The Wonder of El Tajo in Ronda, Spain

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Puente Nuevo spans the gorge El Tajo

Ronda is a gorgeous little medieval town, located between Granada and Sevilla, and perched on either side of a 400+ foot  gorge called El Tajo.  We stayed in smaller “old town” which dates back more than 1000 years to Moorish times while across the old bridge is the “new” town, built in the mid-1400’s.

There are three bridges crossing the El Tajo gorge.  The lowest is Puente Veijo (old bridge), also called the Arab bridge.  Close by, and slightly higher, is Puente Romano.  The tallest one, crossing at the highest point of the gorge, is the 200 year old Puente Nuevo (new bridge).  I read that this is the second bridge built on the site.  The first one was built too hastily in 1739 and ended up collapsing five years later, killing fifty people. On the west side of the gorge, the Guadalevin River falls over a 50 foot waterfall. To learn more about the history and construction of the Puente Nuevo, check out this interesting site.

The bridge and gorge is all the more spectacular given their rural surroundings, as the backdrop is of lovely green fields and gentle hills.  As we walked down the trail to the lower bridges, we met up with a farmer and his helper moving 75 sheep to the next pasture. We passed by the old arab bath ruins (€4 entry), and then crossed the Roman bridge and wandered up through a series of tiered lookouts to see the beauty of the bridges, the gorge, and the river below.

We booked our B&B through booking.com, staying at the Boabdil Guesthouse (named after Mohammad the Xll who was known as King Boabdil to the Spanish and who ruled from 1480 until the final conquest in 1492).  Our guesthouse was in an old Moorish house, and separated into a number of guest rooms, each with private bath, and most with a deck or balcony.  There was a shared lounge room with access to a fridge and coffee/tea as well as an “Honesty Bar” where you could purchase inexpensive cold drinks. (€60 / $105 CAD per night)

We stayed in Ronda for two nights which gave us a full day to wander both the new and the old towns, hike the trail down to the lower bridges, and loop back up to the top.  We also went took another trail on the lower side of the bridge to get a better look at the waterfall.

On our second night, we ate at a small tapas bar that was just around the corner from our B&B.  It had a menu of about 25 items, all prepared fresh by a Basque chef.  They were based on traditional foods of the area but given a new twist and were absolutely delicious.  The restaurant is called De Locos Tapas and only has about seven tables so you must make a reservation at least 24 hours in advance.  We were lucky to get in.  We ordered six different dishes and shared them all, and two desserts, as they were brought to the table by the busy waitress.  The portions weren’t large but the prices were excellent and we left quite full for only $55 CAD including drinks.  It was arguably the best meal we’ve had in Spain.

On our way to Sevilla the next morning, we drove down a narrow country road to the bottom of the valley to get a few final photos of the bridge crossing El Tajo, from below.  What an amazing site, and such a feat of construction! Ronda is definitely worth a side trip, if you don’t plan to visit over night. That being said, we were glad to have had two nights.

Next up:  Seville, Spain

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Oh, Granada

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Bridge over Rio Darro, along Paseo de los Tristes

Wow, what an amazing city – one that you definitely need at least three days to visit.  There’s so much to see, so much to do, so much history, and such an eclectic mix of people and visitors. Thousands of years of history that includes Roman, Moorish, Gypsy, Jewish, and Christian influences, provide an interesting intermingling of architecture, culture, language, and food.

Leaving Torrox, we drove along the Costa del Sol for awhile, then turned north at Motril.  It was an easy drive of just over an hour.  We had a small studio apartment booked within the city walls and had reserved underground parking.  In order to do that, we had to register our car licence plate and passport information with our hosts and they arranged it so we could enter the residents-only part of the city.  Luckily we only had to drive about 400m to our apartment. However,  once we arrived, we couldn’t find a temporary parking spot by the church as planned, so we stopped to asses our surroundings for a moment, got honked at, quickly continued driving through a narrow alley, and pulled up onto a curb. I left Erik with the car and  walked back to the apartment to check in.  One of our hosts, Isabelle, returned to the car with me, and we carried our bags in, and then she hopped into the car with Erik and directed him around the block to the underground parking.  We are lucky that we have a small car and that Erik is a confident driver in Europe, as I suspect the whole thing might terrify someone more hesitant (like me!).

Once we were safely ensconced in our room, we checked out the rest of the apartment, Carmen de Ramilla.  It was a lovely old 16th century building, recently renovated into four apartments, while keeping as much of the original stone and woodwork as possible.  Originally a moorish home, it had been owned for years by an old woman who had eventually died there before Marie bought the building in 2008 and went through four years of careful renovation and three years of approval process. We learned that it was designated as a “Carmen” which meant it had to have a walled garden with a grape vine, a water feature (ours had several small fountains and a small swimming pool), fruit trees (lemon and orange), flowers and shrubs, and an herb garden.  The area was a beautiful, calm oasis in such a busy city and we enjoyed sitting out on the lawn chairs in the afternoon several times.

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Our handy little kitchen

Our room had a double bed, another single bed we used for our luggage, a small kitchen area with a 2 burner stove, microwave, sink, dishes etc, as well a olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, coffee and tea.  It had the prettiest oriental tea pot I have ever seen and I spent the rest of my trip looking for a similar one in the many shops of Granada but to no avail.  We had a window in the bathroom as well as double french door/windows in the main room that opened up onto the noisy street below (we were on the second storey).  All through the day, and into the evening, we could hear groups of young travellers wandering the streets, laughing and singing.

