Monday, April 29, 2013

Train to Tavira

Don't let the children play here . . .
 As much as we are enjoying our time here in Olhāo, we do want to see a bit more of Portugal. Pete and Linda returned from their Bridge game in Tavira reporting that it was a nice little town, and Linda's new contact there had been sending her newsletters about the town. She noticed a notification in the newsletter about a Medieval Market being held there on the weekend; this seemed to invite a train trip to Tavira on Sunday.

Like we found in Spain, the train system in Portugal is convenient and efficient. The train runs right by the apartment here and although it is an older, dirtier train than the lovely modern “Trams” that ran up and down the coast connecting the seaside towns in Spain, we knew that the trains seemed to run all the time, and were always on time. The trains are also very good value and a ticket to Tavira was only a few Euros. I however, wouldn't mind paying a bit more to have windows I could see out; the cars a seriously vandalized by tagging that often covers much of the windows, and the windows not decorated are still dirty enough to hinder sightseeing.

Donkey Steps
Tavira is a lovely town a couple of km inland along a river. There is also much more of a tourist town to it's nature. I was surprised to hear so much English and see so many foreigners after spending a week in tourist-free Olhāo. Money has been spent on Tavira to fix it up, and the central square is beautiful with new marble walks and lots of benches and statues. It doesn't take much walking however to leave the new and find the tumbling down buildings and locked buildings that my collection of door pictures illustrate. More evidence of the economic troubles so much of Europe is experiencing.

Walking down to the river from the train, we discovered Tavira's 'castle'. Some of the guide books suggest that it is not an original building but rather a rebuilt castle to show what was once there. Although it was interesting, with a beautiful garden, it really wasn't much of a castle. What I found interesting was the complete lack of safety additions. You could climb to the ramparts, but the stairs were narrow slippery stone with no railings, and the actual castle walls were completely open on the back side. I could imagine Portuguese soldiers scrambling up these stairs to throw boiling oil down on invading Romans. They would have had to deal with the conditions but this attraction would not be very child-safe.
Seven Arches Bridge

We wandered down an old cobbled street with built in stairs in the centre for donkey carts, and through the old section of town to the river. And along the riverfront where we found the only market. Hardly a “medieval” market – more a normal craft market in a row of tents along the river. It did however have a really outstanding selection of local craftspeople showing their talents, and Linda and Regis managed to find a thing or two to help support the local economy.

Lunch in the sun . . . .
We were warned to stay clear of the riverfront “Snack-Bars” and restaurants where the prices reflected the view rather than the food quality, and we crossed the seven arches Bridge and wandered up into another section of the old town. We found a very nice little town square there with a church at one end and eating establishments all around the outside. The day was sunny, but very cool, with a strong cold wind blowing and one cafe seemed to be getting all the sunshine and therefore all the customers. Although I felt sorry for the forlorn looking, empty cafe's in the shade on the other side of the square, we joined the people sitting outside in the sunshine for a couple of beer, pitcher of Sangria, some Portuguese cheese-burgers and a Toastie (Portuguese toasted sandwich).
Beautiful Town Square

Tired from exploring we had time to kill and walking back to the 3:30 train we sat in another cafe for yet another beer and some delicious Portuguese Café com leite (Expresso with milk). Only to find that someone had read the daily schedule instead of the 'holiday' one and the 2:00 train came while we were relaxing and we had to wait for a 4:30 train. No matter, we were in no hurry – working on Portuguese time . . . . .

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Boardwalk to the beach
 When we were looking at properties to rent in the area we narrowed it down to two in Olhão, a little house on the Island of Armona and this apartment in the town itself. Because we were going 'off season' we worried that there might not have been much open over on the island so we went with the apartment in town.

The island is a short ferry ride from Olhão and today we went over to explore the island. You get off the ferry and there is one narrow sidewalk sized road through the town. The town is made up of little closely spaced Portuguese style cottages. They are mostly low, flat roofed (It never rains – you do not need sloped roofs), and made of concrete or adobe depending on the age. There are no cars on the island so the narrow streets are pedestrian only. You have to avoid the occasional ATV or small tractor, but the traffic is mostly people.

