Thursday, November 26, 2015

Portugal's Algarve: As beautiful as the travel brochures say

Worshipers lighting candles at El Rocio
After a week of city hopping in southern Spain's Andalusian region we were ready for a week of less cultural vacation on the coast. I had been able to use RCI timeshare points to secure a 7-day stay in a resort in the western Algarve of Portugal, in a small place called Alvor. So, on Sunday morning after an evening of more tapas in Sevilla, we loaded up the rental Polo and headed west.
The packed church at El Rocio
El Rocio has no paved streets—it's all sand, and everyone wears boots
Worshippers or true pilgrims? We couldn't figure it out, but they kept coming.
On the way we detoured from the main highway to check out a small place that was highlighted by the guidebook, El Rocio. We had read that this sleepy village comes to life once a year when tens of thousands of pilgrims converge upon it to seek the favors of the Virgin Mary. We expected a sleepy hamlet with unpaved roads, as the guidebook had led us to believe—but instead we found the place teeming with busloads of religious tourists and the occasional pilgrim who had walked at least the last few miles on sandy trails. We were totally surprised, assuming that this had to be a religious holiday, but that didn't seem to be the case; at least we were not able to link November 15 to any major saint's holiday.
El Rocio is not just about religion—it's about horses and everything equine, too
Advertising on the side of a building
Excursion on horseback in the Donana, a huge national park
We milled around El Rocio for a while and then headed on, toward Portugal. On a near-empty highway we crossed the bridge across the Rio Guadiana and then we were in Portugal. It's weird how almost immediately countryside can change when one crosses borders. It doesn't happen often, but here it did: Suddenly the mountainsides were green, a fresh, spring-like green, instead of the more subdued and dry colors of Spain. We had left the fairly flat region that stretches from Sevilla toward the coast, and now we were traveling through rolling hills. Olive groves gave way to orange orchards, and the towns looked differently, too, more often whitewashed than sporting the color of natural stone. The farther west we drove, the more pronounced the contours became, and the greener the ground cover became. Either these were the effects of recent rains, or maybe it was the Atlantic's effect on the climate.
An empty motorway leads into Portugal—maybe because it was a toll road?
Alvor, a small fishing hamlet between Albufeira and Lagos on the south coast of Portugal, sports only a few high-rise hotels. And since this was the off-season, there were so few tourists around that many of the restaurants, bars, and shop were closed and the ones that were open had only few guests. Wonderful!
Alvor has both a wide sandy beach as well as sandstone cliffs
View from our terrace
Sunday night Happy Hour
We were staying in an immaculately landscaped small holiday colony, with two-story units that were inviting and stood out with their whitewashed walls. There were flowers and plants everywhere, and the lawns were green and well kept. For once, RCI points had yielded a truly great vacation experience! Our one-bedroom unit had a large living room, a dining area, a full kitchen with any appliance one could ask for, and two bathrooms, in addition to the master bedroom. We took our breakfasts and spent numerous Happy Hours on our terrace. Thanks to Alto Golf Club's being built onto a hillside the terrace overlooked the units below us and had a clear view of Alvor and the Atlantic; we had sun from the early morning until it set in the late afternoon in the west over Lagos. There were a table, four comfortable chairs, and two chaise lounges, and there was total privacy for German-style sunbathing in the buff.
How's this for a coastline?
That was our home base for a week. Nice!
Or this for a private beach?
Weather-wise we were equally lucky. Just like in Spain, every day was sunny and temperatures topped out around 72 to 74 degrees. The wind was light and gentle most of the time, and there was no haze in the air. It doesn't get much better than that. The Atlantic is always pretty chilly, but we ventured into the water once or twice. Lying on the beach was definitely warmer, but this was not really a "beach" vacation, either. But when we came across a nice, scenic beach we'd strip down (hey, it's Europe!) and enjoy the sound of the waves and the screaming of the seagulls.
Contemplating life—or just taking a picture
We took several excursions by car along the coast. These trips were all  rather brief as the days are short and it is difficult to get going when one can enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the terrace. We also walked around Alvor, and one morning just hung out for an hour or two in a small harbor cafe watching what was happening (or not). In the evenings, we'd coe back for octopus salad and a Super Bock. It all was very laid-back, and without tourists the pace was extremely measured, which was just what we wanted.
Alvor harbor
Espresso time
Sabine helping the locals
Alvor harbor, going from sleepy to asleep
The Algarve is Portugal's southern coast, and it is divided into an eastern, a central, and a western section. From the east, the coast becomes progressively rugged, with wide sandy beaches giving way to first fairly low sandstone cliffs with still-large sandy beaches to finally imposing cliffs that no longer allow shore access to the few coves. Here one needs a boat to get to those secluded beaches that one sees in the postcards and brochures. Alvor is on the western end of the central sector—or the eastern end of the western sector, if that makes sense—and here one finds both the wide beaches and the spectacular rock formations. Thanks to the fragile nature of the sandstone one needs to be careful in regard to climbing around, obviously, but also where one lies on the beach—some rocks tumble all the time.
One afternoon we drove out to the most southwestern point of mainland Europe, the Cabo de Sao Vincente. Here the south and the west coasts meet at what is essentially a 90-degree angle, and the difference in the seas could not be more pronounced: When we were there, the southern coast was almost totally calm, with just gentle waves, while the western shore took a beating from hard rollers that had traveled thousands of miles to work on eroding the land here. What a wildly beautiful place! The keeper of the lighthouse gave us and four other tourists a private tour of the tower, and we saw close-up the giant refractor whose light can be seen as far away as 59 kilometers out at sea! The lighthouse keeper and his family live on the premises, for four years, before being rotated to another lighthouse. He's responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of this important beacon, and he makes a few extra euros by giving private tours for a small tip. The next grocery store is about 10 kilometers away.
Fishermen just off Cabo de Sao Vicente
The lighthouse at the most southwestern point of mainland Europe
In front of the huge refractor, inside of the lighthouse
The light can be seen from as far away as 59 kilometers
Sunset at the End of the World
Our last full day was the first one of the entire trip when we did not wake up to sunshine and blue skies. Large black clouds were racing across the sky, and we had heard the windows rattle all night. On the South Plains we would have called it an arctic cold front; here it was an Atlantic low pressure system that was moving through. We decided on one more road trip with the car, this time to the west coast where in the neighborhood of Carrapateira a scenic loop leads along the steep granite cliffs (if these were sandstone, not much would be left of the coastline!). The drive through the Portuguese hinterlands was quite memorable, with small villages, cork oaks, and green pastures. And once we got to the coast, our breath was literally taken away by the roaring wind. Sabine, as a sailor, tried to assess its strength by looking at the spray of the whitecaps and other such stuff—I went by feel and would say that we experienced gusts of at least 40 to 50 mph. I don't think I have ever seen breakers like this roll in! We may have been in Portugal, but this was not the Algarve that you see in the tourist brochures—this was the wild Atlantic with raw force.
That evening, upon our return, we went out for a last meal in one of the local restaurants. Food ain't cheap here (years ago, Judy and I had taken a trip along the northern coast of Portugal and were amazed by the low, low prices), but since this was our last evening of the trip we didn't count the pennies and had wonderful fish dishes. What a great way to end our two-week jaunt through the southern parts of the Iberian peninsula.
On Sunday morning we left bright and early for Malaga. It was about a five-hour drive, comfortable and easy with hardly any traffic and the most stunning views as the storm system had cleared out any haze that might have lingered. It never quite warmed up, staying in the mid- to upper forties for most of the day. With plenty of time to spare we made it to the Malaga airport, and it felt good to return our Europcar without any other wear than a lot of dust and sea-spray and and extra 1,700 kilometers on the odometer. Our Airberlin flight was more or less on time, and with a sad heart we said goodbye to the sun and the Costa del Sol—only to reenter reality in Munich less than 3 hours later to the tune of snowflakes and freezing temperatures and the hallmark of the Holiday Season, the Munich Airport Christmas Market.
What happened to summer???
Thank goodness, in two weeks I'll take in some more sun on the Riviera Maya. :) So long,


