Hello, we’re James, Aileen and Zeus
We’re touring Europe in a campervan. This is about our adventure.
Week 19/20: Sicily
In this blog post we explore Sicily’s numerous Greek and Roman archaeological sites, get a taste for hiking in its beautiful countryside, and savour some Sicilian food specialities and wine. James also gets to flex his climbing and mountain biking muscles.
We spent a couple of weeks meandering around Italy waiting for the Sicily forecast of rain and severe weather to clear. It finally did! So we booked a ferry ticket, drove south in a hurry and hopped on the 20 minute ferry ride from Reggio Calabria to Messina. The sun was shining. We were on our way hoorah!
Our first impressions weren’t very good. The highway heading south from Messina was a deathwish, with roadworks suddenly appearing without warning, dark ill-lit tunnels where one just hoped to make it to other side alive, and crazy end-of-spectrum drivers (on one end of the spectrum is sloooooooow and drifty, on the other just-plain-nuts). And there is evidence of fly-tipping everywhere.
It didn’t help that our first attempted stop was Taormina, a town built high on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. It looked beautiful, but it was also chock-full of tourists, had tiny hilly streets and nowhere safe to park a campervan. So we aborted and headed south to Giardini Naxos where google maps kept trying to take us down a tiny non-street to get to our camper stop. We finally found our way with some manual navigation, parked, and breathed a sigh of relief at having survived the morning. Aileen then made some pasta carbonara which we washed down with wine for lunch. It was needed.
But after 2 weeks, we’ve come to love Sicily. Once we got used to the crazy driving, and accepted that the fly-tipping and the hint of lawlessness is just part of its “character”, we found it a fascinating and alluring place, with beautiful and varied countryside, amazing archaeological relics and interesting food and wine.
A short note on the geology of Sicily
Sicily sits on a fault where the Eurasian and African plates are colliding. This Wikipedia article explains the geology far better than we ever could, but in a nutshell, the Eurasian plate is expanding eastward to fill the space of the African plate subducting westward. How this translates in practical terms is the northern half and eastern side of Sicily are quite mountainous, whilst the southern half has gentler mountains and rolling hills. And there’s also that huge active volcano Mt Etna (3,357m elevation), sitting on a fissure point where the Ionian and Tyrrhenian slabs of the Eurasian plate are colliding, drawing up magma from under the African plate. It’s all going on, and it makes for the interesting and varied countryside of Sicily.
We headed clockwise around Sicily. Our first proper stop was at Mt Etna, where we hoped to do some hiking. The weather was not so accommodating.
We stayed at a campsite on the southern edge of Mt Etna, and drove up to do a hike along the edge of the main crater. We found our trail head covered in thick clouds so we aborted that plan, and started to do a hike around the Silvestri craters. Zeus was not a fan of the scree-like volcanic matter under foot, so we aborted this too after a short walk in the mist around one of the 5 craters. It was cold, snow was still on the ground, a stark contrast to the dark volcanic “soil”, and strong winds continuously pushed thick clouds into the mountain side. Not great conditions for a hike.
We decided to descend to below the cloud level and did a hike to Monte Grosso, which turned out to be quite a good hike geek-wise, and also had great views of the coast. Along the hike you could see and distinguish lava flows from different eruption events. The 1886 lava was covered in lichen or Mt Etna broom trees. It takes a looooong time for vegetation to start taking hold. The 2001 lava fields were pretty barren. The top of Mt Grosso was covered in trees, a forested area that escaped the lava. There was also an interesting vulva-shaped volcanic structure which we later found out was the lava cone from the 1886 flow.
We left Mt Etna the following day, and she was still shrouded in clouds. When we passed her again on our drive back to the ferry she was still shrouded in clouds. We hope to visit Sicily again in the future so another attempt to do a hike or two near the summit is on our to do, and hopefully we’ll see her peak then too.
Noto, and a taste of Sicilian-Baroque architecture
Our curiosity for Baroque architecture was piqued by some impressive specimens in Porto, such as the Clerigos Church and its distinctive tower visible from much of Porto, and the Igreja dos Carmelitas which we didn’t get to see the inside of but had read it was dripping in baroque-style gold decorations.
So from Mt Etna we headed south to Noto, one of three cities in Sicily famous for its Sicilian-Baroque architecture, a style that evolved whilst Sicily was part of the Kingdom of Spain. It features grinning masks and putti in addition to the usual over-the-top Baroque flourishes. The other important feature of Noto is that it has a climbing wall.
We parked our campervan in a quiet parking lot and went for a stroll in the centre of Noto, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. The cleanliness and relative calm and order of the city, as well as the gleaming Baroque buildings gave it a slight “theme-park” feel. We enjoyed a mushroom-filled pastry whilst sitting in the sunshine on Noto Cathedral’s stairs, meandered around town and particularly enjoyed the grinning lions of the balconies of Villaforata palace. After some cocktails, the worst food we’d had in Italy (some paninis where the bread to sad filling ratio was way off), and some people watching in a cafe, we headed back to our campervan. James went for a climb (the climbing centre was a 5 minute walk away), then we had dinner and a snooze in a parking lot. #glamourouscampervanlife
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento
From Noto we headed south and west through some stunning countryside of steep limestone cliffs and deep valleys littered with gleaming hilltop villages. South East Sicily looks worthy of exploration, but we were on a mission to see the famed archeological sites of Sicily.
Our first stop was Agrigento and the Valley of Temples.
Being one of the most famous Greek archeological sites, we were expecting to be impressed. But there was still a “holy-cow” feeling on seeing the number and sheer size of the temples in person. The row of 8 temples sit on top of a ridge that was the southern edge of what was the ancient city of Akragas. When we visited, above us was cloud-free boundless blue sky, and around us were valleys of rolling green, with blossoming almond trees and evergreen olive trees. It’s a stunning setting for temples.
The temples themselves amaze when you think about how much effort and energy went into building them. The temple of Zeus is estimated to have been 112 metres long by 56 metres wide and 20 metres high. It featured 40 colossal atlas statues giving the illusion of holding up the roof. It is believed to be the largest Doric temple ever built, though studies suggest it might not have been completed. We wondered if it was just too ambitious a design for the laws of physics to support.
It took a good half a day+ to explore the site, so it was a good thing that they allow you to bring your pet family members. While we ogled at the temples, Zeus made eyes (aka intrusive staring) at other tourists.
Selinunte Archeaological Park
Selinunte is like Agrigento’s less famous sibling. We found it to be an equally impressive archeological site but with far fewer crowds, so you got to get a lot closer to the ruins. It is also happily situated in beautiful surroundings – on the coast and at the mouth of a river, the site overlooks the sun-dappled sea. When we visited, the site was also covered in lush greenery, spring flowers and buzzing bees.
The site has lots of informative notice boards (we love a good notice board) which described how the Doric temples were built – how the stone was sourced, shaped, transported, then how temples were built, including reconstructions of the cranes, pulleys, transport mechanisms, etc. that would have been used.
Selinunte was a wealthy trading city, and this is evident by the sprawling site – 270 hectares of it. So you can spend all day walking to the various features that remain. Aside from the temples we saw remains of the acropolis and wall fortifications, sanctuaries, shrines, and even an ancient baptistery pool by the river.
Unfortunately we had underestimated the size of the site and failed to pack a lunch. None of the refreshment booths were open when we visited so we had to call it a day when we’d seen the main sites but missed seeing the antiquarium, and the north end of the acropolis.
Selinunte is also, happily a dog-friendly site.
While visiting Selinunte, we stayed at a camper stop along the coast south of Menfi. On our way there we spotted a nice looking winery overlooking rolling hills lined with grape vines. With some google map sleuthing, we identified it as Mandrarossa Winery, and booked a winery tour.
We didn’t know much about Sicilian wine other than Nero d’Avola being a famous grape of Sicily, so we were intrigued by the winery’s motto – “La Sicilia che non ti aspetti” (A Sicily you don’t expect) and opted to try their “Innovati’ range in the tasting part of our tour.
We had a lovely experience. The sun was shining brightly, and from the winery’s balcony you could see the nearby rolling hills covered in spring flowers and neat rows of grape vine trellises, with the blue sea and sky as a backdrop.
