So THAT’S what a burning clutch smells like

If you missed some of the earlier episodes, you could start at page 1 or page 5 and navigate from there.

After a very long day, we decided to do a more relaxing one with very few planned activities. Beach it is. We went to Portimao, the ‘Hotel California’ of Portugal. Once you get in, you can never leave. Very easy to find your way into town and to the beaches and such but getting out is an adventure. We never did find the way to the highway through Portimao but after we wound up back downtown several times, we eventually made it to one of the nearby towns along the coast and made it to the highway and home.

In spite of all that, Portimao was really nice. Huge hotels and shops lining a street along a cliff with beaches down below.

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Relaxing on the beach.

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These two dogs kept touring the beach. Every now and then someone would try to shoo them off because this was one of those rare, ‘No Dogs’ beaches but they just ignored everyone and kept doing their laps.

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And finally, a couple treats for the boys.

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No, that’s not Sharon….but it was a pretty lucky shot.

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I’m sure we did some other stuff besides the beach but I don’t think it was of any particular consequence. It got more interesting when we decided to go out for dinner. We were starting to get a little tired of trying to find a good restaurant because they’re so hard to distinguish between. Everyone’s menu sounds the same. So we were driving around in the old town trying to find somewhere to park so we could look around. The streets were narrow, the pedestrians were thick and the parking was scarce. Somehow we wound up making a transition from a street that cars are allowed on to a street that cars are not allowed on. We’re still not sure how it happened but somehow we were going down a couple streets so narrow and steep that they had staircases along the side for pedestrians. There was no where to turn around and we wound up going through the tunnel under the wall that I described earlier. Fortunately at that point I managed to turn around because while I’m a pretty good driver, there’s no way I would have been able to make my way back up there in reverse. In the end I had to ride the emergency brake and rev the crap out of the engine just to be able to get up and out of there. It’s not just that it’s steep. It’s steep and narrow with 90 degree turns and cars parked in awkward places. Burning clutches don’t smell very good but at least we made it out.

We finally found a parking spot up the hill and started looking for a restaurant. Believe it or not we were somewhat tempted by a curry shop. There are so many British that we figured the curry would be excellent and this places menu had about 75 curried seafood recipes. We nearly stopped at a little hole in the wall with a very traditional looking menu and customers but we wanted to check a few more places and that’s where we made our mistake. A lot of restaurants have people outside who will call you over and describe their fare. We got sucked in by a smooth talking salesman and a very fancy looking restaurant and wound up paying way too much for a very bad meal. Overcooked, underflavoured and not particularly fresh. There’s no excuse for that when you live right next to the ocean. And don’t even get me started on the service. It takes a lot to keep us from leaving a tip but we had no problem that time.

So the lesson is that if a place looks polished and has a lot of tourists eating there, run away. The problem with resort town restaurants is that most of them don’t care about repeat customers since no-one ever would come back anyway. You’re better off to find someplace that locals go to because they have to be good or they go out of business.

Tune in next time when we go to the market and decide to make some changes to our itinerary.

Kris

Purple Bird

If you missed them, please see parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

As per standard operating procedure, we got up, made some breakfast for ourselves and hit the road with the plan of seeing some sights in the morning and hitting the beach in the afternoon. We went to Faro which is the capital of the Algarve province and found it to be a lovely old town with very little in the way of tourist buildup like hotels and such.

Waterfront of Faro.

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Outside the Sé (cathedral).

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My attempt at an HDR image of the inside of the Sé (cathedral). It’s harder than it looks to get it looking good and I did a really bad job but I guess that’s why we practice.

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More shots in the Sé. Even the churches are covered in tiles.

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A couple artsy shots of the old town of Faro.

