Hiking Rocha da Pena

The walking path is clear even through rocky terrain

The Rocha da Pena is a fine outcropping of rock outside the village of Pena in the Algarve, perfect for the serious hiker and some serious hiking.  The smaller settlement of Rocha lies at the foot of the rock, and is the recommended starting point of the trail.  The trail is a circular one of about 7 kms.  It climbs up one side of the hill, takes you across the top and then down the far side to Penina (“little” Pena), before bringing you on the road back to Rocha.  I thought I’d walk for about an hour or so and see what progress I was making, and if slim, retrace my route.  But I had all morning ahead of me.

So off I set.  Unless you are pretty fit, this is an exhausting climb!  It’s 2 kms to the top and it took me about an hour.  But I didn’t get to where I thought I was going!  I had reached instead the North Belvedere.  The view was spectacular, across the valleys and hills to the north.  But over the edge was the unmistakable “X” indicating “not this way.”

Route markings are clear but can be missed if you're looking down!

The signage in general is pretty good, but not always.  I retraced my path looking for the turning I had missed.  I found it, but not before seriously considering forgetting the rest of the trip.  The path almost doubles back on itself, and you have to look around the clearing at the top of the main climb to find it.

The views are stunning & the cliff drops can be dangerous

But once found, you are on a wonderful path across the top of the Rocha.  Far from easy to follow for the first part, though it is comforting to see the markers.  You spend a lot of time watching your feet to avoid the many embedded rocks and stones.  The path is narrow and winding through scrub, with some small climbs and drops, but then you emerge on the top of the cliff, looking out south over the parking lot where you have left your car, and beyond to the Atlantic.  To your right you will see the Iron age defensive stone wall, and in front, across the saddle you will clearly see the wider path you will shortly be following.  Kind of neat.  You have struggled and probably sweated to get here, and there’s the clear path ahead.  Not a soul around (nor another human being) and you are on top of the world!

One still has to watch one’s feet, but there is little doubt which way to go.  It took another hour or so following my feet, including a side trip to the very top, to return down to Penina.  The way I went, anti-clockwise, is probably the best way to go, since the down slope is steeper than the way up: going down is always easier than going up!

The village of Penina from Rocha de Pena

It took me about 3 hours to complete the circuit, at a leisurely pace.  There is a lot to look at as you climb if you are interested in flora, fauna and rocks.  The more you look the longer it will take you.  I didn’t see much: watching one’s feet means that all you see is the ground.

Ahh, but the pleasure of a cappuccino in the cafe in Rocha when you get there.  But if you want to discuss the weather or politics with the cafe owner, your Portuguese had better be pretty good, since the owner speaks no English!

This guest post was provided by Colin Griffiths, a fellow Canadian. Colin is a Brit, living in Ontario, who recently enjoyed a month’s holiday in the Algarve, walking here and there, drinking the wonderful local wines and eating their super cheeses, and revelling in the early spring bird watching.

Algarve Orange Grove Visit

Visiting an Algarve orange grove has been on my mind for a couple of years now. The winter of 2012 has been a particularly cold, clear and dry one in the Algarve and orange growers are very nervous.  After a few days of rain in early November the weather cleared and there’s been barely a drop since January. Indeed, there have hardly been any clouds in the sky most days. Days have required a jacket and sometimes a pair of gloves. Nights have been definitely nippy and frost has shown up on a couple of especially clear, still ones.

When I recently visited the citrus grove of Manuel and Joaquim Medeira Rodrigues near Silves they were assessing the damage of recent -0C nights on their crops.  As we walked their 3 different properties it was evident that Mother Nature hadn’t been in a good mood of late. The ground was littered with prematurely fallen oranges and clementines in a number of places. “Cold weather causes

Manuel Inspects His Crops for Frost Damage

the fruit to drop” Manuel reported. In other spots the frost burn to leaves and fruit was very clear.