One of the great things we’ve really enjoyed about travelling in winter and spring is that most sights haven’t been crowded. And in the case of winery tours, we’ve had the unintentional pleasure of enjoying private tours, which is nice as it takes on more of a more conversational tone with the tour guide. We learnt for example, that the ubiquitous cheerily yellow cape sorrel plant carpeting much of Sicily is in fact edible, and we tried some our guide pulled off the ground (it’s got a distinct lemony flavour) as she described growing up in Sicily exploring fields while munching on cape sorrel. She also put us onto pasta with pistachio and red prawns, her favourite meal with Mandrarossa’s Larcera, a light dry white wine made with Vermentino grapes, which was the first of 7 wines we tasted that day.
It was such a pleasure to explore the different grape varieties and blends of the winery’s Innovati range. Our favourites were Santanella, a white made with a blend of Fiano (a local grape variety) and Chenin Blanc, and Bonera, a blend of Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Franc.
Before we left, our guide pointed out a cycle/pedestrian path that you could see running past the vineyard and explained this was the old Castelvetrano-Ribera railway line that has been converted to a cycle/pedestrian path that links villages along the south coast through vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields. We decided this is something we’d definitely love to come back and explore in the future.
Segesta Archeological Park
From Menfi, we drove north west and as we did the scenery changed to impressive limestone mountains. We saw more stone fruit trees and sheep grazing.
Our first stop was Segesta Archeological Park. We arrived a couple of hours before dusk so everything was bathed in a nice soft light. Segesta has an impressive temple but also an amphitheatre and some less distinct ruins of the ancient city. The really striking things about Segesta is where it is situated and how well preserved the two main structures are. We speculated that the reason for this could be that limestone in the area was harder and more weather resistant than that at Agrigento and Selinunte. The temple sits alone on a hilltop within a col, the amphitheatre and other buildings sit on a hilltop that forms the col. The amphitheatre has a stunning backdrop of a deep valley leading to the sea. It made the physical and mental battle to get all family members to the top of the hill worthwhile.
Following the visit we headed to Trapani via the most expensive tank of diesel of the trip. Tip for travellers to Sicily (and southern Italy): At petrol stations there are two prices, one to pump yourself, one for someone else to do it for you at a significant markup. Ignore people waving you to the serviced pumps and choose your pump with care.
Trapani and Climbing in Bosco di Scorace
Our plan for the next day was to do a morning climbing trip to Bosco di Scorace crag, followed by a later lunch in Trapani. Getting to the crag however involved some very poor roads followed by some dirt roads. We got there later than we’d planned and decided to defer lunch to dinner so that James could have a good exploration of the crag.
Bosco di Scorace is an excellent crag. The rock is bullet hard sandstone, the features are nice and have variety, the boulders are mostly a decent height (not many sit starts) and the people developing the crag have done a great job building safe landings, clearing paths and documenting on 27Crags. James really enjoyed it. It’s not a big enough venue to justify flying to Sicily for, but if you are there on holiday already, it is definitely worth checking out. We didn’t see anyone else climbing, but a local farmer did come to watch and cheer James during his warm up and a few boulder problems.
For dinner we’d been looking forward to trying the fish couscous that is a speciality of Trapani arabesque cuisine, and pasta with pistachio cream and red prawns, which our wine guide at Mandrarossa recommended. The restaurant we went to had the couscous, but sadly not the pasta. We enjoyed the couscous, small oily fish lent good flavour and the textures worked well together. The rest of the meal was sadly unmemorable.
Hiking Monte Cofano
We spent the night at a camper stop south of Trapani, which has some historical salt flats. We were thinking of having a ride around these in the morning, but decided against it in favour of a drive north for a hike around Monte Cofano. We were treated to some dramatic scenery and a really lovely hike.
Monte Cofano is a limestone mountain that sits alone right along the coast, so it’s quite striking. We did a circumnavigation of the mountain which afforded views great views of the sea and coastline. Looking south we could see the dramatic ridge that Erice sits, and to the north were the dramatic mountains towering over San Vito Lo Capo. There was also a film being made where we parked – some chaps were walking around in western clothing, the ground was covered in sand, and they’d set up some swing doors of a saloon. Our guess is that it was for an Italian Western film, if such a thing exists?
San Vito Lo Capo and Mountain Biking in Boscoe do Scorace
From Monte Cofano we headed north to San Vito Lo Capo, which is a town that sits on the northern tip of a cape on the west coast of Sicily. We found it to be a nice seaside town. We started the day with some people watching over coffee and stuffed croissants in the town square (we would have preferred plain croissants over croissants stuffed with sweet filling, but plain croissants are a rarity in Italy), then had a pleasant morning cycling around the town, along tsits wide expansive beach, over to the edge of the impressive mountain ridge that overlooks the town, and a pretty lighthouse. We then headed to a pastry shop where we picked up profiterole-like pastries with pistachio and hazelnut fillings – very tasty but like stuffed croissants, surely a contributor to cases of diabetes :-). Unfortunately San Vito Lo Capo also had a herd of sheep with bells next to the camper stop. After our time in Soajo, Portugal, Zeus has been conditioned to think of bells as the harbinger of some foe e.g. a big cow. He was not able to settle and that prompted us to move on and head south east towards Palermo.
When we were driving out of the climbing area at Bosco di Scorace 2 days earlier, Aileen spotted what looked like bike trails. Some cross referencing with Trailforks and Instagram location tags confirmed this. So we stopped there on our way to Palermo so that James could spend the morning riding. Half the trials headed down one side of the mountain which was sandstone and the other down a side which was limestone. Nothing was super steep or technical, but all a lot of fun and nice long runs. Aileen and Zeus hung out in the campervan and waved hello several times to the farmer we’d seen at the crag a few days ago.
For our visit to Palermo we decided to leave the campervan at a campsite in a neighbouring town, catch the train into the city and stay a night in a B&B. That would give us two days where we could leave Zeus to have a snooze in our room while we visited things that weren’t dog suitable, without worrying he might be getting cooked in a hot van.
Food of Palermo
Aileen had read that the Pani câ Meusa (Spleen sandwich) was the must try food item of Palermo (apparently JFK was a fan when he was stationed there whilst in the airforce). So our first order of business when we arrived was lunch at Porta Carbone a respected sandwich counter with some kerbside tables near the marina.
The Pani cân Meusa is a sandwich made with a sesame bun with the top half hollowed out to accommodate more filling, and filled with mostly sliced spleen slow cooked in lard, although lung can be included. It is finished with either grated caciocavallo cheese or a squeeze of lemon (both are good, we preferred the lemon). We found it fascinating watching the men at the counter carefully construct the sandwiches – first hollowing out the top of the bun, then carefully forming a spleen mountain on the bottom half, drizzling some lard over the spleen mountain, and then topping it with cheese or squeeze of lemon before carefully replacing the top bun. Eating the sandwiches was a messy business but the flavour was amazing – Offaly tasty! – and the texture is soft like fall-off-the-bone meat. A cold beer was a nice accompaniment.
In the evening we wanted to try a typical Palermo meal. We went to Odori e Sapori al Vecchio Monte (Smell and Taste of the Old Mountain) where James got to try the pasta with pistachio and red prawns. The sweetnesses and saltinesses work well together. Aileen had spaghetti with sardines, another Sicilian speciality which features fennel, raisins and saffron, another dish where the influence of north africa is evident.
On our second day, our lunch choice was simple. We went back to Porta Carbone to get another Pani câ Meusa. It was that good.
Sights of Palermo
There are lots of different historic buildings to see in Palermo. We didn’t try to do everything, instead we chose to see the Cappella Palatina and Chiesa di Santa Caterina.
Palazzo Reale e Cappella Palatina
The Palazzo dei Normani (Royal Palace) was built by the Normans in 1072 and was the seat of the Kings of Sicily. Today, it still functions as the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly however you are able to visit some parts, and we think it’s the must see if you ever find yourself in Palermo
The Cappella Palatine within the palace is a private chapel built in the Sicilian-Norman style and was completed in 1143 and dedicated to Saint Peter. Its most noteworthy feature are the mosaics which cover its walls and archways. There are pictorial depictions of saints and scenes from the bible which are remarkable due to the scale, vibrancy of the colours and the artistic depiction of elements such as people’s expressions or waves in the sea.
