Monthly Archives: November 2014

Faro Cathedral and the Organ Recital

Since Faro airport opened in the 1960’s, the capital of the Algarve has become the gateway for foreign tourists seeking sun and sand in the south of Europe. It was originally settled by the Moors but in 1249 Dom Alfonso III captured it and rebuilt the 6m high town walls. For a while the town prospered but in 1596 the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh paid a visit, stealing valuable books from the Bishop’s Palace and then setting fire to the buildings. In the 18th Century much of the town was destroyed by two earthquakes and substantial rebuilding took place.

DSCF8407The cathedral, situated in the historic centre, is mostly a 16th century construction, though a chapel has stood on the site since the Constantine period. Inside are elaborate, carved, wooden chapels adorned with cute cherubs and statues of saints. There is a huge, red organ above the main entrance, which was built in 1701 in Hamburg, its weight supported by a single limestone pillar. Upstairs, a small treasury displays bishops’ robes, paintings and a set of small, mother-of-pearl Stations of the Cross. Outside, across the courtyard, is a small exterior chapel decorated with the bones of infants. An unusual and grotesque decoration, but a strangely beautiful one, none the less. A steep, narrow stairway leads to the roof of the gothic tower, where 8 bells ring every hour and which offers wonderful views across the roofs of the old historic centre, the sand spits to the south and the busy airport.

DSCF8394Later that evening, I return to the cathedral for an organ recital by Czech organologist Pavel Cerny. It’s amazing to hear the 43 pipes and 21 trumpets used to their full potential and see (via video camera) how he literally pulls out all the stops (22)to alter the tone of the music. His hands weave masterly across the stained ivory keys producing a variety of music: striding marches, mournful memorials and whimsical birdsong.



DSCF8406The pews are uncomfortably hard but the setting is soothing with the chapels brightly lit so that the angels and saints appear to be part of the audience. After the completion of the main concert, Pavel runs energetically downstairs to receive applause and a bunch of flowers. As an encore, he plays two pieces of music on the much smaller 17th century organ at the front of the church. It’s a nice finishing touch to the evening.





Market Day

DSCF8443One of the best things about travelling in Europe is coming across the local markets. The coastal towns have wonderful indoor fish markets selling fresh fish and seafood of all shapes and size, frequently still wriggling wildly and trying to escape from the slab. Then there are the fruit and vegetable stalls offering the best regional produce which tastes of the country, unlike the bland supermarket varieties which have been transported many miles so we can have them on our plates all year round.


DSCF8440It’s Saturday morning in Olhao and the town is buzzing with life as the locals and the visitors peruse the market stalls. Baskets of beans, pyramids of cabbages, jars of honey and bunches of herbs line the seafront. Even caged songbirds and live chickens are available. Inside a long, red, Moorish building I find the fish, freshly caught this morning and laid out on metal slabs waiting to be chosen and then filleted. There are long eels, bat-winged skate, small sharks and spiny spider crabs. I’m drawn to the huge, dark pink fillets of tuna and ask for a thick slice.

DSCF8445Next door I spot the delicatessen stalls and discover a strong, hard, cows cheese which I had savoured for lunch in Faro. Five rounds for €5 – a bargain. Outside I spy purple carrots (which I later discover are actually very large, long radishes!) and fennel bulbs, the perfect accompaniment to the tuna.


Lunch is a feast of grilled tuna steak, fennel and boiled baby new potatoes. It couldn’t get much fresher than this.



The Best Kept Secret in the Algarve

Since reaching the Algarve, I have not been inspired to write as there is very little to write about. The coastline is, in places, spectacular, the churches are still charmingly decorated and the wine is still plentiful. However, the small fishing villages have been swallowed by towering apartments and hotels, the surrounding countryside converted into golf courses and urbanisations. There are also a lot more motorhomes, mostly full-timers flocking south and seeking winter warmth.

DSCF8258I venture inland, hoping to escape the crowds and find some history at Silves where a large, restored Moorish castle looks down upon the town and the river Arade. Unfortunately, the riverside parking has been taken over by full-timers and, despite reading that they had been regularly moved on in the past, and the fact that there is a perfectly good, cheap aire only a few hundred metres away, it seems as though the local council have given in and are creating motorhome services to meet the demand.

