So before we go any further I know I left you all hanging after my last post with regard to Cathy’s iPhone. Well – did it survive its plunge into the sea at Foz?? I am happy to report (and I should say that Cathy was especially happy) it survived and rose from the dead (and from hence forth should be renamed Lazarus!). We didn’t switch it on for 3 days to give i the maximum chance to dry out in its bag of rice and silica gel. The power switch was apprehensively pressed and hey presto – everything was ok including her pictures and apps. Phew what a relief!! ☺️☺️ And so on with our journey – as mentioned in our last post we crossed the invisible line on the road into yet another country, with its different language and different cultures. The one real benefit these days is that you don’t need to worry about currency as the Euro does away with all that (apart from the UK!). The first thing we noticed that was certainly very different was the language. I have never really been exposed to the Portugese language, apart from Colin Firth’s girlfriend in Love Actually! When you listen to it you begin to wonder what country you are really in as it sounds part Dutch and part Eastern European. Very strange. The key words are Bom Dia (good day), ola (hello) and obrigado (thank you). The second thing we noticed was the driving. The Portugese are awful drivers. No matter at what speed you are travelling they always NEED to overtake, whether it is approaching a bend or brow of a hill!! Quite scary really. And the other thing that is apparent is that the country is still gripped by recession. As the Lonely Planet says: “Portugal’s economy wasn’t particularly strong in the years before the economic crisis, making the downturn all the more destructive: GDP growth has averaged just 1% annually over the past decade. Placed into the economically failing eurozone nations known as PIIGS (representing Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), in 2011 Portugal – in dire financial straits – accepted an EU bailout worth €78 billion. The younger generation has born the heaviest toll from the crisis, with unemployment above 40% for workers under the age of 25. In addition to this, there are the underemployed and those scraping by on meagre wages; in Portugal, the minimum wage is €566 per month, less than half that of the UK or France.” Some of the towns appear run down with many shops closed. The roads are badly in need of repair and you don’t generally get a feeling of prosperity. Maybe that will be different when we get down to the Algarve which is a favourite destination of the French, Dutch, Germans and of course the English for a winter retreat, and alleged to be the warmest and driest part of Europe during the winter months. We will see. Our first stop was to be on one of the many beaches that face the Atlantic Ocean. We had been told by the Dutch we had met at “the smelly aire” that the beach at Afife was beautiful, so we duly set the satnav. However it became apparent as we drove down the cobbled track that the area had been cordoned off and some extensive renovation work was being undertaken on the beach. This is only to be expected to a degree as the summer season is well and truly over and now is the opportunity to undertake maintenance. Anyway we tried unsuccessfully to access a couple of beaches (Aurora is a big girl after all and not suitable for some of Portugal’s narrow cobbled roads) before eventually finding a parking area at Praia Norte (praia is Portuguese for beach) near the town of Viana Do Castello. It was literally yards from the raging Atlantic. We parked up and within a few minutes we were joined by the two Dutch couples we had previously met at the “smelly aire”! As the day drew to a close the weather worsened and by late evening the rain was lashing down. We were philosophical about the decline in conditions because we have had some fantastic weather since leaving Camping Ruisseau de Treil in France. In any event there is also something comforting about being secure and dry inside Aurora as the wind and rain does its worst. We moved on the next morning to clearing skies and travelled the short distance to Esposende. Once again within a short while we were joined by the Dutch (we must stop meeting like this). The beach was lovely and we took a stroll along the beach watching the waves pound the shore. From here we decided, having studied the Lonely Planet, that we would travel the short distance inland to medieval walled town of Barcelos. This was supposedly famous for two reasons. The first was its weekly market which was supposedly the largest and oldest in Portugal. It just so happened it is held every Thursday and that we happened to be in the area on Thursday! Pure coincidence! (or so Cathy advised me!!)
The bridge into Barcelos
We found our way to the aire on Wednesday afternoon and bided our time for the rest of the day by having a quick look round the town, including looking around the church in the main square, some palace ruins (which have been transformed into an open air archaeological museum), and sampling our first (of many) “pastel de nata”- very similar to our egg custard tarts.
The church at Barcelos
Cathy in the 15th century ruins of the Paco dos Duques de Braganca (Palace of the Dukes of Braganca)
Folk must have been equally as short as Cathy in the 15th Century!