Despite being a catholic chapel, there are sections of patterned mosaic where the influence of the Arab craftsman is clear. The ceiling is also decorated with muqarnas, the stalactite or honeycomb-like structure we first saw at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
It is also possible to visit some of the rooms of the Norman Palace. These aren’t as stunning in the same way as the Cappella, but there is an interesting mix of decoration. Some rooms are painted with depictions of greek gods, nymphs, etc co-mingled with some baroque decorations not to our taste. There’s also a Chinese room. The most interesting room of the Palace is the Ruggero room, whose walls and ceiling are covered in mosaics, but with animals like grinning tigers and grumpy leopards rather than religious themes.
Chiesa e Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria
This is an interesting venue with 4 very different experiences: An extremely opulent church, an expectedtly austere monastery, rooftop views across Palermo and a cake shop.
The church is decorated with lots and lots of different types of marble and must have been very very expensive to construct. Some of the marble is functional e.g. the floor, some is in decorative pattern, but some is used to make reliefs that depict scenes from the Testaments, for example Jonah and the whale. There is a painted ceiling, statues and other decorations too. Take a look at the 360 view on their website. It gives a good impression of the grandeur.
The monastery is a welcome relief after the sensory overload of the church. You’re able to see a few of the nuns’ personal rooms that are preserved since they left the site in 2014. The rooms are very simple in the way you might expect.
The roof terraces of the church grant views across the city in every direction and let us appreciate how Palermo is nestled into the hillsides (you can’t see that at street level). It was also a better vantage point for us to appreciate the Fontana Pretoria. The fountain and statues sit next to the church, but it is hard to take in its form at ground level.
The cake shop held 98% of the site’s visitors. The cake was tasty.
Palermo’s markets and a search for a rare whole chicken
Palermo is an easy city to walk around. It is quite compact and bisected by 2 pedestrianised streets. Via Maqueda runs north-south and Via Vittorio Emanuele runs east-west.
We took a walk through 2 markets – Mercato do Ballaro and Mercato del Capo. It was good to see people hawking local produce and food. But the noise of people trying to attract attention, the slow moving tourist crowds, and the ever present risk of a scooter weaving through the crowds and running over Zeus didn’t make for a relaxing time.
Mercato di Ballarò is slightly more touristy / oriented to “street food”. Mercato del Capo had a wider selection of fresh produce.
Neither market had what we wanted though, which was a whole chicken for roasting. So we did a walk further north outside the historic centre to find one. It transpires a whole chicken isn’t something most Sicilian butchers stock. We found one at the fourth attempt, and got to see some more residential parts of the city along the way, before having another spleen sandwich and taking a train back to the campsite to reunite with the campervan.
Villa Romana del Casala
We wanted to see the Roman villa famous for its mosaics. So on leaving Palermo, rather than heading directly east along the coast on our circumnavigation, we headed south east and back inland. The drive was very picturesque as we passed the impressive mountains of Parco delle Madonie and numerous hilltop towns (rather like chateaus in the Loire, hilltop towns are common in Sicily, but they are always visually arresting). The terrain levelled out the further south we went with sections of rolling green hillsides.
We spent a couple of nights at an Agriturismo before visiting the Roman Villa. Villa Gerace Azienda Bio farms organic olive oil, almonds and pistachios. It was a very relaxing stay in a quiet valley, camped underneath olive trees. We had a very nice meal at the agriturismo – it started with a plateful of antipasti which included local meats, cheeses, caponata and omelettes made with local wild asparagus and other veggies. The pasta dish that followed was delicious with grilled artichokes we’d seen wood roasting earlier in the day. Porchetta with local greens and roasted potatoes concluded the feast.
Villa Romana del Casale is a well-preserved Roman villa and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has more than three thousand square metres of mosaic flooring (!) a lot of which is in a very good state of preservation. Sections of elevated walkway have been built suspended above the floor. Some sections of the original walls with murals and pillars remain, but have been supplemented with a wooden building following the original floor plan. It works very well. You get great views of the mosaics. There are also lots of notice boards explaining the stylistic elements or scenes depicted (🤓). And, you can understand the mosaics in the context of the building architecture and the functions of the different rooms.
We’d find picking our favourite mosaics silly as there were so many amazing and interesting ones, but the “Big Hunt” hallway has to be most impressive for its enormous scale and the breadth of the content. It depicts the hunting and transport of exotic animals such as tigers, lions, elephants, rhinos etc. to Rome for entertainment purposes. In one scene a lion attacks a fallen Roman soldier, whilst a row of soldiers carry ostriches up a ramp onto a boat. In another, an elephant is loaded onto a boat, whilst a leopard munches on an antelope. It’s all going on. It’s a marvellous mosaic.
We enjoyed seeing Sicily’s Greek temples, and this was a stunning way to conclude our archaeological tour of Sicily.
We headed back to Messina to catch a ferry to the mainland. We plan to visit Pompeii before heading east to catch another ferry to Croatia.
Week 17/18: Avoiding the rain in Italy
In this blog post we do our best to avoid rain and manage to visit the classic Tuscan cities, and get a taste of Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia and Calabria in the process.
Our “Italy plan” was to take a ferry from the north west coast of Italy to Sicily, and then work our way back north from there. The weather had other ideas. The 10-day forecast showed rain and severe weather for Sicily, and much of Italy, but especially the west coast. So we abandoned our plan and decided to “wing it” until the forecast looked kinder.
We’d both been to Cinque Terre at some point in the past. We both had memories of a beautiful part of the world packed with tourists. Cinque Terre was however, a rare spot with sunlight forecast for a day so there we went, with the intention of doing a hike. It had been over a week since our last hike in the Douro Valley and we were all feeling a bit creaky from long days of driving.
Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Ligurian region of Italy. It features five small villages on the edge of the rugged coast, strung together by a centuries-old trail that passes over steep terraced mountains between each of the villages. It’s a beautiful part of the world – the small fishing villages have pedestrian streets lined with colourful buildings, and the steep terraced mountains have amazing views out to sea.
Visiting in the winter was definitely a different experience. We stayed at a campsite in Levanto, on the coast just north of Cinque Terre. We did a hike on the high trail between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza, as the traditional “blue route” was closed for repair (as are the routes between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia). We encountered one other couple on the trail. The trail had a long climb up but the views along the top of the mountain ridge were amazing. On reaching Vernazza we wandered through town, stopping to celebrate the end of the hike with some gelato, and then snacking on some calamari fritte and chips before catching the train back to Levanto.
Rain was forecast for the following morning, so we decided to drive to Pisa in the morning and hoped the rain would stop long enough in the afternoon for us to see the city’s famous tower. Thankfully it did 😀.
We parked the van at an area de autocaravanas and walked to the Piazza del Duomo via the streets of Pisa’s medieval walled town. It was James’ first time to see the tower. And even though he’d seen it many times in pictures, it was still a marvel to see it in person. Firstly, it’s a beautifully constructed tower in its own right – with graceful arches and ornate detailing. Secondly, it’s still shocking to see how much it’s leaning. The duomo, baptistery and walled cemetery of the piazza are also impressive structures, clearly built to wow. It’s strange to think they’re less popular because they don’t have glaring defects.
We strolled back to the van via the university quarter and enjoyed some cocktails (Aileen has discovered the Campari Spritz, and James is enjoying Negronis with slices of blood orange), before giving Zeus some dinner and settling him for a snooze. We had dinner at Trattoria La Tortuga da Giovanni, a nearby seafood restaurant. We love exploring the different pasta dishes in each town we visit. For primi piatti James had octopus roe spaghetti, and Aileen had black ink ravioli stuffed with ricotta, with prawns and pistachios. For secondi, we shared a salt crusted roasted sea bass. All was delicious, washed down with a white wine from Elba, which prompted a discussion about the remarkable life Napoleon Bonaparte led. His first period of exile was in Elba.
The following day, Florence was the sunny spot in the weather forecast. So we headed there on the train from Pisa.
