Joyful world nativity scenes in Evora, Portugal: these are not just for Christmas

The lovely city of Evora in inland Portugal has no shortage of places to visit; you won’t want to miss the Roman Temple, Cathedral and Aqueduct just for starters.  One of the most memorable attractions I found here during our trip last year was the Igreja de São Francisco a popular attraction for the Capela dos Ossos [chapel of bones].  We followed the crowds to see the weirdly attractive chapel that uses skulls and limb bones creatively positioned in patterns.  The chapel was fascinating but also I could not really forget that I was looking at human bones and felt slightly uncomfortable.

In need of a little light relief, we headed for the nativity display that the church also opens to the public.  All year round hundreds of Christmas nativity sets from Portugal and around the world can be seen.  Part of a private collection, the variety, colour and sheer joy of these nativity scenes is worth an hour of anyone’s time.

Made from china, wood, clay, straw and fabric these nativity scenes are intricately made and fascinating objects, each one revealing something about the country it came from.  Each nativity scene is an interpretation of the birth of Jesus, translated into a family tableau that reflects the local experience.  These nativity scenes depict this homely scene with exuberance, giving the story a vitality and showing how Russian, South Americans, Africans and Europeans relate to the nativity.  Some of these cribs are moving in their simplicity, others made me laugh out loud they were so playful and joyful.  The nativity scenes are both modern and conventional.  Plenty of the cribs have a sheep or a lamb near the crib, some have just Mary, Joseph and the baby, others have the Three Kings, angels or shepherds huddled around the happy family.  Look closely and you will also find local food, cheese, wine or grapes in wicker baskets, cartoon-like animals and even a baby Jesus with a teddy bear!

Whether you love Christmas or not this Portuguese exhibition is just another reason to visit the beautiful Alentejo city of Evora.

 

 

Doorways & windows around Europe: some ramblings

 

 

Looking through my photographs from recent trips in our campervan one theme stands out.  I have to acknowledge that I can’t help myself; I am always taking photographs of doors and windows.  You might ask how many photographs of doorways and windows one travel writer needs and the answer is clearly an infinite number.  Wherever I am, either at home in Salford and Manchester or in a new village or city, I look for the detail in doorways and check out buildings above the shops to see the windows and the details on the buildings.  This got me thinking, what is it about doors and windows that appeals to me.  I am certainly drawn to an unusual and beautiful doorway and window and I am a real sucker for shutters and stained glass.  But is it just the aesthetics of the doors and windows themselves or is it something more?  Windows and doors are portals to an inner world that is often private.  Am I secretly longing to know what is behind the openings or am I more interested in what might emerge from those doors and windows?

The Romans had a god for many things, including doorways.  Janus, usually shown as a two-faced god, looks to the future and the past and was also the god of beginnings endings and transitions; the Romans understood the lure and significance of the doorway.    Doors, although often beautiful, are closed; they act as the border between the open street and private space.  A closed door has potential but what is hidden beyond may be good and exciting or it may be evil.  The locked door is a familiar metaphor in many tales; we have to get beyond these closed doors to reach something we are seeking.  A locked door is both a temptation into the unknown and a barrier to access; knocking on an unfamiliar door is always daunting.   Doors have the duality of Janus, being closed and open, locked and unlocked, positive and negative and these contradictions are intriguing.

In contrast, windows are transparent, we can see inside and out through the glass.  Windows are also a public stage for beautiful objects; in our 80-year old flat we have wide windowsills and we use these to display favourite objects, a single ornament and an ancient inherited plant in a pot.  By placing these at the public face of the house we are sharing them with the wider world.  Windows are the eyes of the house and the items in the window give a glimpse behind those eyes.

Standing and staring out of a window is a way to travel to other places without moving from home.  Our flat has lots of windows that let the morning and evening sun flood in to the rooms and from these windows I watch the outside world, creating stories in my head.  Whenever we arrive somewhere new the first thing I do [before I check out the interior] is go to the windows and look at the view; I think this is me getting my bearings in a new place, finding out where the sun rises and who I can see and be seen by.  Looking up in a new city I like to imagine myself standing at some of the beautiful windows I see; I wonder how life in this street looks from above and what it would be like to live there.  For me windows only represent the positive; openings to different perspectives and portals for fresh air and sunlight.

The photographs in this post are really just a small selection from my collection of doorways and windows.  The evidence of my addiction is right before your eyes!

