A Travellerspoint blog

December 2012

Algarve

By Ben

rain 15 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

On the Highway to the Algarve

On the Highway to the Algarve

We travelled around 450 km today from Coimbra to the village of Luz just outside of Lagos in the Algarve region of Portugal. In our original planning of our nine months in Europe and Turkey we had contemplated leaving out Portugal (among other stops) to keep our travel pace more leisurely. It seemed a shame to skip Portugal so we thought that we could spare a week and not be too much worse for wear. We made up a tentative itinerary of our trip accounting for all 268 days that we think we will be gone. Some feel that we may be over planners (Ron Spelt I won't mention your name) but we thought it best to have a wish list and outline on paper a first attempt at what we thought was realistic and then make changes. We are happy to report that we can be flexible and change our path to take in account our moods, health and the weather. We knew we couldn't do Portugal justice so we decided to get a bit of culture in the north in Coimbra and then go south to the beaches and any possible hope of warmth.

Our road trip provided a good sampling of the countryside of Portugal’s interior. It is a rustic semi-pastoral landscape. We saw rocky terrain dotted with pine and sage give way to a more rolling country side with lush greens contrasted against the stark redness of the soil. The scenery was never bucolic, no matter how much man has modified the landscape and nor how bright the greenery there is always a hint of ruggedness and signs of potential of aridness wherever you look. Our roadtrip consisted of a series of rainshowers punctuated by brilliant sunshine breaking through spectacular clouds. It seemed that around every bend in the highway there was a new rainbow to discover. The skies over the rolling topography are really something to behold.

The landscape was indeed quite photogenic but opportunity to stop and get a clear shot was difficult to near impossible due to the rain or the endless guardrails along the highway. You will have to go with my written description without much further illustration in the form of photography.
Our path to the south involved the use of toll roads once again. Our trip would be three hours longer by avoiding the tolls but the girls are not quite ready for a longer more winding drive and we thought it best just to get south. The size and modernity of Portugal’s toll highways is comparable to that which we saw in Spain and France and exceeds what we have in Canada save for the Montreal to Toronto traffic corridors. The contrast, however, is the complete lack of traffic. The toll roads here are nearly abandoned. It may be partly due to the time of year. There are huge rest stops every 50 km or so complete with large gas station, restaurant and picnic area on both sides of the highway and no one at any of them even at lunchtime. Our hunch as to big reason for the lack of use was confirmed by Ruth whom we are renting our current accommodation from--all the locals are essentially boycotting the highways because of the high toll rates. We would concur. We drove 450 km and paid out 40 euros for the privilege. We did not pay that much in the more affluent and prosperous north. It would appear the country has overbuilt on the highway front. It would seem halving the tolls at least would likely bring in more revenue than the current economic model.

Algarve: Beach at Luz

Algarve: Beach at Luz

Our search for warmth and sunshine appears to have been rewarded. When we arrived in Lagos the thermometer in our car hit 18 degrees and the rain and clouds had evaporated. We did some grocery shopping and headed off to a nearby campsite from where we called our new landlords to guide us to their hobby farm. The answer Muriel got on the phone was not very reassuring when the answer was, “oh... is it really the 7th today?!” After a 15 minute wait the owner showed up in an old 4 wheel drive that looked very much like an old British Land Rover. She was very apologetic saying she was at an appointment with her lawyer when we called. When we arrived at our accommodation we were greeted by four very enthusiastic dogs and a horse wandering in the background. Our place had been occupied the previous night and had not been cleaned. A frazzled husband was doing dishes and the place was in a bit of an uproar. Ruth told us to go down and have a beer on the beach for an hour at least to let them sort things out. The kids were intrigued by the prospect of being taken out for a beer.

Algarve: Beach at Luz

Algarve: Beach at Luz

We drove to Luz, a mere few minutes away to come across a beautiful beach bathed in late afternoon sunshine and a mere handful of people walking the promenade and beach. The palm trees and warmth brought nothing but feelings of pleasure and confirmation of the wisdom of making haste to the south of Portugal. I will let the beach pictures and sunset speak for themselves.

