half an hour to find a spot big enough and it was right at the back of the site. It was far enough away from the centre where everything happens to put most people off. We love a quiet corner and we were happy. The site feels safe, has a great bar and restaurant serving incredibly good value food, a good laundry, a dog walk, electricity and lots of water points. There is even a place where you can wash your van if you want to. For this we paid 14€ a night with an ACSI discount card. The toilets and showers might be poor but we don’t know because we used our own. So, back to the theme of the piece. The unexpected event at Armacāo was a deluge of Biblical proportions on our last night. We had seen a sign about 100 yards away warning people not to park there because it was liable to flood. No such sign anywhere near us, so we were more than a little surprised to look outside and realise that we were almost ankle deep in water. The dogs refused their night time pee because it would have involved a swim. We sat in the midst of the flood and hoped that the grounds team would come and dig us out if necessary and, for want of anything more useful to do, we went to bed. To our amazement we woke up to clear skies and virtually no sign of the water that had threatened to float our trailer.
It was a couple of days before we were due to arrive at the workshop of Carlos Rita and his son Pedro, bodywork specialists and all round brilliant craftsmen. Some of our corners needed repaired as seven years of travel had taken their toll on the poor old bus and we were booked in for a few days TLC of the motorhome variety. Carlos’s workshop is at the Eastern end of the Algarve so we trundled along the N125 to the airport where we would be picking up our hire car. There is free motorhome parking between the airport and Faro beach that we have used before but nothing prepared us for the sight that greeted us as we turned into the parking. There were literally hundreds of motorhomes parked up creating a silver and white city as far as the eye could see.
We were puzzled at first until we checked Camper Contact where we discovered that the council has closed the unofficial parking at Tavira, releasing about 150 rootless motorhomes into the Algarve, all looking for a place to stay. All the other official places are very full and many people are struggling to find a place to stop. Two years ago we noted that there were an awful lot of motorhomes in the Algarve. It is now hooching with vans and, if I’m honest, the effect of this growth is to cause us to wonder whether we will ever come back. Perhaps this will ease the pain when Boris’s deal might make it impossible for us to be in Europe for more than 90 days out of every 180.
We collected our hire car and set off in convoy towards Carlos’s workshop, knowing that we could park up overnight safely on a parking area within yards of his gates. Here we parked our van and trailer plus our hire car, did our best to get level and settled in feeling as though a new adventure was beginning. The next morning we were both greeted with a warm hug by Pedro who talked us through what would happen next. Gulp. We were told that the van would be put inside the workshop where it would be plugged into the mains and we would sleep in there at night. During the day we would spend the hours of 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. wandering around in our little car with the dogs looking for places to pass the time. Then we could return to our van and settle in for the evening and night doing it all again the next day. There is something very creepy about sleeping inside a motorhome inside a huge workshop, surrounded by massive pieces of machinery, cars that have been crunched and squashed in road accidents and massive metal doors. Pedro carefully explained how to open the small door set into the big doors and the gate to the outside world so that we could take the dogs out last thing at night and first thing in the morning. He left the toilet light on for us so that it shed an eerie glow around the lumps of vehicles under dust sheets and the hoses and wires on the floor. “Sleep well!” he called as he shut out the big lights and turned off the radio. Strangely enough we did. But the surprises weren’t over.
On the second day, having met a road closure that left us lost in the countryside in pitch darkness followed by landing suddenly in the middle of rush hour traffic in Olhao (the land that tarmac forgot) we limped back to the van exhausted, only to find that it was wrapped completely in plastic. Pedro, who is delightfully upbeat and a very kind young man, assured us that this was only to protect our paintwork from splatters when our new corners were sprayed. then he cheerfully informed us that he had cut the plastic around the door so that we could get inside. A flash of doubt crossed my mind as we settled in. Surely you should never try to sleep inside a huge plastic bag? Will we wake up in the morning at all? Once again we slept like logs, the only downside to this arrangement being that the hot water system refused to work as the vents were unable to vent. The next day we were unshowered and hair stood on end but we’re ruffty tuffty motorhomers and this, I admit, is not a rare event.
It was on one of these days that we were sitting enjoying a coffee and a sandwich outside a rather nice café when a small wrinkled lady approached us with a shopping basket and attempted to sell us knickers. Despite our objections, including given in Portuguese “Nāo , desculpe” (No, sorry) and eventually “Por favor, Nāo!” (Please, No!) she continued to pull out endless pairs of pants in all kinds of colours, sizes and styles until we turned our heads away and ignored her. We really hate being this rude but it was that or end up having our lovely coffee break continually interrupted by a display of endless pants. Having given up on us we watched her approaching the other customers and then, to our astonishment, she went into the café and tried her sales patter on the staff. They just laughed and she left sadly, carrying her bag of pants to the next victims.
We travelled around the Algarve quite a lot in those three days, including going as far as Alvor to have lunch with Mary. All that motoring meant using the satnav on our phones to find our way and, as usual, we had mixed results getting sent down dead end roads and the awful realisation that when a road is closed unexpectedly in Portugal the satnav has no answer to the dilemma. It was on the night that this happened that we were just falling asleep when a plaintive voice came from the other end of the van. “GPS signal lost!” After the initial fright we started to laugh, then we laughed some more, then we couldn’t sleep.
On one of our jaunts , we returned to Fuseta, a tiny, slightly scruffy little fishing town between Tavira and Olhao. We had visited three years ago to celebrate my birthday at one of the outdoor BBQ places where the day’s catch is cooked to order. On this occasion we turned up for breakfast and a walk on the sands. We were surprised to discover, as we parked the car, that about twenty motorhomes were parked under a sign that clearly said “No motorhomes”.
Their presence seemed to bother no-one and undoubtedly the local cafés would appreciate them. We noticed that most of the vans were French and while we sat waiting for our toasted sandwiches and coffee we attempted to listen in and understand the chat from the nearby tables. It was here that we found the French equivalent of Victor Meldrew from One Foot in the Grave. We watched him coming out of the café with his nostrils flaring and his arms waving and tried not to laugh as he marched up to his wife and shouted “C’est incroyable!” He then went on to describe how it had been his turn in the queue when a Portuguese lady pushed in front of him and placed her order. He was apoplectic while his wife muttered soothing words, at the same time looking around at other coffee drinkers and rolling her eyes. Clearly this was not an unusual situation and even the waitress tried to soothe his ire with a smile and a gentle touch to his arm but it did no good. The story of the rude Portuguese woman was still going strong an hour later when we got up to leave.
Just this morning we witnessed another French incident at a motorhome service point where one Frenchman overfilled his water tanks and, being several yards away from the tap, had to walk over to turn it off holding the hose firing out gallons of cold water at speed. On his way he ‘accidentally’ hit the legs of another Frenchman who had made the unforgivable social gaffe of starting to empty his loo before the last user had finished his water filling. There was a good distance between the loo emptying point and the water tap but somehow the first man managed to spray the powerful jet of cold water right across the backs of the other man’s legs, shouting “J’arrive!” (I’m coming!). We thought for a moment that there was going to be a fight but instead they both roared with laughter. A sense of humour and a spare pair of pants was all that was required to soothe his wounded ego. We know of someone who can help with the pants …
It’s been quite a week and we’re exhausted but we have a beautifully repaired van, a place to rest for a few days by the beach at Faro, only disturbed by the fact that we’re within yards of the airport runway. We’re learning to let life happen and to enjoy the surprises – perhaps we really are broadening our minds.