Now as we walked down the sidewalk, and then the boardwalk towards the Ria Formosa Nature Park (The beach) a difference in opinions emerged.

Relaxing on the beach
Pete commented “Am I ever glad we didn't rent the house over here, I would be so bored!”.

I had just been thinking, “Boy, it is a good thing we didn't rent the house here, I would never want to leave!”

At the end of the boardwalk, we entered the actual park with miles of sand and beach. I expect that there might be more people in the summer, but today it was practically deserted. The sandy beach went on as far as you could see in one direction with only a couple of people spaced out down the length.
Seashells on the beach

Down at the waterline, the beach is beautiful, with soft warm sand, but if you venture up a bit it is best to keep shoes on, as there are hundreds of interesting shells scattered about. This would be nice, but unfortunately there is also a lot of garbage scattered about. There are garbage bins spaced along the beach, so I think this is debris washed ashore over the winter rather than litter, but it does detract from the beach. As the real “High Season” has yet to start, and the only people wandering the beach in April are the hardy tourists from Northern climates, it is possible that the beach will get cleaned up before the season begins, but I have noticed that unless it is a 'resort' beach, the garbage that washes ashore tends to get ignored as just part of the 'setting'. It seems only North Americans used to pristine, hyper-clean raked daily, beaches are offended by a little garbage in the 'natural' setting.
On the way back to the ferry, we stopped for lunch at a little cafe on the edge of town run by a Belgium family where I sampled yet another helping of calamari that couldn't quite match the offering at the Mic Mac Tavern back home. Tired from another day here in the Portuguese sunshine and warmth we made our way 'home' to to Number 24.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Restaurant Day

 We are enjoying learning how to cook the local produce and seafood from the fabulous markets here in Olhão, but the best way to experience the local flavours is to go to the good restaurants and sample food cooked by the local expert chefs.

Via e Volta
Pete & Linda went to Tavira; a town up the coast towards Spain on April 25th to meet us with some portuguese Bridge players (they are pretty serious bridge fans . . . . although they ended up playing with another couple from BC . . . . ) so Regis and I decided to make this a 'Restaurant Day'.

We wandered down to a little place called Via e Volta that was highly recommended by Colin & Suzanne. A little Family restaurant, it serves only seafood and only at lunch. They have a menu, but it lists only two items; “Adult 8.50 Є” and “Child 5.00 Є”, along with prices for various drinks. They do not give you a choice of fish; you get whatever fish was abundant at the market that day.

The restaurant is located two blocks off the main Avenida da Republica, but the neighbourhood is not especially inviting, There is a whole row of deserted, run-down buildings at the end of the street and you have to weave your way through a couple of bins full of construction debris to get to the restaurant. Now as you may have noticed by my pictures and descriptions of Olhão, this is not that unusual, and part of the charm of the place, so we were not put off and upon arriving we were greeted by a friendly waiter who gave us the only vacant seat (in itself a VERY good sign). We were asked what we wanted to drink, and a beer and glass 1/4 lt. of white wine was ordered, but we were not even asked if we wanted to order food – obviously everyone who comes here of course wants the fish.

Keep those fish coming
The restaurant is in a very tiny building, and there are very few seats in the actual restaurant, the main seating is outside under a large canvas room with roll up plastic windows. We have not seen anything except sunshine, but I suppose they might need these windows one or two days out of the year. To one side, against the actual building there is a large charcoal grill where someone is constantly grilling the fish. I could watch the fish being flipped back and forth until they reached 'grilled perfection' and then four of five were put on metal trays and taken to the next table waiting. Watching the fish being grilled and waiting for your's to arrive , you were provided with a delicious bowl of marinated olives and pickled carrots, a lovely tomato, onion and cucumber salad, and a basket of bread to hold you until your plate of fish arrived.

Once your first plate arrived, it never stopped. The waiters kept a constant watch over your table, and when you reduced one plate to fish heads, bones and skin, another was promptly placed on the table to replace it. After three plates, we had had enough, but they kept returning, looking positively heartbroken that you couldn't eat another five hot-off-the-grill fish.