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After our whirlwind tour of Faro’s historic district, it’s off to the Rio Formosa Nature Park. Not the most impressive park we’ve ever seen. Fiddler crabs and purple birds. Actually, the bird, called a Purple Gallinule is rare and shy so it was pretty cool to get a photo of one. The park had a hide that let you get close to the pond where they would nest. I just happened to have the camera in the right spot when one walked by so this was the only shot I got.

rioformosa-08.jpgThis is the last working tide mill in Portugal. The mill sits at the mouth of a small reservoir and the tide flows in and out over some blades that drive mills for grinding various grains.

rioformosa-05.jpgHuge aloe vera plant. These are pretty common but this one was quite exceptionally large.

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Prickly pear bush. Kris: “Oh look, prickly pears….yum…(pick). Hmm…my hands seem to be full of very sharp and hard to remove spines.” Sharon: “Perhaps that’s why they’re called ‘prickly’.” Kris: “Well, the ones in the grocery store aren’t….” Lesson learned: prickly pears require more care when harvesting than ordinary pears.

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We saw a few other things like some olive trees (olives off trees taste BAD) and the Portuguese Water Dog kennels but really, the park kind of sucked. So as it turned out, we had wasted a bit too much time on the first two places so we got to the beach at Tavira fairly late. Tavira is at the mouth of a river and has a bunch of low, sandy islands just off the coast which have lovely long beaches. We took a ferry across and spent a bit of time sunning and swimming.

Very long and wide beach. Basically, there are many kilometers of coast with sandy islands much like this so I imagine having a boat would be most excellent.

tavira-01.jpgAfter the beach we toured Tavira for a while. It had a river running down the middle and the original Roman bridge is still there for pedestrians to use.

tavira-03.jpgAnother view of the river and town.

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Believe it or not, this is a road. How can you tell? There are posts….duh!

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Another artsy shot of a street animal. Everyone loves the puppies and kitties!!

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It had been a pretty long day so when we got back to the resort, we had dinner there. The restaurant had looked very nice and had an interesting menu plus, we had a 10 euro coupon from the hotel to use there and if you know me and Sharon, you know we LOVE coupons.

One of the best meal choices we made on the trip. The food was excellent yet inexpensive, the wait staff were outstanding and the atmosphere was classy. We had the Algarvian Cataplana which was clams, prawns, pork and various vegetables and seasonings. This is where we came to the conclusion that Portuguese cuisine requires that, if at all possible, food should always be looking at you. Fish and prawns are always cooked with heads attached. It’s nice though because you always have a severed head with which you can quote Shakespeare. My shrimp’s name was “Horatio”. He was a fellow of infinite jest as well as a most succulent gentleman.

Another fantastic day done. Tune in next time when we have our first bad meal and my only major driving mistake.

Kris

Home cooked meal

If you missed them, please see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

At this time, I’d like to share a bit of insight about navigation. I’m actually quite glad we started in Portugal because the general crowding and intensity of driving there is a bit less than in Spain. Portugal was like training wheels for Spain.

It turns out that almost no one uses street names for navigation. They’ll use major highways and perhaps major roads sometimes but even locals don’t know the names of little streets. We’re used to directions like, “go south down Preston until you hit Carling. Turn right and go to Fisher where you’ll turn left and keep going south.” There, directions might be more like, “head towards the marina until you come to the roundabout with the windmills. Turn left and head up until you get to the A4 and take the exit towards Malaga.”

Signs almost always point to places rather than streets. Hotels generally have more signs to them than anything so if you get a map with hotels on it, you can do really well. There is almost never a direction like North, South, etc. Rather the highways just list a couple cities that you can get to by going in a particular direction. It’s like you knew you had to leave Toronto to go to Kingston and you came to the 401 and you had a sign 401 to Mississauga, London and 401 to Oshawa, Napanee. If you didn’t happen to know that Oshawa is east and that is the correct direction to Kingston, you’re out of luck.

We were starting to get the hang of it which made us a lot more confident getting into and out of towns. Follow the ‘Centro’ to down town and follow signs to any city other than the one you’re currently visiting to get to the highway. Some other assorted rules of thumb. 1) Unless told otherwise, always go straight through roundabouts. Often you’ll only see one sign to a place and then never see another one so if you turn, you’re lost. Sometimes you’re lost anyways but this seemed to work more often than not. 2) If you’re a passenger and the driver is new to European driving, the roundabout is not the time to distract them. Roundabouts are great but if you’re not used to them, you need to pay attention because things come up quickly and from directions that aren’t what you’re used to.