While on the coast we saw lots of wealthier tourists, primarily British and German folks, but in Granada, there were lots of young people, back packers, and gypsies in addition to the regular European and North American tourists.  Granada is home to a large university which houses over 60,000 students which also plays into the large number of youths in the city.

IMG_8094We were staying in the Albaicin part of Granada (on the north side), and the tourist train went right by our apartment.  For €15 total, we were able to get a 2 day pass to use the train any time we wanted.  It ran every 15 -20 minutes right up until 11:00pm and did an 1:15 loop around the city.  If you plugged in earbuds, you could listen to a commentary of what you were seeing in about 10 different languages.

The most interesting and exciting place to see in Granada is the Alhambra – a massive network of structures the dominates the hill on one side of the city. Originally built around 800AD, and added on to after that, it has been in ruins and rebuilt several times and now contains many buildings including palaces, halls, and gardens with both Muslim and Christian architecture. There are also several hotels and restaurants in the area.

HOWEVER, if you want to visit the Alhambra, you need to go online and buy your tickets at least a MONTH before you want to visit.  We did not know this and so we missed out on visiting this beautiful place.  We were only able to access the free part of the gardens and the Charles V palace. Ah well, live and learn.  It gives us a reason to come back some day.

We found many of Granada’s restaurants on the pricey side, although we did have one great find down along Paseo de los Tristes, the street that runs along the creek below the Alhambra – called La Bella y La Bestia. We stopped for lunch and Erik ordered a bocadilla (sub sandwich) for €4 and I had a bagel sandwich for €2.20. The waiter also brought a free tapa – a large portion of fries with pieces of pork and tasty sauce.  We had more food than we could finish and didn’t need to have more than a snack for dinner that night. We also enjoyed breakfast is very good cafe con leche, fresh sumo de naranja (OJ), and a large toasted bun (tostada), split and served with tomato sauce or jam. All for only €4:30 at Cafe Marivi, just around the corner from our apartment.

IMG_8112One night we went to a restaurant nearby to watch a Flamenco show.  It wasn’t one of the big performances that you find in Sevilla, but the musicians and dancers were talented and we enjoyed the show.  It was €20 each, plus our drinks.  Flamenco first began in the mid-1700’s and has a strong Arabic and Romany influence, in addition to Spanish, which I hadn’t realized before. It was really interesting and fun to watch the women’s pained expressions as they sang of their trials and tribulations.  I would have loved to have understood the stories they told with their songs.

We were quite close to the Mirador de San Nicolas and got some great photos of the Alhambra from that view point, then we wandered down the streets to the bottom of the hill and found streets lined with little shops filled with colourful clothing, pottery, hooka pipes and souvenirs.  I could have wandered those streets for hours.

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Monasterio de San Jeronimo

There are several churches you can visit in Granada – the main one being the Catedral de Granada (€5 euro entry).  It was Sunday when we stopped in so it wasn’t open for visiting but we were able to quietly stand in the back and take a peek during mass.  It was pretty but nowhere near as beautiful as the Monasterio de San Jeronimo that we visited earlier in the day.   For only €4 each, we wandered around the main cloister which was started in 1504, and then into the chapel which was absolutely stunning. I especially loved the altarpiece.  Here, el Gran Capitan, Gonzalo Frenandez de Cordoba, and his wife, Doña Maria, are buried.

Granada can be a bit touristy at times, and is likely very busy in the high season, but it is a beautiful and incredibly interesting city.  If you can find a little “carmen” B&B or apartamento where you can prepare simple meals once in awhile, and have a peaceful place to relax after a long day touring, it is definitely worth a 3-4 day visit.  I would definitely love to go back.

Next up:
Ronda

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Jerez de la Frontera and Torrox, Spain

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Dinner on our balcony in Torrox

Rather than visiting the more famous cities of the Andalusian coast of Spain, such as Cadiz, Malaga, Nerja etc, we again opted for slightly less touristy places of Jerez and Torrox.

It was about a 4 hour drive from Salema, Portugal to Jerez, Spain.

The highways in both Portugal and Spain are excellent and very easy to drive.  When we rented our car in Porto, we paid €15 for a small transponder that automatically calculates any tolls we are charged and we will pay the bill when we drop off our car in Lisbon.  The toll highways were easy to use. Sometimes we drove through a toll booth where we simply chose the lane with the Via Verde sign which was unmanned and it automatically calculated the toll as we drove by.  Other times, there was simply a structure over the highway that we triggered when we drove under it at normal speed.

In Spain, we had to pay tolls with our credit card, but it too was a simple process – just choose the lane with the “tarjeta” sign, insert your card, press the button, get your card back, and you’re on your way (to be safe, we always use our secondary credit card in case it gets eaten by a machine).  Most tolls in this part of Spain are a flat rate.

Not all highways had tolls and you could choose to drive other roads, but the toll highways are 4 lane, mostly divided highways, with roadside services every 30-50 km, and are fast, well-marked, and not very busy except near larger cities.  The road side services in Portugal were particularly nice.  They were set up pretty much the same all the way along so it was easy to access, and had gas, free clean bathrooms, a small store and usually a small coffee shop.  There was often covered parking, picnic tables and a child’s playground. As you neared the stop, the sign let you know how far the next services were located. Spain was similar although not quite as organized – but still, easy to access.

