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Spring in Portugal 2013 PDF Printable Version E-mail


SPRING IN PORTUGAL 2013

Margaret and Barry Williamson
March 2013

Introduction

After leaving Briarfields Touring Park in mid-November 2012 for Plymouth and a ferry, we headed south through France and into Spain for Christmas. On the first day of Spring we crossed the border from Extremadura into Portugal.

Continued from: Winter in Spain 2012-13

Continued at: Return to England through Spain and France 2013

Map_of_Spain_12.jpg


Campsites in France, Spain and Portugal

  1.  Larrouleta, Urrugne (France)
  2.  Ezcaba, Pamplona
  3.  Valle de Tena, Sabinanigo
  4.  Almunia, Almunia de San Juan
  5.  L'Ametlla Village, L'Ametlla de Mar
  6.  Kiko Park Rural, Villargordo del Cabriel
  7.  International, Aranjuez
  8.  Parque Natural Monfrague, Plasencia
  9.  Ciudad de Caceres, Caceres
10.  Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias (Portugal)
11.  Isla de Puebla, Puebla de Sanabria
12.  La Viorna, Potes
13.  Playa de Orio, Orio

PORTUGAL

To Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias, Alto Alentejo - 78 miles (Height 1,600 ft)     

Open all year. See www.campingasseiceira.com. 16 per night for a stay of up to 6 days, inc 10-amp electricity and Free WiFi, or 14 for 7 nights or longer. Cash only. N 39.40992  W 7.34075

After a dayDSCF3142.JPG of seriously heavy rain had delayed our departure, the Vernal Equinox dawned warm and dry. On settling our bill at Caceres Camping, we benefited from a new offer of every 4th night free, a nice surprise!

We took A66 briefly, then joined rd 521, a good 2-lane road heading due west to Portugal. Near Malpartida de Caceres we crossed a railway lined with telegraph posts, each one topped by nesting storks. At the next village, Aliseda, there was a Guardia Civil police checkpoint, where two cops with guns waved us through after noting the number plate. It was a remarkably quiet road for an international route (apart from our CD of Country Music). The sun shone, storks strutted among the spring flowers round a lake, all we needed was a pleasant lay-by but we saw no parking areas before or after the busy little town of Valencia de Alcantara.

After 68 miles we paused for lunch at the frontier post at 2,134 ft/645 m. It was deserted,Marvao_(14).JPG derelict and litter-strewn, the days of customs checks and money exchange long gone, thanks to the EU. There was plenty of parking space: just us and a pair of sad-eyed hopelessly stray dogs. We must remember Portugal is an hour behind Spain (making it the same time zone as the UK).

Across the border,DSCF6271.JPG rd 521 continued as N246 towards Castelo de Vide. We turned right (signed Marvao) at the Portagem roundabout, after 5 Portuguese miles. An earlier right turn, via Ponte Velha, would be a short cut to Santo Antonio das Areias but it's a narrower road. Our chosen route climbed for 2 miles through groves of cork oak to a junction at 2,234 ft/677 m, where the (dead-end) road to Marvao twists away uphill to the right. We turned left, descended to the village of Santo Antonio das Areias and turned right following campsite signs, up past the Bullring, then half a mile down to a neat little campsite among olives and cork oak on the left. We'd phoned ahead and the English owner, Gary, was expecting us.

The site has immaculate modern facilities and free WiFi that works in the caravan with our booster aerial. With only a dozen pitches squeezed inside a quiet walled field, it's a popular base for cycling and walking, set on the edge of the Serra de S Mamede Natural Park and overlooked by the hilltop village and castle of Marvao.

At Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias, Alto Alentejo

Click: www.magbazpictures.com/in-the-alenteja.html

The village - a 15-minute uphill walk - has a mini-supermarket/bar (reminiscent of Ireland), bank (ATM withdrawals limited to 200 per day), filling station (cash only), post office, pharmacy, hairdresser, one restaurant, a small Saturday morning indoor/outdoor market, and an indoor swimming pool (closed for cleaning until April). And the bullring though unlike Spanish bull fights, in Portugal the injured beast is not publicly killed but finished off afterwards in private, so that's all right.