Back to the story. There were a couple of things we had read about that needed to be done on particular days because they would only happen once a week. The fish market at Quarteira only happens on Wednesday morning so we figured that Wednesday would be a good day to try to cook something in our hotel so we got up early and headed off to the market.

Quarteira was a fairly typical Algarve town, with a bustling waterfront in front of a nice long beach. Down by the fisherman’s wharf were two buildings, the Mercado de Frutas and the Mercado do Peixe which would be the fruit/vegetable market and the fish market respectively. We picked up a couple ingredients and some local cheese at the vegetable market and then entered into the mayhem of the fish market. All the fishermen had stalls with their catch displayed. Prawns, shellfish, eels, lobsters, big fish, small fish, everything in between fish. People were crowded in shoulder to shoulder and all the fishermen were yelling out what they had and how fresh it was and that you should buy from them because everyone else is selling inferior product at inflated prices. One old guy was standing there and would go, “Pssst!” and then stick his fingers into a pile of sardines, moving them around and saying, “See! Still alive!” He’d pick up some fish and do a little puppet show with them, pretending they were talking in funny voices and such.

The first fellow we had bumped into when we came seemed very nice and a good salesman so after wandering around a bit and buying some prawns, we came back to him to buy a fish. We picked out a nice sea bass and had it cleaned for us and we were ready to go.

Here’s a photo of some of the selection.
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Our friendly salesman posing with a fish. We didn’t get that one or we would have had leftovers for the next two weeks. Note the lovely silver eels in the front.

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After taking our fish back to the hotel to stay fresh in the fridge, we left for a small beach just west of Albufeira called Praia de Sao Rafael.

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I think this photo adequately explains what I was up to.

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Some interesting rock formations. If you spend some time closely examining the detail of this photo you can see some of the layers of sedimentary deposits and interesting patterns of water erosion. Really quite lovely.

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A small waterfall coming down to the beach.

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After a relaxing swim we went back to Praia dos Barcos in the historic downtown of Albufeira. If you recall, this is where we had gone to the La Ruina restaurant for Sharon’s birthday. We were a little peckish so we wanted to have a snack at one of the little eateries that line the beach. While we were there, we took a couple photos.

Here’s an example of some of the fishing boats that you’ll find on the beach:

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A dog, hoping that if he looks pathetic enough, someone will buy him the grilled sardines.

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Some kids kicking a soccer ball around on the beach. I had been hoping to find a volleyball game while I was there and the fact that there were so many volleyballs for sale and all the beaches had nets set up didn’t make it seem like a completely unreasonable hope. No such luck however. These people totally do not get the concept of touching the ball with their hands and even when they do use a volleyball court with a volleyball, it’s to kick and head it back and forth over the net. Very impressive control though. The probably start playing football even younger than we Canadians start playing hockey.

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Algarvian cuisine has a type of cooking utensil called a cataplana. They are usually made of copper and look like two woks with a hinge and a clasp so that they can be closed for food to steam inside. There was one on display just by our table.

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A miscellaneous shot of Albufeira’s old town.

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This is the view from the top of a wall that has a tunnel down to the beach underneath it. This is a pedestrian only area. This fact becomes important later when I talk of a certain adventure in driving.

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After a little wandering and shopping, we eventually went back to our hotel and started thinking about making some dinner.

We had been quite ambitious about cooking for ourselves on this trip but unfortunately, the kitchens in these hotels were almost completely unusable. Two burners and a microwave, very small pots and pans and no decent utensils so we had to buy a cheap knife at the grocery store. The hotel in Spain was a bit better because it also had a toaster. Next time we’ll definitely make it a higher priority to stay in a place with a proper kitchen, perhaps a real apartment rather than an apartment hotel.

