Flamingos, ferries, flamenco

Who said the Spanish don’t get up early? I heard the traffic sound on the roads around the campsite increase about twenty minutes ago and got up to write this blog before breakfast thinking it would be about 7am. Now as I sit on the hard tiled surface in the washing up block I see it is only 5.30am! It will be another two and a half hours before it gets light.

After cycling west to east across the Algarve in southern Portugal, I don’t recommend it. There is, supposedly, a cycle path the whole way from Cabo de São Vicente to Vila Real de Santo Antonio on the Spanish border taking you on quiet roads and tracks. We would occasionally find ourselves on it, usually whilst on the busy N125 or going through a town but then we would lose it again. It is marked, I think, by various means, a blue line on the road, intermittent blue, metal arrows 50 cm from the ground on posts and yellow topped 50 cm high posts along the side of sections of the path. After a few aborted attempts to find the route, we gave up and cycled on the shoulder of the N125, a busy road that is used by both local traffic and the through traffic who don’t want to pay the toll on the adjacent motorway. Apart from a few kilometres of countryside, we cycled through 140km of ribbon development. Yes, I wouldn’t have believed that this could be true if I hadn’t come here. There was one big highlight on the trip, the Ria Formosa Lagoon. Formed behind five sandy, barrier islands, it extends for over 20 kilometres along the coast around the holiday destination of Faro.

The Rio Formosa-lagoon

The Rio Formosa-lagoon

This is unique coastal lagoon includes islands, marshes, tidal flats, islets, dunes, saltpans, fresh water lagoons, agricultural areas and woodlands. It is constantly changing due to the continuous movement of winds, currents and tides. From a distance, it is not the most picturesque of environments, and, at times, smelt very sulphurous, but it is home to a vast array of flora and fauna. We got to see some of its bird inhabitants when we took a section of the cycle path that wandered its way around the saltpans to the east of Faro. We’re both reasonable at bird id in the UK, but the further we go the south the more new species we meet. One species here, though was unmistakable. ‘Flamingo’, Jerry whispered as we emerged from behind a coastal shrub by which we had stopped for a sheltered, afternoon break. And, sure enough, as I followed the direction of his gaze, there were three very pale, pink flamingos with their characteristic backward hooked bills they use to sift for food. They were wading around, up to their bodies, in the water of one of several large, roughly, rectangular saltpans.

Greater Flamingos (with apologies for the picture quality)

Greater Flamingos (with apologies for the picture quality)

We sat and watched them for sometime from behind some herbage. Getting our eye in to the world around us, we started to spot other birds, some we recognised, others of which were new to us. Another easily recognisable species was the Spoonbill, a tall whitish bird with, as the name suggests, a black, spoon-shaped bill. There were a group of about twelve mooching about on a mudflat, occasionally sifting through the shallow water for insects or crustaceans to eat. The mudflats were alive with crabs, who scrambled in and out of holes they had dug in the mud. Some were fiddler crabs, with one pincer claw much larger than the other. As we looked closer we noticed left and right clawed crabs. We wondered what caused a particular side claw to develop.

Many of the saltpans in this area were being actively worked, with the sea water let into the wide, flat bottomed pans through a series of sluices. The water evaporates off in the hot sunshine leaving a crust of salt that is scraped up into large white, crystalline mounds.

Sea water evaporating to form sea salt

Sea water evaporating to form sea salt

Looking across the vast, flat lagoon landscape we noticed several people at work. One man was using what, from a distance, looked like a large suction tube. He placed one end on the mudflat and pulled the handle upwards, out of the tube at the other end. Every two or three goes he bent down to pick up something. Jerry reckons he was probably sucking razor clams out of their U shaped tunnels in the mud. Nearer to the shore, we saw a woman sitting on a rock sorting through a pile of clams. Shellfish harvesting, as well as farming, is an important industry in this area.