Aileen had been to Florence before and was happy to see the sights again, but mostly wanted to have a pork chop at a restaurant she’d been to several years ago. Her first pork chop there left lasting happy memories. For James and Zeus it was their first visit to Florence.
Having Zeus with us meant we were limited on what we could visit. Italy is dog friendly, but galleries and interiors of historic buildings are off limits for obvious and sensible reasons. Fortunately there are a lot of amazing things to see in Florence without going inside.
First we had a wander through the streets and past the Mercato Centrale Firenze in order to confirm the location and correctly identify Aileen’s desired lunch stop. After a successful reconnaissance we headed to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore . The surrounding buildings crowd over the relatively narrow streets so you don’t really see the cathedral until you are right next to it. Which comes as a double surprise since it is vast (153m x 90m x90m) and strikingly decorated in white, black and red marble. Similar to the tower of Pisa, it is something that viewing a photo doesn’t prepare you for, nor does justice to the beauty and quality of the craftsmanship. It would have been interesting to see the interior, but that is something that will need to wait for a future trip.
We continued our cultural journey in Piazza della Signoria. The Piazza features some notable buildings and the famous Neptune fountain, but the main draw is a collection of statues the would be key features in most museums. Here they are in the public space with no charge to view. Aileen likes the bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s decapitated head aloft, snake heads hanging limp. James found the Rape of the Sabine Women statue most striking. Zeus was also eyeing the statues up with interest, but for doggie reasons.
Aesthetically sated, but rather hungry we headed for lunch. Trattoria Mario has a simple menu and is famous for its Bistecca alla Fiorentina. There was no need to view the menu, Aileen had already decided on the pork chop for herself days before and James was sold on the idea too. The food was excellent as expected, but it would be nice to do a repeat trip in order to try other dishes. Two Japanese girls on the adjoining table were doing a commendable job of sampling several dishes and their rapturous oohing and aahing indicated they were enjoying the food tremendously.
After a bit more wandering the streets and a visit to an Asian supermarket for some essential supplies (Rice. We also bought an interesting selection of Taiwanese instant noodles that we look forward to sampling), Florence was a wrap and we took the train back to Pisa and tried to figure out what to do next.
Siena and Strade Bianche
Tuscany presents lots of options for interesting things to see, but actually deciding where to visit next was easy. James noticed the Strade Bianche bike race was happening on Saturday and would start and finish in Siena. So we headed there.
Siena is a hilltop city that traditionally saw itself in competition with Florence and hosts a famous horse race Palio di Siena around its main Piazza del Campo. Strade Bianche is a road cycle race that has been growing in interest and significance over recent years. It takes place over the Tuscan countryside and includes sections on white gravel roads which make up about a third of the distance and give the race its name.
We arrived in Siena on Friday in time to snag a spot at the local area autocaravanas. We did the steep walk to the city centre that follows the same road on which the riders would conclude their race on the next day. Yes it felt steep and hard to climb. We had a nice late lunch (pasta yum). We took in the city’s cathedral which is made in similar materials to its counterpart in Florence but in a very different gothic style. We concluded our exploration of the city with cocktails in the Piazza del Campo where we watched staff from cycle teams milling around and we tried to envisage what the horse race would be like – there is not much space in the piazza, it has some tight corners and apparently the square is full of spectators on race day.
The next morning we packed up early and drove outside the city to find a viewing spot on a gravel section of the race. These sections and the final climb, tend to be where most of the action that shapes the race happens. We found a good spot quite easily, tucked the van into a verge, and waited for the riders.
The women’s and men’s races take place on the same day a few hours apart. It was great to see both. We witnessed the strength of the riders up close and the difficult conditions they have to tackle – apart from the gravel road surface there is lots of dust that affects visibility. If you saw our Instagram story for that day you’d have heard Aileen screaming/cheering for Tom Pidcock. She had a sore throat for a couple of days after, but he won in fine style. The women’s race was a super close photo finish that went to Demi Vollering, from team mate and previous year’s winner Lotte Kopecky.
On the Sunday the public can ride the same course. This is something James would have enjoyed, but we’d have needed some forward planning. Maybe there is a trip in our future that would combine that with seeing the Tuscan cities in more depth.
Our meander south
After a couple of days in Tuscany we were feeling cold and subzero temperatures were forecasted, so we headed to Italy’s east coast where we found the sun shining quite nicely. Our first stop was in Porto Sant’ Elpidio, an unremarkable seaside town in the Marche region of Italy. We spent a day there though enjoying the sunshine – Zeus caught up on his sunbathing and we had breakfast outside for the first time in what felt like months.
We passed some stunning snow capped mountains on our journey east. We knew nothing about Abruzzo’s national parks so we were curious to explore. From Porto Sant’ Elpidio we headed inland to Sulmona, which sits on the edge of Parco Nazionale della Majella. We did a nice hike from Sulmona, where we could see the majestic snow capped ridges of the national park. Cold temperatures motivated us to move on, but we’d be curious to explore more once the weather thaws.
At this point the forecast for Sicily was looking less rainy so we decided to start our journey south, with a couple of stops along the way. Our first stop was the Gargano Peninsula, the “spur” of Italy’s heel Puglia, where we discovered that it’s mostly shuttered outside of summer. We spent a day driving to camper stops around Peschichi only to find them all closed, and through the mountains of the Gargano National Park, until we found an open sosta camper (camper stop) on the coast close to Mattenata. We stayed a couple of days – James managed to do a really nice bike ride through the surrounding hills.
From Mattenata we headed south to Calabria and did an overnight stop on the Tyrrhenian coast, before our ferry from Reggio Calabria the following morning.
We’re heading to Sicily!
Week 15/16: Porto, Douro Valley, Peneda-Gerês, Santiago de Compostela and a looooong drive to Italy
We had planned to head west from Sintra, on our journey back through Spain, but when we checked the weather forecast, Porto was enjoying equally good weather, so we headed north instead. We found a dog friendly hotel, the Catalonia Porto, with a good parking lot nearby and spent 2 days exploring the city.
Porto is a fascinating city, abound with contradictions. It has clearly been a place of wealth, with streets lined with neoclassical and baroque buildings, lavishly decorated churches, the port lodges, the Bolsa Palace (stock exchange) etc. and yet so many buildings are derelict – left to the ravages of time and near collapse. The city is also a major tourist destination – the beautiful waterfront Ribeira district is a clear draw, as are the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, and yet Porto retains a feeling of not being overly commercialised – there isn’t much evidence of “chain” restaurants or shops, there’s a slight aged or grungy feel to much of it, and its residents seem to just be getting on with their lives. With some exceptions, Porto just didn’t feel like it overly pandered to it’s tourists, which was refreshing after the glitz and international nature of Lisbon.
Here’s a rundown of the things we most liked about Porto:
1. Wandering through it’s narrow hilly streets – Like Lisbon it’s a very hilly city, sitting on the steep slopes of the Duoro river valley. So you get a good workout wandering through it’s narrow streets, and have lots of interesting vistas that suddenly appear, with their fascinating mixes of over-the-top and rubble-piles
2. Tasting Porto food specialities – in line with its unfussy vibe, Porto’s local food specialities include Cachorrinho – basically a hot dog on a toasted bun with spicy sauce, Prego – a steak sandwich, Tripas à moda do Porto – a tripe and bean stew, and Franceshina – a ham, sausage and steak sandwich covered with melted cheese and a tomato beer gravy (their version of a croque monsieur). We enjoyed the first two at Cervejaria Gazela, a buzzing beer hall around the corner from our hotel, washed down with a mound of batatas fritas and a bottle of Dao wine. Aileen tried the tripas stew at Casa Bragança – It was tasty but she needed a nap afterwards. We didn’t bother with the franceshina.
3. Visiting a port lodge – one can’t visit Porto and not be fascinated by the odd square-mile of warehouse looking structures across the river, with very familiar names emblazoned on their sides – Taylors, Grahams, Sandeman etc. We decided to do a tour of the Ferreira port lodge, which has the distinction of being the only lodge owned by Portuguese. Antonia Ferreira played a major role in the development of the Portuguese wine industry as well as expanding and improving the port business she inherited when she was widowed at 33. It was interesting to learn how Port is made – wine is made at their vineyards deep in the Douro valley, which is then transported to the warehouses in Vila Nova de Gaia where aging takes place because the location enjoys milder temperatures and shade being north facing, and was also convenient for onward exportation to the big port drinkers of the world – the UK! The walk over the Ponte Luis I bridge is also well worth it, as you get amazing views of the Duoro river with Porto on one side, and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other.