Manuel, Joaquim and João are proud of their citrus operation which produces very high quality oranges, grapefruits, lemons and clementines for hotels, restaurants and fruit markets as far away as Lisbon. While it is extremely difficult to product totally organic citrus fruit, this father and son team do their best to use green farming techniques so that their customers get a high quality, pesticide free product. They leave grass and non-invasive weeds to grow between the rows of citrus trees. This not only conserves precious water but gives them an indication when a pest is invading. They keep their orchards well trimmed to allow as much air to pass through the trees as possible, keeping mildew and fungus to a minimum. When it does have to be addressed, they prefer to spray lightly with copper, a natural mineral. Mediterranean fruit flies are another pest that all citrus orchards need to deal with. These folks hang bottles of a sweet liquid that contains a pheromone or hormone that the flies are naturally attracted to. They fly into the bottle and then can’t escape to lay their eggs and do damage to the skins of the fruit.

Joaquim & Manuel Are Proud of Their High Quality Fruit ProductsJoaquim explained that many of the orange producers in the Algarve sell their crop to multi-national food producers before it is even harvested. Once ripe, the crop is harvested and shipped off to factories to make preserves and other citrus products. But for Mr. Frutas it is a very different strategy. Serving the hospitality and consumer markets means that they have to have product available year round. So they have many varieties of oranges, each that ripen at different times of the year so that the fruit is always fresh and newly ripened when it leaves their small production warehouse.

José Luis Hand Picks Oranges

Freshly picked fruit are taken in small batches for processing

I met José Luis Guerreiro as he was hand picking crates of oranges.

 

They are then taken to a surprisingly small shed where they are stored briefly and then gently dumped onto a conveyor belt which moves them into a unit that brushes off the field dirt and puts a nice soft shine onto the fruit. No waxes or artificial polishes are applied to the Mr. Frutas product so that it can be as natural as their customers wish it to be. The conveyor then moves the fruit along to a circulating table with a series of diameter regulated exits on it. The fruit is assessed on its size and slides down a short trough and into a waiting wooden crate. The crates are then labeled as to size, variety and company information and stacked until the delivery truck arrives to take them to market.

Not only did I get to sample many oranges, tangerines and clementines as we wandered the orchards, but I had the chance to pick the fruit as we went along. That may seem like a small thing to many, but when you grow up in Canada like I did, citrus fruit seems slightly magical.

Me happily picking oranges!

So getting to pick right off the tree made me feel like a kid on a school outing again!

I came back to my apartment ladened with fruit and have been cooking up a storm ever since. I’m experimenting with mixing local products to create some new savoury taste sensations.

So far I’ve made a spicy chutney with oranges, onions, lemons, honey, port, piri-piri and spices. I’ve also made a very different chutney of oranges, onions, dried figs, ginger, port, piri-piri and spices. So similar and yet so different. Each lovely to accompany a cheese tray to brush on pork or chicken before grilling or to serve along side sausages. I made up a batch of dry-rub, a spice mixture of sea salt, pepper, piri-piri, dried orange peel and herbs. I rubbed that on a chicken breast and let it sit in the fridge overnight and then quickly pan-fried it in olive oil. It was heavenly! Grilling would have been preferable but my little kitchen doesn’t have an oven. I’ve also made up a batch of pink grapefruit jam, even though I’m not a fan of grapefruit. And today I bought some sweet pumpkin at the market and made a pumpkin, orange & ginger soup for lunch. Yummy.

Some of these oranges are huge!

Next up is a wet rub that will have orange rind, garlic, piri-piri, herbs, olive oil and who knows what else that I plan to plaster on a nice chunk of pork. I fear that I have turned into a mad woman as far as savoury citrus is concerned. Thank goodness I don’t have an oven or I’d be making all kinds of savoury biscuits and breads too.

I can hardly wait until Mr. Frutas completes his plans to offer small group tours through his citrus grove. It’ll be a delight for me to send people in his direction, knowing that he and his Dad will be as gracious and informative with others as they were with me. And who knows how many more Canucks will get the pleasure of picking their first citrus fruit right off the tree.

Dancing Flamingoes

Finally. On my most recent Algarve trip the flamingoes near Castro Marim and Vila Real de San Antonio came out to play! These large, exotic birds are a regular feature of the far eastern reaches of the Algarve. And yet, for me, they had remained elusive until this trip. They provide easy birdwatching for those of us whose primary purpose is shopping!

As an additional thing to do in the Algarve, I decided to break with routine and instead of shopping at the Loulé Market one Saturday morning, I headed east to check out the action in Vila Real. And what a treat that turned out to be. As I drove along the highway between the A22 and Vila Real, I spotted a small flock of flamingoes on the tidal flats. I got some nice pictures and then headed into town one very happy camper.