GIANT Scrimp Kabob !
The evening meal did not start out so good. Linda had gone down the evening before to scout out the possible spots to eat. I told her to go down when it was busy at 7:30 and find the spots full of locals enjoying their meals. She not only used this criteria, she also asked about making things without tomato, and came back with news of Ria Formosa which not only was popular with lots of locals, but she was assured the kitchen could make their famous Seafood Cataplanas without tomato. When we arrived however, the waiter wasn't sure about the wine Pete wanted, they did not have white sangria Regis could share with Linda, and the red which Linda couldn't drink only came in a BIG pitcher, which would have meant we would have had to carry Regis home. Then when Linda tried to order the tomato free Cataplanas she was told “No, of course it couldn't be made without tomatoes, they were part of the base.”

Steak on a Stone
Now the evening turned out great actually. Pete & I found a delicious bottle of wine to share, Linda ordered a Tuna with Onions dish, Pete got to personally meet his fish dish before it was cooked, Regis had the most amazing giant Shrimp Kabob, and I got to try Steak on a stone. They should have given us the meal, because people were stopping to stare at Regis' giant shrimp, and the smell and sound of my steak sizzling on the stone started bringing passing folks into the restaurant. The Kabob was truly amazing, and I was served a square, inch thick, lava-hot stone with a piece of almost raw steak sizzling and smoking on it. I kept flipping it and cutting pieces off as it cooked to how I liked it. A really spectacular meal.

Regis did have to settle for a Coke, but she always enjoys that anyways.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fast Food?

Olhao Fast Food Restaurant
 OMG ! We just realized that somehow we have journeyed to the end of the world . . . . . Regis and I just came back from a walk down along the Malecon, and chatting as we wondered through back streets and tiny cobble-stoned alleyways, we suddenly realized that there is no KFC in town. Wait a minute, there is no golden arches, no Starbucks. OMG we must have teleported back in time . . . . Seriously, there are NONE of the brand name restaurants. China had KFC, Japan had KFC, Brazil had KFC, Spain had KFC. There are none anywhere around us here.
Crepes with everything (Seriously!)

We actually have not exited the civilized world, Olhao actually has it's own 'fast food', and it is available in many popular establishments around town. The call it “Plata do Dia”. It is what ever seafood was plentiful at the daily market. Every local Snack Bar finds some delicious way to cook it up quickly. Want something quick and tasty – “Prato do dia” is it. . . . . . Portuguese fast food.

Now we have not suffered with this absence of KFC and Starbucks. One of the goals of the trip was to cook the local food and drink the local wine, and this we have been working hard at doing.

Fava & Chorizo
Day one was a simple pasta dish made with home-made tomato sauce and local Chorizo. Pete and Linda were happy with left overs when they arrived after their “Lost in Portugal” adventure. They even helped us finish off the bottle of “Welcome to Portugal” wine left by Colin & Suzanne.

The next day we explored the markets and had Pete figure our how to make the Sardines that this area is so famous for. He did a fine job, grilling them in local Olive Oil and the Popular local Port.

Linda made a delicious pork chop dish with a baby apple demi-glace reduction, Regis found a delicious recipe for a Portuguese Chick Pea stew, and I cooked up a local chicken with sea salt & Oregano with stuffing of chorizo, onions, mixed nuts and a corn bread from the corner bakery

We have even started serving appetizers; Sauteed fava beans with Portuguese chorizo and garlic one day and fresh crayfish boil with curried piri-piri mayo another.

Regis' Chickpea Stew
Yup, life is tough, and we have only been here a week. Pete is already planning to see how the local Salmon compares to his famous BC Salmon, I'm thinking about how to convert my Jambalaya recipe to use local seafood (I managed to get my seasoning mix through customs), and Linda is talking about a chicken with prune dish.

Is it happy hour again Pete? OK go ahead fill up my wine glass.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sunrise over Olhao

Regis enjoying the shade on the balcony

When we planned this trip to Olhao we knew how we were getting here and where we were going to live for a month, but other than that we did not have much of an itinerary or plans. We thought we might go visit Lisbon some time, and we might take the train up and down the coast, but other than that our time was flexible. It is a nice relaxing way to travel after years of having to fit vacation into our week long March Breaks every year.