That being said, we had to do the best we could. We did a serviceable job of cleaning the shrimp and had them lightly sauteed with some fresh peppers and garlic on a bed of wild rice. I would have preferred to grill the fish whole but with no oven, that wasn’t an option so I chose to fillet it. I would have liked a better knife but I did a decent job and we had them pan seared with a traditional Portuguese fish seasoning drizzled with a port wine reduction. Very tasty so we were quite proud of our efforts with fairly minimal resources. Goes to show that it’s hard to mess up when you have really great ingredients.

Come back next time when we visit the provincial capital, a nature park, yet another beach and finally get our meal in a cataplana.

Kris

housework

Today was a busy day.  Played the mens doubles quarterfinals in our club tournament this morning and went back to work on the floor in the afternoon.  We’re tiling our front entrance so I’ve been cutting and laying cement backerboard to prepare the floor.  Hard work so no blog posting today.  We’re off to a party now so I’ll put up more pictures and another story tomorrow.

cheers,

Kris

How Sharon Spent Her Birthday

If you missed them, please see parts 1, 2, and 3.

Technically this starts the day before Sharon’s birthday but we needed to include a brief tale of shopping madness. First a little background. Sharon and I love to cook. As geeky as it sounds, we were actually fairly excited about the fact that we were staying in an apartment hotel with cooking facilities so that we could cook a few of our own meals. We were equally excited to see what grocery stores looked like in this part of the world. We had noticed that most grocery stores (supermercados) were very small, more like corner stores, so we asked the front desk where we might find a big grocery store. On our way down to the beach we had stopped at a little grocery store and picked up a map so we were quite a bit more confident in our ability to find our way around so with his instruction, we knew where to go.

We made our way out of town with the plan to go past the store on the highway to the small town of Guia for some dinner and then stop at the store on the way back. This pretty much went as planned. Dinner was pretty good but nothing to write home about since, as we were to discover, much of Portuguese cooking is very simple. Fresh, tasty and hearty but simple. On the way back we stop at the store which sounds easier than it turns out to be. First, a little context, courtesy of Google. Relatively innocuous looking map but it really doesn’t capture the overwhelming complexity of the situation. Traditionally in Europe, most traffic control areas are either roundabouts or, on busier highways, standard on-off ramps like you would see anywhere. Referring to the map you have on the top, the Portuguese equivalent of Home Depot and Costco. On the bottom is a fairly large mall that includes a grocery store. A grocery store as big as a normal one in Canada is not a supermercado but rather a ‘hypermercado’. Sounds very impressive but the store is not what we’re here to discuss.

Coming down the highway from any direction you have 3 choices in every direction. Go straight to continue past, go right to get to the store on the right or split the difference to go up over the bridge to the store on the left. Here’s the kicker though. The bridge goes over and turns back onto the highway where you have to merge not only with traffic coming from the highway but traffic leaving the mall. So you have a three way split that leads into a three way merge. Twice for each direction! They could have just built a bridge and then had on and off ramps but that would have been far too simple. Couple that with the fact that the entire parking lot is one way lanes that lead you around for a couple kilometers before you can get out and you’ll understand why we gave up. We saw the ‘Costco’ equivalent and then drove around for so long, nearly getting into accidents, trying to get to the other side that we gave up and went home. It turns out that the little supermercados are actually fantastic anyway because they don’t try to sell everything in the universe like Canadian grocery stores.

The next day is Sharon’s birthday so we want to make it mostly things that she wants to do. Clearly that means there must be a beach and potentially some shopping involved at some point. Off we go to Lagos. We took the smaller highway so that we could stop at all the little shops and see the small towns along the way. Lagos is a cute little fishing village with a good marina and nice markets and beaches. It’s not as built up with hotels and resorts as some of the other towns (ie. Albufeira) so it still has a small town feel to it.

Enough chat. Time for pictures. Here’s our parking spot in the old town. This is our first experience driving in the really narrow streets so we’re glad for the small car. We packed a lunch so we have a bite before heading off to explore.