So early on Thursday morning, after a torrential rain and a lightning storm during the night, we set forth for the market not knowing quite what to expect. Needless to say it was huge with all sorts of colourful stalls selling a selection of goods from fruit and veg, live rabbits and chickens, clothing and ironmongery, Portugal’s famous ceramics and what looked like stills for making moonshine!
Fresh fruit and veg on sale at Barcelos market
Cathy and I decided that we go our separate ways for an hour so I wandered around the various stalls taking in the atmosphere without necessarily intending to buy anything. However one stall attracted my attention – it was selling sweet chestnuts, with stacks of lovely looking chestnuts roasting on a charcoal grill. The woman behind the stall was very persuasive and I purchased a bag for a couple of euros, which were duly wrapped in a newspaper cone and I then proceeded to walk round the rest of the market munching on my brunch! They were very tasty!
Taste my lovely sweet chestnuts
Look at the size of those melons!
All looks a bit fishy
The other thing Barcelos is famous for is the Galo de Barcelos – a colourful cockerel which is acknowledged as an unofficial national icon and often used as Portugal’s national emblem.
The Cock of Barcelos
His colourful crest adorns a thousand souvenir stalls and many of Barcelos’ streets are adorned with huge larger than life size cockerels – but just how and why did the proud Portuguese cockerel become a national icon? It seems that a humble pilgrim, plodding his way to Santiago de Compostela (the Way of St James) in the 16th century, stopped to rest in Barcelos, only to find himself wrongfully accused of theft and then swiftly condemned to be hanged. Before his execution, the outraged pilgrim asked to see the judge who had found him guilty. When they arrived at the judge’s house, he was having a banquet with his friends. The pilgrim again protested his innocence and to everyone’s disbelief, pointed at the roasted cockerel on the judge’s table and inspired by Divine intervention said “If I am innocent, the cockerel will crow three times”. In the precise moment the pilgrim was hanged, the cockeral stood up from the judge’s table and crowed three times. The judge was so astonished by this miracle that he hurried to the gallows to find the pilgrim hanging by the neck, however the noose was limp and the pilgrim was set free. Why was the noose limp? Because St James was holding up and supporting the pilgrim by his feet. A few years later the pilgrim returned to Barcelos and built a monument in devotion to the Virgin Mary and St James.
If you look closely on the moment, you can see the image of the Pilgrim being hanged whilst St James is supporting him from below
Since then the brightly painted ceramic cockerels have been sold throughout Portugal as a symbol of good luck. After Barcelos we headed further inland towards Braga, but more specifically a church known as Bom Jesus, which was somewhere recommended to us by another Dutch couple we met in northern Spain. The focal point for legions of penitent pilgrims every year, Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount) is one of Portugal’s most recognisable icons and it’s church is the most photographed.
The church of Bom Jesus which had the most impressive altar depicting the scene of Christ’s death at Calvary using life sized statues
A rather windswept and glamorous pilgrimage site, lying 5km east of central Braga, this neoclassical church stands atop a forested hill that offers grand sunset views across the city. But most people don’t come simply for the church or even the view. They come to see the extraordinary baroque staircase, Escadaria do Bom Jesus.
Escadaria do Bom Jesus – needs a lick of paint though!
The climb is made up of tiered zig-zag Baroque staircases, dating from different decades of the 18th century. The lowest is lined with chapels representing the Stations of the Cross with life size characters. Escadaria dos Cinco Sentidos (Stairway of the Five Senses) features fountains with water gurgling from the ears, eyes, nose and mouth of different statues. Highest is Escadaria das Três Virtudes (Stairway of the Three Virtues), with chapels and fountains representing faith, hope and charity. Many penitent pilgrims climb the 1000 steps on their knees, reflecting on the Passion of the Christ that is depicted in the chapels along the way. We didn’t see any such pilgrims repenting to that degree, although climbing the 1000 steps would be quite a penance on its own in my opinion! Given it was late in the day, and raining (so no change there), we got the funicular railway up to the top, and then walked down. We spent that night on a camperstop at the foot of the staircase before departing (in the rain – that was the only weather we had experienced in Portugal so far) for Costa Nova do Prado, just west of Aveiro. This was a delightful town and had an air of affluence which was in stark contrast to our experiences of Portugal so far. The houses that fronted the promenade were decorated in brightly coloured stripes which enhanced the impression of a pretty seaside town. They were apparently formerly fishing houses that were painted with brightly coloured stripes to make them stand out against the pale sands. However they all look like they are now purely used as holiday homes for the more affluent Portuguese.
The beachfront houses at Costa Nova
Another stripy house – but I don’t think it was ever a fisherman’s!