Further east, I stumble across the small village of Estoi. It even has dedicated motorhome parking and services. However, the parking spaces are filled with local pick-ups and the services are badly designed and no longer function. This seems to deter other motorhomers, who see the problems and then leave without even stopping to see the village, but not me. While Trixie gets gently massaged by the overhanging tree branches, I set off on foot in search of the local palace. The signs lead me on a rather circuitous route around the village and I begin to give up hope, but finally I find it, tucked away down a side street.

DSCF8344My outdated guidebook mentions the 18th century building and its romantic, yet neglected, gardens which feature mosaics acquired from the nearby Roman ruins of Milreu. What it doesn’t mention is that 5 years ago the palace became a luxury pousada. Originally built by a member of the Royal Court as his home, it was decorated in baroque style. Then, in 1893, it was bought by Francisco Jose da Silva, a bachelor pharmacist from Beja. He paid for its restoration and in May 1909 held a grand party to celebrate the completion. The gardens were always open to the public and he built a small theatre for the local community as well as helping the poorer inhabitants and offering a feast for all at Christmas. In 1926, having lived 86 years, Francisco died and he was buried in a tomb in the village cemetery. The palace was inherited by his family, while other bequests enabled a school to be built and the church to have an organ and a mechanical clock, similar to those installed in the palace. In 1987 the palace of Estoi was bought by the City Council of Faro and then later redeveloped as a pousada.

DSCF8330I’m actually quite glad that it is a pousada because at least it is open and the staff are happy for me to explore the gardens and the public rooms which still feature dark wood walls and beautifully painted ceilings. The bedrooms and spa are located in a modern, ugly, grey concrete block, topped with an outdoor infinity pool. It seems to conflict greatly with the pink plaster and statue-topped roof of the palace, but the original buildings have been restored well and the gardens are far from neglected and a delight to wander around with tiled panels, tinkling fountains, playful statues and the appropriated Roman mosaics.

DSCF8357On my way back to the parking, I discover a second hand bookshop with a large stock of English language books. Its run by a German called Dirk who raises money for a local children’s charity. Close by is a charming shop selling art, local pottery and cork products. It is a very new project for Virginie, who only opened 6 months ago, but her enthusiasm for the work of the local artists and craftsmen can only help her to be a successful business woman. Steep steps lead up to the main door of the church which has an interesting set of chapels with traditional and modern statues of the saints. When I finally return to Trixie I discover that a group of local men are having a petanque match in front of her while a couple of local women sit gossiping, wearing traditional skirts of the Algarve region. Village life at its best.


A Poem in Porto Covo

While waiting for the sunset I sat observing life in Porto Covo which inspired me to write a poem:

DSCF8073Two old men wearing faded granddad cardigans and flat caps sitting on a bench chatting about the good old days.

A grey-haired woman in a black dress with a plastic bag being followed by a dozen stray cats. What’s in the bag? Fish bones, meat scraps, pet food? They know it’s for them. It must be a regular arrangement.

A small group of teenaged girls leaning against the blue and white walls, trying to look cool. No cigarettes, no bottles of beer, but plenty of attitude.

The fisherman, perched on the roof of the dock building, trying his luck to catch his supper. No joy today.

The local Grizzly Adams, walking his Alsatian which chases away the cats and is then chased away by the woman in black.

The two young brothers comparing the latest music downloads on their iPhones. One in his bright red hoody with a childish logo and the other in a grey and black zip top and burgundy corduroys, clearly the responsible one, the one who will be blamed for any misdoings.

A tiny silver car with yellow Portuguese plates, brakes squealing as it takes the steep descent to the harbour.


Tall heads of sisal, spiky mother-in-laws tongue and creeping succulents cover the cliffs in a green carpet.

A mangy tabby sitting under a bench licking its paws after a sumptuous supper. Creeping like a tiger through the bushes and quickly hiding when a vehicle passes.


The ½ litre carafe of wine, slowly disappearing. Smooth, soft, velvet, red wine leaving a furry tongue and a warm glow in my empty tummy. Seemed silly to have a glass when the carafe costs not much more.

Two women, heels click clacking, tongues wig-wagging as they march down the street to a parked Nissan. Another car starts behind me, fan belt screaming, tyres screeching as it disappears up the road.