Next day, back on the busy N125 road again and heading towards the border with Spain we reflected on our Portuguese delights and downers of the last two and a half months. We have been amazed by the diversity and abundance of natural heritage. From the coastal sand dunes and rocky cliffs, the vineyards of the Douro valley, the mountainous Serra da Estrela to the limestone caves of the Maciço Calcário Estremenho, and the Ria Formosa lagoon. This country has much more to offer beyond the sandy beaches of which we had heard before we arrived. It’s history and architecture have also been a delight. We have been surprised by the number of World Heritage sites, two particular favourites being the University and Joanina library in Coimbra and the Roman town at Conimbriga with its huge and well preserved mosaics.

Two of the main downers have been the roads and the drivers. Both appeared to get worse the further south we travelled. Many of the roads have a lot of potholes and a lot of patches, which makes for bumpy riding. In addition, the Portuguese have some lane and junction priorities that leave cyclists riding in the centre of the two lanes of fast traffic, or having cars from side roads able to pull out directly in front without having to give way. An additional diffuculty we faced was the policy that seems to exist here of upgrading roads to dual carriageway or motorway status without including provision for pedestrians, cyclists or other non speedy road users. We spent a lot of time looking for alternative routes or cycling on very busy, fast roads.

The drivers here are crazy, they overtook us on blind bends, of which there are many, passed us with inches to spare, and overtook towards us. One particularly bad moment was when a coach driver decided to pull out of a side road into our path as we cycled up a hill. We had to stop and then turn our bikes sideways to avoid being hit as he also cut the corner. Patience would be a useful skill for the drivers and to give space and respect to vulnerable road users.

So now we are back in Spain, having crossed the river border by ferry.

Looking back to the ferry and Portugal beyond

Looking back to the ferry and Portugal beyond

The temperature has risen again as we’ve headed in land to the capital of Andalusia, Seville. It feels a little surreal to have cycled all the way here from the UK when it is so far away and exotic. Seville, to me, means oranges and an annual post-Christmas tradition of making our year’s stock of marmelade. Here, the city streets are lined with orange trees. Currently, the fruit are all still small and green, they will take another three months to swell and ripen.

We have reached here at a time when our budget is very hard pressed. Our usual budget for the two of us is £20.00 a day. A year ago, with the pound strong against the Euro, this translated into €25+ . This was still a tight budget with campsites costing between €15 and €30 a night for our little tent, and we still had to buy food, keep our bikes and equipment on the road and pay for some tourist attractions and occasional ferries. We had about a €400 deficit by the time we reached Germany last autumn after five months on the road. We made this up by working in exchange for food and accommodation in between cycling and by July this year we were about €1200 in credit. Since then we have faced two budget limiting constraints: the pound dropped in value following the vote to leave the European Union reducing our budget by a fifth; and one of tenants left to buy his own home leaving us looking for a new one whilst also undertaking and paying for essential maintenance and upgrading work. We had no income at all in August and therefore a €0.00 budget. Luckily, we were working at the vineyard at this time so were able to keep our spending to a minimum. Since then our budget has been just €80.00 a week and we are rapidly working our way through our reserves. I think like most couples, money issues are a source of tension and living on very little money is wearing. I scour the supermarket shelves for good deals and cheap food. We eat bread and jam for breakfast, biscuits and salted peanuts for snacks. Lunch is pasta, passata, beans and a red pepper with a piece of fruit and supper is cheese and cucumber rolls followed yoghurt. It’s simple, and repetitive. We wild camp where we can to keep our accommodation costs down and make tough decisions about what to pay to go and experience, each time asking ourselves ‘ this is likely to be the only time we are here, what would we truly regret not seeing’. Fortunately, we are both into nature and the outdoors, and, for the most part, enjoying this comes free. For the first time on our journey, its continuation is uncertain for financial reasons. We have enough money to cycle for another month and a half which will take us to friends out climbing for the winter near Benidorm. We will need to review our situation at that point. We just hope the flat lets in the meantime.

For now we are making the best of things and enjoying the delights on offer. And Seville has quite a few. We took the bus in there yesterday from the campsite south of the city and spent the day wandering around its narrow lanes and wide boulevards. Our first stop was Plaza de Espana, or for film buffs, the City of Theed on the planet of Naboo.

