Spain and Portugal, May, 2017

Spain and Portugal, May, 2017

(Mark and Vicki have been traveling pretty much full time since they retired in 2008 and sold their home in Missoula, Montana. They RVed in Europe starting in 2009 for five years in their US Roadtrek, sold it in 2013, and then bought a European camper in 2015. So far, about 47 months in Europe. Mark blogs frequently with lots of pictures at . Vicki's more practical guide to their travels is at their website]

Seville was the only place on our three month trip that involved a date certain—April 30-May 6 for the April Fair (Feria). This fair usually starts on the Tuesday (which is a local holiday) following two weeks after Easter. This year the city voted to start two days earlier since Easter was so late. We had stumbled onto the fair four years ago and vowed to come again. Unfortunately, the weather was again pretty warm—hitting 90, so we only went for one afternoon and evening. You start seeing women in their fancy Flamenca dresses in the early afternoon all over the city. Towards mid afternoon the horse drawn carriages start rolling from the city to the fair which is right across the river. Most Sevillians stay through the night partying at the more than 1000 casitas or party tents and the huge amusement park set up at the end. Family, friends, food, drink, and above all dancing are what this is about. We waited our turn and after 15 minutes or so were able to snag two seats in one of the public casitas to watch the dancing. Old, young, toddlers, everyone dances. Apparently there are about ten set dances and I could have stayed for hours. Mark, however, was not that keen. So we wandered down to the amusement area. Now we haven't been to an amusement park except Disney in a long time, but still these rides struck us as on the far edge of crazy. Do check out Mark's blog to see a few. We are so spoiled by seeing Seville in Feria week that a visit any other time would be a let down.

But, Seville is still a marvel. For the first time we climbed the tower at the Cathedral—no steps, just ramps, so much easier for these old knees, and the views and displays of artifacts along the way would be worth even steps. At the top don't be so entranced by the vistas that you forget this is a bell tower. The sound of the quarter, half and hourly bells will vibrate through your bones. We paid another lovely visit to the Alcazar. If it is your first visit, be sure to get the audio guide. For the most part we just loved walking around, eating, and enjoying Seville.

When it is not Fair week (or right before and after) there is a large RV aire where the fair is located. We stayed in nearby Dos Hermanas at Camping Villsom about 21E without electric. The bus to Seville is about a 15 minute walk. This is an older place with wifi only in the lounge and it slows to a crawl in the evenings. But there is shade and although fairly full during fair week, we didn't need a reservation.

Heading east from Seville, we stopped for a few hours in Ecija, a small city known for its ceramic church towers. We had tried to find parking once before unsuccessfully. This time we parked on the street (N37.54618 W5.07826), and it turned out we were just beyond the high school where there is a large parking lot. The town was pleasant enough but it was the long Spanish lunch so we couldn't visit the museum, but we enjoyed our wander. The library was open and we asked about a poster we saw advertising The Festival of the Patios in Cordoba. The nice librarian printed out the map of the festival for us. It seems that this festival happens the first two weeks of May so we had lucked into it. Some dozens of interior residential patios are opened free to the public. So on to Cordoba. But first an afternoon stop at the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra. This was the brief capital of the caliphate—it's a long story—Cordoba was the largest city in Europe for most of the 10th-11th centuries. But internal wars among the Moors put an end to Madinat al-Zahra. The museum and ruins are of interest nonetheless.

Near Cordoba we stayed at an aire at the Peter Pan Restaurant, in El Higeron. (N37 52 15, W04 51 17) for 6E. (In the past, we hadn't spent the night and had parked in the huge bus/public parking lot across the river from the Mezquita. However, using the app that the Witts had recommended, there were lots of comments about break-ins there, so we decided against it.) From Peter Pan's we took the bus into town and got off only a couple of blocks from the Mezquita. The line for tickets (10E no discounts) took only a few minutes, but the Mezquita—part former mosque with a Catholic Cathedral built into its center—was very crowded. Spain as a whole is more crowded than when we visited in the Spring of 2013, but some of the crowding was probably due to the festival. Luckily, the Mezquita is enormous and can absorb crowds—it was still splendid even on a third visit. But we both agree with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that the addition of the interior Cathedral definitely detracts. We also visited the Moorish bath ruins but they were not very impressive compared to others we've seen.