Algarve Basket Maker

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Vila Real on a Saturday morning has quite a bustling, vibrant place. There’s a craft market in the central square filled with vendors offering hand made baskets, jewelery, linens, baked goods, honey, cork products and other goodies. Someone drove down from the Alentejo with a truck full of chouriço, presunto, cheese and olive oil. This added quite a festival air to the many shops with their linens and kitchen items spilling onto the sidewalks. I had heard that many Spanish folks came over for some serious cross-border shopping, and sure enough the sound of Spanish was heard everywhere. My fancy was also tickled as I watched folks rest on one of the many benches of the town square under a canopy of ripening oranges. For a Canadian, citrus fruit always seems like a marvel. And to think of resting in the shade of an orange tree seems downright magical!

Taking a Break Under a Loaded Orange Tree

There were also a couple of chestnut roasters offering this delightful winter treat at various corners. And a guy selling parakeets had a huge cage of pastel blue & green birdies singing up a storm. The kids were absolutely enthralled with his display. He even had a large green parrot that many adults seemed to get a kick out of trying to feed without losing part of their fingers to his thick, curved beak.

Down by the waterfront there was lots of action. A couple of groups of young sailors were racing down the river using the full force of a stiff breeze to try out their new techniques. And for the first time in several visits I saw a number of people working on their yachts and sailboats, perhaps getting them ready for the cooler weather of the winter rainy season.

After several hours of wandering about, savouring the sense of life this usually sleepy town has on a Saturday morning I decided it was time to head home. Imagine my surprise to discover that my flock of flamingoes was still there in the shallow tidal waters. This time I got a bit of video footage and became aware of their dance. They shuffle and skip lightly on their feet in the shallow water, stirring up the rich mud so that they can filter out the minute sea creatures that are their diet. Whatever they were eating, it wasn’t shrimp because these flamingoes were white, not pink, the colour of their features derived from the colouring of their food.

All in all a great Saturday morning. And while I missed the sea of vegetables, fish and other produce on offer in Loulé, I’ll definitely head back to Vila Real de San Antonio when I need a break from routine on my frequent Algarve trips.

Algarve Entrances

The entrances to many places across the Algarve are inviting, artistic and visually appealing, whether they are public buildings or private ones. In some cases the doorways are old and covered in a patina of paint, dust and other grunge. But mostly I find people simply ‘do up’ their entrances to entice and appeal, to draw you in either for a closer look or to buy. Then again, it may simply be because the owners want to give themselves the pleasure of arriving at a lovely, enticing entrance to their abode or place of work.

Here are a few of the spots that call to me.

1.  A lush, elegant water entrance

A lush, elegant water entrance

Right next to the Roman Bridge in central Tavira there is a row of townhouses, each of which has access to the tidal Rio Gilão. This one is particularly lush with huge succulent plants draping off the balustrade towards the water.
Each time I visit, I love to imagine a boat pulled up to the lowest step and an elegant woman making her way with aplomb from the small boat onto the even steps. I equally know that if it were me, I’d probably miss the step and drop like a stone into the river! But my mystical lady never does. She is graceful, accurate and dry each time she steps off the bobbing boat. What would your fantasy be about arriving by boat at these lovely stairs?

Patiently waiting for a friend

2.  Doggy dressed up door stoops

Don’t know what it is about the Algarve, but people sure do love their pooches. Sadly, far too many are ultimately abandoned to wander the streets. But there are a lot of lucky pooches who simply wait for their owner to arrive home, faithful and hopeful that company will arrive soon.

Another sweet little mutt

These are two of my favourite little dogs, each clearly anxious for company. Makes me wonder what it would be like to have such a greeting each time I come home. . . . And I’m not even much of a pet person! But who could fail to love these charming little faces.

 

 

3.  Portuguese cemeteries are walled in

Explore the local cemetery

When you drive by a Portuguese community and see a large, walled-in enclosure you are likely walking or driving by the local cemetery. Public cemeteries in Portugal began to be established in the 19th century and their current form has developed since then. Cemeteries at that time became a place where wealthy families could display not only their wealth, but their culture and commitment to the arts.