Algarve: Anglican Church in Luz

Algarve: Anglican Church in Luz

As we had already, suspected from what we had read and seen in the grocery store we are basically staying in an enclave of British expats. The grocery store was full of British canned goods and crackers. On the waterfront we heard English hymns being practiced in a small well maintained church. It was the choir of an Anglican Church practicing for Sunday. We will go to church there this weekend, we look forward to a service in English.

When we got back to our digs, we found the place more or less ready to occupy. I had to repeatedly shew the horse away from the front steps just to get in the house. There is a small woodstove that heats our rustic home. Unfortunately the wood was soaked. It took me over an hour to get the fire to a state that I didn’t need to tend to it every five minutes. It is not cold here but it is a bit cool not to have heat in the evening. I needed to stuff the little stove full of fire wood every couple of hours if I was to have any hope to keep the fire going. So as you may be suspecting Muriel and I got up a few times in the night to tend the stove. This along with the gas stove in which the oven needs to be lit manually and a number of other features (delicate septic system and slow drains-use your imagination) makes us feel like we are homesteading. The place is quite rough around the edges but Ruth is quite nice and her guest book and the online reviews of the place are over-the-moon in their praise of the place so I am doing my best to reserve judgment. We know we are living no rougher than our landlords appear to be. They moved here 30 years ago from Britain and raised a family here.

We are off to the Saturday market at Lagos and then will explore the beach again. We will let your know in the near future how it all turns out.

Posted by KZFamily 02:32 Archived in Portugal Tagged algarve luz Comments (3)

Coimbra, Portugal

By Muriel

semi-overcast 14 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Coimbra

Coimbra

Today was a very enjoyable day, despite overcast skies and a torrent of rain during the last hour of our excursions. Before we set out, we all read the Coimbra tourist bureau pamphlet and selected items we wanted to see. This time, the consensus was to view outdoor sights, concentrating mainly on parks and walking the town streets. Thus, we set off after 'second breakfast' (we're becoming very hobbit like), found rare free parking and walked across a bridge into the town centre. Spirits were high as we spent time exploring the university city of Coimbra. The city was quintessential Portugal, from what we recalled from our previous trip. We traversed the winding, cobble-stoned streets of the old town, literally backing ourselves up against the house walls when a car squeezed by (they never feel the need to slow down either). While the cities are much older and the infrastructure not as well cared for as in Spain, we still saw charming homes with wrought iron balconies, beautiful blue and white wall tiles and a myriad of paint colours.

Coimbra: University Students in Robes

Coimbra: University Students in Robes

It was impossible to go very far without encountering a group of university students. As we got closer to the collection of university faculty buildings, each one clearly marked, but giving the sense of their age, we saw several students garbed in long, black cloaks (reminiscent of Hogwarts, the girls would say). We don't know whether they signified first year or advanced students but they certainly added a quality of mystique, their cloaks swirling around them as they turned.

Coimbra: Botanical Gardens

Coimbra: Botanical Gardens

We visited two parks, the botanical gardens and the main city park. Both struck us as very 'grand,' impressive with their huge stone stairs and lots of greenery. However, again, we saw much decay and vandalism (the graffiti in Europe is rampant), a real shame given the history of the places. We saw a total of three other tourists in the parks; I must admit it is a treat to have these places almost to ourselves (it will be a different story come May!).

Coimbra: Frango with Embryos

Coimbra: Frango with Embryos

A highlight of our day was visiting a market where townspeople rented stalls to sell their garden wares; butchers displayed a variety of animal parts (hooves, gizzards, livers, intestines, as well as more usual cuts); older Portuguese women sold their pastries; and fish mongers tempted us with their pungent stock. The kids were not tempted in the least by anything but the pastries so we elected to sit down at a restaurant filled with what appeared to be locals. I selected the youngest server and asked him if he spoke any English ("Fala Anglais?"). He replied 'pequino' (a little) so he immediately became my best friend. He walked me through the menu and we quickly selected what we recognized ('frango' is chicken and' porco' is, well, you can guess). While the food was simple fare, the meat tasted really good: the kids favoured the pork as the chicken was cooked in a red wine sauce and fell off the bone. Fries are a popular side here so the kids had those as we tried the roasted, seasoned potatoes. It also came with a green salad and drinks. When we purchased mousse for the girls and an extremely small and strong after-dinner coffee for Ben, it still came to less than 20 euro ($26). It was fun to try the local fare as a treat.

