As we drove away from Evora, we tried to glimpse megaliths in the surrounding fields and wished we had more time to explore. Not this time though-Katherine was booked on an 1145 flight from Lisbon, and would soon be winging her way back to Toronto. The car seemed very empty after we dropped her off, but Christopher took over the navigator's seat and we headed for Sintra- another World Heritage site on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Arriving in Sintra is like stepping into a picture from one of your old fairy tale books. This charming town is set in a lush wooded area on the slopes of the Serra de Sintra, and was once a summering-place for Portugal's kings. Palaces, mansions and an old Moorish castle can be glimpsed through the woods from various viewpoints. Our first stop was the "Palacio Nacional de Sintra". This site dates back to the Moors, but the existing building was repeatedly enlarged and redecorated by a succession of Portugal's kings. There are beautiful "azulejos" (tiles) and sumptuous furnishings throughout the palace, and the views from the windows are stunning. After visiting the palace, we had lunch at a small caf� in the town and then drove up the steep winding road to the site of an old Moorish castle.
Now THIS was a castle! Clearly built with defense in mind, it sits on a promontory some 1,300 feet above sea level, and the walks to the tops of the two battlements are decidedly not for the faint of heart. As we inched our way along the steep stone staircases with no guard rails, it occurred to me that our paternalistic Canadian bureaucracy would likely never allow free public access to a site like this. From the top, we could see the surrounding countryside, the city of Lisbon, and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The peaks of the "Palacio Nacional de Pena" were visible through the trees, looking just like Sleeping Beauty's castle. Unfortunately, all three of us have a mild distaste for heights. By the time we made it back to the bottom, we were sweating profusely, and not just from the heat.
Our guidebook describes the Pena palace as "ludicrous and magical"and we probably should have gone to visit it. But by 3 p.m. we were all tired, thirsty and ready to stop. The drive back to Ayamonte seemed long- perhaps partly because we took a small detour to make one last visit to a Portuguese supermercado. We arrived back at Aisling around 9 p.m., and found that everything in our freezer had thawed. Oh well, it was a good thing we had been to the supermercado- and we'd had a great road trip!
There aren't many places in Europe whose history dates back further than Evora's. The landscape around the town is teeming with prehistoric megaliths, and the town itself is somewhat of a miracle. Despite Evora's proximity to Lisbon, its medieval city walls, Roman temple and ancient buildings survived the 1755 earthquake almost unscathed.
Our first order of business was to find a hotel, and we made our way though the city's narrow streets to the historic "Residential Policarpo", which had very comfortable rooms for 57 euros/night, including parking and breakfast. Then we headed for the town square to have lunch and to develop a plan of attack for seeing the sites. Evora felt even hotter than Seville, and we wondered what it would be like to visit at the height of summer.
Evora has an impressive Gothic cathedral, a 16th century aqueduct and many historic buildings inside the city walls. The most incredible site, though, was the Roman temple, which dates from somewhere between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. This temple is amazingly intact, due to the fact that it was walled up as a fortress some time during the middle ages, and used as a slaughterhouse before being rediscovered late in the 19th century. Fourteen of the temple's columns have survived, and the sight was awe-inspiring by day and truly magical by night.
Equally unforgettable (and undoubtedly the stuff of nightmares) was the creepy "Chapel of Bones" in the Igreja de Sao Francisco. The walls and pillars of this small chapel are lined with the bones and skulls of thousands of people- apparently taken from overflowing church graveyards. Who knows why the monks decided to create art from human bones- but the inscription over the door "Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossus esperamos" ("We bones here await yours") gives some insight into their macabre outlook.
After an afternoon of intense sightseeing, we wandered through a few of the shops and Christopher found himself an Indiana-Jones style suede hat. We shared a jug of sangria in the square, and chose a small traditional restaurant for dinner. The meal was typical Portuguese fare- lamb and chips, duck with rice and a Portuguese omlette (all in the 9-12 euro range) accompanied by a nice bottle of chilled vino verde. After dinner, we returned to view the Roman temple by night- a very special end to our last family evening in Portugal. As we walked through the narrow streets on the way back to the hotel, we caught glimpses into the tiny front rooms of houses that opened onto the sidewalks. In one, three elderly Portuguese sat in a darkened room staring fixedly at the brightly-coloured screen of a huge TV-an interesting contrast to the antiquity around us.
