My Feathered Friends

Today was all about the birds. 13th November 2019. And it prompted me to look through some of my other recent, avian memories of Portugal as I speed into Spain.

You can’t really see them, but this gorgeous tree in Vila Nova de Milfontes was home to hundreds

I was up on the roof today in Vila Nova de Milfontes (western Portugal) at 5.30am (that’s my favourite place to go on waking, wherever I am, if possible) doing my tai chi and yoga and standing around like a tree, as you do, when a wee gaggle of sparrows joined me. Lightly they hopped, pecking with their tiny pointed beaks between the ground mosaic for tid bits.

Clear signs of webbed beachcombers

I sat down to meditate and a ringed dove came a-paddling. She dipped her head every now and then to drink from the previous night’s rainwater. Pale grey with a black choker, she was tinged with pink and very pretty. I didn’t spoil the time by reaching for the camera – just enjoyed it.

Today I listened to the dawn chorus drowning out the school kids. A week earlier it was the starlings who entertained me outside the hostel window, while I watched four, then six, then eight egrets foraging in a faraway field.

While I waited for the second bus later in Lisbon, I visited the Zoological Gardens (a stone’s throw from the Seite Rios bus and train station. The entrance is guarded by these pair of handsome eagles.

Eagles guarding the front gates of the Zoological Gardens in Lisbon, Portugal

Sitting across the water from me, my green tea and pastel de nata was a heron, just like he was the first time I visited two months ago. Like a humfy old man in a great coat, he stood patiently.

Heron, Zoological Gardens in Lisbon, Portugal

Lodging my rucksack in the cafe-staff locker room, I took a walk under now Autumn trees and moving cages with happy boys in them, waving, to the seagull side of the lake. She too was bathing intermittently.

Although not in this photo

And then I heard this whistling! It was so loud and repetitive that I thought for a moment it was a machine or recording, but after some investigation I found the parrots.

I watched and listened for ages: some were completely scarlet right up under the roof and they skweeked; smaller green, yellow and pink ones squwarked while crowding next to each other on a branch, one helping himself to the green leaves hanging out of his brother’s beak (no hard feelings!).

And then this beauty came to eyeball me. I had been interested in her talons before (four per claw) which were large, but able to delicately hold the thinnest of twigs (the thickness of a blade of grass) while she bit off sections one at a time with her hooked beak and crunched it.

Now here she was using both feet and mouth to manœuvre into place and cling to the fence not more that 6 inches in front of me, so that these photos are real size. Positioning herself so that her eye was in a gap, she silently observed me.

I was being shown her belly, the soft, downy grey with spectacular tail feathers underneath. While her sisters hooted over the other side, she kept me in her sights, but didn’t talk back.

A pair of mallards, Zoological Gardens, Lisbon
Free range ducks, Almograve

These ducks were white balls, sound asleep until a rowdy truck disturbed one.

A deserted beach, just me and a pair of waders.
Information board along the Rota Vicentina, western Portugal

I was mesmerised by a falcon amidst a flock of much smaller birds in Carrapateira. They seemed to be surrounding and then flying straight at him. Occasionally, he separated and made dive bombs, but minutes later he was caught up with the swarm again. Were they trying to warn him off?

Silves storks

Storks can be found all over the Algarve, particularly the Silves area where I had a perfect view of them gathering in the early mornings down by the river.

Stork, Silves

They perch on their massive nests which are balanced on top of poles, turrets and church spires.

Unusual ocean setting for a stork

However, I was astonished to see one so close to the sea at Cabo Sardao.

Storks on Japanese ceramic, Tanzan Kotoge, 2015, Museo de Zaragoza
The motorway insersection I crossed from Seite Rios to the Zoological Gardens, Lisbon

My final memory is of swimming in a swirling sea, rocks all around me, when an oyster catcher plopped in just a little way away. I think I must be getting stiller for these birds don’t seem to be frightened and come surprisingly close. It’s a joy.

This was the setting but I didn’t have my camera in there for obvious reasons, so you’ll just have to believe me!

Portuguese Walking Routes 1

Early November 2019 and there are lots of hikers on this most beautiful trail.