 

Top tips for campsites and stop overs when you are abroad

09.14 Vila Praia de Ancora campsite
Idyllic Portuguese campsite

Prompted by a fellow Devon ‘van owner I have given some thought to the baffling array of guides out there for motorhomers to use, buy or download to help you find a campsite in mainland Europe.  Very few motorhomers have unlimited amounts of space to store numerous guides and unlimited amounts of money to purchase them so how do you choose what to spend your hard-earned on?  When travelling we generally plan on a day-by-day basis and out-of-season and in more remote areas you can’t always rely on just coming across somewhere suitable to stay [either a campsite or wild camping pitch] without a bit of planning.  Below is a guide to the resources we have found most useful when we travel abroad.  Each guide or app has its plus points as well as its limitations.

Guides, apps and websites

ACSI card scheme – This is great value for out-of-season touring (from September to June) and this is our first port of call when we are looking for a campsite so that we can get maximum value from it.  You pay for the card and books and campsites in the scheme charge either €11, €13, €15, €17 or €19 per night for two adults with electric.  The card scheme has 1,541 campsites in France in 2018 and just 26 in Portugal, so its usefulness will depend where you are going.  In France municipal sites [see below] can be cheaper than the ACSI sites but in Italy [331 campsites], where campsites are expensive, the ACSI card can contribute a significant saving to your holiday.

Caravan and Motorhome Club Guides – We have these guides for all of Europe and they are sold with a good discount for members.  The entries and campsite reviews are from members and can be quirky and brief.  We like to read between the lines of these reviews and do find these books of assistance, even though the information is not always up-to-date.

The ACSI App – In addition to the ACSI card book we have this app on our phones.  This has a wider selection of campsites than those in the discount card scheme as it contains all campsites inspected by ACSI and is regularly updated.  If you have WiFi or data the ACSI website is also a great resource particularly for the camper’s reviews as well as the information about sites.

All the Aires – We carry this if we are travelling in a country it is available for; the books are fairly comprehensive and kept as up-to-date as a book can be and give an honest review of each aire, its facilities, its outlook and how comfortable it is.

Camperstop App – It is worth paying the €5.49 / year for this app which is invaluable for both campsites and aires / stop overs.  The app has photographs and reviews of sites which can really help in deciding where to go. The app knows your location and this is handy when we arrive at a campsite or stop over that we don’t like the look of as it can tell us where our nearest options are.

In France we will look for municipal campsites in small towns as these are generally good value and near to the town centre for [the essential] bakeries and bars.

Others have recommended Search for Sites and I’ve tried it out and it looks helpful but this isn’t something we have used much.

Home-based research & recommendations

In addition to the above we will research areas we are fairly certain we will be going to, particularly national parks and mountain areas where there are often few campsites and we are looking for the best situation for walking.  This might be Google searches, Rough Guide / Lonely Planet information, some Cicerone Guides include campsites and we sometimes ask a question about an area on a motorhome forum or Facebook page where there are generous well-travelled people with a wide range of knowledge.

You also can’t beat personal recommendations from other campers you meet on the way and these have sometimes taken us to interesting places that we never expected to visit when we set off.

To book or not & the one house rule

We generally travel with only a rough plan and are not interested in tying ourselves down by booking campsites when we are abroad.  We have never found this necessary, even when we have been away in July and August so long as we are flexible enough to move on if a site is full [see the house rule below].

Our house rule is to start looking for somewhere for the night by around 17.00.  This is just because we did get caught out in Mecklenburg in northern Germany on one trip.  There were plenty of campsites around the Mecklenburg lakes and none of them were full as it was only June.  The mistake we made was to be too busy enjoying a lovely sunny evening and leaving looking for a campsite until after 18.00 and German campsites don’t keep the evening hours that are common in southern Europe [and even Poland where we had just come from].  At each campsite we arrived at reception was closed and the barriers were down.  We eventually got a pitch on a site that we could drive in to but we didn’t have the key for the toilets and had to hang around for another camper to show up to use them, which was somewhat disconcerting for other campers!

 

Spain & Portugal: What did a two months campervan trip cost?

09.07 Salamanca night visit (35).JPG
The river Tormes in Salamanca

We loved touring around Spain and Portugal and highly recommend it.  If you’re planning your own trip to these or many other European countries these costs might be a useful guide, although WARNING – everyone’s trip is their own and everyone’s spending is different.  We are not uber-frugal campers and anyone could do this trip cheaper [even we could if we tried] but this is our trip, it isn’t all about money and we set out to enjoy it in our own way.  So below are a few notes on our spending.