One of the relaxing things we have been enjoying is simply watching night fall over the town. Back home we love being able to sit out front of the house and watch the skies darken over the city, but there are not that many evenings warm enough to sit out until dark. Here you can sit out every night on the front balcony and watch the sun set, the town grow dark, and lights come on across the skyline.
The Back Balcony

The other morning, I woke up early, to a slate grey dawn, and with nothing planned for the day requiring a full eight hours sleep (Always time for a nap later . . . . ), I decided to get up and try to catch a sunrise. The front balcony gets the morning sun, and I thought I might get a nice photo of the sun coming up.

Lovely Sunset
As I rolled up the shutters, the town continued to sleep, but down towards the sea I could hear the drone of the fishing fleet heading out to a day of work on the sea. Although no birds were in the air, I could hear a symphony of bird calls. (Later Linda said it was those “early birds” getting the worms). Timex the rooster was crowing, but that didn't mean anything – I named him 'Timex', because he has no idea what time it is, and crows at 10:00, 1:45, 3:00 am; actually he seems to crow all the time.
Not much of a sunrise . . . .

I did see the sun come up, but it was a disappointing show with too many clouds to get a nice red sunrise, so I shall have to try again some other day when I have nothing planned.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Market

The Market Building
 Back home we have the Halifax Farmer's Market over in Halifax, but it is not a 'real' market by the definition the rest of the world uses. . . . . more 'craft' market with a few food vendors. Regis says I can find a market where ever I travel, and have managed to find them in most locations I have visited.

Now Olhao has a real market, and it operates almost every day. There are grocery stores here, but they are mostly small corner operations where you can get canned goods, wine, or speciality items. The market contains the majority of the food you need. You can but meat or vegetables at the corner 'supermarket' in a emergency, but really, why go there when the market is available six days a week.
Farm Fresh Food

Sobeys, Superstore, Loblaws, and the other huge supermarkets have not taken over Olhao yet. If you need bread or rolls you go to the bakery, and will probably pick up some delicious pastries with your 'fresh from the oven' rolls or bread. For most everything else you go to the market.

Selling her Produce
Olhao's market is in two beautiful large brick buildings down on the waterfront. One contains fresh fruit, vegetables, spices, grains and other things. The other building is the fish market, and you can also find fresh meat, cheeses, but Olhao is the main fishing town in southern Portugal, so the building is mostly seafood. Around the outside of the building are the Portuguese 'Snack Bars' – mostly I think these sell beer for the husbands to sit and drink with their friends while wives are inside the market stocking up for the evening meal.
Saturday Market Day

The fruit & vegetable buildings contains stall after stall of people selling lovely fresh produce. Tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes grown in a garden, piles of fava beans waiting to be shelled, red green & yellow peppers, crisp lettuce, onions, leeks and garlic. You can buy strawberries, raspberries, bananas, lemons and oranges. A couple of euros will buy you a 4 kilo bag of slightly smaller oranges to make into juice (And we wondered why you couldn't get good juice in the store . . . . .) In between you will find stalls selling a wonderful selection of honey, delicious almonds and other specialities. Other vendors sell spices, vast buckets of olives, cages full of live snails, or bins of dried beans and rices. At one end of this building there are also butchers selling chickens, pork, and rabbit, as well as a variety of delicious portuguese sausages and cured meats. There are also a couple of stalls selling a large selection of cheese, and as in Spain, they make a large percentage of their cheese from goat or sheep milk, so I am very happy.

Walk outside the middle door of the vegetable building and you know you are headed to the fish market. Inside are tables of melting ice loaded with fresh fish and seafood. Don't bother going on Monday however, because the fleet is tied up Sunday, so there won't be any seafood until the boats return later that day. You know everything is fresh. There are eels, octopus, squid, and so many kinds of fish I cannot identify. Of course the names are all in Portuguese, so we rely on what is recommended. On our first visit we wanted sardines, to fry up for supper (no sardines do not come in a can here), but were told it is a bit early for good sardines, we should wait for june to get the best fresh sardines. We elected to take our chances with the available ones, and Pete cooked them up with some local port. Wow, I can't imagine how the 'good' ones in June would be.
Selling on the Seafront

On Saturday this wonderful market actually expands with stalls spilling out onto the sidewalks and the waterfront malecon, and it seems that the entire town comes to the market to not only shop but more important to socialize and catch up with friends and relatives or find out the local gossip. Off to one side a gypsy market sells clothes, crafts, and everything else you didn't know you needed.