So it is always exciting to find the cemetery entrance and either sneak a peak inside or go in for a ramble around. You’ll be certain to find a combination of grave-sites with ornate headstones and marble enclosures as well as masoleums containing generations of deceased family members. These small buildings are often ornately decorated and carved, containing lots of wrought iron fittings, stained glass, stone carvings and gleaming brass, lace and linen interior trim.

More recent additions are plain, rectangular ‘high rises’ filled with small lockers for individual coffins. They certainly add very little esthetic value to the cemeteries but clearly are an efficient way to deal inexpensively with a large number of deceased. People dress these little ‘bird cages’ up in imaginative and often highly tacky ways. And yet the overall effect is one of life and vitality.

Do stop and take a peek. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you can learn about a people in the way they bury and honour their deceased.

4.  My favourite hotel has a lovely entry way to its pool

What mystery awaits through this portal?

No matter how many times I walk past the entrance to the pool at Hotel Vilas D’Agua, I always enjoy the view of the ocean it presents, as well as knowing that a lovely, serene swimming pool is just out of view.

The modern, square arch contrasts with the traditional cobblestoned walkway. And the blast of bright white plaster against a cerulean blue sky seems to only add to the delight I experience.

I know there is a pool on the other side of this entrance, but to me it feels like a magical portal. You know, one of those entrances where you can make up a great story about what awaits you on the other side. What would your story be?

5.  How could you not be tempted by a restaurant entrance like this?

What an Invitation

I love to visit my friends Stefan and Lisa at Restaurante Rouxinol, just outside the Caldas de Monchique. Partly it is because I love the drive up into the mountains. Mostly it is because of the friendly welcome and great food and hospitality I know always await me.

But this entrance! Who wouldn’t be tempted upward to the patio by such a welcoming entrance way. It is a tight turn off the main road into Restaurante Rouxinol’s driveway, but as I leave my car and walk towards this inviting stairway I know that I will be well received. Each visit there are different flowers in bloom and sometimes the lemon and orange trees are in fruit. Other times the banana plants are bursting with lushness. You just never know. What I am certain of is a huge grin from both Stefan and Lisa, a bear hug and an invitation to sit, to enjoy, to refresh myself and to catch up. Now that is a special treat!

Creativity in the Algarve

Creative Florbela Moreira

There must be something about the unique combination of sun, sand, sea and warm breezes that stimulates creativity because I find that the Algarve is loaded with creative folks. And those who choose to join me for my Feeding the Muse creativity retreat always find that it is so much easier to accept their creative nature here than at home.

Let me tell you about just a few of the immensely creative folks I’ve come across as I’ve been exploring the towns, villages and bi-ways of this glorious region.

Florbela's Creative Outpourings

First is visual artist Florbela Moreira whose collage paintings have inspired me from the moment I first entered her atelier in Silves a couple of years ago.  Her rich, vibrant colours, sacred/tribal themes and highly textured surfaces draw me to her art. I have a hard time keeping my hands to myself when in her small shop. I keep hearing my Mother’s voice “look with your eyes, not your hands” as my eyes flit from one creation to another. Florbela has always been generous with her time as I’ve hemmed & hawed over which creation to purchase on this trip. And she is patient as I whittle down my choices, keeping in mind that they must fit into my already swollen suitcase! Her artist husband can often be heard working away at his own art in a small room as we chat about Florbela’s wide assortment of amazingly well priced originals. I look forward to a return trip in October when I’m there to lead my Feeding the Muse retreat. With any luck, my retreat participants will get a chance to take in Florbela’s shop and talk with her about her amazingly creative approach to art. Florbela’s studio can be found at Rua da Sé, #10, Silves. As you walk down the main cobblestoned street from the Cathedral, you’ll find #10 half-way down to the stone arched apartments on the left hand side. Easy to miss. Florbela can be reached at 282 088 397 or florbela-moreira@mail.com

Next, thanks to my friend Vicki Good, Sales Manager at the Holiday Inn Algarve I had the pleasure of a delightful lunch with Barbara Fellgiebel, creator, founder and enthusiastic promoter of Lit Algarve, a bi-annual International Literary Festival where some 50 international and local authors host readings, seminars and speaking events all across the Algarve. Having done my share of event producing over the years, I was amazed and flabbergasted at the determination and commitment Barbara brings to her Algarve International Literary Festival project. Such scope of creative vision, such on-going passion and so much very hard work is involved in this type of enterprise. As a writer, I can only hope to be involved at some point in the future. The next International Literary Festival is scheduled for September, 2012. In the interim, Barbara keeps the Algarve’s literary community engaged by hosting a series of monthly get-togethers where authors can present their book and offer an associated workshop or seminar, if appropriate. To support the creative writing arts, you can connect with Barbara at +351 282 413 160 or e-mail her at fellgiebel@mail.telepac.pt

Amazing, Inspiring Barbara Fellgeibel - Patron Saint of Writers!