The beach at Zambujeira do Mar

At Cabo Sardao for example, there were 11 in 5 minutes – in groups of 2, 5 and 4. A single walker and a pair spotted this morning on the beach at Zambujeira do Mar. Ranging from German to American, there are similar gatherings in cafes and hostels at the end of each stage that you would expect on the Camino.

The Ferrol (lighthouse) at Cabo Sardao

1. Rota Vicentina

The trails run from Cabo San Vicente to Porto Covo, or vice versa : 350 kms in total, each stage is 12-22 kms in length.

Path on top of the cliffs, close to Almograve

Map of the route

Beach at Carrapateira

The Rota Vicentina consists of two major routes (GR), the Historical Way and the Fishermen’s Trail, which contain 24 circular routes totaling 740 km!

Beach at Carrapateira

You can be creative in choosing your route – the whole thing or part of it – to suit you, your physical capacity and time availability.

The two grand routes are divided by sections, which vary between 11 and 33 km. If you were to complete all of the sections at the rate of one per day, you would need the same number of days as there are sections that make up the Rota Vicentina.

Circular Routes are shorter, ranging from 4 to 16 km in length.

Ideally, you would prepare yourself before departure and take water and groceries with you for the day of walking, since not all sections cross places with coffee shops and / or grocery stores.

At most start and end of stage points, you will have no problem purchasing groceries. Check each village to see what they offer by way of food and drink.

The centre of Zambujeira do Mar
Zambujeira do Mar under the moon

Both the Fishermen’s Trail and the Historical Way have clear signs in both directions.

Fishermans Trail

Mostly by the sea, the Fishermen’s Trail travels along the trails used by the locals to access the beaches and fishing grounds. It is a single track walkable only on foot, along the cliffs, with lots of sand and therefore more demanding from the physical point of view. A challenge to permanent contact with the wind of the sea, the rudeness of the coastal landscape and the presence of a wild and persistent nature.

Official website

I booked it ahead, very easy as they all on booking.com, but I didn’t need to. I got the details from the rota vicentina website which is very good, but there was more accommodation than shown on the site and in most places you have a choice of near empty hotels.’ John Hayes

John Hayes Walks website, in English, with accounts of each day in Spring time.

Porto

September 2019

Porto is colourful, lively, expansive and full of history. It is a very popular tourist destination, both for those taking river cruises on the Douro and those who are land based.

The wonderful Igreja do Carmo, Porto

Porto in the evening light

On one side of the river you will find the main attractions, restaurants and bars and the airport; on the other, the old Port wine warehouses where you can take tours and sit in the Jardim de Moro park and watch the water traffic down below.

View of the River Duoro from the Jardim de Moro

The port wine warehouses on the opposite side of the Douro River, Porto

The rooves of said warehouses after an impressive climb

There is a lot of information available online, so I will not attempt to replicate it, but instead to show you some of the beautiful places I visited and some useful information.

Torre dos Clérigos (tower)

The Clérigos Tower, Porto

You can see the Clérigos Tower from a long way away and it is free to enter the little museum and church where there are some heavily decorated, religious artworks.

The Virgin Mary and her big heart
The putti try not to look up her skirt
Baby Jesus taking after his mother
Church below the Ledigos Tower, Porto

Wandering around, soaking up the atmosphere

The streets are teeming and oh so steep – down to the river, up to the rest.

Down to the river where you can sit on the steps and know you are on holiday!

Red and yellow buildings reflect the earth and sunshine of this east coast Portuguese city.

The old market place – now cafés

Intricate decoration

It was the peacock which attracted my attention, Porto

And the globes on these university gates, Porto

Tram line 1

We took a tram trip along the side of the river, but sat on the right hand side and so our view was walls, in the main, and some graffiti. This mode of transport is very crowded and not necessarily on time, but they are quaint with wooden seats and a decidedly old-fashioned feel.

Line 1 goes from Infante to Foz (and back again) where there is a nice park – Jardim do Calem – and a lighthouse, good cafés and restaurants and a walk by the river. You can also take the 500 bus (same route and quicker).