  1. Of the 66 nights we were away only seven of these were spent free-camping, the rest of the time we were on campsites [although we stayed on low-cost camperstops and ACSI sites].
  2. In Portugal we had coffee and cake in a cafe almost everyday because it is cheap enough and the cakes are fantastic [hence the €434 spent in cafes] but we are vegetarian and so had very few evening meals out in restaurants as Portugal isn’t always ready for vegetarians.
  3. We did drink wine or beer every night but we did try some very cheap [and very good] red wine [the lowest we tried was 1.89].
  4. As you can see, we paid to get in to some attractions as we travelled, budget travellers could skip these.
  5. Other spending includes an occasional washing machine, presents for loved ones at home, bike spares, some clothes and a few household replacement items.
  • Diesel – €523
  • Food [supermarkets etc] – €864
  • Cafes & restaurants – €434
  • Campsites – €931
  • Bus fares, taxis etc – €48
  • Entrance fees to attractions – €174
  • Other spending – €146
  • TOTAL SPENDING – €3,120

Interestingly, this amount is more or less the same as we would have spent had we stayed at home [and while away we’ve not been using gas, electric or water in the flat] so the only additional cost to our normal spending has been the ferry.  Portsmouth to Bilbao is an expensive route at £730 but it does take you straight to Spain and I feel that this amount represents better value when spread out over a two month trip.

We have been generous with our budget and expected higher spending than this on our trips away so our annual spending for our first year of retirement is still looking good at the moment despite additional spending following the incident.

 

Spain and Portugal campsites & overnights

09.14 Vila Praia de Ancora campsite.JPG
Evening light on a campsite

In the spirit of sharing for anyone who is planning their own trip to northern Spain and Portugal, during our two months trip around these two countries we stayed on some great campsites, a few indifferent ones and a few free camping places.  The full list with the low season cost and some comments are below:

Campsite name Comments Cost
Port at Portsmouth Edge of the lanes for checking in, facilities nearby open 05.00-23.30, some noise and 4 other vans  €           –
Casalarreina Aire near Haron, Spain On the edge of a small town, pleasantly situated by sports area, short walk in to Casalarreina and shops and cafes  €           –
Camping Fuente de la Treya, Soria Good hot showers, not the cleanest, main road above site so some noise, grassy and trees, okay for one night, electric €6/night  €    21.50
Camping Carion del Rio Lobos, Ucero, Spain Lots of shade under the trees, clean facilities, showers very fine spray and not quite warm enough  €    28.50
Camping El Acuedecto, Segovia, Spain On the edge of the city, marked pitches, buses to city, clean facilities & roomy showers, water not very warm, plenty of dishwashing and laundry sinks  €    26.00
Camping Gredos, Hoyos del Espino, Spain A sloping site in the pine trees, peaceful and walking & cycling in the natural park, excellent hot showers, wash up a bit grim, pitches a reasonable size  €    18.10
Camping Parque National Monfrague Malpartida de Plasencia, Spain A large site, ACSI, English spoken, some shade, uneven pitches, good hot showers, shop & bread  €    17.00
Camping Don Quijte, Salamanca, Spain Large, level and sandy pitches that are marked with hedges & have plenty of shade, good cycle route to the city and good hot showers with clean facilities, ACSI  €    17.00
Camping Sierra de la Culebra, Figueruela de Arriba, Spain A peaceful site in the countryside, some shade, sandy, facilities dated & have shower curtains but acceptable, ACSI  €    17.00
Active Lima, Entre Ambos-os-Rios, Portugal Site in pine trees, few definite pitches, facilities basic & no hot water at sinks, showers lukewarm, English spoken, ACSI  €    13.00
Parque de Campismo do Paco, Vila Praia de Ancora, Portugal In eucalypus trees & oak, no marked pitches, popular site, facilities fine, hot showers & toilet paper, only lukewarm water for wash-up, ACSI  €    11.00
Parque de Campismo de Cerdeira, Campo do Geres, Portugal A large terraced level site under trees, organised & modern facilities, shop, showers, clean but lukewarm, wash up outdoors  €    23.00
Campismo Arco Unipessoal, Arco de Baulhe, Portugal Small terraced site, 300 m from a town, facilities open, clean & showers reasonably warm, open views to hills, wifi at bar, ACSI  €    17.00
Parque de Campismo Municipio de Meda, Portugal A neatly laid out small site by the swimming pool, good English spoken at reception, toilet paper, very hot showers, fully adjustable, clean facilities, good wifi on pitch, an excellent site by the town  €    11.00
Camping Quinta das Cegonhas, near Gouveia, Portugal Terraced site with views down the hillside, good information on walks, facilities clean & showers hot, English spoken, well organised, good wifi on pitch  €    19.10
Toca da Raposa, Meruge near Oliveira do Hospital, Portugal Small site with trees for shade, friendly welcome, walks information available, clean facilities & good hot showers, wifi at bar, ACSI  €    15.00
Coimbra Aire at Parque Verde / Piscinas, Portugal Car park near the town & river, popular & busy, road noise, toilets that are open in the day  €           –
Quinta do Pomarinho, Castelo de Vide, Portugal Sandy site with some trees but limited shade, lovely views of hills, good facilities, wifi by reception, 1 1/2 hr walk to town, hot showers, lots and lots of information about walks locally  €    20.00
Camping Alentejo, Evoramonte, Portugal By a busy road, flat site, some shade, pool, clean facilities, showers only warm  €    12.00
Costa do Vizir Camping, Porto Covo, Portugal Large site with many facilities near the village, showers fine & clean, paved roads, no views but peaceful  €    17.10
Foia Autocarravana parking near Monchique at 902 m, Portugal Car park with cafe, shops & antennae at top of hill, good views, traffic late at night & early morning  €           –
Vale a Carrasqueira Camperstop, Caldas de Monchique, Portugal 14 pitch camperstop with lovely views over a wooded valley, extra €2.50 to use pool, wifi, basic clean facilities, good hot showers  €    12.50
Camping Alvor, Alvor, Portugal large site with pool, shop & motorhome service pint, busy due to ACSI reduction, hot showers & clean facilities although a bit dated  €    13.00
Algarve Motorhome Park, Silves, Portugal Large gravel aire by the road, little shade, clean & tidy, 2 showers cost 50c each  €       8.50
Parque de Campismo Municipal de Serpa, Portugal Sandy site, some slope, some trees, good hot showers & clean facilities, Intermarche & cafes near & town only 10 mins away  €    10.05
Parque de Campismo Markadia, Odivelas, Portugal Beautiful & peaceful position on the reservoir with generous pitches, clean facilities, roomy & hot showers, bread  €    19.44
Orbitur Parque Campismo de Evora, Portugal Marked pitches, facilities dated but acceptable, showers hot, 2 kms from centre, large pitches  €    14.58
Elvas car park by Aqueduct, Portugal Large slightly sloping car park, beside the stunning aqueduct & 15 mins walk from the town, popular aire  €           –
Camping Os Anjos, Campo Maior, Portugal Small terraced site with open views, clean facilities, no toilet paper, water for wash up & showers not hot enough, information on walks, 1.5 kms from the lovely town  €    17.30
Camping Cuidad de Caceres, Spain Terraced site that is popular & large, each pitch with bathroom, some road noise, shower a bit feeble but hot & nice to have space, ACSI  €    17.00
Camping Parque National Monfrague, Malpartida de Pasencia, Spain Still busy but good welcome, wifi, roomy showers with hot water & good flow, good wash-up facilities, ACSI  €    17.00
Camino de Santiago Camping, Castrojeriz, Spain Peaceful site with marked out pitches & bread by small town, showers push button for short time but hot, only 1 hot tap for wash-up, ACSI  €    17.00
Camping de Haro, Spain Large site with shady marked pitches, well organised, heating in sanitary block & good hot showers, 10 mins walk from the town, ACSI  €    19.00
Bilbao Port for Britanny Ferries Flat & busy car park after check-in with toilets available, arrive between 16.00-19.00  €           –

Walking and camping around the Algarve

10.06 Foia walk (6).JPG
The view from Foia, the highest point on the Algarve

We eventually reached the Algarve, the southern part of Portugal and although we did spend some time on the coast, we also explored the inland area of the Algarve and continued to find some good walking options, particularly in the Serra de Monchique, the wooded chain of hills in the south-western tip of Portugal.  The highest point of the Serra de Monchique is Foia at 902 metres above sea level.  This isn’t the prettiest summit, with telecommunication masts and a radar station dotted around the plateau but turn your back on the masts and it is a great viewpoint over the Algarve.  We wild camped here overnight and it is a peaceful spot once the cafe and gift shops have closed and we watched a spectacular sunset from our lofty spot.  At the summit there is an information board with details for the Trilho da Foia PR3 path which is 6.5 kms long and follows stone tracks beside well constructed terraces and ruined barns with shady stretches under chestnut and walnut trees.  The path winds steeply downhill, traverses along the road [and passes a couple of cafe stops] and ends with a knee-trembling climb back up to the summit.