I’ve always been a keen networker, having discovered that you can never tell where one contact is going to lead you. Barbara mentioned during our lunch that there was an art show being held at the Visitor’s Centre at the Parque Rio Formosa in a few days. Now I’ve tried to find this Visitor’s Centre on earlier trips but had never been successful. So an art show was just the excuse I needed to head out and committedly explore the region. I finally found the Visitor’s Centre, only to realize that I’d driven right past it at least 5 times previously. My Canadian eyes was looking for the kind of imposing, brightly signed building we tend to plunk at the entrance to Canadian parks and public places. This centre was much more discreet. Signage is there, but you actually have to look for it, not have it whistle at you as you zip past!

Thanks to Barbara, my client Vicki and I spent a delightful afternoon discovering all kinds of art created by ex-pat German artists, it would appear. That’s one thing I’ve noticed from my trips to the Algarve. It would appear that ex-pat communities tend to stick together. Germans with Germans, English with English, etc. I suspect there is a hunger in all of us for the familiar that has us seek out people who speak the same language, know the same jokes, crave the same sounds, smells and tastes, even when we are drawn to exotic places to live. Anyhow, this was a wonderful art show with a Klezmer band offering background music and great eats and drinks as we wandered through several rooms of paintings and sculptures. But my favourites were outdoors. Several larger-than-life images of mythical people were hanging from the trees, swirling in the afternoon breezes. What fun they provided, especially when strains of lively Klezmer wafted across the meadow.

I know that I have barely scratched the surface of the creativity available across the Algarve. If you have an eye for art, an interest in literature or just enjoy interacting with artistic types, you won’t have to look far in the Algarve to have your needs met. And we haven’t touched on the wild array of ceramic artists, folk painters, crafts people and quirky guys who love to decorate their places in wild ways! Stay tuned for that post.

Tell me about Fado

Fado is an incredible Portuguese musical artform rooted in the ancient Alfama district of Lisbon. Usually described as Portugal’s form of blues, it is most often sung by women. These days you can find Fado offered in many restaurants around the Algarve. But don’t go looking for Fado houses in this neck of the woods; they are a feature of Lisbon’s unique brand of Portuguese culture. You aren’t likely to get the top ranking fadistas either, but you certainly can enjoy a fun evening of music for a modest cover charge.

It isn’t unusual once the fadista has sung a few sets to have locals begin to join in with their more earthy renditions of favourites. Sadly, I haven’t had much experience of the party evolving to this stage because I’m not much of a late night person!

The long deceased, but still reigning queen of Fado is Amalia Rodriguez. She set the standard for decades and many still try to emulate her vocal range, emotional depth and overall elegance and style. If you have a chance to spend an evening listening to Fado, I encourage you to do so. You’ll discover a world of passion and beauty!

 

Algarve’s Gentle Eastern Shores

I recently spent two more glorious weeks in the Algarve.  Only this time, I moved east, staying in the delightful town of Tavira.  My days were spent exploring the town, the back country, the waterfront and, of course, the many fine dining opportunities that abound in the Algarve.  Off-the-beaten track Algarve continues to be what calls to me.  This recent trip helped confirm, yet again, just how much diversity is packed into this tiny region of wonderful vistas, friendly, gentle people, great food and culture, fabulous beaches and good shopping.

Sunset near Tavira

The coastline feels more gentle because you are pretty much behind the barrier islands of the Rio Formosa in this part of the world.  Beaches are broader and backed by sand dunes rather than cliffs. The food feels more traditional, but perhaps given that it was the dead of winter many restaurants were offering all kinds of stews. There are several very small fishing communities that are still highly traditional and are delightful to spend time in. Boardwalks along the waterfront are much more popular in this part of the region.