The patios in the festival reopened at 4 in the afternoon until 9, so we went to an area west of the Mezquita where about 10 were slotted close together on our map. The first line was about 2 blocks long, ditto the second and third. Further down a side street we found a cluster of four lines and picked the shortest—about 20 minutes later we ducked in to a flower-bedecked patio. Over three hours we visited 5 patios—three were really pretty, two not worth the wait. One of the door guards said that attendance actually seemed a little light. Some years you couldn't move through the streets. Enterprising patio owners in some places had opened their artesinal shops and were doing a brisk business. Neighbors turned their garages into makeshift bars selling beer, sangria, soda, snacks and the wonderful cold local soup called Salmorejo. Got to get the recipe for that. To get back to the campground we caught the 01 bus but had to walk to the Place de Argentina and search out the bus stop. We were very happy that we had an Orange sim card in our smartphone or we would never have found it.

We had decided not to go to Granada this trip. I certainly could have seen the Alhambra again, but Mark really didn't want to and we were feeling the old pinch of days flying past. We did want to go to Antequera. Somehow in our megalithic wanderings on our last two trips to Spain we had missed the largest dolman in Europe. The video alone was worth the trip with its clear portrayal of what it took this community 4000 years ago to build these two tombs and a third one 4 km away. Interestingly there is another, even larger mound right there that has never been excavated or even drilled. It is on private property and the government is negotiating to buy it. I found that amazing—the one we went into was first written about in 1540 and yet this mound, not but a few hundred feet away, has never been touched. We actually spent the night outside the gate of the 3rd mound at N37 01 24 W04 32 49. Not ideal, noisy dog guarding the wrecker yard next door.

Normally, in Spain and Italy we only stay in aires or campgrounds rather than true wild camping. But before going to the dolmens we decided to check out the fantastical rock formations (karsts) just 9 miles from town in the Parque Natural de El Torcal. (N36.95342 W4.54428) Our Garmina led us straight through this hill town and at one point we almost didn't make it up a steep, narrow street with our tires slipping on the cobblestones. Yuk. We enjoyed the park and took the medium 4k hike for about 2.5 hrs. (Bring hiking poles if you have them.) But the aire was back in the town and not knowing how difficult it would be to get to, we opted against trying it and went to the much more camper friendly road, the Rondo Norte (runaround) over to the dolmens N37 01 24 W04 32 49). Alas the parking lot was gated so rather than go back to the campground, we passed near the park (which is not in the app) we opted for the dirt turnaround outside the gate to the smaller dolmen. (N37 02 03 W04 32 03) Long story, but sometimes finding a place to spend the night isn't super easy.

After Antequera, another quick hour or so on the excellent, free autostrade brought us to the coastal city of Malaga and back to the Mediterranean. No campgrounds around but two aires. One was at a Carrefour and we were leery of leaving for the day. The other on the west side was at Sevla camping storage at N36 42.461 W04 31.473. 10E with electric, gated and fenced. Unfortunately, you have to walk on the edge of a busy highway for about 200 yards to catch bus 19 into the city. But you just get off at the last stop, and you are in the historic center right under the Alcazaba and next to the park and marina. There is an elevator up the steep hill to tour the former palace built on the Moorish palace and fort before it. Not the Alhambra or even close, but also only 1.2E and the views over the city are great. Next to it is the ruins of a Roman theater that was not discovered until 1951. Malaga has become a cruise ship stop and so everything is in English and there are an immense number of high price stores as well as local handicraft shops. Touristy yes, but still nice to wander around. We tried the local cold almond based garlic soup that was quite good. We also stumbled upon another Amorino ice cream shop. From their beginnings in Paris they have multiplied all over Europe and even a few in the US now. Trust us that their pistachio and coconut gelato are the best in the world, though Mark really likes the lime basil, but it is too strange for me.