The second highest summit in the Serra de Monchique is Picota at 774 metres high.  By contrast this is a more attractive summit than Foia with just a rickety look-out tower on the granite top.  The well-marked walk up to the hilltop is cool and shady through orange groves, cork oak and eucalyptus trees and is a perfect half-day excursion.  From the top the view across the town of Monchique to the wooded slopes of Foia is worth the climb.

We moved on to the lively and charming town of Silves, staying on one of the many aires in the town which has long been popular with motorhomers.  Here we followed a walk from the Sunflower Walking in the Algarve guide book that takes in the old windmill above the town.  This is an excellent view point back to Silves and its castle and over the green Arade river valley.

We don’t make repeat visits to many places when we are in continental Europe but we made an exception for Serpa and headed there as we moved back north away from the Algarve.  Serpa proved you can go back to places you love; I still think this small town in the Alentejo punches well above its weight.  The municipal campsite is very good, the local sheep’s cheese is sharp, fresh-tasting and excellent, the local pastries, Queijadas de Serpa are delicious and the pretty town has a relaxed atmosphere that easily detained us for a few days.

But our time in lovely Portugal is running out …

10.09 Sand sculptures and Silves (48)
The old windmill above Silves

Walking in central Portugal top tips

09.26 Serra da Estrela drive (26).JPG
Near the highest point of the Serra da Estrela at 1,993 metres

The Serra da Estrela are another of Portugal’s inland secrets, although no secret to the Portuguese as they are known for Torre, Portugal’s highest mainland point.  You can drive up to Torre and it isn’t the most stunning mountain top but there are plenty of places in the Serra da Estrela to find excellent and peaceful walking.  Our campsite near Gouveia on the western slopes of the natural park was an idyllic spot and also well organised with a folder of instructions in English for twelve local walks [more than enough even for us].  We had a perfect day’s walking, firstly to the top of Gravanho with a distinctive white trig point and then on to Folgosinho, the second highest village in Portugal, a sleepy place on a hot Monday afternoon where the most activity was at the newly renovated communal wash house.  We didn’t meet any other walkers all day on the sandy tracks and cobbled paths through pine and chestnut trees as well as fig, apple and walnut trees.  Descending from Folgosinho we passed the remains of a tungsten mine.  Mining and selling this rare metal bought prosperity to the area during the first and second world wars.

After a few days walking from a small and comfortable campsite near Meruge where the campsite dogs who accompanied us on a walk helped us spot a mole and a day of culture in Coimbra we crossed the river Tejo [or Tagus] and headed towards the border with Spain.  The scenery changed, to rolling plains, straighter roads, fields of cattle and olive groves as far as the eye can see.  We found a perfect campsite a few kilometres outside the lovely town of Castelo de Vide and were almost overwhelmed by the information on local walks and attractions that the helpful owner loaned us during our stay [campsite owners note, this meant we stayed longer than intended].  From the site we followed medieval paths over the hill to Castelo de Vide where we walked between some of the town’s many fountains, sampling the water from each one.  This was a great area for bird watching and we spotted a little owl, griffon vultures, fire crest, black cap, sardinian warblers, blue rock thrushes and many others.

Portugal is a land of castles and these Spanish border towns all have their own.  In Castelo de Vide the stone walls enclose the old town of white-washed houses and you can climb up to the tower for the view, walking along the apex of a roof and climbing steps with no handrails.  This is the beautiful Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Marmede  and there is plenty to see.  Another superb day out started with a taxi ride to the picture postcard lofty village of Marvao and after exploring the village and inevitable castle we walked back along the old lanes.

Near the interesting town of Evora is the Almendres stone circle with 95 standing stones in two circles, one inside the other.  The circle is in a woodland clearing on a hillside with a view of Evora in the distance.  The 4 kms track to the stone circle is a fairly well-made sandy track but we decided to cycle to the stone circle, rather than drive the ‘van up the track.  The cycling was hot and dusty in the lunchtime temperatures of over 30C but arriving in this way gave us a better sense of the landscape the stone circle sits in than if we had driven in our air-conditioned van there.

09.30 Castelo de Vide walk (43).JPG
Looking down on the winding streets of Castelo de Vide from the castle tower