Jerez was a fairly large city, about 30 minutes inland from the coast, and we found great deal on a hotel just a 10 minute walk from the old-town core of the city (Hipotels Sherry Park €59/night, $88CAD – once again through booking.com).  The hotel was fairly modern, upscale, had beautiful grounds (grass, flowers, trees), a private pool and patio area with a snack bar, and our room was comfortable and had a nice balcony overlooking the pool.

Jerez is noted for its sherry and for its dancing horse show.  Our hotel was one block from the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art where, for €21-27 per person, you can see the daily show (we didn’t).

Jerez means “sherry” in English and like the Port in Porto, it is a fortified wine, although the fermentation process is different.  As an aside, the used barrels are often sold to distilleries in Scotland and used to store and age whisky. My favourite Glendronoch is aged in sherry casks and I hope to visit the distillery in a few weeks when we are in northern Scotland. As we already had a bottle of Port open, we didn’t buy a bottle of sherry, but we did enjoy a glass for lunch at a restaurant one day.

We stayed for two nights in Jerez, and so had one full day to wander around, as well as had some time to hang out at our pool in the afternoon sun.  We were about 1.5km from the centre of the old city which was an easy walk along the cobblestone streets.

We saw the exterior of the Jerez Cathedral and also of the famous Alcazar de Jerez, which is now a park and includes an old mosque reminding us of 700 years of Moorish influence in the area. The Muslim Moors invaded in the 700’sAD and controlled much of this part of Spain until the end of Reconquista in 1492AD when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella won it back.

We enjoyed wandering the streets of old Jerez and here were lots of restaurants, bars, and shops to see.  We stopped for lunch at a patio restaurant and Erik had a tapas platter while I had Andalusian Gazpacho. We could have driven to the coastal beach city of Cadiz, just 30 minutes away, but chose not to.

Gibraltar, UK, and Torrox, Spain

The next day, we drove another 4 hours or so to the coastal area below the city of Torrox, and since we would be passing it along the way, we thought we’d stop in for a quick visit to Gilbraltar. Haha, yeah, that was NOT a good plan.  First we had to wait in line for about 30 minutes or more to cross the border (and all the time I was desperately needing to use a bathroom).  Unlike crossing the border in other EU countries, you actually have to go through customs and show your passport here.  If you have nothing to declare, it’s a fairly quick process once you arrive at the border control, but there can be a long wait to get there, exacerbated by the fact that you must drive across an airport runway, and if there is a plane taking off or landing, you will have an extra 15-20 minute wait.

IMG_7818Once we crossed and drove into the tiny, crowded city, with its many one way streets, we found there was absolutely no parking available anywhere.  We drove past the tram that takes you up the mountain, got quasi-lost in the narrow winding streets, and finally pulled into a gas station to get some cheap gas (89 pence/litre), use the bathroom, and catch our breath.  We got directions on how to get the heck out of there, since we’d heard the border crossing was actually longer leaving than entering, but luckily, it was a quick  exit back into Spain.  Phew.  That was one hour we’d never get back and nothing to show for it but cheap gas. LOL…

Our recommendation – plan to spend a solid half day or more if you want to visit Gibraltar, park at one of the large lots just outside of the border crossing (on the Spain side), take a bus or walk across the border into the town, and then see what you want to see.  We were there in the shoulder season so I can’t imagine what it must be like when it’s actually busy.

A few more hours down the road, we bypassed the larger city of Torrox, and drove a 10 minutes down to the coast to find our apartment complex, which was just on the edge of town, overlooking the sea. We had rented a one bedroom apartment through Hotels.com for €90 per night, and had paid a little extra for the seaview/sea facing room.  We were upgraded to a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment which was really nice, and we had a large balcony with a large table and chairs and two lounge chairs. We looked out at the Mediterranean Sea and down onto the grassy pool area.  About half the units are owned and the other half rented out. Although the complex is on the side of a hill, it was a short walk down to the beach, and then about a 5-10 minute walk to the first restaurant on the strip.  We had underground parking for €5 and it was an easy 5-10 minute drive to a choice of 5 grocery stores of varying sizes.

We bought groceries and ate at home both nights we were there.  The kitchen was fully equipped with appliances and dishes but had no extras like salt/pepper/oil/vinegar like other places usually have,  However it did have a washing machine AND a dryer (rare) so we were able to do a load of clothes.

It was partly cloudy and a bit showery on one day and sunny the next and other than walking on the beach, reading on our deck, or sitting by the pool, we didn’t do much else.  It was another nice, relaxing time on the Mediterranean.

Next up: Granada

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Avoiding the Crowds in Salema, Portugal

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Our beach, almost empty in May

While we were very much looking forward to the warm climate and beaches of southern  Portugal and Spain, we were not looking forward to looking at walls of hotels, crowded promenades, loads of people, and other tourist traps.  We had watched several of Rick Steves videos of the Algarve (southern Portugal) and the Costa del Sol and Andalusia (southern Spain) and had an idea of what to we wanted to see and what we wanted to avoid.  Ultimately we chose to spend 3 days in the tiny fishing village of Salema, Portugal, and 2 nights on the edge of the city of Torrox, Spain. They were both peaceful areas, had beautiful beaches, all the amenities we needed, and restaurants frequented by the locals.