Mobile shops visit the campsite, with bread and pastries daily. On Fridays, English Carol (living on a farm in the neighbourhood) brings home-made produce for sale, including frozen curries, jams and chutneys, soups, sausages, chocolate mousse and lemon cheesecake all very tempting. We've tried the Chicken Curry (excellent) and look forward to a frozen Pork Madras made from Carol's own chickens and black pigs.

The cafe/restaurant Pau de Canela (= Stick of Cinnamon), run by mother and 2 daughters, opens daily for lunch, with evening meals only by special arrangement. Over the weekend of Palm Sunday a local gastronomic event celebrated the arrival of kids and lambs, so on the Saturday evening Gary organised a lamb dinner for campers at the Pau de Canela. After local olives, bread, cheese and mushrooms, the tenderest of lamb was served with potatoes and jugs of sturdy Alentejo red wine. A choice of desserts followed, then coffee and the restaurant's own cinnamon liqueur, smooth and sweet. We enjoyed the moonlit walk back to camp after a splendid meal.

Cycling

1.  A 25 km/15-mile circular ride from Santo Antonio das Areias, via Beira. UpMarvao_(17).JPGhill into the village of SA das Areias, then out northeast to Aires and circle round to Beira, riding very near the Spanish border. The quietest of rural lanes, through a rolling landscape of cork oak, olives and a few vines, scattered with huge boulders. We took a short side-trip to a signed Dolmen (megalithic tomb with flat stone laid across uprights) and also saw a Hoopoe flying in the woods.

Reaching Beira we photographed the lovely railway station, with its classic blue and white azulejo tiled facade. This was once a busy international station (one of only 4 rail links between Portugal and Spain), with doors labelled 'Passports' and 'Customs', but the line has recently closed. The adjacent station hotel is being converted into a youth hostel. Two milky coffees in a tiny bar in Beira cost only 1.20.

Riding south directly Marvao_(19)[1].jpgback to Santo Antonio das Areias via the villages of Barretos and Ranginha, we passed a man ploughing behind a horse something we have not seen recently since Bulgaria. The countryside is certainly more like Greece or Eastern Europe, rather than Spain. In the cottage gardens, chickens peck around under citrus trees and there are rows of vegetables. Many of the young have gone to the coast or cities in search of work, leaving older folk to subsist. But the roads are well surfaced and the people friendly, always returning a Bom Dia or (as we were told after noon) Boa Tarde. The colourful flowers and butterflies that were out welcoming the Spring also reminded us of Greece.

2.  A 16 km/10 mile climb to Marvao Castle and back. After a pleasant morninMarvao_(27).JPGg ride (see above), followed by bacon & eggs back at the campsite, we decided to aim for Marvao - the medieval village and castle perched on a rocky outcrop above Santo Antonio das Areias, ringed by 17thC walls.

We climbed frMarvao_(29).JPGom 1,600 ft/485 m at camp, through Santo Antonio das Areias and up to the road junction we'd driven past on our way here, at 2,234 ft/677 m. The quiet road wound its way up through fields of sheep, goats, cattle and black pigs all with young. Spring is here! After this 3-mile ascent, we rested briefly by the water fountain/trough before turning left for the final 2 miles, which zigzagged more steeply to Marvao. Approaching the settlement, we passed a small motorhome parking area by the Convent of Our Lady of Estrela. Higher up there was more parking space and toilets before the main entrance gate, Portas de Rodao.

Through the gate, we cycled and walked the higgledy-piggledy narrow cobbMarvao_(33).JPGled lanes leading up to the Castle, reaching 2,805 ft/850 m at its entrance. We'd climbed 1,205 ft/365 m to this viewpoint, with a magnificent panorama from the wall above the manicured gardens. Leaving sightseeing for another visit, we donned warm tops and gloves for a remarkably swift 5-mile descent, with only one brief climb at the end past the bullring. We were very satisfied with the achievement and with the performance of our Paul Hewitt bicycles. Barry fitted new rear brake blocks once we were back!

3.  A 32 km/20 mileIMG_0554.JPG ride from Santo Antonio das Areias to Beira, returning via Aires and ending with a climb to Galegos and back. We varied and extended the first ride, starting with the short climb into SA das Areias and an easy run north via Ranginha and Barretos to Beira, where we paused for coffee in the little bar behind the station. Then we circled back through the rolling landscape via Aires, with scarcely a car on the road.