The aire at Costa Nova was right on the prom and could accommodate up to 3 motorhomes. When we arrived we were on our own but then subsequently joined by a German, then Swedish motorhome. The Camperstop guide did indicate that there were two other aires at the other end of town so we decided we would check them out on foot and then move Aurora there if we preferred them. So we set off and walked…..and walked….and walked. It was a bit like a Penelope Pitstop moment, (you will need to be of a certain age to get that) as we never seemed to get any nearer to the lighthouse which was the landmark for one of the aires. In all we calculated that the walk there and back was around 8kms! However the return part of the journey was very pleasant as it was along the boardwalk adjacent to a beautiful golden beach and crashing breakers. In the end we decided that where we were already was nicer so that was where we stopped for the night. We awoke to a beautiful sunny morning and decided before we leave that we top up our provisions by a quick tour of the local market which sold fruit and veg as well as having an extensive fish market, although we weren’t brave enough to buy any (we didn’t know what most of it was!). We did however purchase some large prawns (which proved to be delicious when we ate them later that day).
Fish market at Porto Novo
After our shopping trip and preparing Aurora for travel, we set off towards the town of Fátima, a centre of pilgrimage which Cathy wanted to visit. In her youth, Cathy had been part of Brentwood Catholic Youth Service and had volunteered for many years with helping the sick and handicapped on several pilgrimages to the shrine at Lourdes, so Fatima was of particular interest to her.
The history of Fátima is associated with three local children: Lúcia dos Santos (aged 10) and her cousins, Francisco (aged 9) and Jacinta Marto (aged 7), who on 13 May 1917, while guarding their sheep at the “Cova da Iria”, witnessed an apparition of a “lady more brilliant than the sun, dressed in white and holding a white rosary”. The lady, later referred to as Our Lady of the Rosary, indicated that she was sent by God with a message of prayer, repentance and consecrations. She asked the children to return to the Cova da Iria for 5 consecutive months on the 13th day of each month at the same hour (midday). This the children did in June, July, September and October. In August the apparition took place on the 19th at Valinhos, near their home, as on 13th August, the children were taken in by the authorities for questioning about these apparitions (the children were told they would be boiled in a vat of oil if they did not tell the truth, but each of the children told the same story of what they had witnessed). Our Lady promised that a sign would be given at the final apparition on 19th October 1917. 70,000 people who were present witnessed this sign – “The Miracle of the Sun” which, resembling a silver disc and could be gazed upon without difficulty, spun like a wheel on fire and “danced” in the sky. This was reported in newspapers the following day. Our Lady asked for a chapel to be built in her honour – hence the Chapel of Apparitions. Incidentally, the apparitions were declared “worthy of belief” in 1930.
The Chapel of Apparitions
The exact spot where 5 of the 6 apparitions took place at the Chapel of Apparitions is marked by a marble pillar on which a 1 metre statue of Our Lady is placed. Here converge around 4 million pilgrims who visit the Sanctuary each year. Many pilgrims recite the Rosary, with special intentions, on their knees around the chapel.
The site of the 4th Apparition on 19th August in Valinhos
When we arrived the weather continued its unsettled nature (we had by now had 2 weeks of rain) and as the day progressed it became even worse with driving rain and gales. Given that the timing of our visit (unknowingly) coincided with the 13th October (the date of the final apparition), and that there was to be special celebrations including masses and torchlight processions, we decided to stay. The down side was that the official aire was rammed jammed with motorhomes (principally Portuguese) who were there for these celebrations, but fortunately there was plenty of room on the other car parks adjacent to the sanctuary. Now as mentioned this is not my cup of tea and I let Cathy go and experience all this for herself as it would have all been lost on a heathen like me. Besides it was absolutely chucking it down and I had no desire to get soaked! We have found that in Portugal, which is predominately of the Catholic faith, religion is more embedded in society than we’ve experienced on our travels, given that we have come across radio stations conducting The Rosary and whilst in Fatima, extensive live TV coverage was broadcast of the events Cathy attended (who knows, Cathy’s face may have been flashed across the Portuguese nation!)
One of the free museums contains the crown that is used to adorn the statue of Our Lady on the 13th of each month from May to October. It is a composition of various jewels offered by the Portuguese women in 1946 as a thanksgiving gift to Our Lady for having preserved Portugal from the Second World War. Below the cross is a blue jewelled sphere which symbolises the earth. Between the “rays”, just under the sphere (which you can just see) is one of the four bullets that hit Pope John Paul II in the assassination attempt he suffered on 13th May 1981 at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, which was added to the crown. He believed that Our Lady guided away what would have been a fatal shot, thereby saving his life. He visited Fatima on pilgrimage exactly one year later in thanksgiving for having escaped with his life.