And the countryside, oh my! The almond blossoms were just coming out when I arrived and were at the peak of perfection during my visit. And there are sooo many of them. In some places, there were white and pink blossoms as far as they eye can see.

Unfortunately, there are also some depressingly overbuilt and congested tourist traps in this area too.  And it was scary to be driving the back hill country only to encounter the massive up-scale golf courses and gated housing communities that have sprung up as ugly blots on the rural landscape.  But I suppose that tourists must be attracted in whatever way possible.  Sad to see, though.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks, folks as I document my most recent discoveries.  Great art galleries, public art displays in unusual places, villages, restaurants, country drives will all be featured to help make your visit to the Algarve an amazing and rich one.  Or perhaps even to tempt you to visit this wonderful gem of a destination tucked away in the southern-most reaches of an equally delightful country.

Chillin’ in Tavira

Tavira is a delightful city in Eastern Algarve.  I love to spend the day there, exploring its many churches, alleyways, restaurants and shops.  Make sure you take the time to discover this charming place.

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A Visit to Alte

Alte's Church dominates the town square

Call me ornery, call me a snob … and sometimes call me just plain stupid!

I drove through the hill village of Alte (pronounced alt, located north of Loulé) many times and because I’d seen it in tour books described as ‘the prettiest town in the Algarve’ I decided to ignore it.  I mean, how can anyplace that makes the major tour books and is so glowingly described be of interest to a self-proclaimed specialist in ‘off-the-beaten-track’ Algarve?  Well, one day I decided to stop and see what all the action was about and realized I’d been being a stupid, ornery snob!  Sigh.  …again.

The main road that runs through Alte doesn’t really let you see its delights.  And it is quite a delightful little place.  Sure there are a couple of interesting looking pottery shops.  And the cemetery looks like it’s worth an exploration, sitting perched on the side of a broad valley.  But beyond that, Alte certainly doesn’t look that picturesque from the highway.

Let art and your mood entice you up and down these pretty streets

But if you head up-hill at the traffic circle on the western edge of town, you quickly discover an absolutely delightful little place with cafés spilling out onto the street, at least one great pastry shop, an attractive church and lots of meandering, narrow streets.  Parking isn’t easy, even in the off-season so you’ll need a bit of patience.

Enjoy a break in the shade

There’s a small mercado located on the left as you enter the village.  It is a long series of covered stalls with a fun mosaic.  Alas it has never been open on any of my visits, but one of these days I’ll make it when it is filled with fruits, vegetables, fish and meats.

Medronhos - the main ingredient in a fiery drink

In the meantime, this is a great place for a wander; a fun place for poking around, soaking up the sunshine and watching the locals go about their business.  If you like to drive, press upwards on some of the streets and you’ll have the joy of wondering how sharp an angle your vehicle can handle, plus the pleasure of seeing what the backside of the mountain looks like.  On one fall visit I was fortunate enough to find a number of medronhos (arbutus trees) bushes in full fruit.  What a find.

The pastry shop near the mercado makes wonderful almond treats and has a lovely balcony where a few lucky people get to gaze over the valley while sipping coffee and munching on almond crescents.  Yummy.

And it is just about the prettiest place I’ve been in the Algarve.  Great spot to while away a couple of hours doing not much of anything.

The Sacred Side of Easter

I’m not a religious person and I choose to live a pretty untraditional lifestyle.  But I remain fascinated by religion, faith and the many ways in which people retain long-held traditions in our world.

One thing that I love about the Algarve is that its people seem to excel at maintaining a fairly traditional lifestyle in spite of that fact that they are swamped by tourists year in and year out.  That’s a theme that I am planning to explore in future visits.

But for now, I am reveling in the memories of my experience last spring of Easter in the Algarve.  Today’s post focuses on the night-time procession that happens on Good Friday through the streets of Silves, Algarve.  The faithful walk slowly along with litters carrying images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, beginning at the Cathedral and snaking their way through much of the historic district.  It takes a good 90 minutes to 2 hrs before the procession climbs back up the hill to the Cathedral.  What a delight it was to be present to so many people making their silent way to observe a 2,000 year old event that still holds meaning in their lives.

The Sacred Side of Easter YouTube Video