After 13 miles, rather than turning right, directly back to Asseiceira and the campsite, we rode left towards the Spanish border. The lane descended briefly to cross the swollen River Sever, then climbed steeply through the unspoilt cobbled hamlet of Galegos before meeting main rd 246 just 3 km short of the frontier with Spain. The bar in the old post office in Galegos was called 'O Contrabando'! Returning to Asseiceira, it was a good downhill to the river, then a gentle climb home.

4.  A 35 km/22 mile ride to Castelo de Vide, via Barretos returning via Portagem.IMG_0592.JPG Start with the short climb into SA das Areias and north via Ranginha to Barretos (7 km). Turn west on a hilly minor road, past a simple campsite. Empty country with 4 eagles soaring above. Reaching Castelo de Vide (16 km), go through gateway and mount the cobbled lanes to the centre of the walled town. This lovely warren of twisting alleyways, churches, white cottages and flower pots is actually lived in, unlike the tiny tourist trap of Marvao.

We workedIMG_0607.JPG our way uphill to the 14thC castle (open daily 9.30-5 pm, free, though closed today due to a 'staff problem'). In 'Our Lady of Alegria', a small Baroque church in the adjacent burgo medieval (medieval village within the outer fortifications), we admired the colourful tiled interior and talked with Francisco, an informative curator. Speaking excellent English, he stressed that he worked for the Town Hall/Tourist Office, not the Church. A plaque outside the church commemorated the Marranos - the 'New Christians' (forced Jewish converts), who had lived for centuries in this area around the castle gates and the market. The Museum inside Portugal's oldest synagogue, a little loIMG_0619.JPGwer down in the Judairia (Jewish Quarter), had now closed (1-2 pm), so we returned to it after lunch.

We found an excellent meal at Goivo's, behind the main square. The 5 Menu was wonderful value: home-made vegetable soup, a large roll full of piping hot pork, a drink and a coffee. Eaten in the tiny bar, decorated with bullfighting portraits including Goivo himself! The only other table was occupied by a Portuguese/English couple, so we had an interpreter to hand.

Next we had a quick look in the large and gloomy church of Sta Maria de Devesa in the main square. The flower-decked statue of Mary still rested on the wooden platform on which it had been carried to the Holy Week celebrations.  The nearby Tourist Office had free town maps, leaflets and sugared almonds! See www.cm-castelo-vide.pt

For Pictures of Castelo de Vide, Click: www.magbazpictures.com/castelo-de-vide.html

Before lIMG_0628.JPGeaving we returned to the Jewish Quarter and the very interesting Museum inside a 13thC house, formerly used as a synagogue. Entry was free; a booklet in English at 0.50 essential as the information was only in Portuguese. We learnt that thousands of Jews, expelled from Spain in 1492, crossed the border via Portagem (meaning 'Toll Road') into Castelo de Vide. Tragically, it proved a temporary refuge as the Portuguese King Manuel I followed suit in 1496, expelling Jews who refused to convert. The 'New Christians' who kept up clandestine Jewish rituals were often sentenced to death by the Court of Inquisition in the following centuries. The Holocaust Memorial room recalled the continuing evil of anti-semitism. Today, the DNA of the population of Portugal is 20% Jewish, IMG_0575.JPGa legacy of the number who remained and intermarried.

We cycled back from Castelo de Vide along the busier rd 246 to Portagem, then turned north on the quiet lane back through Ponte Velha to SA das Areias. At Portagem we paused to look at the late 16thC bridge over the River Sever, with a medieval tower that protected the crossing here on the old Roman road. So many centuries of history! The tower had a plaque with the dates 1496 and 1996, commemorating the expulsion of Portugal's Jewry.

5. A 48 km/30 mile circular ride from Beira: via Povoa e Meadas to Castelo de Vide, returning via Barretos. On a fine afternoon we drove the Sprinter 6 miles to Beira, parked behind the railway station and saddled upPovoa_(11).JPG. We cycled north on a very quiet lane (becoming rougher as we left the Marvao district) to Pereiro, which was just a farm very near the Spanish border. Turning northwest, the empty road rolled on to the little cobbled village of Povoa e Meadas (20 km), where Old Lads sat in the central garden. There was even a small museum and two bars. In the 'Oasis' we sampled little meat pies, home-made shortbread and coffee Portugal's pastries are splendidly affordable!

