Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Nazare - New Year

We have decided to spend the New Year in Nazare, largely because of the huge free festival on the beach that is held there each year. This consists of two big stages with music and DJs, lots of bars and hoards of people of all ages partying well into the early hours, with a spectacular firework display at the stroke of midnight.

 We arrived at the campsite on the 30th, which gave us plenty of time to find our way around the place and to decide if it was going to be easy to find our way back in the dark on New Year's Day. The Orbitur campsite was really only about a 15 minute walk from the beach on a well lit road so it was all looking good. 
New Year's Eve itself involved a walk to the beach early evening to watch the sun set on 2013, before heading back to the van for a bite to eat and a few glasses of Vinho Verde Branco, and then popping back into town for the festivities. All I can say is, if you are ever in Portugal at New Year, is to get yourself to Nazare. The beach, which is huge by the way, was full of people dancing, drinking and celebrating, and the atmosphere was electric, from what we can piece together anyway!

New Year's Day, after hooking up the van to the campsite electrics to recharge a few things, we wandered back into town for a meal out as a bit of a treat. I opted once again for the francesina, the weirdly amazing sandwich I had tried once before in Porto. This was the steak, chorizo, cheese, and something else I couldn't quite identify, in a sandwich covered in a spicy sauce, with chips and a fried egg. Although it is very nice, it does generally result in chest pains for an hour or so after eating it, worth trying once, but that's where you should call it a day on reflection.

Next on the schedule is Lisbon with a quick stop off in Sintra en route...

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Mira de Aire

Our aim now is to get to Nazare for the New Year celebrations on the beach. But because we've got a few days to spare and it's only 100km away, we thought we'd take in a few sights along the way, and basically take our time. First pit stop last night was in a little place called Sao Pedro de Muel. A nice little village with a lighthouse and a great beach bar. This is also where our little Geology related activities begin!

This morning was an early start to make sure that we got two major things fitted in. First on the list were the caves at Mira de Aire.

The caves - first discovered in 1947 - are about 11km in length and go as deep as around 110m. They combine a fantastic example of stalactites, limestone formations, and enough humidity and condensation to annoy the most hardened glasses wearers! The tour, costing about 6 euros each, takes you deeper and deeper into the formation with a guide explaining things along the way. Unfortunately, as we didn't book in advance, it was all in Portuguese, but we still got the jist! They do explain when you first arrive that there are a lot of steps involved (363), to check that you are fit enough to manage it. But in all honestly, the majority of these are going down, with flat sections in between, followed by a lift back up to the top. Not really that challenging to be fair.

Next up today, and the bit I'd really been looking forward to is the dinosaur footprints!

These tracks cross all over a huge slanted layer of limestone in the base of a quarry and include footprints from dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes. They were discovered in 1994 by a local archaeology association. It only cost a few euros to get in and is well worth a visit. There is a roped path that you have to stay within to preserve the area, and along the way, information boards explaining what to look for. This is a truly unforgettable experience, and quite honestly I can't explain it in words. Whether you have a keen interest in geology or not, this place will stay with you for a long time.

Still heading in the direction of Nazare, we decided to stop off at a municipal campsite in Alcobaca. This is until we discover that the aforementioned campsite has actually shut down and is now a massive carpark. Not wanting to drive staight into Nazare and go early to the New Year campsite, we eventually found one on the outskirts that we are planning to spend the next two nights at to chill out and relax before the New Year celebrations begin...


Thursday, 26 December 2013

Coimbra - Christmas

We arrived in Coimbra in the middle of a rain storm, so it took us quite a while to find somewhere to park and to find the apartment. The rain was coming down so hard at one point that we had to pull over and wait for it to ease off because the windscreen wipers could not go quick enough to clear the screen. When we eventually found the apartment we checked in and got the key-code, quickly unloaded what we needed from the van, and parked up in a secure underground carpark, where we would be leaving the van over Christmas. It worked out at about 9 euros per night, but given the location (right next to the apartment) and the low cost of the accommodation itself, we decided that this was perfectly fine, and it allowed us to pop back if we needed anything during the day and also safe in the knowledge that it is locked up at night and perfectly safe.

After dumping the luggage inside we quickly headed out into town in a desperate search to get each other Christmas gifts, nothing major, but just things to unwrap on the day. 