The next day we were up early and on the road for Lisbon airport, sad that our wonderful family vacation was drawing to a close
The marina at Albufeira is pleasant but expensive (48 euros/night) and the 15-20 minute walk to town is a drag on a hot day. Albufeira is known as the St. Tropez of the Algarve...which really means there are toooo many tourists.... We enjoyed exploring the alleyways and watching the people. Christopher and I had one night on the town after the girls went back to the boat, checking out the live entertainment in the bars. The last bar was the best, with a group of young guys from the UK playing Nirvana and Metallica at extremely high volume in a small room. It was fun.
Everyone in the family was anxious to get to Spain and we had hoped to sail directly from Albufeira to Chipiona. There was one problem- every time we phoned Chipiona to try to reserve a berth in the marina, we were told to phone back later. We tried them enroute and still no luck-and there didn't seem to be an anchorage near Chipiona. The seas were a bit choppy so we opted to divert to Faro/Olahau. This is a river entrance and the tide was on the way in. From a distance, we could see whitecaps breaking at the entrance, but we decided to give it a try since there appeared to be lots of depth. As we closed to the entrance, we experienced breaking waves of 4-6 feet where the incoming tide met the river current. Once inside, everything calmed down.
The Imray guide suggests three possible anchorages in this area, but some of the options looked too shallow and we were concerned about getting trapped by the tide. We opted to drop the hook off the island of Culatra, in 16 feet with a mud/sand bottom, among boats from France, Spain and Ireland. Culatra ended up being a nice choice. It was great to be at anchor at last, and away from the Algarve marinas.
There is a small village on shore- just paths, and no cars, but with a few small restaurants/bars. The island is part of a nature preserve and a boardwalk has been constructed through the town and across a salt marsh to a beautiful beach. As we walked through, there were children playing in small alleyways, women were working in open-air kitchens, and a man was making a fishing net by hand.
The next morning, as I was having my coffee on deck, I watched an elderly man wearing an old ball cap row into the anchorage in a dilapidated row boat, rowing slowly with very short strokes. He started fishing using a handline, and was quickly joined by two or three gulls who slowly circled the boat, watching closely. He had a slow and practiced jig, and within minutes he had hauled in a small fish, and continued to do so every few minutes as I watched. I suspect the fish were sardines, based on the size. Being at anchor really is so much nicer than sitting in marinas.
But Spain was still beckoning, and Katherine's departure date was imminent, so we had to move on. We were still unable to get a confirmed berth in Chipiona so we headed for Ayamonte, about 15 miles east, in the bay of Huelva (just across the river from Portugal's Vila Real de San Antonio). The entrance to this river was uneventful and although we had a depth reading of only 12 feet about a mile offshore, the channel deepened as we got closer. Ayamonte is also a nice marina and since marina prices in Spain tend to be lower a boat of Aisling's size costs only 27 Euros/night. That only works if they have a berth of the proper size though- and since the only available berth was a size up, we ended up paying 47 Euros for the first night, with a promise that we would likely be moved to a smaller berth the next morning.
Since we were back in tapas territory, we wandered into the town in the evening and tried out a few small plates- but overall it was a bit disappointing. The take-our barbecued chicken across from the marina was more successful- and if we made a few blunders in switching from Portuguese to Spanish, no one seemed to mind.
Katherine has only a few days left, and we want to do some shore-based exploring before she leaves. So, the next morning, we started packing and tried to get the boat relocated to a less expensive berth. Several trips to the marina office resulted in the same response- come back in an hour- even though we could clearly see several empty slips Finally the reason was explained- the person in charge has to physically walk around the docks and count the spaces before a booking can be made- if he isn't there, nothing can be confirmed. It seems that the Spanish bureaucracy can be equally as confusing as the Portuguese!
We'll write more about our road trip later. In the meantime, all the best from Aisling 1.