From here we headed south for Castelo de Vide, spotting rabbits and lizards enjoying the sunshine, as well as a pair of small snakes dead in the road. Meeting the main road 246, we followed it briefly before turning left and climbing up through the town, skirting the eastern walls of the castle. Then it was an easy downhill ride, back via Barretos to Beira. A superb circuit.

6.  A 37 km/23 mile circular ride from Povoa e Meadas, via Montalvao and Nisa. Parking the Sprinter in the little square at Povoa e Meadas, we rode north for 11 km to the smaller village of Montalvao. On this sunny afternoon along the quietest of lanes (only 2 cars passed us), wild flowers carpeted olive groves and cork woods. Cistus (Rock Roses) had spread from the fields and along the verges. We stopped to photograph the delicate white flowers and breath in the scent from the twigs of the shrub. They yield a gum resin used to make perfume and for fumigation, though there was no sign of harvesting.

Montalvao had a church, a sign commemorating its history 1512-2012, and the sparse foundations of a border fort looking east to the Spanish frontier. The adjacent water tower was plastered with the nests of circling swallows, which far outnumbered the elderly inhabitants of the village. 

Another quiet rolling lane took us southwest for 16 km, almost to the town of Nisa, before turning east for 10 km and back to Povoa e Meadas crossing the northern dam of the Barragem do Poio.

7.  A 32 km/20 mile circular ride from Valencio de Alcantara (over the border in Spain). On a fine Sunday afternoon - our last day camped at Santo Antonio das Areias - we drove the Sprinter into Spain. It was just 9 miles to the deserted border post past Galegos, plus 7 miles along the quiet N521 to Valencio de Alcantara. From here we cycled back to the border on a lovely rural lane through the village of San Pedro, overlooked by the familiar fortress of Marvao. Coffee and cakes at the garage/cafe just before the border, after climbing from 1,500 ft to 2,100 ft, then we circled back to Valencio on even quieter lanes via Jiniebro.

Gary's campsite at Santo Antonio das Areias, found quite by chance, proved an excellent base for cycling, with virtually no traffic, superb scenery and enough hills to satisfy our gears. We completed the above rides during a 3-week stay in March and into April, also repeating some of them in the opposite direction.

Walking

A sketch map of 6 local walks is available in campsite Reception. Varying from 4 km to 13 km in length, they all start from the gate. We followed 3 of the walks, enjoying rural lanes and footpaths, spotting birds and flowers and what might have been a Genet (a cat-like mammal with short legs and a ringed tail). There is also a longer route that climbs steeply up to Marvao but we preferred to cycle up a tarmac road to reach the castle.

Easter

Our Easter treats came from the mobile shops that visit the campsite. Felipe, the baker, tookIMG_0528.JPG orders for a special Easter bread that he described as 'Good Mama cake'(?) - a sweet loaf decorated with sugared almonds and a hard-boiled egg. We also tried his lovely flaky custard tarts known as pasties de nata and other local pastries made with sheep's-cheese. And then there were Carol's plump sausages stuffed full of her home-raised pork,  and her individual chocolate mousse with brandy and toasted nuts . . . Not forgetting the chocolate eggs and Easter bunnies from our nearest Lidl, in the town of Portalegre about 16 miles south (which also has Leclercs and Intermarche supermarkets).

Easter is too early this year, judging by the weather! While Britain and northern Europe is still having snow, here in Sunny Portugal the rainy season persists. On Good Friday it poured all day, the highlight being the arrival of the baker's van and Carol's weekly visit with her farm produce and home-cooking.

On Easter Saturday morning the sun appeared and we went to the weekly market in Santo Antonio das Areias. At the outdoor stalls with clothing and footwear, Barry bought a fine pair of leather shoes from a couple who spoke fluent French. There was a very limited amount of produce inside, the marble slabs of the fish hall sadly bare. We made the most of a fine day by driving up to explore Marvao Castle before lunch (see below), followed by a cycle ride (number 3, above) in the afternoon.

On Easter Sunday it poured relentlessly once more, though it's not cold. We've not needed to heat the caravan for some time but waterproofs and wellingtons are essential.

