Aaaahhh the Algarve

From Lisbon we headed down the coast to Sagres, the most South Western point of Europe.   From the rugged landscape it’s easy to see why it was once thought of as the end of the world.

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The town itself is small but its got so much personality with the towering cliffs leading down to beautiful beaches.
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It certainly wasn’t a chore to be at the beach day after day, the sand is lovely and fine and although the water’s not the warmest the sunny days called for at least one swim.
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We had a great campsite here at a new euro low of 11.80 per night. If it weren’t for the roosters crowing through the night, the geese honking all the time and the 6 or more cats roaming around it’d be perfect. 

We decided to have a drive along the coast and ended up staying in Praia De Luz for a couple of nights.  We noted a lot of British people around suddenly and eventually realised this was the town where Madeline McCann was abducted years ago. 

The town itself was pretty quiet this time of year but was a good base to explore the coast. 

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We had a cracker meal out with traditional Portuguese steak and fish dishes, yummy apple pie.
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The chef has a visitor’s book (we 1st Kiwis) that he gets tourists to write something in ‘their language’ so here was our effort.

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It was really close to have a day trip to Lagos, a bigger but pretty laid back fishing town.   We had fun wandering around here and spending time on its beach.   We’re getting through lots of books on our kindles with all this beach time.

Further along the coast was Albufeira, a resort town that very clearly caters mainly for the influx of English tourists they have each summer.  Every cafe has an English breakfast on the menu and many are English themed, football on TV etc.   We planned to stay round here several nights but it was all a bit much for us, we felt like we were back in London so after one night decided to return to Sagres for the remainder of our time in Portugal. 

We did see this interesting sight holding up traffic a bit on the main road.
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These were some other classic vehicles.

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There’s something special about Sagres, the landscape is rocky and feels isolated, then you have the huge cliffs and great beaches. First time we’ve returned anywhere on our trip so far which says a lot.

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The Goo loved being out in the sea air too.

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One thing that surprised us was the amount of people fishing from the cliffs each day, no matter the weather. Matt read about it and apparently at least 2 people die each year fishing here, no wonder the way they clamber over the rocks so close to the edge, dropping the lines 70 metres before they hit the water.
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We weren’t the only people to take advantage of a great sunset view from near the lighthouse one night.
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A night out for dinner proved a great idea when our meals came to the table,  especially Matt’s choice which was a yummy pork, clam and potato dish.  We had such a good (and very cost effective meal)  that we returned 2 nights later.
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We did a bit of self catering too, we thought we’d better buy some peri-peri sauce.
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Our last day here was unfortunately overcast and wet so didn’t get to the beach but Rach thought it’d be a perfect day to get her hair done. Even this was at least half the price it would be at home so it’s not just food/drink that’s cheap. One of the best value places we’ve visited in Europe. Actually probably the best value when you take into account modern infrastructure, compared with other cheap countries visited in the Baltics and Balkans.

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We’ve really had a fun relaxing time in this part of Portugal especially around Sagres. It would definitely be on our list of places to return to, just a shame it’s so far away from home.

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Loving Lisbon

As soon as we crossed the border into Portugal we could tell we were in another country just by looking at the houses.   Instead of the sandy brown of the houses in Spain these are pure white with red/brown roofs. 

Driving into the capital Lisbon wasn’t quite smooth sailing, not helped by Rach driving through the wrong part of a toll bridge setting off all the alarm bells and whistles.

Lisbon is a much bigger city than we expected but at least that means there’s plenty to do. 

The city’s Oceanaria (aquarium) is one of the largest in the world and is home to Rach’s favourite sea animal the otter.

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How could you not love them, they’re so cute.

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Could have watched them for days (in fact Matt offered to leave me there) but we moved on to other critters like this ginormous tortoise.  We thought the glass was magnifying it but it was truly massive.

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We got to see puffins and penguins.

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There were lots of different fish in the main aquarium including sharks, sunfish and different rays.

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A sunfish can grow up to 3m long.

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This was another big fella, can’t really image hauling him up on a line without some effort.

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We had time to play finding nemo before we were fished out for the day, 2 hrs here was plenty.