A small blue fishing boat bobbing in the harbour, outboard motor raised, small Portuguese flag flapping in the breeze, waiting for the right time to seek out the serpents of the sea.

The noise of the waves crashing against the rocks like a roaring freight train barrelling down the tracks. They come in threes. High curling tongues, turning to white frothy foam, dowsing the dark jagged rocks.


Then, a peace descends. Just before the golden globe reaches the horizon. A cool breeze sends a shiver to my skin. The old men gather, gazing out to sea, remembering colleagues, friends, family who are no longer here.

Slowly the sun sinks into the sea as the wine flows into my body and the river flows into the harbour. The clouds turn rusty orange, then candyfloss pink. A flock of birds fly past, silhouetted in the glow of the sun. Where are they going? South. Following the warmth and the light, and their souls.

And still, only the locals gather to witness the spectacle. I am alone on the terrace with only my wine and my words.

Suicidal flies drown in my vino tinto.

A mesmerising wind vane spins in the breeze, hypnotising me like the snake in “Jungle Book”.

The sun has left the day but night has yet to arrive. The sky is still blue but the air is cooling.

The voices of the local men rise once the sun has sunk. A debate about some political scandal, the latest football results or local gossip. Who knows? My Portuguese is very limited. Actually I know only a handful of useful words.

Thank you – Obrigada

Good day – Bom Dia

Red Wine – Vinho Tinto

Open and closed – Aberto and Fechado

A motor sounds. A boat? A generator? A car? I never discover. I never see.

A shadow on the roof of the dock building. A man hastening, for what? He stands, arms outstretched, like the statue of Jesus at Christo Rei. Is he thanking God? Is he sending a warning? Perhaps he has finally caught his fish supper.

DSCF8048Below him it seems as if a flame is burning, inside the dock building. Or is it just a reflection of the setting sun?

Out at sea, beneath the darkening sky dotted with pale peach clouds, is a single boat. Fishing? Perhaps it will provide the fresh fish for tomorrow’s market.


The flame still flickers, the fisherman still silhouetted on the roof. His rod poised purposefully, determined to dine on fresh fish tonight.

The old men still debating, voices soften, stop, then rise again in debate.

The street lights come alive, offering a soft glow to the increasingly darkening night. A wife, chasing up her husband, appears with the men. Unsuccessful, she leaves in disgust. Perhaps there will be no supper for him tonight. Perhaps he will sleep in a small fisherman’s hut.


Then, as the twilight gives way to the darkness, they leave one by one. Slowly, strolling home to their indoor lives.

My glass is empty and I too must pay my bill and head home too. But where is home?

I am still searching for it.


Cork – More than just a Bottle-Stopper

Throughout the Alentejo region of Portugal, there are many cork oak forests and the trees provide income for many of the local people. Portugal is the World’s largest producer of cork contributing a third of worldwide production.

DSCF8113It is said that you plant a cork oak tree for your grandchildren. This is because it is at least 25 years before a cork oak matures. Then every 9 years the bark is stripped from the trunk and thick branches, and the tree is marked with the year of collection. Sections up to 3m in length and 10cm thick are removed by manual labour using only a small axe.  It is a delicate process. If the weather is too wet and cold, the tree may die from shock and if the weather is too dry, the cork can shatter into pieces. Cork oaks can live up to 250 years and are protected by law so they cannot be cut down without permission. However, the industry is under threat as winemakers turn to alternative materials to plug their bottles. Wine corks represent 66% cork revenue but screw caps and plastic corks have become increasingly popular with both retailers and consumers.

cork productsLuckily, cork can be used for more than just sealing wine bottles. Fishing floats, dartboards, floor tiles, furniture, insulation, gaskets and pin boards to name just a few. In the souvenir shops along the coast there are a wide range of cork products. Handbags, shoes, jewellery and even mobile phone cases. The cork material is smooth and soft but quite expensive.  However, there is still concern that cork oak forests may be replaced with higher yielding and more profitable trees such as eucalyptus and pine, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of those in my travels.

CBS produced a nice report on Portuguese cork harvest, production and products. You can watch it here.

Porto Covo and the German Invasion

No, this is not a lesson in history but more of a present day observation.