Marvao

For Pictures of Marvao and the Castle, Click: www.magbazpictures.com/marvao-castle.html

Parking the Sprinter van outside Porta da Vila, the lower gate of the fortified hilltop village, weDSCF6284.JPG entered to ramble among the network of narrow alleys and whitewashed houses. The outer walls of the settlement were accessible to those with a head for heights. We made our way up to the castle, past the Church of Santa Maria (now a Museum but closed for renovations) and the beautifully clipped gardens.

TheMarvao_(33).JPG castle is perched on a rocky crest at the northern end of the hill that was formerly occupied by Romans, Christian Visigoths and Muslims. The Moors built the first stronghold there in about 715, naming it after Emir Marwan, the Moorish Lord of Coimbra. It fell to the Christians in 1166 and was rebuilt around 1226, one of a chain of fortresses along the Spanish border including Castelo de Vide, visible to the northwest. A system of linked walls and towers protect the inner courtyard of the fortress and its huge cistern, which supplied the village. From a height of 862 m (almost 3,000 ft), there is a commanding all-round overview of the plateau below, stretching across to Spain. A military garrison was housed hereDSCF6293.JPG from the Middle Ages until the castle was captured for the first time in 1833, when the Liberals used a secret entrance to seize it from the Royalists.

Entry cost 1.50 (all categories) and included a small exhibition, though the signs and leaflet were only in Portuguese. We joined the Easter visitors, taking photographs, climbing towers and descending to the brimming cistern. Like them, we'd been waiting for a day clear of mist or rain for the panoramic views, stretching to Spain on the south side and the Serra de Estrela to the north. See www.cm-marvao.pt .

APRIL 2013 still based at Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias, Alto Alentejo

Roman Ammaia

About 5 miles IMG_0558_-_Copy.JPGfrom our camp (just south of Portagem, along rd 359 towards Portalegre) lie the vestiges of Roman Ammaia. Entry is 2 (1 for Seniors), open daily 9-12.30 and 2-5 pm.

The small museum had a collection of Roman artefacts (jIMG_0565_-_Copy.JPGewelry, coins, lamps, pottery etc) inside an interesting old farmhouse. From there we strolled across peaceful fields among the remains of the south gate, temple podium and columns, the paved square of the forum, and (across the road) the foundations of the baths. We had the place to ourselves quite a contrast with the popular sites of Roman Merida in Spain! The city flourished here during the first century AD, growing olives, wheat and vines. Paved Roman roads led to Merida and Caceres and there was a Roman bridge over the Sever at Ponte Velha (= Old Bridge). Much of the stone was used as a quarry for later building in Portalegre, Castelo de Vide - and MIMG_0562_-_Copy.JPGarvao, whose splendid castle now overlooks the site!

When Ammaia was finally abandoned, after flooding during the Muslim occupation, the village of Sao Salvador da Aramenha developed to the east of the site, leaving the ruins under open fields. This makes it ideal for excavation, now the responsibility of the University of Evora, though there was little sign of recent activity. Archaeology is a luxury in times of financial austerity but there is still much to unearth here, including a theatre. www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_villa_of_Ammaia

For more of our pictures, Click: www.magbazpictures.com/roman-ammaia.html

A drive via Carreiras to the Senhora da Penha Chapel and Mirador

You can continueC_de_Vide_(20).JPG a short distance south from Ammaia on rd 359, then turn off right to the village of Carreiras. From here a magnificent narrow road twists and climbs northwest along a wooded ridge on the edge of the Serra de S Mamede (not recommended for caravans or larger vehicles!). This precipitous drive led to a small pilgrimage chapel, the Senhora da Penha, on a bluff above the road. From the small car park we climbed a short flighC_de_Vide_(14).JPGt of steps to the chapel, perched on a crag at 2,200 ft/666 m, with breathtaking views over Castelo de Vide.

The road then hairpins down to meet rd 246 near Castelo de Vide, from where we drove back to Portagem. Pausing along the main road at the Pingo Doce supermarket, we were greeted by Francisco, the curator we'd met in the church of 'Our Lady of Alegria' a few days earlier! He recommended the cheese from the Azores, claiming they also produced the best butter and milk. We imagined tiny islands full of cows (or should that be sheep?) But we did buy some cheese.