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On a wander around the city we were treated to an impromptu dance in the street.  We watched from afar so we wouldn’t get picked as volunteers.

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The buildings here are so colourful, alot of exteriors are patterned tiles which gives so much character.

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One of the best views is from the castle de san Jorge.  Great view across the whole city. As you can see by the sky cracker weather too.

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It was worth walking up the hill through the winding streets but we cheated and got a bus down.

We decided that we needed to stay up past 9.30pm for once, so on the Saturday night we signed up for a Fado tour followed by a pub crawl. 

Fado is traditional Portuguese music that is quite melancholy but beautiful to listen to.   The guide we had was great and after each song he would give us a quick rundown of what it meant because of course the lyrics were in Portuguese. 

Most are about falling in or out of love or about people’s destiny.Also they sing about the suburbs in their town i.e “oh the way the sunlight shines upon the streets of Phillipstown”

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The two guys playing guitar were fantastic.   One was on classical and the other a 12 string guitar and depending on what region you’re from the head is either shaped like a snail, a cross or a teardrop.

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We really enjoyed this tour and it was great value for money considering we were there for about 3 hours (over which there was song after song each telling a story plus breaks) and got drinks and nibbles included.  But the night wasn’t over.  We joined about 60 others (majority younger than us) on our pub crawl and headed off into the night.   It was a great mix, there was a group of about 10 English guys who were doing the tour for the 4th night in a row. 

The city has a great night scene, it was good to see different neighbourhoods that come to life at night. Basically everyone piles out onto the narrow streets.

We passed on going to the nightclub which was the last stop on the tour, instead we found our way to McDonald’s and got home to the Goo about 3.30am. A successful night out.

Apart from one overcast day where it was a bit colder (20°) we had fantastic weather so it was good to get out and explore the waterfront.

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We even stumbled upon the Lisbon triathlon in action and thought to ourselves what a shame we didn’t know about it earlier or we could have entered. Ha!

Belem is a popular tourist spot mainly due to its monastery and great spot near the water.

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We seem to have struck another country with an affinity to custard, the Pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) goes great with a morning coffee.

We had a great time here and one of a small list of favourite big cities in Europe. We wanted to get down to the Southern coast, the Algarve, and have some out of the city time so via the longest bridge in Europe (just over 17km) we said goodbye to Lisbon, hello countryside.

Bustling Barcelona

It was around a 6hr drive at 130kph cruise control on the excellent French then Spanish motorways, plus about 9 stops at toll booths, to get to Barcelona from Toulon, so it was great to get to our campsite and relax. 

The camp was one of the closest to Barcelona but it was still 45min to the city.   Fortunately the campsite ran a free morning and night bus to the central city as well as half hourly shuttles to the nearest metro station, much easier than negotiating parking.

The camp restaurant had a great ocean view and because we didn’t have a chance to get into the city our first night  this was where we had our first taste of Spanish Paella and it was delicious.

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We decided to go on an organised walking tour around the city which was a great way to see the sights and our guide was good at going over the history and telling a few tales along the way. 

After the tour ended we happened upon a guy with the longest dreadlocks we’d ever seen.

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We wanted to see the yet uncompleted Sagrada Familia Cathedral, designed by Gaudi and started in 1882 it’s had a few hold ups so it’s estimated completion date is 2026. Almost Disney /Comic book like the most impressive church/Cathedral /religious structure we’ve ever seen and likely will ever see.

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You can certainly tell the section being built now (above) compared with the older section (below).

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It is a truly impressive structure which we would love to return to once it’s complete, especially since there’s a Thomas carved into the stone.

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We probably should have gone inside which is apparently amazing, however we have a strong aversion to lining up for any kind of sightseeing activity so gave it a miss.

The main tourist street of La Ramblas was generally pretty busy at all times, one of the best features of the street is the market with meat /fruit /veges/spices etc.   It’s such a colourful place and everything is arranged to be so neat and tidy.

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The chilli stall was Matt’s favourite.

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One of the nicest food markets we’ve seen and Europe has a lot of them.