We loved Salema in particular (there’s a good article here) – we stayed in the old town close to the beach, while further up the hill and mostly out of sight, were the whitewashed houses of the seasonal tourists.

The town core was tiny, with two small grocery stores, a handful of restaurants and bars, and a few souvenir shops, and overall, it was fairly quiet.  The sandy beach was about 1 km long,  with rocky sections and cliffs on either end.  In fact there were signs warning people not to sit too close to the cliffs as they tend to collapse from time to time.

Our apartment was about 300 steps to the beach – yes I counted – and our room had a large terrace with a beautiful view of the sea (albeit with a few trash cans and a power line between, that I could quite easily overlook).

We booked the apartment through booking.com again and it was bit pricier than it was worth (€80/night) but still a good deal for the area.  It was a studio suite, with a small kitchen, bathroom, bedroom/sitting room, large sliding doors with a high window, and a huge private terrace. My only complaints were that the bed was hard and fairly uncomfortable and the place needs a bit of sprucing up in general.  The owner did say outdoor painting begins next week, but I think it could use a new (better) bed and fresh bedding as well. Other than that, we actually loved it, if only for its location and its terrace.

Our host recommended a local restaurant, O Laurenco, and we were glad we went.  It was small but the fish was so fresh, they brought it around on a tray to let you choose your meal.  We had no reservations but we went early and were very lucky to get a table for two – in the best booth in the house!  The food was delicious and we enjoyed our evening. You should know that in Portugal, they will often bring you food like tapas or appies without you ordering it. It could be a simple as bread and oil, a bowl of olives, or something more substantial.  But if you eat it, you pay for it.  If you don’t want to pay for it, just say no when they bring it to the table.  It’s an interesting custom, but can be a surprise the first time you get your bill and find a ‘cover’ for all those easy treats added on.

The next day, we drove 15 minutes to Sagres where we paid a few euros to walk around the old Fortress where Henry the Navigator set up his sailing school to prepare his men to search beyond the edge of the world in the late 1400’s. The views were spectacular and the sun was warm so we thoroughly enjoyed our walk around the promontory.  It was exciting and even a little terrifying to watch some local fisherman with their long fishing rods, teetering off the edge of the cliff, and casting their lines down a few hundred feet or more to the sea below.

Next we drove another five minutes further to the lighthouse on Cabo de Sao Vicente which is the southwestern-most point in Portugal, and took in the beautiful views there as well.  Next stop, North America!  There were a string of locals with tables selling various souvenirs including beautiful hand knit wool sweaters and gorgeous hand painted pottery.  Sad to say, I resisted buying anything that I’d have to carry around in my suitcase for another month or more.

On the way home, we picked up some chicken and spaghetti and a few other ingredients and I made chicken cacciatore in our little kitchen. We ate on our terrace and enjoyed the view. On our final day, we hung out at the beach and our terrace and enjoyed the sun and read a lot, then had leftover chicken and appies for supper at home again.

We’ve begun to realize that we really enjoy it when we stay three nights in one place.  That way we have one full day to tour around and see the sights, and another day to relax and do very little.  We have three nights planned in both Granada and Sevilla so we’re glad about that, especially since they are larger cities.

Next Up : Jerez de la Frontera and Torrox, Spain.

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Nazare and Obidos

May 4-5: Nazare

On our way south from Porto and the Duoro Valley, heading down towards the Algarve coast of southern Portugal, we stopped in Nazare, a seaside town famous for fishing and surfing, and then the following day, we stopped in for an hour to the medieval village of Obidos. Both were interesting yet very different places to visit for a day.

It was about a 3 hour drive with a stop for gas to get down to Nazare.  In May, the town was relatively quiet and we had no problem finding a parking spot a few blocks from our apartment, but I can imagine in mid-summer, it must be very busy.

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Nazare from the shoreline

The beach in Nazare is wide and sandy and it has a few colourful wooden fishing boats on display, more for show than practical use now.  But what truly makes this beach unique are the waves.  Today it was relatively calm and the waves were only a metre or so high, but there are some amazing photos and videos on Youtube that show some of the world’s largest waves on this beach.  I was chatting with a gnarly fisherman, who explained that the sea floor is stepped up along the north side of the beach and that is why the waves are so huge in this area. Needless to say, this area is popular with surfers.

We almost felt like we had stepped back in time a little when we saw people wearing traditional clothing, in particular, the older women with their shawls and their seven layered knee-length skirts – or maybe it’s one skirt with 6 petticoats, I’m not suite sure. Traditionally the women were the fishmongers, and they wore several skirts as they sat on the beach waiting for their husbands to come in, and they’d use the extra skirts to wrap up around their backs or keeps their legs warm. Some of these women can still be seen selling their wares at little stalls along the beach. Fishing may have been the original mainstay of the village, but clearly tourism and surfing now contribute more heavily.

You also see older women walking along the beach front or through the town streets, with signs indicating they will rent you a room. I remember seeing this on a Rick Steves show on Portugal, and he said they offered great deals in a real home setting. However, we already had a studio apartment booked through booking.com so we declined.  Our apartment was small but well equipped and very clean. It actually felt like I was in an Ikea display.  For only €45 ($68CAD), I think we had a great deal (although I’m sure the price is much higher in summer), and I would have been comfortable there for up to a week.