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Andalucia, Parte Tres: Sevilla

Stork City just outside of Cordoba
We rounded out our tour of Andalusia's major cities with two nights in Sevilla. After leaving Cordoba on Friday morning we drove on by-roads that took us west through the river plain of the Guadalquivir, fertile yet rather arid land with occasional moist sections that attract storks. In a few places we counted a dozen nests on top of electricity poles, with almost each one having one or two birds standing on top of the large nests.
The poles have platforms at the top to support the nests
Almodovar del Rio overlooks the Guadalquivir as it winds toward the Atlantic
Before reaching Sevilla later in the afternoon we stopped by the old castle at Almodovar del Rio where we spent an easy hour-and-a-half looking at one of the best-preserved (or better, renovated) bastions in Andalusia. I think something like seven towers are still standing, and we climbed each single one of them. It sure is fun to visit historical places without hordes of tourists milling around. Slowing down and taking in the view from a castle is totally different when one is not jostled around by the customary fat American and the pushy German sightseer.
Our last castle of the trip, but not the last steep staircases
Almodovar shares the Roman/Moorish/Castilian history with all those other fortification that the region harbors. Somehow this castle made it into the hands of a private family a century or so ago, and the then-owner—a well-traveled and well-healed gentleman—decided to spend his fortune and the rest of his days renovating the dilapidated structure. A childhood dream? An eccentric whim? Regardless, any tourist who loves a castle must thank him.
Our neighborhood in Sevilla
Onward to Sevilla. The countryside became ever more flat, and my misconception of Sevilla as a scenic medieval city in the sierras evaporated ever more quickly. I don't know why I had this idea, but it certainly is as incorrect as they come. Actually, once we hit the outskirts I started to wonder whether we had a mistake to travel so far to a place in countryside as flat as the South Plains.