We walked into the town centre and then discovered the effect of the heavy downpour just a short while earlier. Shops were flooded, fountains overflowing, fire service pumping water out of buildings, and water pouring down the steps of a church. The flooded church seemed a little disturbing, not only due to it being Christmas Eve but the fact that only moments earlier I had made the comment that the rain had been of biblical proportions!...

Never the less we set out in search of less soggy shops and a few stocking fillers. 

Christmas Day itself was kept as traditional as we could (to our standards). This involved waking up and listening to Christmas music, whilst opening our gifts, some of which we had brought with us from the UK from family members. Followed by a nice stroll through town before coming back to cook Christmas dinner and watch classic Christmas comedy, and Top of The Pops 2 Christmas specials. Can you get more festive?

Needless to say, this involved lots of cheap wine, beer, and a bottle of port we picked up in Porto.

Boxing Day involved a walk up cobbled streets to the university area, where we were greeted by tourists from all over the world everywhere. This was a huge university square overlooking the city, followed by a short walk to the botanical gardens. Later in the evening we enjoyed a trip to a bar that featured Fado (traditional music). All in all quite a relaxing Christmas in Coimbra. We have stayed at Coimbra Vintage Loft Apartments, and I would highly recommend them based on their location, low price, and all around quality. They are not cheap by backpacking standards but they were low priced enough to make a difference over Christmas, without denting the budget too much.

Next, we are aiming for Nazare for New Year and the free beach party, but not before a couple of quick stop offs...

Monday, 23 December 2013


The journey to Porto was fine, and most importantly the wing mirror held out for the entire trip. We spent a total of three days in Porto, visiting the main tourist attractions.
The first day was mainly focussed on chilling out and getting our bearings, with a view to spending the next two days cramming in as much as possible, fully armed with information from the local tourist information office.
We stayed in a campsite just ouside Porto, in a place called Angeiras. The campsite was owned by Orbitur. We have stayed at a few of theirs now and I would highly recommend them based on their low prices out of the summer season, and friendly and informative staff.
Although this campsite is only a few kilometres from Porto centre it does take around 50 minutes to get there by bus, but I would highly recommend using this option for not only the money you will save on parking and avoiding the city traffic, but for the death defying experience of travelling on one of the 'Resende' bus services.
Once in Porto you will be greeted by a number of very steep streets, but fantastic views from various places near the river.
The main things we had planned to do whilst here were the port cellars, a boat trip, a cable car ride, and a sample of the Portuguese take on the French croque monsieur, the Francesinha.
First stop, the port cellars. The tours of these cellars are generally priced between 3 and 5 euros for about a 30 minute tour and free samples. We opted for a tour of Taylor's cellar and it was pretty awesome. Especially the view from their roof top terrace whilst sipping the free samples. Full of information on the history and the journey from grape to glass!
Next, the boat trip. It's important to get the best deal with the boat trips; now although they all cost about 10 euros and take you under all five bridges, there was only one that we could see that included a few extras. These included a free glass of port on board, plus more free tastings at one of the cellars. The trip includes a running commentary with a little history on all of the bridges, in a number of languages, interlinked with traditional Portuguese music. it generally lasts about an hour and well worth it.
Next was the cable car, this costs 5 euros and only takes about 5 minutes, which although a bit pricey is a great experience, mainly for the views and to get to the top of the hill but also to sit there and wonder about why they actually have one here at all! It kind of reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons where the town got sold a monorail by a conman! But as I say, worth it because you also get another free port tasting at the same cellar as the boat trip offers them. So with this in mind you can now go to the cellar with all your free tastings saved up and enjoy an hour of Fado (traditional music) with free drinks!
Next, the francesinha sandwich, and possibly the best sandwich I have ever eaten. This is basically steak, chorizo, cheese, and something else I couldn't quite identify, in a sandwich covered in a spicy sauce, generally costing between 7 & 12 euros depending on where you go, often topped with a fried egg or served with chips and a drink. Don't leave without trying one.
This was followed by an evening in one of Porto's night time areas Rua das Galerias de Paris. 
Next, and as it's getting close to Christmas, we are heading to Coimbra, where we have rented an apartment for a few nights to relax.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Carrazedo - Final week