4. A nice meal at Atrevo – we were also keen to try a more modern restaurant (one can only have so much grilled seafood with potatoes), so we had dinner at Atrevo, a small restaurant in the Bonfim district near our hotel. It was a lovely 8-course tasting meal with a heavy focus on seafood. Our favourites were the tuna carpaccio, a crab and small prawn “sandwich”, and the cod with a buerre blanc sauce.
5. Gawking at fresh food at Mercado de Bolhão – the Bolhão market sits in a beautiful neoclassical building that has clearly been recently renovated as it’s very clean, but still has excellent local produce – meats, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables – for Porto’s residents and tourists alike. Rue Formosa, the road the market sits on also has a number of good looking delis piled high with produce, and with “interesting” window displays.
For Harry Potter fans out there, we did try to visit Livraria Lello, a beautiful art nouveau bookship with an iconic red staircase, but there was not only a queue, one had to pay to get in!?
From Porto, we decided to head inland to check out the steep vineyard lined-slopes of the Duoro wine region. We parked up in an area de autocaravanas in Peso da Régua, along the banks of the Duoro. It was very nice indeed to sit in the sunshine by the river surrounded by terraced hills with vineyards. We enjoyed a wine tasting and some nibbles at Garrafeira Gato Preto on our first night.
The next day we did a walk from Mesão Frio , which ascended quite steeply up to Miradouro de São Silvestre do Cima do Duoro, a miradour with a swing (!) and amazing views of the Duoro valley. The walk then descended quite steeply past vineyard terraces, and some tiny little villages with pedestrian-only streets where old Portuguese men and women smiled and said hello as Zeus walked by. The steep terraced slopes and gently flowing river were visually striking but were also a good reminder of how hard it must be to work the land. The very steep ascent back to Mesão Frio was hard and Aileen needed a lot of encouragement to amble up the hill. We passed nice looking Quinta de São Bernardo and decided the area would be a nice place for a luxury retreat in the warmer months – lots of wine, nice lodgings, gardens and/or pool overlooking the Douro, sunshine bliss.
The following day we booked a tour of Aneto, a small vineyard run by 2 brothers. Grape growing has historically been a family enterprise, and their grandparents had divided their land amongst their 14 (!) children when they passed away. The Montenegro brothers were the first in the family to foray into wine making. It was interesting to learn about what grapes they grew in which plots. Their more western (cooler) plots grow white grape varieties and Pinot Noir. Their eastern plots deeper into the Duoro Valley (hotter) grow the varieties typical of Duoro red wine – Touriga Nacional, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Francisca, Tinto Cão. We were also surprised to learn that they make late harvest wine with noble rot Semillon grapes. The Botrytis fungus requires very specific conditions hence the style of wine is made in specific locations like Sauternes in France or Tokaj in Hungary.
Illness strikes in Peneda-Gerês
From Duoro we headed north to Soajo, a mountain village in the Peneda-Gerês national park. We looked forward to doing some walks, some cycling and the promise of good facilities (loo, showers, bike cleaning station).
On arriving we had a good surprise. The campervan parking was next to what looked like a cluster of ancient burial tombs, which turned out to be Espigueiros, 300 year old grain stores. By the campervan site there were about 16 clustered on a granite outcrop and we later found others scattered through the village. Each store is constructed from shaped pieces of granite with narrow slits to allow the passage of air through the store and supported on granite mushroom legs to prevent rodents from getting at the grain.
Unfortunately this was also the time at which James began feeling unwell.
Being sick is not much fun and in the confines of a campervan, there are some additional challenges, but at least Soajo was a nice place to take it easy for four days. We observed the dramas of stray dogs, cats and their feeders. There were also cows, goats and horses meandering through the place (plus their bells to alert Zeus of their impending arrival). We watched widows decked in all black doing their daily walk to the cemetery close to our site (and one carrying a haybale on her head). As James began to feel better, we did some short walks and got an interesting tour of another campervan that a Swiss couple had designed and had custom built, a very impressive bit of engineering and packaging.
We left feeling disappointed we hadn’t really explored what seemed to be a beautiful area with lots that would interest us, but we were also relieved to feel better and move on, particularly since it had been a stressful time for Zeus who felt he needed to guard us against the menagerie of stray and grazing animals.
Santiago de Compostela
From Soajo we headed back over the border into Spain and to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and is famous for it’s Cathedral, allegedly on the burial site of the Biblical apostle St. James. It’s also the final destination for the (hundreds of) thousands that attempt the camino each year. We visited the exterior of the Cathedral. It is very big, the scale and drama is impressive, but it left us somewhat unmoved. Neither of us are religious so it didn’t have an emotional significance. Maybe if we were practicing Christians or had just completed the Camino de Santiago mega hike, it might have been different. That meant the touristing activities were completed quite early and we could dedicate the rest of the day to a food crawl. Highlights included:
- Octopus with clams (Galicia majors on seafood)
- Tortilla (egg and potato variety served as free accompaniment to beer at Bar La Tita )
- Grilled pork served on potatoes (Raxo con patatas)
On to Italy!
We’d been mulling different ideas of how to head back across Spain and how much time we wanted to spend in Spain vs. seeing other parts of Europe. As always the weather played a part in the decision too. We didn’t want to travel through the center of Spain as it was too cold, and a period of very wet weather was forecast for most of Europe. So we abandoned any plans of seeing the north coast of Spain. We decided that we weren’t going to get much out of the experience in the rain and it’s do-able as a future trip. Instead we opted to do three long driving days:
- Santiago de Compostela to Puente San Miguel near Santander – rained nearly all day so decided to push on with longer driving days than we’d origanally intended
- Puente San Miguel to Carbonne near Toulouse – more rain, back into dog-friendly France (enjoyed an arrival drink at a local bar with Zeus in tow)
- Carbonne to Latte, Italy – The rain had stopped when we woke up so we had nice riverside walk with Zeus followed by some much missed croissants. A bit of road debris hit us on the autoroute – it originally sounded like a puncture but turned out to be a bit of the underside of the van was broken. James successfully removed it with kitchen scissors whilst stopped on the hard-shoulder. We’d originally planned to get as far a Nice, but campsite was full so pushed on to Italy!
Latte is just on the Italian side of the border with France and on the coast. We appeared to snag one of the last spots at the campsite. This was a relief. After 3 days of driving we were ready for a rest and to take care of some other life admin which included:
- Cooking food for Zeus
- Doing a big load of laundry at the local launderette
- Having a showers
- Writing our blog 🙂
Latte town centre consisted of the campsite, a Conad city, the launderette and a pizza place – all very handy!
The Conad appeared to be small supermarket, but it was like an Aladdin’s cave that extended under the hillside, and one was left in no doubt that they were in Italy with the ramshackle nature – pants next to meat, stationary next to pasta. The shelves were overflowing with lovely Italian food, and the shelf of spring greens was a glorious sight to behold. We stocked up and enjoyed some nice meals in the van. There appeared to be a lot of French crossing the border to stock up on ciggies. The store also had a very good cafe were we had our first much appreciated helpings of Italian pasta.
James also managed to squeeze in a short road ride in the hills above the coast, something he’d been keen to do after feeling under exercised following being sick.
A nice discovery for us is that Italy is dog friendly. We found we could take Zeus in cafes, restaurants, the launderette and more recently Aileen heard barks emanating from supermarket shopping carts at a Carrefour and said hello to a dog by the chicken section. This has been a much appreciated change after 2 months in less dog-friendly Spain and Portugal.
We plan to explore the Ligurian coast and depending on the weather, either take the ferry to Sicily or not!
Week 14: Sintra and Alcobaça
This week’s exploits mostly cover climbing and mountain biking in Sintra, but we squeezed in some cultural sights in Sintra and Alcobaça too.