Beside the crown is the ring which was originally offered to the Pope at the beginning of his pontificate in 1978 and which Pope John Paul II donated to Our Lady on 12th May 2000 at the Chapel of Apparitions.
The evening torchlight procession – one of the many events that was televised
The bronze statue of Pope John Paul II which stands in front of the Basilica of the Holy Trinity
Mass held at the Sanctuary on 13th October.
From Fátima we decided that given there was no improvement in the weather, according to the forecast, for the next few days heading towards the coast was not a good idea so we decide to head further inland. This took us into the Alentejo region of Portugal. Today this region remains amongst Europe’s poorest and emptiest regions. The global recession continues to hit hard and in spite of the fact that its cork, olives, marble and granite are in demand this vast region contributes only a small fraction of the country’s GNP. I had a desire to see some of the barragems (reservoirs) with a romantic idea of wild camping adjacent to the lakes, catching fish and cooking it on a open fire!! Yeah right! We headed towards Evora, a world UNESCO site, with an intention to stop there overnight before heading to Monsaraz, which is a fortified town and has extensive views over the Alqueva barragem, the largest man made reservoir in Europe. As we neared Evora we saw a a sign for some neolithic standing stones (Cromeleque Almendres) which Cathy had read about in the Lonely Planet, and decided they were worthy of a visit. And indeed they were. Given their remoteness they were not accessible in Aurora so after lunch we unloaded the pedal bikes and set off down a gravel road in search of the stones. The track wound its way up a hill lined with cork trees, which are prolific in this area of Portugal whose bark makes, or made, a significant contribution to the local economy. I say made as with the advent of screw tops and synthetic corks, the demand had dramatically reduced. However other outlets have been invented for cork and you can buy cork shoes, handbags, hats and all sorts of other things that you wouldn’t associate with cork!
Cork trees abound!
I was/am fascinated how they strip the bark off the tree as it is well and truly ‘stuck’ on. The trunk appears to be blackened by the process so maybe some heating/burning is involved. Anyway the tree ends up stripped of its bark from the ground up.
Is this what you call a ‘corked’ tree?
Anyway back to our excursion. Finally after a fair bit of uphill exertion we arrived at the stones which were very interesting. They remain today the most tangible and impressive remains of one of the most significant moments in human history – the neolithic revolution which occurred some 5,000 years BC. We spent a good hour looking round the 96 standing stones and taking in the solitude of this spot before enjoying a fast downhill cycle back to Aurora. From here we had identified a couple of aires in Evora, which sounded worthy of a visit. However this whole journey is a voyage of discovery and after getting the GPS location for each of these two aires we discovered they were nothing more than car parks, full of cars, with decidedly dodgy access for our motorhome. Clearly you need to arrive first thing in the morning with a view that you WILL get blocked in so you can’t leave until late in the afternoon, or first thing in the morning before the carparks begin to fill. Lesson learned for the future: for such city based locations hang the expense and book into a campsite! So what now? A quick look at the map identified that we weren’t far from Monsaraz (another recommendation from The Dutch) which is on the barragem at Alqueva, which as mentioned is the largest man made reservoir in Europe, and where there also happened to be an aire, so co-ordinates were set and Aurora pointed in that direction. We arrived about 6 pm and parked Aurora, not on the aire, as access was difficult up a steep ramp, but on a carpark with magnificent views of the barragem. Before preparing dinner we took a walk around the fortified town on Monsaraz. The town is perched high over the surrounding landscape offering great views from its castle keep.
The scale of the barragem can be seen from the castle ramparts
The town now struggles to retain its inhabitants and its main industry is tourism with many of the quaint houses turned over to restaurants, guesthouses and artisan shops.
The town of Monsaraz viewed from the castle
Sunset at Monsaraz
The next morning we awoke to mist and rain – indeed you couldn’t see the castle keep some 30 metres above us. So we decided we would keep moving and head towards the coast and see what wild camping we could do on the Atlantic coast. We had several GPS references provided by both Eric and Shazza (www.ericandshazza.wordpress.com) and Steve and Lyssa (www.adventuresofbigbird.co.uk) so we were excited by the prospect of potentially what was in store. And so the journey continues……..