The Megalithic Route (a circuit of approx 32 miles from Castelo de Vide)

Armed with the2_Stones_(10).JPG free Roteiro Arqueologico leaflet from the Tourist Office in Castelo de Vide, we used the Sprinter van and our walking boots to track down the ten listed prehistoric monuments. The leaflet has a basic map, with GPS co-ordinates essential, as the directions are in Portuguese and some were neither signed nor visible from the road! It proved a fascinating treasure hunt, driving northwest from Castelo de Vide to the Barragem de Povoa e Meadas dam, returning via Povoa e Meadas villa9_Stones_(13).JPGge.

There are actually dozens of granite dolmens (Antas in Portuguese: a tomb with a large flat stone supported by uprights), burial chambers and menhirs (standing stones) in the boulder-strewn landscape around Castelo and Marvao: evidence of a Celtic megalithic culture thriving here some 3,000-5,000 years ago.

Some of the5_Stones_(10).JPG ten listed sites were easily accessible through a marked gate, while the largest dolmen (Anta del Melrica) involved a walk of about half a mile across boggy fields. And we had them all to ourselves except when we crossed the dam wall at the Barragem (very impressive) and reached a cafe, BBQ area and motorhome parking, right by the ancient Necropolis of Boa Morte. Here we ate our picnic, watching 6 storks circling high above. On the way back from Povoa e Meadas, the Menhir de Meada, a fertility symbol standing proud at 23 ft/7 m high, is not to be missed it's the tallest in the Iberian peninsula.

For more images, Click: www.magbazpictures.com/ancient-stones.html

A Birthday Tour of the three Marble Towns (125 miles)

Margaret's birthday dawned in a haze of rain, shrouding Marvao castle from view. No day for cycling or picnics! Equipped with a thermos of coffee and two of Felipe's delicious pastries, we set out in the Sprinter to revisit the Marble Towns of Estremoz, Borba and Vila Vicosa with a vague memory of passing through them on an Easter cycle tour of Portugal, our first visit to the country in 1998.

Rd 359 south from Portagem climbs to 2,250 ft/680 m before dropping to Portalegre at 1,325 ft/400 m, 16 miles from our campsite at Santo Antonio das Areias. It was still raining down on the plain. We called in Lidl (the fresh croissants are much better than those at the nearby Leclercs!), then continued down rd IP2 to Estremoz, past cork forest and olive groves grazed by red big-horned cattle.

Estremoz (at 50 miles and 1,380 ft/420 m), largest of the Marble Towns, had plenty of free parking space in the Rossio, its vast main square in the lower town (except on Saturdays, market day). The Tourist Office, where we found a free map and leaflet in English, is in the twin-towered white marble former convent on the square. It also houses the town hall and police station.

It was time for lunch, in the Adego do Isaias an old-style tavern serving char-grilled meat and listed as a favourite in both Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. The rustic wine cellar (Adego = Bodega = winery) was certainly atmospheric, though the pork fillet off the grill was disappointingly tough and dry. Not recommended!

At least the rain stopped as we climbed the narrow lanes leading through the ramparts to the upper town, though the light was poor for photographs of the views from the belvedere on this grey afternoon. The restored white fortress, built by Dom Dinis in the 13thC for his new queen Isabela (Elizabeth of Aragon), is now a Pousada (luxury hotel, like the Spanish Parador). A glimpse in the entrance hall is permitted. The original castle became an ammunitions store, which blew up in 1698! One original tower remains, along with a 17thC almshouse (now the Municipal Museum showing hundreds of examples of the colourful pottery that the town is known for), a restaurant in the former 16thC jail (which might have been a better choice for lunch) and the Chapel of Santa Isabela built in 1659. A modern statue of the saintly queen, her apron full of roses, recalls the miraculous legend. Isabela was famously generous to the poor and when her disapproving husband asked one day what she was carrying, the loaves intended for distribution turned into roses!

Borba, smallest of the Marble Towns, is 10 miles SE of Estremoz. We parked easily opposite the Place of the Republic, a white marble square with marble fountains, though didn't go far as it was pouring down again. Must add that the immaculate public toilets in the square were entirely made and tiled in marble! The marble from this area is one of the finest in the world, rivalling Italian Carrara. Quarried since Roman times, it was used throughout the Province of Lusitania, especially in the capital at Merida. The cobbled back road from Borba to Vila Vicosa is bordered by working marble quarries and spoil heaps along its 5-km length.