From Lisboa we headed 30 minutes west to Sintra, a mountain ridge that sits along the coast west of Lisboa. Sintra is a magical place and it’s not surprising that throughout history, Portuguese’s royal family and wealthy have built palaces in its hills. Sintra sits on a fault line where volcanic forces created a dramatic granite ridge littered with boulder strewn hills hiding under forests, that plunges to meet the Atlantic Ocean. James describes it as “a little paradise for climbing and mountain biking”. For Aileen, sitting on a boulder under trees with sunlight streaming through the leaves was a happy place to be.
James’ Climbing and Mountain Biking Adventures in Sintra
(We normally write the blog in the third person, but here James will use the first person.)
Climbing and cycling is my thing. Aileen was generous in supporting me, particularly for climbing where being the support crew can be rather boring and cold. Thank you!
Climbing in Sintra
The climbing in Sintra is bouldering on medium and coarse grained granite. The are 11 different areas described in the Sintra Bouldering guide. We visited 3 – Peninha, Val das Acácias and Capuchos. All had a nice selection of boulder problems and a distinct character.
- Peninha was a nice introduction with boulders scattered in the trees. The highlight was a V5 on a tall boulder by the roadside 666 o Diabo Vive (“666 the Devil lives”), good enough to do twice.
- Val das Acácias was the crag we spent least time at, partly because it was cold and Zeus seemed vexed with the surroundings. But it looks like there is lot to explore.
- Capuchos is next to an old convent and features lots of different styles. I would like to return to do the V5 Jumping Jack Flash, the finishing jump referred to in the name was too high for a single crashpad.
The weather in February was great, although possibly a little warm for climbing. We were surprised not to see more people climbing (the wall I visited in Lisbon was busy, and yet excellent boulders 30 minutes away were dead quite) and also slightly disappointed. Being able to hook up with other climbers would have been fun and helpful in attempting some climbs.
Here is my summary of climbing in Sintra:
- The rock is good quality, with nice holds and features, but can be quite aggressive on the skin
- There is a nice range of different boulder problem styles, different hold types. In the V7+ range there are some very good looking features that would be fun to try with more crash pads and a crew
- For the most part landings are very good – helpful if you only have a single crash pad and inexperienced spotter
- The guide is good – it has clear descriptions on access and crag character, nice photos to get you psyched and well marked photos and topos of the boulders (Note: 27 Crags has some coverage, but is incomplete)
- Every crag we visited had a short or very short walk in and no issues with parking 🙂
Mountain Biking in Sintra
My friend Jon had shown me the trails of Sintra on a previous visit 6 years ago. That was a great trip so I had a decent idea of what to expect. I did 2 afternoons of riding:
- For the first ride, we parked at Albufeira do Rio da Muia, a reservoir on the south side of the park. I rode some trails I’d done on my previous trip: Pedra Branca, a long trail in several sections that previously featured some (now rotted or removed) wooden bridge a.k.a north shore sections and now seems to be characterized by rock sections. This was followed by Kamikaze, charaterized by some steep sections and multiple drop offs. And finally, Dimas a relatively easy but fun trail that follows the banks of a stream downhill through eucalyptus trees, crossing several times via little bridges. It’s worth noting the gaps between trees feel very tight with modern wide handlebars.
- For the second ride we parked by Praia do Abano, on the Atlantic coast with the intention of completing the ride on a trail called Burros (“Donkeys”). I had not ridden it before, the trail descends from the highest part of the park almost 500 metres to the sea. So the ride started with a long climb. After the climb I took a wrong turn and rather than my intended warm up, rode Taca do Mundo into Kamikaze which is definately not a warm up but is a good test of skill and conditioning. That was followed by Monge/17 Pes which exceeded expectations. I thought it wasn’t going to be very good but it turned out to be a trail with great flow and lots of well built corners. Riding back past the Peninha crag and via a nice section called Lucky 1, leads to Burros (yes, there are Donkeys at the top). Part of the draw of doing the trail is the situation heading off the ridge out of forested land, and ending at the sea. It turned out to be great riding too – initial sections linking rock slabs give way to a series of tight bermed corners. After crossing a road the gradient lessens and becomes a fast well sighted singletrack leading to the coast.
Here is my summary of the cycling in Sintra:
- Most of the riding is in eucalyptus and pine woodland. There are granite rock features in all trails to a greater or lesser extent. Most of the trail surface is nice soil with plenty of support for cornering and braking, although there are some sections of granite gravel
- The trail builders have done great work – trails are interesting, well maintained and have good variety in their style.
- Trailforks has good coverage of the network of trails, including connectors and climbs – It’s easy to navigate and figure out a good ride
- It would likely make a good venue for a mixed ability group – Most trails don’t feature very steep parts, although there are plenty of technical challenges. And the easier trails are still excellent fun.
Is it worth doing a cycling or climbing trip from the UK?
Yes. For both climbing and cycling similar comments apply:
- It would be a good winter long weekend for climbing, or winter/spring/autumn long weekend for riding. There’s definitely enough interest for a long weekend and possibly a week, but for climbing you might run into issues with running out of skin on a longer trip.
- It is a short flight from London (2:45 hours). Lisbon airport is close to Sintra (45 minute drive or 1 hour train ride)
- The town is close to the crag and a nice place, with good options for eating, plus touristing options for rest days.
- For climbing you would need a car to access the crags. For cycling it’s possible to do without a car (Jon and I did this on our previous trip). You can ride to the trails from town and you can take public transit from the airport to Sintra and it means no faff with picking up a hire car or trying to fit bikes into a hire car.
Quinta da Regaleira
We did mange to visit something aside from rocks and bike trails in Sintra. Quinta da Regaleira is a house and gardens built in the late 1800s by owner Antonio Augusto de Carvalho Monterio and architect Luigi Manini mostly infuenced by the Manueline style.
The estate’s most striking feature is the Initiation Well, which James likens to an inverse Tower of Pizza heading into the ground rather than rising above. Antonio Augusto de Carvalho Monterio was (possibly?) a member of the Knights Templar / Freemasons and the grounds of Quinta da Regaleira are littered with features or monuments to that reflect Knights Templar symbology.
We found the whole place to be both beautiful and fascinating, but also rather strange in it’s reference to a culture we don’t understand. The Poco Iniciatico (“Initiation Well“) was well worth the visit. It looks like the photos. The experience of descending down a narrow staircase into the gloom is as eerie as you might imagine, and there is a surprise – the bottom of the well leads to a series of underground tunnels connecting to grottos, waterfalls and other chambers, finally exiting lower in the garden where you can see daylight again.
There a lot of other historical buildings to visit in Sintra such as Palacio Nacional da Pena, Castelo dos Mouros and the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, but sadly none are dog-friendly and all are a vigorous walk uphill from town so we prioritised Quinta da Regaleira which we were most interested in seeing.
Exploring Sintra’s coastline
Sintra’s coastline has some pretty stunning features and beautiful beaches. A short drive from Sintra is Azenhas do Mar, a town with a ocean-fed bathing pool. We didn’t go swimming (brr) but the big Atlantic waves crashing into the pool was a dramatic sight. We watched the sunset from a restaurant just above the pool.
We also enjoyed a seafood meal in Nortada, a restaurant in Rodizio, another nearby coastal town. We celebrated the 4th year anniversary of James surviving his brain haemorrhage with some tasty Arroz de Marisco, Portugal’s seafood rice stew, similar to but soupier than Paella.
Aileen and Zeus enjoyed watching surfer’s trying to catch some pretty hairy looking waves on Praia do Guincho, a long beautiful sandy beach, whilst James was pummelling the hills above.
Other Sintra Highlights
- Berliners – We stayed in a small town called Janas (a short drive from Sintra), which had a bakery called Padaria da Carlotta that sold the best sugar donuts, and also some great bread. You had to buy the donuts before 8:00 in the morning or they’d all be sold. They made for very good crag snacks.
- DOC Colares – We visited an adega in nearby Colares, and learned that it has its own DOC for wine. The region’s vines grow in sandy soil along the coast and need to be protected from the sea breeze by bamboo panels. The region’s vines have the distinction of being resistant to phylloxera, the blight that wiped out much of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1900s.
