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In Portugal in the Spring of 2017 PDF Printable Version E-mail

In Portugal in the Spring of 2017

Margaret Williamson
March 2017

Travelling in our Carado motorhome, we left England at the beginning of December 2016 on the Brittany ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, the port for the city of Caen. We headed south down the west coast of France to the Pyrenees. Here we paused for some time in the Basque country, hiring a car for a week out of Biarritz for a tour which included Christmas on the Spanish side of the mountains. After two months and 1,230 miles (2,000 km) motorhoming through the centre of Spain, we cross the mountainous border into Portugal.

Continued from: In Spain in the Winter of 2017

To Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias, Alto Alentejo - 114 miles (Height 1,600 ft)     

Open all year except Xmas. See www.campingasseiceira.com. €16 inc 10-amp elec, immaculate showers and variable free WiFi. €15 for 7 nights plus, €14 for a month or longer. Cash only. N 39.40992  W 7.34075

Leaving Merida, we return to the A66 Via de la Plata (3 miles) and drive north almost to Caceres. At exit 551, 40 miles later, we join N521, a good 2-lane road heading due west to Portugal. Near Malpartida de Caceres we cross a railway lined with telegraph posts, each one topped by nesting storks. At the next village, Aliseda, there is a Guardia Civil checkpoint but no police. It's a remarkably quiet road for an international route, the sun shines, Storks strut among the spring flowers round a lake: a perfect morning except that there is nowhere to stop – and it's Budget Day in the UK.

06-E_P_Border_(18).JPGIt gets hillier as we approach Valencia de Alcantara, the last Spanish town, 8 miles before the border. Reaching the Portuguese frontier at 104 miles (alt 2,112 ft/640 m), we pause for lunch on the large parking area. It's deserted, derelict, the days of customs checks and money exchange long gone, thanks to the EU. The bar/restaurant 'A Frontera' has seen no customers through its broken windows for many a year. But is this soon to change?  We remember Portugal is in the West European time zone (same as the UK, an hour behind Spain), so put our watches back.

See more Pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/spain-portugal-border.html

Across the border, rd 521 continues as N246 towards Castelo de Vide. We turn right (signed Marvao) at the Portagem roundabout (alt 518 m/1,700 ft), 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 climbs for 2 miles through groves of cork oak to a junction at 670 m/2,210 ft, where the (dead-end) road to Marvao Castle twists away uphill to the right. We turn left, descend to the village of Santo Antonio das Areias and turn right following campsite signs, up to the roundabout at the Bullring, then half a mile down to a neat little campsite among olives and cork oak on the left. The English owner, Gary, is expecting us (albeit a fortnight ago!)

The site has immaculate modern facilities and free WiFi that works somewhat spasmodically. With only a dozen pitches tucked inside a quiet walled olive grove, 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. It feels good to be here in the Spring.

See more Pictures at: www.magbazpictures.com/around-marvao.html

At Camping Asseiceira, Santo Antonio das Areias

The Village: A 15-minute uphill walk, it has a mini-supermarket/bar (reminiscent of Ireland), bank (ATM limit €200 per day), filling station (cash only), post office (weekday afternoons), pharmacy, hairdresser (unisex), bar/restaurant, a new pizzeria, a Saturday morning indoor/outdoor market, an indoor swimming pool and a fire station. Above all stands the bullring – though unlike Spanish bull fights, in Portugal the injured beast is not publicly killed but finished off later in private if the attendant vet deems it unlikely to recover! In fact, there is only one annual bullfight here, in April, and the arena is used for other kinds of entertainment in the summer.

The Market: Well worth the walk on a Saturday morning, to see the village come alive with buses bringing extra customers. Fresh produce is inside the hall – fruit and veg, salt cod, cheeses and salamis, as well as a small bar and a tiny coffee and cake shop. The outdoor stalls sell all manner of clothes, shoes, linen, pots and pans, buckets and bowls. The old lads sit on benches, playing cards or talking while their wives shop – it's the nearest thing we've seen to Greek village life, dignified and simple.

The Hairdresser: On the main road well below the village, she lives and presides over a very tidy salon, in which she expertly transforms us both – shampoo, trim and blow dry for me, short cut for Barry – all in 45 minutes, without a word of English. Total cost: €14 (plus well deserved tip). Barry causes amusement on arrival by pointing at the gent who is leaving with very short hair: 'just like that'. They shake hands.

Deliveries: Two bakery vans take turns for a morning visit to the campsite, except on Sundays. The two bakers are very different. The quiet and serious Mario arrives at 9.15 am to sell loaves, rolls, 'energy bread' (a bread snack with sugar baked inside, for workers in the fields) and Boleima (a local speciality of Jewish origin - two slices of unleavened bread with a little apple and cinnamon between, topped with sugar). We find the latter much improved by the addition of custard!