Heading out of Malaga we decided to drive the coast road of the Costa del Sol. Yes, it is one long resort with occasional glimpses of the sea, but I enjoyed it and it wasn't that congested, not like the coast near Nice. I had wanted to see more of the White Towns so we turned north towards Ronda. The road was twisty, but wide so no problems crossing the mountains except that rain finally caught up with us. Having seen Ronda before (and camping there is expensive and an almost 2 mile walk uphill to town) we pressed on to reach Olvera in mid afternoon staying at the aire at N36 56.156 W05 15.484. (This is the top of the road to the aire.) The description of the road into the aire was somewhat overly dramatic—steep yes, but no worse that many other places we have been and not really much traffic to contend with. We paid the 7E at the restaurant, plugged in, and settled down to watch the rain, catch up on the blog, and for me to write up our last ten days of travel.

I wanted to see Arcos de la Frontera but we were stymied by lack of parking. Really, in much of Europe, unless you are driving a car or a VW sized camper, you just have to park on the outskirts of places and take a bus, which means often spending the night so someone can tell you which bus to take. Our old TomTom had a setting to search for open parking (not garages) but I can't find one on the Garmina. In fact I liked the TomTom better all around. So why did we switch? Because our Garmin has lifetime updates for both North America and Europe.

We had one last place in southern Spain Mark wanted to visit—Italica. It is actually the Roman ruins that are located in Santiponce, just 8 miles northwest of Seville. They were not that well marked, so here is the GPS of the entrance. N37 26.663 W06 02.669. Just a couple of blocks from the main ruins is the remains of the theater which has a huge parking lot and no signage, so it could be a place to spend the night. Mark thought it worth the stop.

Crossing into Portugal all traffic was stopped and we had to present our passports. This is the first time we have had to do this in Europe and assume it is due to the refugee crisis. At the border we also registered our credit card to use the tollways. As the Spaces mentioned in their WWT article, we probably won't use it but it makes using the tollways in Portugal a lot easier. Looking at the map, most of Spain's freeways are indeed free but almost all of Portugal's are toll. We spent our first night at the 4.5E aire (N37 11.930 W07 24.909) at the marina in Vila Real de Santo Antonio. Not free like the other aire in the adjacent town (Castro Marim), but our Orange wifi card from Spain still worked and there is a laundromat across the road. Except for diesel, which is 10% higher at 1.22E a liter, everything is cheaper in Portugal than in Spain. Laundry, however, is still expensive at 23E to wash and dry 1 large and 1 small load.

First order of business for us in crossing a country border is to get a wifi (they often call it mifi) sim card and a sim card for one of our smart phones. This is often the most difficult transaction we make. Every country is different and usually the stores have long lines and the clerks speak little or no English. Last year we bought a wifi box from Orange in France. We have been able to use the box (with a different sim card) in both Spain and now Portugal. Orange worked great all over Spain but it cost 20E for 2 gigs for 30 days, so we used a lot of campground wifi where we could. In Portugal there is no Orange, so we got Vodaphone because—well no reason. It was very inexpensive-30gigs for 15 days for 15E and a “traveler's” phone card with 5 gig for 30 days for 20E (also lots of minutes, plus 30 phone minutes we can use when we return to Spain in 3 weeks.) The sim card worked great in the Orange wifi box. So far the Vodaphone signal hasn't been real strong—we shall see. I think it would be highly useful if everyone contributing to the WWT would include information on what cell and wifi providers they use in different countries and how it worked for them in their WWT articles. And if they found places to buy cards where the folks spoke English.

We had read about the Saturday market in Olhao and located a Vodaphone store there too. No aire, so we went to the only campground in town at Camping Olhao (N37.03518 W7.82273 but this GPS may be a possible parking lot instead of campground). At reception we asked about using our ACSI discount card as the campground wasn't listed in our book. The receptionist said that they didn't use it because their prices were less—our under 6 meter camper with no electric would be a whopping 7.2 E per night! Yes, the pool and tennis courts were extra at 1E but the campground has snack bar, restaurant, market, and bus at the gate. We took the hourly bus to the market on Saturday—last stop. Don't get there too early; the 9:25 bus would have been better than the earlier one, as folks were still setting up. An hour was plenty of time for us. This market has lots and lots of fish, etc. as this was once Portugal's premier fishing center. We saw all the usual plus for the first time—conch. You could see the meat oozing up inside the giant shells—not for us. The bus also goes to the Outlet Mall where the Vodaphone store is located.

