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.
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