Jardim do Calem, Foz

The river walk and bridges

Angel by the river Douro, Foz
I spotted some great sea birds on my river walk

There are a series of smart bridges across the river, one by Eiffel (of Paris Tower fame) and one which looks just like it was designed by him, but wasn’t.

Ponte da Arrabida across the River Douro on the walk back from Foz at sunset
As well as ruined buildings with morning glory clambering all over them, there are tiny, ramshackle dwellings fitted in beside each other where washing hangs and women work
See the people high up on the bridge looking down!
Worth the climb!

Getting around

The metro crosses Ponte Luís 1 if you want to go to the outdoor swimming pool to cool off. My daughters and I went twice to the Piscina da Quinta sa Conceiçao in Leça da Palmeira as it was affordable (you can either pay for a half day or full – not much shade) and in the middle of a park with fully grown trees. There were local people lunching there in their business clothes and clean changing places. It was very well run.

This outdoor pool was right beside the sea (often too rough to swim and too windy to sun bathe) and we went just once – it was very crowded

It does take some time to get your head around metro tickets as there are zones and each andante card (80 cents) can only have one zone so if you are going across 2 zones you need 2 cards. (Remember to write on them so you know which is which.) You can get them topped up by the very helpful man in the wee shop almost opposite the Igreja do Carmo right by the main bus /tram intersection. Look for the sign…

The metro – just make sure you know the name of the station at the end of the line, so that you go in the right direction!

You could also take the river taxi – cheaper (3 euros), fresh air, and more fun!

The river taxi. Facing back towards the main city from the warehouse side of the River Douro

There are beaches near the city – I swam at Matosinhos (along thwhere coast northwards) where the locals go to eat the delicious seafood
Looking up as you walk, you will often spy gorgeous flowers tumbling over walls

The Sé Cathedral

The Sé, cathedral, where the Portuguese Camino from Porto starts
Another (evening) view of the Sé Cathedral, Porto
Stone detail of the Cathedral, Porto

Estaçao de trem, train station, Porto

Porto Station – rural tile scene
General view of Porto from the train station
Fountain with pigeon drinking

To stay, eat and drink

Breakfast is of course the most important meal of the day! We enjoyed them in these cafés, bars and bakeries: Our local favourite was on the corner of Rua dos Mártires da Liberdade (where we stayed in an air bnb) and Tv. de Sao. It is cheap, small, friendly, crowded at times and there is a delicious array of pastries, cakes, and other morning fare. We also enjoyed Nicolau Porto (eggs and avocado on toast eg) on the corner of Liberdade and Rua da Conceicao; one of the cafes overlooking Praça de Carlos Antonio; and Antonio Névés & Ça. also on Liberdade.

Antonio Névés & Ça

The best evening meal was at Idiota with Portuguese shellfish and great service on Rua das Oliveiras.

We loved Mon Père Vintage (Rua Liberdade as above) where I brought a much admired, silver coloured Camino shell to hang round my neck for 1 euro (10 euros in Santiago de Compostela!) and there was another such shop in a little arcade much further down the same street. Also Livraria Poetria (poetry bookshop) and the Oporto Invictus Hostel (great garden with lively bar, yoga classes and free outdoor cinema showing shorts), both on Oliveiras.

The best bar (for port wine of course- red, white, rose) was the Taberna Aduela where you can sit outside (opposite the Teatro Carlos Alberto) on Oliveiras.

Practicalities: at the top of Liberdade, on the left round the corner onto Praça da Republíca, is a self service laundry and Pingo Doce supermarket, while to the right is a big store, such as you find in all big Portuguese and Spanish cities run by Chinese families, which sell ‘everything’ very cheaply, particularly phone chargers and leads, sun hats and underwear!

Don’t forget to visit the Serralves art museum – my favourite and so it has a blog all of its own! It has a small farm and garden not mentioned in the blog.

Places I wanted to see but there was no time or I was too busy

Libraría Lello – famous bookshop (book tickets online and get your money back when you buy a book – long queues)

Jardins de Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace Gardens)

The Botanic Gardens.