The day was showery and cool, and we didn’t have much time to do anything other than to find a restaurant, have dinner (the catch of the day of course), then head to bed.  If we’d had another day, we could have taken the funicular to the top of the 300m rock  (the Siteo) on the north end of the beach and see a great view of the town and beach.

I could easily spend a few days in this curious little fishing town.  It really gave me an idea of what life was like here 100 or more years ago.

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Obidos

Just 30 minutes south of Nazare, Obidos is definitely worth a stop, if only for an hour or so.  I never tire of visiting medieval walled towns and Obidos did not disappoint.  We parked in the free lot next to the tourist centre and walked in, as you should do in all medieval villages.

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Minstrel serenading us

As we entered the village, we passed through the main gate called the Porta da Vila. It is decorated with the blue and white tiles that you see all over Portugal.  There was a young man playing guitar and singing in the corner as we entered and it really added to the traditional feeling of the village.

The cobblestone streets are narrow, the walls are white with red tile roofs (unlike the stone buildings in the medieval towns of France and Italy), and there is a pretty view at every turn.  The outside wall itself is continuous around the village and you can walk its 1.5 km length if you aren’t afraid of heights.  No handrails, and uneven footing means you have to wear proper shoes and be extremely careful. We only had time to climb the stairs to the top and take a few pictures but I would definitely do the walk if I had time.

Obidos is famous for its cherry liqueur called Ginja de Obidos and you can buy a small shot in a chocolate cup as you wander along the lanes. And if souvenirs are your thing, there are wall-to-wall shops lining the streets, as well as restaurants and bars.

We arrived just as several busloads of tourists unloaded and so we were briefly trapped in a slow-moving mob, but eventually we broke loose and were able to walk freely. If you really want to get a feel for a normally touristy medieval village, it’s often a good idea to stay one night and then go out on the streets in the evening, and again early in the morning before/after the busses arrive. Often you will have the place to yourself and you can immerse yourself in that amazing feeling of history and culture.

If you don’t have time for an overnight trip, a few hours is enough time to see Obidos and perhaps stop for a snack and a drink. It’s is an easy one hour drive or bus trip from Lisbon if you want to do a day trip, and in July, the village hosts a week-long medieval festival that might be fun.

We could have stayed longer but we were on our way to the Algarve and had a 4 hour drive ahead of us, and so after an hour, we were off!

Next up:  Salema, Portugal and the Algarve

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R&R in the Duoro Valley, Portugal

May 2-4:  We spent two days in the Duoro Valley and it was divine. I can’t decide what I liked more – the beauty of the valley with its terraced vineyards, or the gorgeous B&B where we enjoyed views of the valley from the pool patio.  Regardless, it was a beautiful spot, and I would highly recommend staying at least one night in the area.

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View from our B&B in Peso da Regua

After picking up our rental car around noon, we left the Porto airport and headed out the city bypass highway to take a leisurely drive along the beautiful Duoro River.  We had read a variety of recommendations as to which road to take and were undecided and we found if we put our destination into googlemaps, we got a direct fast highway route to Regua.  Finally, we decided to head to the N108 which starts just southeast of Porto and runs along the north side of the river, and we were happy with our choice. The road was windy but reasonable, with little traffic in early May, and it took us about 3 hours to toodle our way to our destination.

The Duoro Valley, generally believed to be the oldest wine region in the world, stretches over 200 km from the coast, to the town of Barca de Alva, and is dotted with small “quintas” or wineries along the way.  Over the centuries, farmers have terraced the hillsides, tended the soil, and planted row upon row of grapes, and the result is like a picture postcard.

Our destination was about the half way point, at Peso da Regua, where we would be staying at Casa de Sao Domingos, (booking.com €85/night for deluxe room including breakfast).   We stuck to the N108 until Resende, then crossed the river and took the N222 to Regua.  Once we were checked into the B&B, we relaxed by the pool in the hot sun and enjoyed the amazing views of the river valley.

The next day, we were incredibly lazy and just hung out at our B&B and relaxed by the pool. In the evening, we went into town and had dinner at Tasca da Quinta, a small family run restaurant that was recommended by our hosts.  They had lovely tapas and other interesting local dishes on their simple menu that was handwritten in little notebooks, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and the experience.

We definitely could have taken a drive further up the valley to Pinhao, or wandered through the Duoro Museum in town, or visited some of the small quintas in the area, but we were just too content at our B&B to do much of anything, and when you see the views, who could blame us?!

If you don’t have the time to drive into the valley, there are river boat cruises that do day and overnight trips from Porto.  Some will take you up as far as Pinhao or even Barca de Alva, and then put you on a bus to return to Porto. On others, you can take a train back to the city.  There are also short day cruises between Regua and Pinhao – there are lots of options – and the views on the river are lovely. Whatever your budget allows, do visit the Duoro Valley.  It’s definitely a must-see!

Next up: Nazare and Obidos

Here are a few pictures of Sao de Regua.

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Two Days in Porto, Portugal

April 30 – May 2:  Porto (or Oporto as it’s often called) is a beautiful, gritty old city, with lots to see and do, particularly in the historical centre which is protected as a World Heritage Site. As the second largest city in Portugal, it is definitely worth at least a 2-3 day visit, perhaps as a prequel to a trip to the famous Duoro Valley. We had two nights and one full jet-lagged day, so we definitely only touched the surface but that’s always a reason to return, right?