Alcobaça lies about an hour and a half north of Lisbon. The reason for visiting is the huge Alcobaça Monastery that sits in the centre of town. It is a UNESCO heritage site and its scale dominates the town today, so imagining its presence when it was populated by monks is hard to get one’s head around. Construction began in 1178 and it was in use until 1834 when there was an extinction/dissolution of religious orders in Portugal shortly after the end of the civil war.
There were two things we really wanted to see in Alcobaça Monastary – the kitchen and the tombs of King Pedro I and Inês de Castro. Two very different features of the monastery but both fascinating.
- The kitchen – We had read about the kitchen beforehand so expected to see a big kitchen, but the size (and probable expense to build) was still breathtaking to see. It features several huge ovens/fireplaces and accompanying tiled chimneys three stories high. A “special” feature of the kitchen was a pool where part of the local river was re-routed to flow through to provide fresh fish and water directly to the monks. There were also some huge impressive marble slab tables, and a row of carved stone wash basins. We can only imagine the monks not being slim.
- King Pedro I and Inês de Castro’s tombs – The tombs lie in the adjoining church and are stunning works of Gothic sculpture, that also tell the story of their inhabitants. Pedro and Inês are said to have inspired to story of Romeo and Juliet. When Pedro was prince, his father then King Afonso IV, prohibited their marriage and ordered the assassination of Inês. He considered the relationship between his son and Inês politically dangerous due to her Castilian family ties. In fact, Pedro and Inês had been married in secret for 5 years when she was killed. On becoming king, Pedro commissioned that Inês’ tomb be built to honour her as a queen. It features scenes of The Final Judgement with the couple being held aloft by angels. Pedro’s tomb sits across from Inês‘. He had ordered that they be placed foot to foot so that when the time came they could rise up and see each other straight away.
We’d originally planned to head west back towards Spain via the Alentejo region, but the weather forecast is more positive than we expected so we’re heading north to Porto.
Week 12/13: Sip of Sherry then on to Portugal
In this blog post, we visit a sherry bodega in Sanlúcar de Barrameda and then hop over to Portugal, which unexpectedly was a bit of a shock to the system.
Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Sherry Bodega Tour
We had some good luck disguised as bad on the way to Sanlúcar de Barrameda (SdB). The Autocaravanas site we’d planned to stay at in Jerez was ‘Completo’ (full). So after a bit of google map searching, we found and ended up staying at a nicer autocaravanas site 15 mins south of SdB. After settling in and making some Zeus food, we went for a walk to a bar along the coast and managed to make it in time for a spectacular sunset over the mouth of Guadalquivir river with glasses of Fino in hand.
The next morning it was a short drive to central SdB, where we parked the campervan and had an hour to orientate ourselves and give Zeus a stretch of his legs before our tour at Bodegas Barbadillo whilst Zeus’ snoozed in the van. We wandered past many bodega buildings with big open windows and descended the hillside into the old town where the market was in full swing and we saw lots of places that might be nice for a bite after the tour.
We were both keen to do the bodega tour since we both have limited knowledge of the sherry making process and the difference between the different types of sherry. To be honest even after the tour we still feel like we have just scratched the surface. Sherry making is a complicated business!
Of the three towns in the “Sherry Triangle”, SdB has the distinction of being the only place Manzanilla sherry can be made. This is due to its location at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river, which creates a specific microclimate ideal for the biological aging essential for manzanilla. Temperatures are tempered throughout the year, and it enjoys cool and humid air flow coming off the ocean and the river.
The process starts the same for all sherrys – grapes grown in the D.O. region are pressed and then fermented. At the end of the fermentation process, a layer of flor (yeast) will naturally form on the surface of the wine. This is where the process diverges to the two main types of sherry – those that are biologically aged (fortified to an alcohol % that allows the flor to survive) such as Manzanilla and Fino, versus those that undergo oxidative aging (fortified to an alcohol % that kills off the flor) – most other sherries, but as we learned on the tour the two types can also be blended.
The fermented and fortified wine is then placed into a Solera aging system in a bodega, a process of aging for all sherries whereby oak barrels are stacked three high, with the ‘oldest’ wine being at the bottom level and the ‘youngest’ wine being on the top level. Bodegas Barbadillo has 16 bodegas in central SdB, of various sizes and dimensions, with open windows facing the river. Their biologically aged sherries are aged in the bodegas with higher ceilings to maximise the benefit from air flow. Their Manzanilla is aged 3-9 years before being bottled.
To bottle sherry, the winemaker will take aged wine from bottom barrels, but will retain a portion (“the mother”) of wine in the barrel. The bottom barrel is then “topped up” with wine from the 2nd level, and the second level is topped with wine from the 3rd level, which in turn is topped up with newly fermented and fortified wine. For biological aged sherries, they try to limit any disturbance to the flor in each barrel. So sherry is essentially an uber blend, where the mother could be a blend of wines far older than the 9 years, and similarly the flor is a persistant living thing that gets fed new wine each time bottling takes place.
We really enjoyed the tour. Learning more about the complicated process of sherry making was great, as was seeing the massive bodegas, their most “famous” one nicknamed ‘Catedral’ because of the impressive height of the ceilings. And we definitely enjoyed the tasting.
We tried a still wine made from the Palomino grape (the local grape variety used for dry sherries), a younger Manzanilla, their oldest/premium Manzanilla, a special edition Manzanilla that is also bottle aged that they made to commemorate their 200th anniversary, and a Cream Sherry, which gets a bad wrap in the UK but we found to be delicious. Cream Sherry is simply a blend of Fino (biologically aged dry sherry) and PX Sherry (sweet sherry made from Pedro Ximénez grapes and oxidatively aged). If you’ve ever tried PX Sherry, it’s like drinking concentrated raisin juice – delicious but certainly very sweet. So “Cream Sherry” is less sweet.
After the tour and purchase of crucial sherry supplies, we woke slumbering Zeus up for a walk to Plaza del Cabildo, a nice square in the centre of town with restaurants and cafes, where we gorged ourselves at Bar La Gitana, mostly on fried fish and cephalopods to mark what would likely be our last Spainish meal for some time.
From SdB we headed west towards Portugal, stopping at Umbrete, 120 km from the border for an overnight stay before crossing the border. We considered stopping at Doñana National Park, which sits across the Guadalquivir river from SdB and is an important habitat for a whole host of migratory birds and some very important species such as the Spanish imperial eagle. Visting required we book onto a half day tour where we would travel into the park on all-terrain vehicles. Pets aren’t allowed and we didn’t think this would be fair to Zeus, so we skipped.
Algarve and First Impressions of Portugal
The next day we did the short drive into Portugal. Our first order of business was to see some flamingos in Reserva Natural do Sapal de Castro Marim e Vila Real de Santo António a natural park that sits on the border with Spain. We did manage to spot some flamingos 🦩 but had to use binoculars.
From there we headed to Tavira, a town in Algarve where we planned to spend a couple of days exploring the coast. The area de autocaravanas was ‘Completo’ (full). So we drove on and found another site further inland and just chilled the rest of the day.
The next day we planned to try getting a spot at another campsite closer to the coast. We drove to Fuseta, the campsite was Completo. This started feeling like a recurring theme. Resisting the urge to keep driving around looking for a campsite/area with availability, we decided to just park, do a short walk around the town, and have lunch.
From Fuseta, we drove on to another campsite. It was…. (can you guess?). Yes it was Completo. Finding campsites with availability in Algarve was quickly becoming annoying and we didn’t fancy the idea of spending our days just looking for spots in campsites. A couple we’d met at the place we stayed at overnight said the trick was to rock up at 9 am, and hang out until a space freed up. Errr. No way we going to do that. We finally found a space in a massive campsite in Olhão which was packed to the gills. We stayed a couple of days – we wondered into town and checked out the local market, had coffee by the waterfront and James took his mountain bike out for a ride in a hill north of Olhão, but didn’t enjoy the state of the trails so aborted and headed back.