I hope you enjoy Porto. Make sure you drop me a comment to say what your favourite place was!

Coimbra, Portugal

September 2019

I took a bus with Rede Expresso from Fátima costing 11.90 euros and taking just under an hour. These buses are all on time in my experience and have air conditioning and free wifi as well as somewhere to charge your phone. At the bus station itself, it can be confusing, so allow time.

Coimbra at night

I arrived in the late afternoon and took a walk with my rucksack (but no donkey!) to the hostel by the river.

Igreja de Santa Justa, Coimbra, Portugal (Rua do Paço do Conde 1 239 825 605)
Local tram system
I popped my head into a residential stair and found these amazing tiles – they are a real feature of Portugal
Not far along was the Palacio da Justica de Coimbra with stunning tile panels around a central courtyard

Coimbra is a steep city with an ancient university at its apex. I left that until the next day, tired after my hot walks to the Fatima shrines.

Igreja de Santa Cruz, Coimbra, Portugal
Street sign – from this milestone the distances to all the lands of Coimbra (rough translation from Facebook)

I stayed in the Coimbra Portagem hostel which I booked in advance through hostelworld (be very careful to check your dates before pressing pay as there are often mistakes with the system). There was no solid wall between dormitories so I could hear every word of the woman on the phone next door, and the woman she was speaking to, and she was on the other side of the room! The accomodation is right by the river and in the middle of the tourist area, so wonderfully situated.

R Ferreira Borges, Coimbra, Portugal
Barbican Gate (leads up to the university), Coimbra, Portugal
Largo da Portagem, quaint streets with minute shops all on different levels
Colourfully painted buildings and awnings

I ate fish, served in the traditional Portuguese way with boiled potatoes and braised cabbage (sometimes it comes with the odd carrot). As usual, I was treated with respect by the helpful waiters.

Electric cars being charged

The next morning I took a deep breath and hiked up to see the famous library with my rucksack – it’s one hell of a climb! It was already hot, but I loved the maze of tiny streets, looking as if they were mostly full of tourists. However, it turned out that the people I joined to enter the Bibliotec Joanina, the university library, all had tickets. There was a large group who had prebooked so they only let in three individuals. My wait was for nothing. It took a while to find the booking office (which is up more steps, into the big square, right across and through the great gate on the right).

The queue was too long for me. I was already hot tempered from the climb, heavy backpack and midday heat

It was the same as the bookshop in Porto (also reputed to be a stunning interior): relatively expensive and an off-putting booking procedure. It’s all tours and Trip Advisor. Even Lonely Planet pushes tours. So, I deduced it was not for the simple individual traveller, unless you perhaps come between November and March.

It does not seem to be possible to book the sights online, and because everyone seemed to be clumped together, it was also tricky to navigate the streets and pavements. I headed onwards, attracted by city walls.

By now I was high up and the views were good. Lots of university students were hanging around in their black robes to tell people about their traditions, but I spotted the Botanic Gardens. Anyone who reads this blog or kens me, knows that I can never resist a Botanic Gardens – so that’s where I went next.

The glass houses, almost as impressive as our own in Edinburgh.

The Botanic Gardens (more arboretum than flower garden) are perfect for informal visits. They do not require appointment or payment. There you can sit in a little nook, watch the dragonflies busy about their work, or goldfish lazily float, listen to the birds or the leaves falling, lounge by running water out of the heat, breathe out and dream.

It is elegant with its stone architectural features

There is the garden which centres around the fountain : concentric arcs of Box with grand old trees:

Cherry and maple to name but two. This grand example was too big to fit into one frame with its eerie air roots.

There were roses and upstanding blue allium to match the sky.

The Asian inspired bamboo forest offered a cool, green and refreshing environment.

The little chapel seemed to have fallen onto hard times, indeed nature is taking over in places (maybe as it should?)

St Benedict’s Chapel

What a wonderful place to wander through woods which are succumbing to Autumn, past smooth-trunked ash, and be startled by a wood pigeon! The trails are apparently so rarely walked that the tree-lings are well established in the middle of the paths. I do not know what the dead ones were but they are beautiful in their seeding stage.