Vila Vicosa was the most attractive of the 3 towns. The back road from Borba led to a huge free parking area in front of the impressive white marble Ducal Palace, built in the early 16thC by the Braganca dynasty who ruled Portugal until Dom Carlos was assassinated in 1908. The one-hour guided palace tour in Portuguese didn't appeal! We walked up to the old walled town, as it had finally stopped raining. Entry to the castle again meant a one-hour tour, including a museum of hunting, so we admired the outside walls and looked in the 18thC church of Our Lady of the Conception. Returning through the lower town we saw the central square, Place of the Republic, all built of white marble. There is even a marble museum in the old railway station but it was time to drive 60 miles or so back to Santo Antonio das Areias, via Portalegre.

For more images, Click: http://www.magbazpictures.com/the-marble-towns.html

FROM PORTUGAL INTO SPAIN

To Camping Isla de Puebla, Puebla de Sanabria, Castilla y Leon - 263 miles (Height 2,972 ft)     

Open Easter-30 Sept. See www.isladepuebla.com. 22.50  per night, inc 10-amp electricity and Free WiFi. Cash only. N 42.04930  W 6.63068

On a fine morning in mid-April Cliff & Chris, our neighbours at Camping Asseiceira, skilfully manoeuvred their fifth-wheeler out into the lane, as Gary hastily pruned the olive trees and the rest of us stood by to shout STOP. We too set out to tow our caravan on the long journey through Spain and France, exiting somewhat less dramatically after Felipe had come by in the bread van. We shall very much miss this scenic and historic corner of the High Alentejo and its friendly people, including the local hairdresser who had transformed us both! Like many others, we came to Santo Antonio for a few days and stayed a month.

We drove northwest past Castelo de Vide to join the IP2 (good new highway) after 20 miles at Alpalhao. Continuing  north, this road descended to cross the River Tejo 16 miles later, down at 300 ft/90 m the border between the provinces of Alto Alentejo and Beira Baixa before climbing for 2 miles to join the A23 motorway at 650 ft/200 m. This was a toll motorway, with electronic cameras at regular intervals working on number plate recognition of vehicles registered for the system. There were no toll-booths and no indication of how to pay (in advance or later). We'd been advised by Portuguese residents and other travellers that no system had yet been devised for charging foreign vehicles and that we should just forget the tolls so we did.

The virtually empty 4-lane motorway climbed gradually past Castelo Branco, reaching 2,120 ft/642 m on entering a pair of tunnels at 84 miles, then dropped to a service station 5 miles later at 1,360 ft/410 m. A lunch break here near Covilha on the edge of the Serra de Estrela Natural Park, site of the country's highest mountain, Torre (with a stone tower on the summit to bring it to 6,600 ft/2000 m!).

The A23 continued via a series of short tunnels to Guarda (Portugal's highest city at 3,300 ft/1000 m) at 117 miles. Here we joined the A25 towards Celorico da Beira for 15 miles, leaving at exit 28a to take IP2 north for Braganza. This mostly new road (not shown on our road atlas or SatNav) is a big improvement on the twisting N102, which we had to take on incomplete sections, for example where a new bridge is under construction across the River Douro. We traversed a hilly landscape of red soil, olives and vines (no cork trees since we left the Alentejo), our progress alternately fast and slow.

From Braganza at 235 miles the narrower rd 103-7 led north through the bleak Montezhino Natural Park. A campsite 7 miles along on the right was firmly closed (as we knew, from phoning the Tourist Office earlier). We climbed for another 8 miles up the winding river valley, past the tiny villages of Franca and Portelo where horses ploughed the fields, to the top of a pass marking the Spanish border at 2,690 ft/815 m.

Putting our watches forward an hour (this was turning into a long day!), we entered the Zamora district of Castilla y Leon and continued on rd 925 across heather-clad moors. In Calabor, the next village, the plough was pulled by a donkey. The road climbed above the tree line, reaching 3,625 ft/1100 m, before gently descending for the final 6 miles to the little medieval town of Puebla de Sanabria.

Turn right at the sign, immediately after the roundabout on entering town, to find the campsite down by the Rio Tera river. Unusually the price for a car + caravan was considerably higher than a motorhome but the Receptionist was not willing to discuss this, despite speaking excellent English and repeatedly calling us 'Darling'! But there was a cosy bar/restaurant/take-away on site in the old water mill and we were more than ready for the excellent home-made burgers and chips it supplied.

Continued at: Return to England through Spain and France 2013