If on reading this post you can sense our first impressions on campervan life in Portugal weren’t very positive, you would be right. We considered it might be Algarve that we weren’t so impressed with. We’ve heard from friends and colleagues over the years how much they loved holidaying in Algarve. So we were definitely surprised. Our guess assessment is this:
- For a variety of reasons, a higher proportion of tourists and campervans\motorhomes flock to Algarve
- It could we’ll be that they’re fleeing the cold weather. Or maybe they just love the beaches, or both
- In addition, Portugal has recently outlawed wild camping. So conceivably a lot of campervans/motorhomes that might have previously widlcamped are now competing for the same limited number of camping spots
- We heard from a motorhome neighbour at one of the campsites that a lot of sites have closed – impacted by COVID travel restrictions. This has added to the capacity constraint.
- Portugal infrastructure doesn’t, at least in our opinion, seem equipped to cope with the number of tourists. There’s a lot of “unfinished” construction (James says like France in the early 90s), local roads are often narrow and potholed,and based on our experience there aren’t enough places for campervans or motorhomes to legally park and stay the night. And rather annoyingly, many (most) sites don’t let you reserve a spot. So you just have to rock up and hope for the best.
It would be unfair to say there aren’t some things we liked about Algarve:
- The coast and beaches are indeed beautiful. We did a walk on Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos (Seven Hanging Valleys Trail), a coastline walk that featured some stunning examples of limestone erosion – arches, sinkholes, hanging valleys and beautiful coved beaches.
- We love that town markets are alive and well in Portugal. Most towns will have a covered ‘mercado’ where fish, meat, fruit and veg vendors can sell their produce.
- It’s nice that despite the mass tourism, we never felt any place we stayed was overly commercialised. Indeed most businesses such as supermarkets, restaurants, cafes seem like independently run businesses.
Basically after more than a month in Spain, we just have to get used to the pace of life in Portugal.
As neither of us are uber keen on beaches or aimlessly meandering through towns, we decided not to spend too much time on the south coast and headed west to Costa Vincentina.
The difference between the west coast and the south coast could not be more stark. We booked into a campsite in São Miguel, on the edge of Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina, and it was EMPTY. Aside from us there was 1 other motorhome parked when we arrived. A few more campers arrived during our stay but it was never as full as any of the campsites we stayed at on the south coast.
Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vincentina is a very long and stunning stretch of coastline and protected land taking in the west coast of Algarve and stretching into Alentejo, the neighbouring region. The popular long distance hiking trail Rota Vincentina travels the length of the natural park. We did a short stretch of the walk from the town of Odeceixe. It was characterised by stunning rugged coastline, stork nests, pretty wildflowers, and a sulky Zeus who doesn’t like walking on sand. To be honest none of us enjoyed walking on sand very much.
One of the main things we noticed in Costa Vincentina was the number of Indian subcontinent migrants. The first clue was the Indian/Nepalese supermarket we clocked in a tiny town next to São Miguel. São Miguel was also a tiny town but it did seem to have lots of buses parked in a lot on the edge of town. We guessed that lots of migrants lived in the town and were bused to/from the various farms in the area. We did a bit of internet searching, and found that in 2021 Portugal reached an agreement with India, opening it’s borders to Indian and Nepalese migrants to plug Portugal’s critical gap in labour for farming, construction, hospitality etc. industries. We found this quite interesting, given UK has taken an alternative and opposite approach of closing its borders despite a critical gap in labour.
As part of our internet research, we also learned that following the 2008 economic crash, a lot of Portuguese decided to make significant changes in their lives and lots went on to set up farms and other business enterprises which has led to the more diversified growth of Portugal’s economy. We wondered for example, if the small Medrohno distillery we stumbled onto (thanks Google Maps) just outside of São Miguel was an example of this. Junior Jacques Distillery is owned and run by two young entrepreneurs aiming to make Medronho that appeals to modern tastes such as their barrel-aged Medronho and a lower alcohol version for cocktail making.
From São Miguel we drove north to Vila Nova de Milfontes, a charming town at the mouth of river Mira and by the Atlantic coast. We only stayed two nights but it seemed like a town where one could spend more time – there was supping and kayaking on the river, surfing along the coast, walks along the coastline, and a good variety of bars and restaurants.
From Vila Nova de Milfontes, we headed north to Lisbon. The approach we took in Seville to park the campervan in a secure location and spend a night in a hotel worked really well, so we parked the campervan in an area de autocaravanas site 10km north of the city centre, hopped into an Uber, and checked into Alecrim ao Chiado, a dog friendly boutique hotel in the Chiado district of Lisbon. Zeus, we’ve discovered, really enjoys staying at hotels. He likes the attention from all the staff. He likes the space and becomes a mischievous sock-stealing dog. He relishes being told not to jump on sofas or beds.
We didn’t have a specific agenda so we spent time wandering the streets of Lisbon and did some culinary tourism. Lisbon is well suited to wandering, with several distinct neighborhoods having different histories in relatively close proximity. Also, because the city is arranged across seven hills there are good views and a number of miradouros from which to observe the city.
In the course of our wandering we sampled two foods from Lisbon:
- Pasteis de Nata, which people may have tried in London coffee shops, are small tarts of crispy layered pastry filled with egg custard, optionally finished with a dusting of cinnamon . The freshly made Lisbon originals are great with a real contrast in texture between the components (which you don’t find in the London ones, sorry) and whilst inexpensive, are treated with the due respect they deserve e.g. they are carefully packed in beautiful boxes. We sampled pasteis de nata from Manteigaria, Castro, and Pasteis de Belem. We didn’t have a favourite. They were all very tasty.
- Bifanas are likely less widely known. It’s a pork sandwich, but again the pleasure comes from both the taste and texture of the ingredients. We stood in a queue at As Bifanas do Afonso for some time before we got to sink our teeth in some. They were delicious – a chewy bread roll with good crust and pockets in the dough to hold tasty pork juices, filled with tender pork steak slices. They were well worth the long line. P.S. There are no vegetarian options.
In keeping with a theme of contrasts when dining, we enjoyed a great meal in a contemporary and understated restaurant in Barrio Alto, the nightlife district of Lisbon. A Nossa Casa has a Portuguese and Brazilian influenced menu. We enjoyed a fabulous meal in the serene surroundings whilst the chaos of Barrio Alto with people getting very drunk and/or hooking up unfolded outside.
On leaving Lisbon we stopped at the Belém district to visit Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage monastery that was built in the early 1500s by Dom Manuel following Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India. The order of monks at the monastery gave comfort and guidance to sailers. It’s an example of Manueline architecture and decoration which, in it’s ornate detail, reflects the wealth of the time i.e. the Age of Discoveries. It was certainly a remarkable site to visit, but it would have been interesting to learn more about the history of the monks in the monastery.
On the way back to our campervan we stopped to admire Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a huge riverside monument and tribute to to Henry the Navigator, who was a central figure in Portugal’s maritime discoveries and expansion. We then took Zeus for a short stroll to the Tower of Belem, another fine example of Manueline architecture, which was built as a good backdrop for intragramers (joke) – it was built to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbour.
Lisbon felt very vibrant as a city. James had visited the city a few years after the global credit crisis and the city felt at a low point then, with little energy. The contrast from that low point was significant and an interesting comparison with London. Lisbon felt to us like a forward looking and positive place. It has a cosmopolitan “melting pot” feel with a significant population of young professionals from different countries, possibly due to Portugal’s liberal immigration policies such as nomad and golden visas. Our internet search for a pet-friendly hotels returned a fair number of co-working “hostels” that advertised working space, health and wellness facilities and bars/restaurants – “all-in-ones” for the international worker. English was the predominant language heard on the ground. There were a lot of trendy looking restaurants and bars. We found a cafe near our hotel that roasted it’s own coffee beans so we bought a big pack and have staved off James-meltdowns-due-to-lack-of-coffee for some weeks. With the good there is no doubt also some bad – there’s homelessness on the streets, and we understand a looming (or present?) housing crisis for locals. It will be interesting to watch how Lisbon continues to evolve.
We’re heading west to Sintra, were James hopes to enjoy some MTB trails and climb some big rocks, where we hope to do some good hiking in the forested hills of Sintra, and possibly – Zeus welfare conditions permitting -visit the National Palace of Peña and other sites of interest such as the Initiation Well.