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A better look at the streets. The little railings keep people from blocking peoples doors and windows with their cars. Note the mirror for seeing around corners.

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The waterfront.
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Colorful boats (barcos) down at the marina.

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The fish market.

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Detail of tile patterns. Don’t stare too long or you get dizzy.

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Lovely green tiles covering a building in a plaza.

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Stairway up through the streets.

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After a nice wander about the town, off to the Praia da Dona Ana, one of the nicest beaches in southern Portugal.

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Hey, there we are!

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After some fun in the sun it was back to our hotel to relax a bit before dressing to go to dinner. Our ‘Top 10’ book had recommended a restaurant in town as one of the nicest in the Algarve region so that seemed like a good destination for dinner. It was called ‘La Ruina’ and it was in an old ruined building that had been restored right on the beach. We took some photos of the outside which also shows the waterfront. The beach we’re on is called ‘Praia dos Pescadores’ (Fisherman’s Beach) and is also known as ‘Praia dos Barcos’ (Beach of Boats). This is where many of the fishermen pull their boats up after a night’s work and during the day you can see the colorful boats lined up on the sand.  La Ruina is the one on the point behind us.

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There are at least three or four floors in this restaurant including a rooftop balcony.

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The way one eats at this restaurant is to walk up to the display case where the headwaiter will describe to you what has been caught that day and how you may have it prepared. We each had appetizers and a main course, I the sea bass and Sharon the crab. I had grilled sardines as my appetizer and, come to think of it, that was one of the few times I had seafood that actually had their heads cut off. You make up for it though because you eat the whole thing, bones, fins and all. Really tasty. Sharon had a salad that was made with fresh tuna that was also delicious. The sea bass and crab were to die for. There’s something to be said for eating fish that was swimming just a few hours ago.

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Tune in next time when we find out how Sharon and Kris buy and cook their own fish.

Kris

Castle and Road Trip

If you missed them, please see part 1 and part 2.

Breakfast was included with our hotel in Lisbon so we had that and went along our way. We only had a short time remaining there since we had to drive down to the South coast in the afternoon and we wanted to see a bit more of Lisbon before we went.

The Castelo de Sao Jorge seemed like a good idea since it was close and looked interesting. How to get to it is the problem. Just because you can see the castle from your hotel, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find. By the time you find your way through all the narrow, winding streets and climb the several hundred feet of elevation between the bottom and the top of the hill, you could have killed most of your morning.

Fortunately, Lisbon has the answer in its famous ‘Tram 28‘. This is one of the routes of their old electric cable cars that just happens to make its way past most of the major monuments and tourist attractions in the downtown. For a couple euros you can sit on the wooden seats, hold onto a brass handrail or leather strap and bump and jerk your way around the track, passing so close to buildings and parked cars that you think there’s no way it will fit and enjoy the view of the old city. Much easier than climbing the hill.

I believe the castle was probably our first experience with the phenomenon of ‘loose’ animals in Spain and Portugal. I won’t say ‘strays’ although some of them undoubtedly are but in general, it seems that animals, even ones that are pets, are often left to their own devices and wander the streets at will. I would like to make a positive comment on the quality of strays in these countries however. Having been to Trinidad and seeing the malnourished, diseased and often feral strays there, it was quite pleasant to see how well kept stray animals are in Spain and Portugal. They are lean and occasionally seem to have some injuries or disease but mostly they seem healthy and friendly. You will often find trays of cat food in the bushes that are left by kindly souls and many of the animals will happily come up to you for a little head scratch and purr. Unfortunately Canada Customs would probably have had some objections but we were tempted to try to smuggle one of the kittens on several occasions. Either way, there were quite a selection of various dogs and cats hanging around within the castle. Peeking over the wall at some of the lower terraces we could see fresh crops of kittens lounging in the sun and playing with each other. I guess it helps keep the mouse population down.