We drove to Armacao de Pera and spent two days at the aire there. 1.50 euros per 24 hours. With dump and water. Virtually on the beach, just behind the old fishing shacks. The town is scores of condo high rises, mostly beyond season now, but plenty of beach shops and other such tourist things still open. Before leaving, we walked some of the cliff trails west of the town, which were mildly interesting and scenic. We drove on then to the megaliths at Alcala, which were somewhat less interesting, even to us.

We drove on, past Lagos, to Sagres, where we had stayed for some time in 2010. There is no aire we could discern, but there were plenty of campers in the huge parking lot leading to the cape at Sagres, the former site of Prince Henry's School, which we had visited on our last trip. We drove on to Praia do Amado, a surfing beach with life guard, rest rooms and snack bars, and plenty of RV parking. Our Garmina said it was an unpaved road but it was paved all the way. If you can't find a level spot or it's the weekend you might continue on up the coast to Carrapateira and the site there. N37.19242 W8.90246

One of the most fascinating things for us is to go out megathithic monument hunting. Evora is a great area for it. We had seen the Cromlech do Almendre on our last trip. This time we headed to the Anta do Zambujero. There is a low aquaduct at 2.9 meters as you head to Valveda, so watch for the sign for the detour. We parked by the cow barn and walked the 1km as the road from there was pretty pot-holed. You are rewarded at the end with the largest dolmen in Europe. Heading north we took the small roads and they were fine, spending the night at a free rest area at N38.700630 W8.064670 near Arraiolos that was quiet under the trees and had water and dump. The night before we had stopped at another free aire in the town of Alcacovas which was a pretty boring spot. Finding the aire was difficult and there were only 1 or 2 flatter spots to park, but I don't think many folks come there. Our GPS wanted us to climb some steps. These coordinates are the top of street, just go down it and you can't miss the parking lot. Water wasn't working when we were there. N38 23.522 W08 09.919.

Next we drove to Evora, itself is a lovely town, and we mostly just walked around. There are several pay parking lots just outside the walls. We found a lovely shaded street spot in an area that wasn't very busy. Might even be good for spending the night. N38.57448 W7.91717. We did stumble upon what ended up being the best Pastel de Nata tart in all of Portugal (better than the famous pastry shop in Lisbon's Belem) at the Fabrica dos Pasteis. We also had a fabulous toasted sausage, ham, cheese, tomato and oregano there that they called a country sandwich.

We visited three more megalithic sites in the province of Alentejo. The Cromlech do Vale Maria do Meio we just happened upon on N2 north of Sao Geraldo—it is north another couple of kilometers from Cromlech de Mogos. It is 1 k down a dirt road. The Cromlech do Portela de Mogos is a particularly atmospheric circle in the woods. Park on the road and go in the “gate” on the east side. The bushes have been cut parallel to N2 going north and then up to the hill to the circle. N38.626543 W8.027737 Finally, Mark particularly wanted to see the double dolman the Anta Grande de Comenda da Ingreja N 38 45 28.59 W8 12 11.98. Park on the west side of the road, open gate, and walk about 1k on clear wagon path. There were several others we could have visited, but on to Lisbon.