We do need to go to the grocery store for coffee and dried pasta, but our grocery bag will not be very heavy.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Neighbourhood

 “Number 24” is not an apartment in a tourist resort, it is a regular apartment in a nice new building on the edge of the old section of the town. Let me describe for you the neighborhood.

Looking out over the front balcony, there is a train track, and beyond that old section of Olhao. You would think that living beside the train track would be noisy, but in fact you never hear it at all. The train runs through a man-made concrete valley, and unless you are outside on the balcony or sitting in the kitchen with the window open you can not even notice the train.
Bringing in a coffin

I noticed right away the people coming and going from the building to the right of the apartment. They were always dressed up, the men in suits and women in dresses, and they all carried little briefcases, or what looked like day-timers. These folk were coming and going all day, but I did not really know what it was about. Finally one day a big silver blue van pulled up, and I could hear a lot of animated conversation. Looking over the balcony, I watched them open a big glass door on the back of the van, and extract a coffin. Was this a funeral home? Questioning Suzanne about this mystery, I was told it was a Jehovah Witness Temple, and there must have been a funeral of one of the members. Fortunately, the balcony out front is three stories up, and although providing me an excellent spot to watch the population of Olhao go by, folk on the ground would have to really crane their necks to notice me watching them up there, so I have yet to have the knock on the door for the religious conversion speech.

Plants Everywhere
Across the railway track is the start of the old part of Olhao. For about five or six blocks it is narrow streets with single family houses. The houses are built of concrete, and are all attached together for the entire length of the block. From the street side these look very similar. There are a few with brightly coloured tiled surfaces, but most are white or beige painted concrete. Looking down at them from the apartment balcony, you see them from the back and there are not two with the same design in the entire block. They are all narrow and usually at least two stories, often with elaborate roof top extensions. Some of the roofs are tiled and some simply concrete, but most have a room on the roof of some sort. Stairs go in all directions to various levels. Everyone has a clothes line on the roof, and some have gardens. One house across from me is decorated in shades of tan and brown, and another down the way is brilliant white all the way down to the train tracks, where another directly across is simply aged and mottled, unpainted concrete, but every flat surface has a potted plant waiting for the rain that I am told is not expected until November . . . . .

So you see . . . . . it is way more interesting than being an apartment in a “resort”.

More on the neighbourhood to come.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Doors of Olhao

When I first went to Ottawa to get our son Ryan settled into University of Ottawa, I spent some time wandering the city. One thing that struck me was the variety of lovely old doors I saw. I started taking photos of them with the intent of making Ryan a poster out of the pictures. Collecting the pictures of doors in Ottawa, made me aware of doors when I travelled to other cities, and I started taking pictures of them all over the world. I became especially taken with old doors; doors showing their history and sometimes showing their age. I found wonderful doors to shoot in China, in Brazil, in Spain, and in Mexico. I even found a few interesting doors in the US, but in Canada and United States, the old doors tend to get replaced with shiny new steel ones to provide better security and insulation. Interesting doors with character are few and far between in North America, but here in Olhao there are hundreds of them. Here are a few of the more interesting ones.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lost In Portugal

Although our hosts here in Portugal left us a lovely 'welcome pack' of fruit, wine, bread and other useful items, we wanted to pick up some groceries to be ready for supper and breakfast, so we went for as walk to find a grocery store and wine bodega. Sue and Colin, the owners of the apartment have written a wonderful guide to Olhao and have everything you might need located on a handy tourist map.