DSCF8031I have been slowly meandering down the coast of Portugal and in that time have come across only a spattering of other motorhomes outside of the obvious tourist destinations. They have been mixed nationalities: French, British, Dutch, German, Swiss, Belgian and the occasional Spaniard, and travelling individually or in pairs. The exception was the Portuguese Motorhome Association get-together of 60+ motorhomes in Condeixa-a-Nova.

Now, I find myself in the small sleepy coastal village of Porto Covo and I can’t move for German motorhomes. They’ve staked out the cliff top spots as if they had placed their beach towels around the swimming pool and are sitting in comfy chairs, sipping cups of hot tea while watching the waves crash against the rocks.

DSCF8068I park in the official aire, well just beside it as it’s rather muddy after the last two days of continuous rain, and am soon penned in by a highly-polished, burgundy, German campervan and a large, German Hymer with an appropriately large, noisy dog.

I had read that the police had clamped down on wild camping in the Algarve and it seems that perhaps the German sunseekers have decided to move north to the Alentejo coast. Or, perhaps this is only the front line and I have yet to encounter the main offensive.

DSCF8052Despite the invasion, Porto Covo is a lovely, relaxed place, even more so now that the sun has decided to put in an appearance. It’s wonderful to walk along the cliff tops, around small coves with beaches and jagged rock outcroppings, where cormorants sit and dry their wings. In the largest cove there is a small fishing harbour with tiny little cottages where old fishermen sit and disentangle their nets. My passing sets off a cacophony of canine barks, better than any modern alarm system, but I don’t see any dogs. They are hidden behind walls or doors.

DSCF8078During the summer months, the fishermen earn extra euros by ferrying the more adventurous tourists to Peach Tree Island a kilometre off the coast. However, there are no peach trees on the island and apart from a ruined 17th century castle, it is rather barren.

As I sit on a restaurant terrace with a glass of local red wine, while watching the sun sink into the sea, I wonder why I am the only customer. It’s not like the village is short of potential clients. But it seems that the Germans prefer to stay with their motorhomes and enjoy the sunset from their own little bubble.


James Bond in Portugal

I love watching James Bond movies on a wet winter afternoon. The exotic locations always make me feel warmer while the exciting action and stupendous stunts keep me engaged. They are also so British, as are the actors who play Bond, all except the Australian, George Lazenby, who featured in just one film – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I’m surprised to learn that many of the scenes were shot in Portugal and I find myself on location with Bond.


Cascais was once a fishing village but is now a popular holiday resort due to its proximity with the capital city. I stop briefly to enjoy the sea vies and stumble upon an interesting 19th century house which is now open to the public and, even better, free entry. There are some interesting paintings and pieces of furniture, including a large red organ. The room which houses it was specially adapted so it would fit.

Just along the coast is the big brash resort of Estoril with a grand casino and several golf courses. In 1941 Ian Fleming, like many other intelligence officers (spies), was stationed here. The casino is said to have inspired his novel “Casino Royal” and the Palacio Hotel nearby featured in the 1969 film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, as well as accommodating the cast and crew during filming.


The opening sequence of the film was shot on the road between Cabo da Roca and Guincho Beach and it’s at Guincho that Bond dives into the sea to rescue Tracy. It’s a beautiful windswept place with high dunes which can be surveyed in greater detail from a boardwalk path. The coast road is dotted with expensive seafood restaurants and immense car parks which remain empty at this time of year. Cabo da Roca would also be a rather desolate place if it were not for the coachloads of tourists who arrive to see the most westerly point in Europe. The staff of the tourist office tell me that the Asian visitors are often reduced to tears if they are unable to get the €11 certificate which proves they have been there.










Although Lisbon itself doesn’t feature in the film, the iconic red suspension bridge which spans the Tagus River does. Bond, having been captured and restrained by two thugs, is driven across the bridge.

DSCF7942A few days later, I find myself driving along the winding mountain road of the Serra de Arrabida which features in the final scene of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. The scenery passes easily for a Mediterranean landscape with pine-clad slopes dropping off into the sea. I pass by the now-empty Franciscan Convent of Arrabida, and stop at a spot which offers views up to the green mountains, down to the sandy beaches and across to the Troia Peninsula. This is a rather unique landmark which clearly identifies the location where newlywed Tracy dies in the arms of Bond, having been shot by the villainous Blofeld. Although I don’t think the high rise hotels and apartments existed in 1969!