Jerry at Theed, Naboo (Plaza de España)

Jerry at Theed, Naboo (Plaza de España)

The large, semicircular building, built for a trade exposition in the 1929, gave us our first taste of the unique, architectural style that defines this city. The Moors conquered Seville in 712AD living and ruling here for over 500 years. They built castles, palaces and mosques in solid, cuboid Muslim style decorating the interiors with colourful shapes and patterns or Islamic texts. When the Spanish Catholics retook the city in 1248 they so liked the moorish interior design, they kept it and adapted it to make it their own. They converted mosques into churches and convents, and redesigned and adapted the palaces. The new architectural style was called ‘mudéjar’. The new building at Plaza de España was built in neo-renaissance and neo-mudéjar styles around a large central fountain. Around its walls are tiled maps and scenes depicting the many different regions of Spain. We enjoyed walking around spotting the ones we had already cycled through and the ones we are planning to visit. Many visitors were having their pictures taken in front of their home region or a place they had visited.

Seville is Spain’s only river port and for a while, in the 16th century, was its principal trading port with their conquered lands in the Americas. It was chosen as it was easily defendable from other countries, such as the French and English, and because ships were less likely to be pirated on the narrow channel north from the coast. We made our way down to the river through the Maria Luisa gardens and wandered along its renovated promenade to take in the air and look across the river to Triana, the cultural home of flamenco. I’d like to say that we could hear and smell this passionate, sultry music and dance wafting in on the breeze, but as it was midday and not midnight, when the bars here come alive, I would be lying. The closest we got to see flamenco were the posters and leaflets advertising tourist shows, at a high price, around the old town. Sadly, they all finished too late for us to catch the last bus back to the campsite.

Turning inland away from the river, we stopped for lunch by the city’s cathedral where Christopher Columbus was reburied long after he died a pauper elsewhere in Spain. It was constructed over several hundred years on the site of Moors mosque and so unusually it is square in shape. Not much of the original mosque remains, though the minaret was retained and converted to a bell tower.

Mosque Minaret turned Cathedral Bell Tower

Mosque Minaret turned Cathedral Bell Tower

This part of town is the touting spot for carriage drivers, encouraging tourists to take a horse drawn ride around the old town. We decided to explore on foot instead, after all it was ONLY 38 degrees – Seville is Spain’s hottest city.

The Real Alcazar is a must see. A palace still used by the Spanish Royal family on their stays in Seville, it too was converted from a Moorish palace. The size and beauty of the place is overwhelming. Room after room of colourful mosaic walls, plaster mouldings and wooden carved ceilings. The gardens are no less impressive, laid out around a series of modest fountains with paths that lead you through from one ‘secret’ garden to the next. I suspect a lot of time is spent cutting hedges especially as there is a large, rectangular labyrinth maze. Here are some photos to give you a taste of the palace and gardens:

Interconnecting rooms

Interconnecting rooms

Mudéjar style patio

Mudéjar style patio

View through to gardens

View through to gardens

Fine Plasterwork

One of the several 'secret' renaissance gardens

One of the several ‘secret’ renaissance gardens

The rest of our wander around Seville was the decoration on the cake. Small narrow lanes, ornate, gold encrusted church interiors, and boutique shops. A fine place to while away a sultry afternoon and evening.

Back at the campsite, we shared a beer (or three) with our Dutch next door neighbours, hearing about their global adventures and swapping experiences of life on the road 24/7 with one’s spouse. This morning we had second Frühstuck with a younger German couple and their delightful baby girl followed by a dip in the campsite pool. We originally met them a few days ago at a campsite in Portugal. They are travelling around Western Europe for two months by caravan whilst on paternity and maternity leave. We hope to see them again, but probably not on this holiday of theirs as they are travelling to Tarifa this afternoon in just 2-3 hours and it will take us several days. I have got so used to our cycling timescale that I was surprised they could reach somewhere 200km away so quickly.

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