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We arrived in Porto at about 10am, after a 15 hour flight from Kelowna, which included a 4 hour layover in Toronto. We were able to get a direct flight from Toronto via SATA (Azores Airlines) which was nice. Getting through customs and picking up our luggage was a fairly simple process, and I was able to pick up a Portugal SIM card  at Vodafone for my iphone before we left the airport.

We each bought a 1€ Andante transit card and loaded it with two 4-zone trips (under €2 per trip) so we could take the metro directly into town and get back to the airport again later to pick up our car. The transit ticket machine was easy to use and there was an English option. I’ve found that to be the case for most ticket machines and ATMs in Europe.  We swiped our cards to validate them and caught the purple E-line Metro direct into town – a 30 minute trip – and it was cheap, clean, comfortable, and easy to use. I read up on the Porto transit system ahead of time here and found lots of good information.

We got off at Trindade Station and walked about a kilometre to our studio apartment (Oporto Chic and Cozy Studio Apartments €67/$100CAD per night) which was located in the heart of the upper town, known as the Batalha, and was easy walking distance to the sights we wanted to see.  We had made arrangements through booking.com’s instant messenger feature to meet with the manager, Hugo, between 11-12 and he quickly checked us in and let us know about the area.  Once settled in, we fell into bed around 1:30pm and slept for 4 hours since neither if us had slept well on an airplane.  In the evening, we found a grocery store, made sandwiches for supper and wandered around the neighbourhood a bit to get our bearings.  We always need a day or two of R&R to get over the jet lag.

On our one full day, we bought tickets for the Yellow Hop On Hop Off Bus Vintage Tour and did the longer Castles tour to get a feel for the city and enjoy touring without having to walk to0 much. Apart from the inner city tour, it also took us out to the coastal area, along Av. do Brasil, into the suburb of Matosinhos which is known for its amazing sidewalk restaurants where they cook fresh fish, and we could see that it would be nice area to stay for a few days if we had more time.

There are quite a few ways to get around in the city and you can purchase a 24 hour pass on your Andante card for €7 which will allow you to use the metro and the local bus system all day.  The pass does not include the popular cable trams which criss cross the city for about €2.50 each way, but you can purchase a 24h City Tour ticket for €8 which you can use the trams all day if you wish.

There are many things to see in town and we definitely did not have time to do more than get a cursory look.  There is a 14th century Sao Francisco Church to visit, the Clerigos Tower which was only a block from our apartment, Cafe Magestic if you want to stand in line for an expensive coffee in a lovely old building, and the amazingly cool Livraria Lello, the bookshop which some say JK Rowling used as inspiration for the Hogwarts library (it has a 4€ entry fee, long lines at times, but sadly was closed when we were there). In addition, you will often see the University students wandering around town between classes, wearing their black capes, even in the heat of the day.  They definitely reminded me of Harry Potter. Another place worth checking out, is the Sao Bento train station with its interesting history and beautiful mosaic murals.

Porto is built on a steep hill and in the afternoon we walked down to the Duoro River to the lower section of the city, called the Riberia, and wandered along the promenade lined with busy restaurants and bars. Obviously, seafood is the thing to eat in Porto, including the wide flat dish called Cataplana.  Also popular are custard tarts.  Erik had to try the local favourite, Francesinha, a ham or meat sandwich, covered in melted cheese, and a beer/tomato sauce. It was pretty rich and he enjoyed it but I didn’t try it. After lunch, we crossed the bridge over to the Port wine house area and picked up a bottle of Tawny Port at the oldest Port House, Kopke, in town. We caught the HOHO bus to get back up to our place, but for something different, you can always take the Funicular back up the hill.

As an aside, I would not recommend driving in Porto. Like most older European cities, the streets are narrow and challenging to drive unless you are a resident.  We decided to head back to the airport to pick up our rental car so we could get straight out onto the highway instead of negotiating city streets. We learned our lesson in Florence 10 years ago, when we picked up our rental car right downtown.

On the morning of our departure we decided not to take the metro back to the airport, but instead paid our host €20 to give us a ride – it made the morning a little smoother and meant we didn’t have to hurry.  We donated our Andante cards to our driver.  At the airport, we picked up our car – a little Kia Picanto which we booked online through rentalcars.com (Europcar), and headed out to visit the Duoro Valley for a few days.

Travel Tips: 