I spied plenty of lovers secluded and entwined in corners.

It is the prime time for the citus grove with its shiny, green leaves and rough-skinned fruit

And, as I wound down the hill, a bus passed on its way up, so you do not even have to climb on your own two feet! I thought there were no toilets and too many folk around to use the (copious) bushes but I found them close by the hot house entrance.

I lay under a beech tree on a cool stone mini altar.

I noted the growths spreading along the branches, how the leaves, in groups of two, three and five at the end of their stalks, were turning brown

Tiny birds (or were they just far away?) were feeding up high, camouflaged through necessity I imagine, over time. But no, as I was quiet they came closer and were in fact about the size and shape of a leaf, with pale, green-yellow belly, short pointed yellow beak exactly the same shape as the tip of the leaves, a darker stubby tail with a very slight V, and perhaps had more pronounced markings on top, I couldn’t see. A spider’s thread moved in the wind, the sun catching it so I could see. The big ‘wasps’ from the Zâzere river were here too. A nearby bell tolled 14.30. A leaf fell on me

As the sun moved, different aspects were highlighted: some of the leaves had white outlines, the central veins were a strong brown as the diagonals left it, evenly paired, tapering to almost orange at the edges. When I woke from my reverie (I bit the inside of my mouth – ow) there was a green bellied bird which had a black línea negra down the middle and matching cap. With black tips, the wings were folded as it hopped around, just showing at the sides from the underneath in exactly the same way that the black lichen edged the branches. So clever. I was busy paying attention to all this when a heron surprised us all. It flew at a lower branch level with its u-bend neck and massive flapping wings. It took quite a while for the littl’uns to return to their foraging.

Morning Glory

I didn’t realise until I roused myself that I was covered in a fine dust. How much did time turn while I lay there?

Fátima, Portugal

September 2019

The Fatima shrine

In the east of Portugal some two thirds of the way from Lisbon to Porto, is Fátima, revolving around its famous Roman Catholic, Marian shrine. It was established in response to the pastorinhos, three little shepherds named Lucía, Jacinta and Francisco who had angelic apparitions in 1917 and walked from their home in Aljustrel to Fatima (2 kms) where this holy place was established as a result.

Here are the little shepherds in the middle of roundabout

‘A journey to the altar of the world’ as the Portuguese tourist website calls it, can be made on foot, a pilgrimage to the shrine in Fátima along the four Fátima Ways: the Tagus, the Northern, the Nazaré and the Carmelite Ways, from Lisbon, Spain (Valença), Sítio in Nazaré (‘where the earth ends and the sea begins’) and Coimbra respectively. Based on the life and work of Sister Lúcia, who lived in the Carmelo de Santa Teresa [Carmelite Convent of St Teresa].

The church at the Fátima shrine
Cloisters, open on one side to the yawning public arena, provides a little shade

There is a large church, mainly white, with small bright and modern stained glass windows, and behind it is a vast space where the Pope gives his addresses. There are all the conveniences you would expect in such a place which draws the penitentious and worshipful thousands from around the globe.

A moving depiction of grief
‘Our Lady’ and I

An altogether more peaceful place to visit in Fátima is Valinhos, accessed by the Via Sacra.

The little shepherd’s Camino, the via Sacra

The birthplace of the little shepherds is the location of this second shrine – arrived at by a walk, with the Stations of the Cross along the way, and set amidst evocative olive groves.

There were many nuns around
One of the Stations of the Cross
The XIV Station

The quiet and preserved natural environment means that I saw many more birds (and flies) than I have seen so far – a pair of jays, a robin, greenfinch, sparrows, an giant grasshopper, stalkfuls of snails and the white, bobbed tail of a rabbit as it loped away.

Believe me, it was the an inch long!
The great, green grasshopper
There were two jays under the olive trees
Queues of snails

I seemed to attract more attention than usual – perhaps the rucksack and baton were the reason. A man gestured for me to stop and he took my photo. He shook my hand and said he was from Brazil. Another gent asked if I was a pilgrim (!) and, in an Australian accent, said he would walk 25 kms a day from Porto a day ahead of me.

