Bags packed, we headed for Europe to escape the dreary weather and even more dreary Johnson and his cabinet of poodles. After a short stops in the Netherlands to visit friends and family we took the train to Namur, in the Ardennes.
The Ardennes are beautiful, but the city less so, except for the citadel, described by Napoleon as an ant heap and often renovated since his day. The area of Jambes supplies reasonable restaurants. We had a lift into Durbuy – smallest city in Belgium. Interesting winding streets but indifferent food. In Dinant, we found the former home of Adolphe Sax. There are saxophone statues dotted all over, each dedicated to a country. The (free) Saxe Museum was interesting but limited.
Accidentally in Brussels on Brexit day, we spent time in the Mort Subite, my favourite European bar. They have great beers, some of which they brew themselves.
The plane to Porto wasn’t the only thing we caught in Brussels, air-con was healthier when they allowed smoking. But the rain was behind, the temperature lifted and with it our spirits. We headed for Coimbra. Trains arrive at Coimbra B but there’s no charge for the 2km trip to Coimbra (A). From this station to the lower town is an easy walk past the bus station.
Coimbra was the first capital of Portugal and built on a number of hills. We stayed in the baixa or lower part, near the river Mondego. Good King John’s statue in the university square resembles Henry VIII. He donated his Palace to start the University when he took the capital to Lisbon. It’s still busy with 35000 students but most faculties are away from the centre. The centre isn’t overwhelmed like Oxbridge, and, unlike our government, is refreshingly clear of public school oiks.
Over the river is the Convento de Santa Clara-a-Nova, its sole inhabitant being the former queen, St Isabel, who resides in a silver and crystal urn, her former coffin on the altar being currently vacant. We found a statue of Mary as Queen of Heaven. With her crown set at a jaunty angle, she looks as though she mistook the wine for water. Either way, like the Portuguese, she looked cheerful and welcoming.
Pratos do dia are good value in Portugal and we found the food uniformly good, even in unpromising looking places. Trundling around, we found a good fish prato do dia in Figuera da Foz. The beach is wide and the sea quite tame in the sun but waves can reach 100 feet high. Car rental reviews put us off renting in Portugal but we’ll return to Coimbra in the future.
Our next move was unclear; Porto has culture, Evora has history and Faro has heat. No contest. The name Algarve comes from the Arabic Al Gharb or West End, so we went up west. The train took us to Lisbon and we changed for Faro, arriving in the late afternoon.
The old city was a Moorish stronghold. Wandering late on Monday we found the O Castelo, and on Monday nights they have free Fado. Taking a bus past the airport we discovered a large solitary flamingo wading along a river..
Ilha Deserta (the deserted island) is a lonely place if you’re left behind. It’s the southerly point of Portugal and deserted, except for the restaurant at the end of the beach – Faro specialises in fish and it can be very fresh.
We trundled along to Tavira. It’s a lovely old town, but full of English visitors even in winter. Lagos, in the west was bigger and more interesting. It’s a short walk to the old town but there’s a gauntlet of boat trip sales desks. They looked reasonably priced, however, we wanted the town and to walk the cliffs. These are mainly sandstone with crumbling edges. We found a lovely fish based ceramics exhibition in the fortress on the sea front.
Our bus to Seville en-route to Valencia took 2.5 hours with one stop at a service station near Seville. The prices are what you’d expect so be prepared. There’s a sign on the bus saying not to eat or drink, probably because there’s nowhere to stop in an emergency and no loo on the bus.
Seville was unusually quiet and our stay too short. The train in Spain runs on the plain in the main and it’s fast and quiet. Obviously a lot of investment in their state owned enterprise. Something our government could learn from if they had the ability to learn anything.
We like Valencia because our friends are here and the city is welcoming. It’s good to stroll along the mostly empty beach, pausing for suitable refreshments, contemplating bronze skies and azure seas. We had a paella and found places to walk in the woods along metro line 2, at La Vallesa, El Clot and Entrepins. Cafe stops are hard to find and the best coffee stop is at La Canyada.
Fallas celebrates the end of winter, the start of summer and precedes the Semana Santa (Easter Week). It started on our last weekend and we inspected the ninots at the Museo del Ciences. These were invented purely so one can be “pardoned” and saved in the Museo de Fallas. Voting takes place at the museum. The rest are set up as Fallas and burned on La Crema, last night of Fallas. The first night fireworks (Nit del Foc) were superb. The second night, official starting date, the ceremony welcoming the Fallas was a mix of fireworks and speeches …many speeches. The following day we heard the Mascleta, an explosion of tons of gunpowder in the city centre at midday. We were in the zoo at the time and heard it, as did many of the animals.
Sadly, we left the next day but hope to see more in future, but maybe not three weeks worth. We’d like to see the ninots set up as Fallas and the Ofrenda de Flores, where city squares are covered with flowers.
There aren’t easy Valencia to Manchester flights, so we headed to Alicante – good for short visits. There’s the Malatesta bar, with many varieties of beer. The Tapa-Cana somewhere down Calle Rafael Altimira, is special, each cerveza/vino & tapa costs 1 Euro and they keep up a steady stream to choose from. The Lizzaran Tapa on La Rambla is more varied but beware of eating too much bread. Keep the skewers (including halves) so they can work out your bill.
Ours was an extended stay this year, saying hasta luego to places where we were citizens until the unthinking threw it away so easily. Intending to spend more time wandering around our continent next winter, before we cast off and drift into oblivion across the Atlantic.