  • Before booking accommodations, read reviews carefully, and check out the street and neighbourhood on google street view. Are you able to walk or use local transit access to the sights you want to see? Does the area look safe? Are there restaurants and markets close by?
  • Get your phone unlocked before you leave home so you can use a purchased SIM card.
  • Leave your phone on airplane mode until you get a SIM card (wifi only), so you don’t get dinged for your home data plan long distance.
  • I have purchased SIM cards from Orange and Vodafone in Spain and Portugal. They run from €15-30 and include the SIM card itself (5-10€) plus a data/phone minutes package. Different carriers offer different packages but most have options for data and phone minutes/texting. I usually get as much data as I can afford and don’t care much if I have phone minutes. You can often recharge the card either online, if you can figure out the language, or at a store.  Employees in larger cities are more likely to speak some English but be prepared to have google translate on your phone and explain what you want in their language. The salesperson will usually install the card for you and ensure it is working before you leave. Even with a local SIM card, I usually keep my phone on airplane mode when I’m not using it so I don’t accidentally use too much data due to automatic updates etc.
  • Plan your route from airport to accommodation before you leave. Most larger cities have direct access via metro or bus. It’s inexpensive and usually easy to use (unless you carry a lot of luggage with you).
  • If you have to walk from the metro to your accommodation, plan the route ahead of time and take screen shots of the map on your phone. Some apps will work offline but if you are tired and have been travelling for hours, you will be happy to have screenshots available in a pinch.
  • Don’t plan too much on your first day following an overseas palace ride –  in fact, if you have the time, plan nothing more than a walk and meals and naps.  We often like to take a Hop On Hop Off bus on the first day to get our bearings, learn about the local sights, and still be able to sit and relax.
  • Check to see if there are local holidays or festivals when you will be visiting.  We didn’t check this out, arrived on a Sunday when many things are normally closed, and found out Monday was a holiday (May 1). It worked out fine for us, but often Museums etc can be closed on holidays. It’s always good to know.

Next Up:  Duoro Valley

Here are a few of my favourite pictures of Porto.

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Spring Travel

On Saturday, Erik and I leave on our next adventure, this time to Portugal and southern Spain for 3 1/2 weeks, followed by Scotland and Ireland for another 3 1/2 weeks.  I hope tVersion 3o blog a little along the way if I have time.

We will be renting a car in Porto, and driving down the coast to the Algarve (the warm, sunny, but touristy part of Portugal), then into Spain along the southern coast of Andalusia (more warm sun), and circling up back to Lisbon.  Then we fly to Edinburgh, and head north here we will visit the Inverness area to search for my Scottish roots that date back to the 1700’s. We also get to stay with a few 2nd cousins I have met online while working on my family tree – that should be exciting! Finally we fly to Dublin and drive south to make a 2 week, clockwise tour of the southern part of the Ireland, ending up in Galway and across back to Dublin before we fly home to enjoy a lovely summer in the Okanagan.

On this trip, I intend to incorporate some sort of daily fitness routine that can be easily down without equipment.  Although I will bring my running shoes, I know I’ll be much more likely to do a lot of walking instead.  I have a simple body weight routine I plan to do at least 4 times a week, as well as a simple yoga routine and a modified version of the Five Tibetan Rites each day. None of these activities take a long time, and all should contribute to helping me to stay fit while we travel.

Since last July, I’ve been attending a meditative yoga class twice a week and it’s been wonderful for my body and my mind. Near the end of each class, our instructor reads some “words of wisdom,” so I thought I’d end with this lovely blessing for the traveller, by Irish poet, John O’Donohue.

For the Traveler

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

~ John O’Donohue ~

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A Year of Retirement

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Not perfect, but not bad either!

Work, or lack thereof

Have you ever wondered what you’d do if you never had to work again for the rest of your life?  Some people struggle with all the free time in retirement and find they don’t know what to do with themselves all day long but  I have not had that problem, and after one year of retirement, I know I did the right thing pulling the plug 4 years earlier that I had originally planned. I have plenty to do, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.  If I stay healthy, and have my mom’s family genes, I could possibly have another 35- 40 years ahead of me!

So yes, as of March 31, 2017, it’s been exactly a year since I retired from teaching. That’s 365 days of not getting up to the jangle of an alarm, not writing out lesson plans, not worrying about report cards, and not rushing around to get housework and errands done on weekends. I loved my job but certainly recognized the inevitable stress and fatigue of teaching.

To be honest, I was a little worried that I might miss teaching – not only the kids, but also a close group of colleagues who were also my friends. But I’ve made an effort to stay in contact by meeting my friends for lunch regularly, belonging to a monthly book club, and chatting frequently on a Facebook messenger group.

I think in order to enjoy retirement, you need to ensure you make time for former work friendships, cultivate new friendships (possibly friends who have also recently retired), and to try new things or revitalize old hobbies that you had put off because you didn’t have time. I’ve found it also helps to set small goals for yourself so your day has a little structure, or sometimes the time gets way from you and you find yourself sitting on the couch in PJs, surfing the internet at 2 in the afternoon.

Time to Try New Things

I have made a ‘bucket list’ of things I’d like to do now that I’m retired, and I keep adding to it when I get another new idea.  I’ve been going a lot more cooking and baking, I’m learning to knit, I’ve tried indoor gardening, and I’ve been playing my piano and violin.  Every day I try to read, write, exercise, work on one hobby, and do one household chore or errand.   I don’t always end up doing every one of those things each day, but I do try hard to keep the exercise promise, if nothing else.

I really love having the time to read a novel all afternoon, to peruse cookbooks and find new dinner ideas, to try new hobbies such as knitting, to perfect a perfect loaf of sourdough bread, or to spend endless hours on my genealogy pursuits.  And it really is true that you just don’t have enough time to do everything you want to do when you’re retired!

Travel

I’ve written extensively about our travels so won’t go into detail again, but here is a brief run down on our activities in the past 12 months.

April 9 – 24  – 2 weeks touring southern France and the Dordogne by car

April 25 – June 4 –  40 days walking the Camino de Santiago, in Spain

June 5 – July 5 – A month in an apartment in Orvieto, Italy

Sept 8 – Oct 6 – A month touring Atlantic Canada by car

Nov 10-12 – A Girls’ Night trip to Osoyoos with friends.