Well that's two weeks of workaway done and dusted (literally), and all in all it's been pretty fantastic. The second week started with a bit of DIY, fixing the garden gate, installing a new light fitting, and general garden jobs (pruning etc.). All the calm and tranquility suddenly turned to a few moments of mild panic, when we discovered that the fire from the end of last week had spread into the undergrowth of the wood opposite the house and directly next to the van. Apparently it had been burning all night when we discovered it.
At this point we started to think about moving the van further away but in the end decided to leave it where it was due to the fire already passing by, and go for a drink in the local bar instead!
Another burning issue this week, was disposing of the garden waste in the furnace I fashioned last week from the oil barrel. This took up most of my time as every time I got through it all Cath turned up with another wheel barrow full. Was all fun anyway.
Aside from this we appear to have become regulars at the local cafe and have begun to get offered free food for our custom. This was thanks to our host introducing us to the owner and explaining that we don't speak much Portuguese.
On Monday we were taken out on a trip to Cabaceiras de Basto, which has a market every week. This market was a lot bigger than the the one last week so was even better for soaking up the culture. After a couple of hours of wandering around (you need it due to the size), we were treated to a meal out with our host as a lovely thank you for the work we have done for her.
The final day in Carrazedo largely involved loading the van back up, and an evening of interesting chat about places to visit on our route and a taster of local liquors and spirits. The next morning we had breakfast, made a packed lunch, said our goodbyes and restarted our journey towards beyond!
First point of call was what we thought was a campsite in a place called Barcelos. Now a big thing to note here is the fact that despite a website saying there is a campsite in Barcelos, there actually is not, and apparently never has been. There is however a campsite shop! Discovering this we decided to just park the van up down a quiet street and stay there for the night. We then went out for a few drinks and to see what Barcelos had to offer. Upon our return we discovered that the wing mirror on the van had been knocked while we were away and subsequently broken off. This was a little gutting to say the least. The next morning after a few hours of thinking and planning, followed by about 20 minutes of international sign language in a bicycle repair shop, we managed to fix the mirror using cable ties, suspended ceiling wire, and two holes drilled into the mirror casing by the bike shop owner (for free, and possibly just to get rid of me!)
Porto is the next stop...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Carrazedo - Week 1

Well that’s the end of our first week at our host, and as usual it’s been fantastic. We are staying in a lovely little guest house, with its owner, her three dogs, & two cats and they are all amazing. 
So far the volunteering has all been about general garden maintenance, including turning an old oil barrel into a furnace to burn garden waste, and repairing the garden gate. The food that we have been given has been second to none, incorporating a wide range of dishes, some of which are of Portuguese origin along with some specialities from our host’s home country, the Netherlands. 
During our time off this week, we have been taken out to some of the surrounding area, including the local market in Vieira Do Minho (an essential place to visit to get a real feel for the place, and of course language practice), cake and a coffee for about one euro, and a working museum making woollen products for sale and still made in the traditional way, right from sheep to shelf! And a little trip out to a place called Rio Caldo, which is an extremely picturesque reservoir surrounded by mountains and a little town. 
An interesting thing happened last night however. Now we were both fully aware that when the weather is particularly dry in these areas, it can result in being the perfect fuel for massive hillside fires, and that is exactly what happened. The first fire I noticed was about 1km away, and it was absolutely raging, but then, as I sat down I noticed another, only about 300 metres away. A little startling at first, but perfectly safe for us given the direction of the wind. But it really was an instant realisation of what must be on people’s minds here. In addition to this the chats over dinner have been really insightful into the general way of life here and hints and tips on the language and its little colloquialisms. And also the realisations that phrase books can be pretty useless in rural areas and that you can really only learn by doing.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Well the long drive this morning took us about three hours to complete and brought us to the little village of Carrazedo. This is where we will be spending the next two weeks volunteering in exchange for meals and accomodation. Basically, the deal is that in exchange for a few hours work a day, for just five days of the week, we get a nice cosy room and all our meals cooked for us. And loads of free time to go sight seeing. We have done this sort of thing before and have found that as well a a cheap week/fortnight, it also gives you the oppertunity to learn more about the country or region, and get to visit some out of the way places and really soak up the local culture. So, on that basis, the next couple of weeks worth of blogs will feature in and around this area with little trips out and the food that we eat. After the long drive today, we just settled ourselves in and got an early night in preparation for our first day of volunteering tomorrow.