Portuguese Street Sign
A map is useful however only if you can find where you are and are able to follow the map to where you want to go. The apartment was easy to locate on the map, and the shopping centre with a nice modern grocery store looked easy to find. Off we went hiking up the road, but quickly found a problem. The map lists all the street names . . . . . the actual streets however do not actually seem to have names. I'm sure someone named them, but no one put street signs up. The older area of town has lovely ceramic tile street name plates on the buildings, but there was no such thing here. We kept going hoping to find a sign to find our way, but nothing appeared. We weren’t actually lost, because we knew how to retrace our steps back home, but the shopping centre was certainly lost.

Finally we asked a 'local' sitting in one of the sidewalk 'snack' bars.

“Sorry”, she said “I'm not from here.” She however did ask her friend who although he could not locate where we were on the map (He probably did not know his street actually had a name . . .), but he was able to point us in the direction of the shopping centre and his directions got us there.

Wonder Where Linda & Pete are?
Linda and Pete (Sister & Brother in law), had much the same experience. They flew into Lisbon, stayed overnight and took the train down to Olhao the next day to arrive the same day as Regis and I. When they arrived at the train station in Olhao, they discovered that the one paper that they could not find was the one containing the actual address of the apartment. They had seen pictures of the apartment but did not know if they could actually recognize it. They knew it was called “Number 24” but had no idea what street it was “number 24” on. After wandering a bit they gave up and Linda left Pete back at the Train station while she went to find an internet cafe to try to find the apartment through the website or her e-mail where Regis had sent her the information earlier.

No luck. . . . . no address, no idea what to do . . . . not quite to the point of panic, Linda decided she would have to get a hotel room, and perhaps contact us via e-mail to find out where we were.

Look Pete made it to Portugal
They luck and good fortune took over and a friendly Russian/latvian couple recognizing Linda's “Lost in Portugal” looks asked if they could help. Using broken English and inadequate Portuguese the situation was investigated slowly. As Linda tried to explain her brother here already and not knowing where the apartment was, they mentioned Colin and Suzanne. Somehow, Linda the Canadian had found someone from Russia who knew our English hosts living in Portugal. How's that for international intrigue? After a couple of phone calls they found Colin & Suzanne's phone number, made contact and were finally, tired and hungry from travelling, able to find us.

Oh, BTW, the apartment is two blocks from the train station, and had Regis and I been relaxing with a glass of wine on the front balcony rather than enjoying the sunset on the back balcony we probably would have noticed Pete sitting forlornly guarding a pile of suitcases outside the train station; we can see it from the balcony.

Welcome to Portugal

Regis is in Portugal
Even with 'on time' and smooth flights from Halifax to Toronto, to Frankfurt, Germany, to Faro, Portugal, and finally a taxi drive to Olhao, we were on the road for close to 24 hours, so we arrived here tired, but happy; the sun was shining and it was 24°C. Welcome to Portugal!

We got here about 1:00 PM, and decided to try to stay up until evening to quickly adjust to 'Portuguese time' so we had time to wander the town for a while.

Olhao is not a tourist town, and this area of Portugal although on the Algarve which is a popular 'tourist' destination, this particular area is poor and in places a bit run-down. We however, knew this and were looking forward to being in the 'real' Portugal, so were prepared for the area.
Looking towards the sea
Tiles & Balconies

The apartment is absolutely wonderful, in a new building in an older area of town. It is modern, well equipped, and the owners could not be more friendly and helpful. Looking out the balcony off the living room, you look over the old town of Olhao with it's tightly packed varied two and three story houses in white concrete and on to the sea coast, and the balcony off the bedroom looks out on a business area and on to a newer area of typical Portuguese houses and apartments.
Sunset on the back Balcony

We walked down towards the seaport area of town. There are a lot of deserted building and crumbling concrete, but this really gives the town character, and there are many interesting buildings, some with lovely tiled surfaces and ornate windows with little balconies like we saw in Mexico or Spain. Arriving at the actual seaport, you find an actual working area, as this is the biggest fishing port in the area, and further along there is your regular 'malecon' type park with paved (cobble-stoned) walkways and seawall like we had in Mexico or in Spain. Across the street from the malecon are various restaurants and 'snack bars' with locals sitting outside with beer or coffee.

Welcome to Portugal!