Nov 13 – 16 – A few nights storm-watching in Tofino, BC (west coast of Vancouver Island)

Jan 20 – 27 – A week at an all inclusive resort in Varadero, Cuba

When we returned from our 3 month European trip, I was really happy to be home to enjoy a long summer in Kelowna. Our month long tour around Atlantic Canada in the fall was really interesting but again, I was happy to return and really enjoyed getting into a relaxing winter rhythm to see what it would really like to be retired. I got into the groove of a daily life-without-work and enjoyed a leisurely lead-up to Christmas for the first time in years.

By the end of January, we were ready for some fun in the sun and had fun on a week long escape to Cuba but we returned to one of the longest and snowiest Kelowna winters on record. Regardless, it took me right up until now to start to get a hankering to travel again. I’ve enjoyed spending the last few months planning our next trip and I’m really looking forward to leaving at the end again of April (two months in Portugal, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland).

We have big travel plans for 2017 and I am curious to see how my 2nd year of retirement will compare.  It promises to be an exciting one!

First Year Stats:

  • 146 nights away from home
  • 12 flights taken
  • 4 countries visited – France, Spain, Italy, Cuba
  • 5 Canadian provinces visited – NS, PEI, NB, QB, ON
  • 1000+ kms walked (included abt 765k on the Camino)
  • 14 items knitted – 7 dishcloths,1 scarf, 4 toques, 1 pair socks, 1 pair slippers
  • 38 books read
  • Many loaves of sourdough bread baked

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Housesitting

IMG_5621I created a new page on the menu at the top of this site, so we could share our house/pet sitting profile.  I thought I’d also post the same information on the main page so that people would be aware of it.

Erik and I have done a lot of travelling and now that we are retired and have more freedom, we are interested in doing some house and/or pet sitting, as well as our regular travelling. We have joined TrustedHousesitters.com and may join one of the other sites as well. We thought we’d post our profile information here as well in case anyway had a lead for us.

Right now, we are interested in doing a few house sits in the UK, France, or Italy between Aug 28 – Oct 12 (ish). We’re really excited that we already have one 2 week arrangement for 4 big dogs (2 Springers and 2 English Setters) and some chickens in a lovely home in a  rural setting in Lincolnshire, UK, for the last two weeks of September. If we can find one more 1 -2 week house sit between Aug 28ish – Sept 15ish, that would be great.

Our plan is to rent a car while we are in the UK, and then do some touring/travelling in between and/or after the house sit “jobs”.  While we are house sitting, we can just relax and pretend we live in the UK for a few weeks.  So much fun!

Who are we and why should you let us look after your home?

  • We are mature, financially independent, retired teachers.
  • We are responsible home owners (Kelowna, BC, Canada) and understand all that is required in looking after a house.
  • Erik is very much a Mr. Fixit guy. He finished our basement himself (including a bathroom), and he built a deck and trellis in our back yard.
  • We love pets – we have had and cared for dogs, cats, fish, gerbils, and rabbits, as well as chickens, sheep, cows, horses – and we would love to care your pets. Sadly, we lost our two dogs (Angel, a golden retriever, and Gabe, a chocolate lab), and Zoe, our cat, all to old age in the past two years and we can’t get another pet while we are travelling so much. Therefore, we are aching to have the cuddles and play time with animals.
  • Barb farmed for 3 years, looking after sheep, cows, and chickens, and Erik has had horses in the past. We’re more interested in caring for house pets, but would consider housesitting for a small farm if the situation and location were right.
  • We enjoy gardening and looking after flowers, lawn, and vegetable gardens. Erik has done landscaping work and is able to install and repair underground sprinkler systems, cut lawns, and trim foliage. Barb has a vegetable garden as well as flowers beds and enjoys puttering around in the garden every morning.
  • We are both very healthy, fit and physically active and we enjoy regular exercise. In the past 5-10 years, Barb has done triathlons and run a marathon and Erik has done duathlons and mountain bike races. In 2016, we both walked 800km on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. We are fit and able to do physical work around your home.
  • We are non-smokers, social drinkers, and do not do illegal drugs of any kind.
  • When travelling, we enjoy rural areas or small towns and villages, as well as short stays in larger cities. In 2016, we rented an apartment for a month in Orvieto, Italy. We love to meet local people and learn about their culture, try new foods and wine, and visit historical sites. When possible, we prefer to stay in one area for longer periods of time, rather than changing location every day or two.
  • We also enjoy reading, walking, cooking, knitting, music (guitar, piano, a little fiddle and banjo), gardening, and blogging about our travels.
  • We enjoy learning new languages – Barb speaks some French, and we both speak a little Spanish and Italian. Erik was born in Denmark, moved to Canada when he was 6, and speaks a little Danish.
  • We have not yet done housesitting for strangers, but we have cared for the homes and pets of friends, family, and neighbours and  we have rented apartments or homes for 2-30 days in Scotland, England, Italy, and Canada when travelling. We have excellent reviews at AirBnb (see reviews on the housesitting page from our menu above) .
  • We are also members of Couchsurfing.com and Warmshowers.org and have hosted a number of guests in our home. We can provide links to our profiles on both sites if requested. Some reviews can been seen on the Housesitting Page on the menu at the top of this site.