There is always a choice of which way to turn

A third, a Portuguese, asked if I needed an albergue to stay in, but I had already spent the night in the city in a small, single room with a private bathroom in a great stack of serviced apartments.

The ‘What Else’ guesthouse where I sayed in Fatima, Portugal
The window display at the guest house refelcted the reason for this town being the way it is
The sun was high by the ime I left the guest house an had a good walk to the shrine, enjoying the brightly coloured houses
And passing this little chapel at a road junction
I sat in this olive grove and meditated
Flowers all around

Hungarian Calvary or Santo Estêvão Chapel

River Zâzere, Portugal

I have spent 2 days in the region of Dornes, at the border between Castelo Branco and Santarém, Portugal. September 2019.

Stop sign, Rua Domingos Viera Serrao
Turn off the N238 onto a forest track at this junction

The Grande Rota do Zâzere (#33, 370 kms) starts at the Serra da Estrella and follows the River Zâzere to its confluence with the River Tagus at Constância.

Eerie light caused by the Portuguese forest fires

The first day was windy. The smell of burning was alarming, not for myself on the opposite side of the river, but for the trees and people over the hillside.

Smoke rising in Castelo Branco

An ominous plume of smoke, orange grey and thick, was rising from behind it and slowly it filled the sky, obliterating the sun. The talk was of despair at how nature was responding to our greedy behaviour.

A mixed wood of ferns, eucalyptus and pine

The water was murky, the wind was rallying in the eucalyptus woods, and black ash fell on me as I swam.

Ash at the edge of the river

After the endless toing and froing of the emergency services the day before – noisy, yellow bi-planes circling, landing on the lake and, air bound again, leaving to release their wet loads onto the undergrowth (or so I imagined) – there had been rain, most gratefully received.

Emergency services collect water
Checking for damage

And the next morning the sky was clear.

The day after – a magnificent azure sky

High above, I spotted a pair of birds, glimpsing their white under-carriages, and was impressed by their jet, square-ended wings. Not long after, they were joined by others. They made a few flaps to raise themselves, but then lazed on the thermals, way above, around and around so that I could feel their pleasure. When they landed on the water, they splashed like happy dogs!

Great birds enjoying the wind
Playing and soaring

The mixed plantation behind the rocky beach also drew my attention at intervals: the crackle of brittle leaves, which every now and then fell onto the surface without my noticing how they had got so far from their origin unnoticed; the dry seed pods which fell, singly; and the wiggling of the triangular and smooth, green aspen leaves on their stalks. The silver-green soft fronds of a pine new to me has seeded in the yellow clay of the foreshore and it tickles my elbows.

Self-seeded mini trees
Long, sharp sections of eucalyptus trunks sloughing off
Ochre clay and turquoise waters
The unidentified pine
And its seed pods
Sparkling Aspen

As I stepped into the water a grass coloured fish darted away silently. I lay as quietly as I could, just sculling under the surface to keep myself afloat, when something leapt twice: up, arcing in a blur, down and then again, up and over, making a plash each time.

The wind creating endless patterns on the surface

The distant voices of fishermen on the opposite bank roused me from my meditation and, eyes open, I admired the ripples stippling the reflections of the slopes across the channel.

The broken rocks had sharp edges – not the most comfortable of resting places I admit

A few others bathed along the shore, two camped overnight. There was a water skier, five boisterous water scooters, an altogether calmer paddle boarder, and quite a lot of small yachts, but the predominant sound was of nature.

I sat and gazed – you can see why

At night when I swum under the hidden full moon, the water was like a thick liquid slate and the plaintive sound of an owl came from the trees, so different from in the morning when a single sweet call serenaded me. At lunch time, a tapping and knocking could be heard (but not seen) the forest, and in a garden a Jay zipped from branch to branch and screeched its existence. The enormous and garish ‘wasps’ buzzed so ferociously I was momentarily woken from my reverie.

A massive wasp or bee sort of insect which made the loudest buzz I have ever heard!

Don’t all rush down there at once and spoil the peace!