Felipe, who is less prompt, loves to talk (he has good English and many words of wisdom) and insists on teaching his customers to count in Portuguese. In addition to the standard fare, he once (but only once) had 'sausage bread' with salami inside. Best of all, he occasionally brings delicious little cakes: the traditional Pasta de Nata (creamy custard tarts) and/or tarts with a baked cheesecake filling – but do not buy too many or they run out and the queue riots! I ask why he doesn't bring cakes every time he comes, and more of them; the answer is that he likes to keep his customers healthy so they live a long time and they should only have cakes twice a week. Capitalism clearly hasn't reached this remote corner of the Alentejo!

Buying rolls, I learn that a word sounding like doish means two.
Pointing to two custards, I say 'doish', which works. Indicating two of the other cakes, I try 'doish' again but I stand corrected: it should be 'duash'. Why? It turns out that custard tarts are masculine, while the others contain cheese which is feminine. The next addition to my vocabulary is 'Thank You'. Felipe explains that Men say Obrigado, while Women say Obrigada. But his parting shot is that 'You English say thank you all the time, every time I pass something. We Portuguese wait until the end and say it only once. It's quicker that way.' Brilliant!

The campsite also sells free-range eggs (brought round on Tuesdays) and there are grapefruit free for the picking (thanks Gary).

Dining: The cafe/restaurant Pau de Canela (= Stick of Cinnamon), run by mother and 2 daughters, opens Mon-Sat for drinks, snacks and evening meals. We walk up there one night for dinner, greeted by the friendly mother. The daily specials are written on a scrap of paper in Portuguese: a starter of soup, choice of mains, then a range of desserts, perhaps followed by coffee and the restaurant's own cinnamon liqueur, smooth and sweet. There is no set price, with everything itemised separately. Understanding little except Porco, we query Pato and are delighted by an imitation of a duck quacking! We order the pork. The soup is a surprise – a garlicky broth with a poached egg and chunks of bread floating in each bowl, a typically Portuguese meal in itself. Indeed, the only other two customers are workmen who just order beer and soup and seem more adept than us at eating a bobbing egg with a spoon!

The pork is good, served with crisp fried potatoes, wild asparagus and chestnut sauce. Chestnuts are an important speciality around Marvao: three types with a Denomination of Protected Origin, celebrated in the annual Chestnut Festival in November. The nuts are used in meat and fish dishes as well as desserts, while the bark and wood are used for basketry and furniture. So, an interesting and substantial meal, rounded off with a chocolate mousse and a panna cotta with cherries. We enjoyed the moonlit walk back down to camp, agreeing that next time we'll know to skip the soup!

For a more modest meal, we collect a pizza from the new Brothers Pizzeria. Its small caf้ is open all day, 6 days a week, until about 9 pm. The medium size at €7 (with 4 toppings from a long list) was plenty for two and very tasty: the brothers deserve to succeed.

And then there is the annual festival taking place in local villages at this time of year, the Matan็a do Porco – the Killing of the Pig – celebrated here on Sunday 12 March. Gary obtains tickets for all willing campers (€7 per person), which entitle you to join the all-day feeding frenzy inside and outside the market hall – from coffee and breakfast snacks, to the hog roast at 1 pm or so, music and dancing, and more meat off the grill at 5 pm! Like the annual bullfight, the Matan็a is held to raise money for the care of the elderly of Santo Antonio, with the food and drink donated and work done by volunteers. Willing to support the cause, if not the local pigs, we wander up at lunchtime to see a huge crowd gathered around the hog, still roasting over a wood fire while men are slicing chunks off it. Inside the market hall, the long marble stalls have been laid like tables, with baskets of bread, olives, jugs of wine, bottles of water and pop.

It's a bit like musical chairs, with the slower ones left standing in the corners, and the noise echoing round the bare hall is deafening! Tureens of soup (two types: vegetable or blood & offal) appear, as well as platters of good lean pork, and are replenished regularly. Then come slivers of cheese, apples and oranges, and individual pots of creamy cold rice pud with cinnamon. A couple of musicians start to play harmonica and accordion and folk disperse outside to watch or dance. All very interesting. More than sated, we don't stay for the next round of food. The music can be heard, playing on into the evening under a full moon, from the campsite a mile away.

Leisure: On colder windy days, if we tire of struggling with the unreliable camp WiFi there is a selection of books, DVD films and jigsaws in the camp Reception; there are birds to feed, watch and identify (including stork, goldfinch, blackcap; cuckoo); there is laundry to be done (machine washed and line dried); there is good TV reception with some programmes in English (eg the series on Versailles that upset the French); and there is Danish Nils to talk to.

But most days are fine enough for exploring the quiet lanes that radiate from the campsite. It's an excellent base for cycling, with virtually no traffic, superb scenery and enough hills to test our gears and legs. We complete several rides described below during our stay in March, repeating some of them in the opposite direction. For walkers, 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, following rural lanes and footpaths. There is also a longer walking route that climbs steeply up to Marvao, an alternative to cycling or driving 5 miles up the tarmac road to reach the castle.


(To be continued)