Well, I shouldn't have doubted our itinerary.
Old and new in Sevilla
As it turned out, Sevilla was the most vibrant and probably most Spanish city that we visited in this week. There was an authenticity in this city, as expressed though mainly it's nightlife (nah, make this social life as it extended into the daytime hours) that we didn't witness in Granada and Cordoba. There are tourists, of course, but it seems to be mainly the local folks who are populating the streets. We definitely found the best tapas bars here in Sevilla, with ridiculously low prices as compared to the other towns we had visited. I could see myself spending much more time in Sevilla than the other cities.
The bottom part is Moorish, the top is Castilian
Panoramic view from the cathedral's bell tower
We saw intricate mason and stucco work everywhere in Spain
Maybe our point of view was a little skewed because of a chance encounter with old friends of mine: Curse Facebook as much as you want, but had it not be for a post earlier in the week Kathy Oler would not have picked up on my being here. She and her husband, Walt, a TTU engineering prof, are living part-time in Sevilla after they left Lubbock (and our cycling community) several years back. (Walt teaches courses for the TTU program here in Sevilla, and Kathy keeps herself busy not only learning the language but also spending time teaching fourth-graders.) So, after installing ourselves in our hotel (once again, in the Old Town and just a few blocks from the cathedral) we met up with our American friends who had offered to show us around and take us to some interesting tapas joints. With Sabine having sailed through the South Pacific years ago and the Oler's owning a boat as well, it didn't take long for the conversation to blossom.
Seville positively hops at night—the streets were crowded
We spent a wonderful evening together. Walt and Kathy were a treasure trove of information and we kept asking all these questions that we had started to develop during the past five days. It sure would have been nice to have a little more time with those two! I am sure that we will meet up again in the not-so-distant future.
The gardens of the Royal Palace
We spent our Saturday morning and afternoon doing the tourist thing—the amazing cathedral, the spectacular Alcazar (Royal Palace) and its gardens, and the vast Plaza de Espana, which reminded us of the Palio in Siena in some ways. Somebody really went a bit off on the grandiose side here. I could bore you with historical facts that I'd have to pull out of the guidebook—only to forget them 5 minutes later. Much more interesting is probably that one can walk up the clock tower of the cathedral without climbing any stairs: Just like in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul a paved walkway (in the HS it was a path that was wide enough for a horse to negotiate) leads all the way to the top. The fact that people use it to push up damn baby carriages that cause real traffic jams is a minor point. Another tidbit of information: If you want to stay in style in Sevilla, there are whole bunch of hotels with rooftop swimming pools and Jacuzzis, and the people who stay there overnight probably don't realize that you can see them from the clock tower. Now, that's interesting voyeur info that you won't find in the guidebooks.
Maybe next time we book a room with a private rooftop Jacuzzi
The Alcazar was spectacular, as I already said. The crazy thing is that the Castilians (re)?captured the palace from the Moors and then, believe this or not, purposely appointed the place in Moorish design! The result is stunning, with all the tile, arches, and stucco work. And the gardens, of course, are beyond compare.
Spanish owners, North African design
The Alcazar
Camouflage in the Alcazar
Properly worn out from our sightseeing, Sabine and I went down to the Guadalquivir, where on a Saturday night couples and families and tourists and single students and joggers and old men, too, were hanging out at the various riverfront bars. what a civilized place. The sun set, and the number of people increased. The crowd positively swelled, and before we knew it, it was almost dark and we were looking onto the old town from the other side of the Guadalquivir. Time for the first set of tapas after the earlier beers.
Immense woven tapestries in the Alcazar
This map used an interesting perspective that took some adjusting
From here it was simply a question of flowing with the crowd, across the bridge, into the ever-more-vibrant heart of town, stopping here and there for another set of tapas and another drink. Miss S. is a real lightweight, so by 11:30 p.m. we called it quits and went back to the hotel. Oh, how wrong that is, with all those Spanish animals around us who never go to sleep before 4 a.m. at the earliest, but at our age beauty sleep is a major component in trying not to scare kids too badly with our physiognomy. And we really both were tired.
Legs cut off, tower cut off, but at least my fat belly is captured
Sunday morning came very early, at 9 a.m. or so. Life in Spain is like living with a constant red-shift, if you want to use astronomical terminology. Or maybe it's a blue-shift. Regardless, we got up, had a nice breakfast in our hotel, La Via Mezquita, and then walked the few steps to our illegal parking spot (according to the hotel's proprietress) where our car was still unmolested by the local parking control squad, just as I had expected and predicted. Sometimes you have to live a little. Of course, it sucks when you have to eat crow, but not this time.
The vast Plaza de Espana
Sabine at her best
And then we were off to Portugal!
BTW, we never got to see the barber