The last hour was spent traipsing around the town streets, breaking in our raincoats. Abby was on the lookout for an umbrella and didn't blanche at spending 3 euro on it, feeling that was a good investment for the remainder of the day. As we now sit in our cozy cabin, listening to the rain on the metal roof and the whistling wind, it feels good to be warm, filled with hot chocolate and anticipating our supper (even better since it's being made by Hannah tonight and we parents can have the night off).

Posted by KZFamily 20:56 Archived in Portugal Comments (1)

Garden Shed

05/12/2012 -- By Abby

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

Today was another travel day, but thankfully it wasn't too long. The trip took about 3 1/2 hours total, but that's including stops and wrong turns. In the morning my parents went on a walk, but were surprised to find that everything was closed that early in the morning. Not wanting to come home empty-handed to a couple of hungry teenagers, they tentitively checked out a 24 hour grocery store, only to find that it too, was closed. But Hannah and I were gracious, and even offered to go out to the store with my mom when it was open. So the three of us went out and picked up some items for breakfast and lunch. Some of the things we got were a baguette, some cheese, a bag of muffins, a yogurt drink and two types of granola bars. We found out that the muffins were most likely cupcakes, as they had a light glaze on top and were very sweet and had a hint of lemon. We also got a package of what we thought was turkey. At the checkout my mother had a very impressive conversation with the cashier, all of which was in Spanish. The conversation consisted of a greeting, asking how many bags we would like (which my mother responded to with "dos"), and then a goodbye. But unfortunately not all of it was a success. When the casheir bid us a good morning/good day (Buenos dias), my mom responded with "Buenas tardes", which unfortunately means good afternoon. But we forgave her, and comforted her on the way home. By the time we left our cramped, blindingly pink room (which my parents described as a cozy, cute palace) we were full of yogurt, fruit and "muffins", and we were ready to drive, or in my case, ready to go back to sleep. By the time I woke up we were at the border between Spain and Portugal. There were a couple tough looking border guards, which we approached slowly in our car. When my dad rolled down the window the guard looked at us with a look of great confusion and waved us forward. Apparently there are no questions, pat downs or car checks, just a couple of security guards with stern expressions. My theory is that when you look at them their stares are supposed to make you so guilty that if you are smuggling something illegal over the border you will declare it straight away.

Travelling to Coimbra: picnicing

Travelling to Coimbra: picnicing

When we got onto the highway we drove for a little, and soon noticed that there was an exit. Not thinking much about it we drove on, until my mom piped up with a little concern. The exit had apparently been for foriegn cars entering Portugal, and you needed to get your card and license registered at the toll. So we went off at another exit and turned around at the rotary. We had to drive a while back, but in the end we got my dad's card connected to out license plate. The tolls here are a lot more efficient. They consist of only a camera which takes a picture of your license plate as you drive down the road, and automatically charges you a €1,50. But we are a little concerned as the car is a rental, and when we return it our card will still be registered with the license plate. But we aren't going to worry about that just yet. So we moved on, and the drive was quite uneventful, so I passed the time by sleeping some more. We later stopped for lunch, which was a cold and windy affair. When we got on the road again we decided to get out the chocolate, and between the four of us, quickly devoured a bar. Until we got closer to our destination the drive was still quiet and slow. The only really exciting thing that we expereinced was a time change, we were granted an extra hour. So now we are only eight hours ahead of our Victorian friends.

Coimbra: supermarket

Coimbra: supermarket

When we got into the city it was a little harder to navigate, but in the end we did find a shopping centre that housed a grocery store, and decided to go in a get some things for dinner, and breakfast for the next morning. The shopping went well and we quickly found our final destination. It is called a campground, but there are little houses that the information officer described as bungalows. It is a very small but comfortable area, and my dad likes to describe it as a garden shed. But thankfully our garden shed is warm and nicely furnished, and it even has a deck, and some outdoor furniture. We have a nice view from the back part of our house, and can see it easily as the front/back door is a large sliding door that also doubles as a window.