These two were obviously owned by someone since they had collars but they were just wandering about, enjoying the nice weather.

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The castle was about as impressive as a castle can be I suppose. To be honest, Sharon and I don’t really care for castles and monuments and museums and such quite as much as we probably should. We like them well enough but as often as not, it’s more of a checklist sort of thing. “Seen this, check. Seen that, check. Took some pictures so family with think we have culture, check. Okay…lets go get something to eat and then go to the beach.” Don’t get me wrong, we ooh and ahh over the beautiful sights as much as the next people but we quickly get bored and ready to move on. In our defence, the food was really good and the beaches were very nice… 😉 At any rate, the nicest part of this castle was that it was very high and had a great view out over the city.

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Clearly Sharon took this one but I have to take some credit since it was a tricky exposure. I had to lock in the setting to expose the sky properly and then use the flash to light the interior. The composition is all her though. Here’s a few more that you can click on for larger versions:

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Getting close to check out time so time to get back to the hotel and get our bags and car. Road trip!!! On our way back down we see another fine example of a house completely covered in tiles.

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Now we’re a little bit used to getting around in the city so getting out to the highway isn’t too much of an adventure. We miss the exit to the road out of Lisbon and have to do a bit of backtracking to get turned around but other than that, the highways are well marked, consistent and generally pretty easy to navigate. Listening to some Portuguese language CDs I brought along helps us realize that grunting and pointing is going to be our most effective means of communication. That and, “Fala Inglese?”, (do you speak English?) of course.

Even though highways aren’t that exciting, it’s pretty cool to do a long drive in a new country because everything looks so different. Houses, cars, scenery, farms, it’s all new. Drivers that actually have lane discipline and move over for faster traffic to pass rather than slogging along in the fast lane. On a side note, drivers are generally much more considerate but the Spanish definitely have shorter tempers than the Portuguese. Much more honking and swearing and heaven help you if you’re driving too slow in the fast lane because you’re going to have someone coming up behind you with high beams flicking, turn signals flashing and horn blaring. You’ve been warned…use that lane for passing only.

The newest and coolest thing for us on this drive is the truck stop. We could learn something from them over here. To be honest, we have some pretty good rest stops in Canada. If you’ve ever been to an Irving Big Stop down east you know what I’m talking about. Portuguese and Spanish rest stops are really nice though. Great food and coffee with all sorts of little tapas dishes and pastries and plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables. I think this is where I first met bica. Ah bica, my summer love. Ever the sweeter because you know it can’t last forever but it burns brightly for a brief time and will always be remembered with fondness. I went to Starbucks this morning for an espresso but it’s just not the same as bellying up to the counter with the locals for “uma bica, por favor”. You learn that there are different prices for things depending on whether you stand at the counter, sit inside or outside and so on. Typically a bica costs between 0.50 and 1 euro and can be ordered, made, paid for and consumed in less than a minute. By far the most efficient means of caffeine delivery I’ve ever encountered.

Our route was almost straight south from Lisbon to Albufeira on the South coast and the scenery was grand with deep valleys and tall hills in an environment that was very dry and looked much like southern California or Mexico. No time for pictures though. Gotta keep on rolling!

We arrived in Albufeira having stupidly followed signs labeled ‘Albufeira’ which took us to someplace west of the actual town of Albufeira.  Also it turns out that, despite the reassurances of google and our travel agent, our hotel wasn’t actually in Albufeira but in a smaller town to the east although we didn’t know that at the time. I knew it was east and that we were west however so we just kept driving around in town, trying to keep the ocean to our right mostly. This is where the studying of maps is handy because I knew a few things that were close to our hotel, specifically the Pine Cliffs golf course. Eventually we saw a sign leading that way and somehow, once again without any knowledge of how we actually accomplished it, wound up at our hotel. We went for a little walk to find the beach and finally saw what a typical beach in the south of Portugal looks like:

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I told you the beaches were nice.  Tune in next time for grocery shopping madness and how Sharon spent her birthday.

Kris