Currently the only place close to Lisbon is Camping Lisboa—expensive and not very friendly. There is supposed to be parking near the docks which is listed on the camper contact site, but others have reported that they have been moved on from there. We wanted shade and no hassle, so we didn't even try. We arrived at the campground on Friday afternoon to find it almost full and had to settle for the 31E site. We did get a 20% discount for paying for 5 nights in advance and in fact extended one more night. We had a well shaded spot which proved wonderful when the temps hit 90. The bus stops about a block away and it goes to Belem and then on to the last stop in the heart of the historic district of Lisbon, It does take about 45 minutes. At Rossio Square we went downstairs to the metro and bought reloadable cards (each person needs one but only .50 each) which gives you 30-40% off on bus, metro, funiculars and elevators. Our Schwab chip and pin card worked great again, so I will soon be closing our United Nations credit union bank account and chip and pin card. Schwab is much easier to deal with. Speaking of money, in the last two weeks the Euro has gone from $1.06 to 1.12 because of Trump's issues. Still a bargain relative to earlier years though.

First day in Lisbon we went on the 11am free for tips central tour. It lasted 2 ½ hours and frankly we weren't that impressed with that part of Lisbon. Rick Steve's has a free audio download that seemed just as good and you can go at your own pace. We had lunch at Casa de Alentoje, which is a cultural center in Lisbon for this province of Portugal. Very interesting inside, food was good with huge portions but on the more expensive side at about 12-14 for mains. Another day we took the metro to the north side and visited the lovely, small Gulbenkian Museum which is delightful and easy to visit. One of its outstanding collections is Greek and Roman coins. Normally, we have little interest in numismatics but each of these coins is a work of art. The Lalique jewelry collection is also one of the world's finest. Afterward we used our smartphone to walk to the Pascio metro station. It was donated to Lisbon by Paris and is one of those designed by Hector Guimard. On the way are lots of art deco buildings in various states of preservation and even a few of art nouveau. Lunch was at the Paco Real, just down from the cathedral, which our guide recommended previously. Simple, hearty, inexpensive Portugese food.

We took a couple of administrative days in Lisbon as it was hot and we were tired. Our third and last touring day we road the 12 tram through the Alfama district. We wanted to ride number 28 but the line was about an hour long even at 10 am. We walked down after a forgettable lunch at an Indian restaurant recommended by our Rough Guide (which I am liking less and less.) Running out of time we skipped the inside of the castle (a ruin with a long line, cruise ships are in town) and the tile museum. I do wish we had had the energy for the tile musem as our editor highly recommended it. But we hopped back on bus 914 to go to the Museum of Antique Art—primarily to see a Bosch triptych The Temptation of Saint Anthony but also enjoyed the Durer, Cranack, Massys—a small collection but nice. Last stop was the Pastel de Belem—line was very short in late afternoon—unlike Sunday morning when it stretched for 2 blocks. The Pastel de Nata crust was excellent but overall I liked Evora's best.

We hadn't visited Sintra on our last trip. It is a 3 star Michelin site, but we were disappointed. We somehow missed the aire but ended up parking in the tiny town of San Pedro N38 47 24 W09 22 48. If you get to Sintra by 10 am or so and your vehicle is under 6m you could probably go the 2 miles further and park in Sintra itself. The main attraction is the Royal Palace. It is so nondescript on the outside we thought at first it was a municipal building and walked right by. Entry was 8.5E for seniors so we went to the bookstore and looked through the main picture book—only about two rooms looked interesting so we just walked about town. The town is totally devoted to tourism and it was jammed packed with cruisers and daytrippers from Lisbon. 30 minutes was plenty for us to taste the famous, but not that great, local pastry and then we hiked the 2 miles back to the camper. Mark wanted to visit the furthest western spot of continental Europe at Cabo da Roca. Garmina took us through the National Park on one lane but two way roads—-ugh. We learned later from friends that the Royal Palace is only one of several interesting homes to tour in Sintra, so research further than we did and you might find out why it is so highly recommended.

Continuing up the coast we stopped for the night at the free aire at Praia Foz N39 06.169 W09 23.916, a huge public surfing beach with room for a hundred Rvs on gravel and sand. There is water, dump, toilets and snack bar. Only about 10-15 campers were there, but there was surf school each morning and a bread truck about 6 pm in the evening. We spent two nights. Be warned the surf is very high here—definitely not a swimming spot.

So Kathy needs this early for next WWT so I will stop before we finish Portugal.