For dinner we had a salad, some broccoli and some roasted (then fried) chicken. I opted for a different meat than chicken, as it's something I don't particularly enjoy. I got some meat patties, which we fried. In portuguese meat is called carne, so if you want to get all specific, then for dinner I had some nice round "carne patties". After we cleared up we played two family games, Wizard and Dutch Blitz. Hannah won at Wizard, and I won at the other. It's nice that kids win games nights instead of the adults...the tables are finally turning. But this means that my parents are soon going to introduce a game that they used to play all the time as kids...just so they can keep experiencing the feeling of winning. But overall the day was pretty good, nothing really exciting, but also no big problems...which is just the travel day I like.

Coimbra: our bungalow

Coimbra: our bungalow

Posted by KZFamily 13:57 Archived in Portugal Comments (5)

Madrid to Salamanca

By Hannah

sunny 8 °C
View Koning/Zemliak Family Europe 2012/2013 on KZFamily's travel map.

We travelled from Madrid to Salamanca today, stopping in the cities of El Escorial and Avila. Though we weren't keen on leaving behind our comfortable apartment, going somewhere new sounded appealing. El Escorial is home to the Real Monasterio, a palace, library, church, tomb, school and monastery all in one. The security and costs were higher than those at the Louvre, and we weren't allowed to take pictures. The palace and living areas themselves are simpler and plainer than those of the chateaus we'd been to see, though there were still quite a few paintings, mainly religious. We found a solar adjuster in one room, positioned underneath a tiny hole that apparently shines a beam of light down onto the adjuster at exactly twelve o'clock. Unfortunately, we were disappointed. We waited around so long that one of the security guards stared us out of the room.

El Escorial: Monestery

El Escorial: Monestery

We descended to the tombs next. There are seven in total. The first is the grandest, and my mom says that it's her favourite room in Spain. All of the kings and queens of Spain have been laid to rest here. The gilt coffins stand on golden feet, each on its own shelf. The room is circular, and they are stacked all around in the walls, four coffins high, looking majestic and intimidating. It's a stunning room, and you don't really seem to think about the bodies (or perhaps dust by now) inches from you. We progressed to the next tombs, which were filled with rows of white coffins. These held the infantes and infantas, the royalty that had not quite made it to the top of the hierarchy. Then there was the mausoleum, where the children who had died were placed. There were more names than I would have expected. Finally, we came back out of the crypt, and made our way to the library. The biblioteca was long and narrow, and the ceiling was covered in paintings depicting the seven schools of knowledge, including arithmetic, music and philosophy. The books were all faced pages out, and a few were open on display, so that we could see the beautiful illustrations and handwritten text. There were works in Spanish, Latin, Greek, Arabic and other languages, as well as many Bibles. There was an intricate armillary as well. Dad wanted to hand in an application for the head librarian’s position. We quickly visited the church, which was under construction, and then continued on towards Salamanca.

Avila

Avila

On the way, we saw a massive medieval wall surrounding an equally aged city. It caught our collective eye, and we decided to take a walk along the top of it. We saw the holes where soldiers would shoot arrows at the enemy, only to quickly duck behind the ramparts as arrows and worse sailed right back. The dips between the ramparts were deep, and one could have easily toppled off the side of the wall to the earth below. The vertigo you got while bending over the side was very unpleasant. It didn't seem to affect Mom, though. It was interesting to walk where the people of the 14th century would have walked, and made even more real by the old, crumbling town within. We walked back to our car by way of the village streets, and found it to be as much of a ghost town as some of those we saw in France.

Salamanca: Plaza Mayor

Salamanca: Plaza Mayor

We finished our trip to Salamanca, and settled into a tiny and extremely pink room crammed with four single beds.

Salamanca: our cozy place

Salamanca: our cozy place

It's cute, though not quite as comfy or homey as our last place. We'll be moving on to Coimbra tomorrow, so it's another travel day. I think we're starting to get pretty good at these.

Posted by KZFamily 13:55 Archived in Spain Comments (3)

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