Although Catalonia (the region of Barcelona) isn’t a traditional area for tapas we decided to go on a tapas tour one night to get a feel for some Spanish food.  Unfortunately we didn’t get much  of a history from the (useless) guide, we could have walked into random restaurants ourselves and found out more, but it was good to have a night out, try some tapas and meet some fellow travellers

We’d bought some cookies from a biscuterie (true word) in Corsica that we realised we didn’t like all that much so we donated them to the permanent residents of the campground. They thought they were delicious.

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We would definitely go back to Barcelona, it deserves more than the 5 days we allocated to it. We felt we hardly saw much of it, some of this was due to having a great campground that we were quite happy hanging out at.

The different neighbourhoods and the whole city has a great feel.  Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the beach (despite Barcelona having unofficial title of ‘world’s best beach city) but got some great views of it from the train.

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Next up was another 6+hr drive to Madrid where we had a quick overnight stop before the next 6+hr drive to get to Lisbon, Portugal.

Coasting in Corsica

Our ticket into the French Isle of Corsica was via ferry from Livorno on the West coast of Italy.  It was a great trip spent reading in the sun on the top deck. 

The ferry arrived in Bastia and it was a short drive to our campsite for the night in Aleria. 

We decided to chance the campground restaurant for dinner and were pleasantly surprised by the result, esp the dessert.  We were tossing up either the chocolate cake or lemon dessert.  When we asked the waitress what she thought she said “the chocolate cake is for if you’re angry, the lemon dessert if you are happy”, so we ordered the lemon one which turned out to be a really well presented deconstructed lemon meringue pie.  It looked great and tasted great.

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The camp itself was in an ideal position right on the seafront.

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From here we headed down the coast to Porto Vecchio. The weather forecast was for a couple of days of thunder storms so for our sanity we opted for an apartment. It’s not great to be limited to just van space when it’s wet. This turned out great, we had access to the pool so got in some swimming between the brief storms.

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On our way south we stopped in at what we’ve judged to be one of the best beaches we’ve been to on this trip called Rondinara. Beautiful white sand and clear water in a quiet cove.

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Rachel did some fanciful scribbling in the sand to pass the time.

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The southern tip of the island houses the town of Bonifacio, the old town almost hangs off the cliff face.

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The fortress at the edge of town is a great spot to look out over the ocean.

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One of the things very different to NZ was the cemeteries which were made up of tombs like little houses which held entire families. We noticed them all around the coast, most of them were near the waters edge facing the ocean.

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There are large mountains running the length of the island which help to make it one of the top hiking and tramping destinations in the world. In amongst these mountains in the centre of the island is the town of Corte where we stopped for a night. It is a University town so there were lots of students about which gave it a good feel.

Next it was up to the north of the island to Calvi. We really enjoyed our campsite here, hard not to when there’s unlimited wi-fi, a very nice pool, about 30 people at the entire place which would hold 1000, and a glass of wine is only €1.50 at the restaurant.

We did cooking for ourselves here and one night whipped up this monster burger for dinner.

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Unfortunately the day we went into town to have a look around there were 2 cruise ships worth of people there too. Calvi isn’t a huge town so it was a little crowded for us so we opted for a walk around the water instead.

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Petanque anyone?

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We enjoyed our week on the island, it’s definitely got some beautiful beaches to go along with the ruggedness of the rest of the landscape.

We have to say there’s nothing like a true french croissant, breakfast of champions.

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Next we were off to mainland France so caught an overnight ferry from Bastia to Toulon.

We were trying to be money savvy (cheap) so instead of booking a cabin or seat we opted for the bring your own bed and sleep where there’s a space option.

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It worked out well, we got a few hours sleep but it would have been nice if they dimmed the lights for us!

From Toulon it was a full day driving, Au Revoir to France and next stop Hola Barcelona, Spain.

Under the Tuscan Sun

We were relieved to see the back of Rome and arrive back in Tuscany for a few days.   There’s something about the landscape that’s so relaxing, vineyards, olive groves, tall Cyprus trees alternating across the rolling hills.

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We stayed near Montepulciano which was a great position to explore the surrounding villages.
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We enjoyed Monticchiello the best, even though small it has so much character. The breeze moving through made the whole town smell like grapes.

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Rach decided she wanted to move into this house.

Pienza is a close drive, another UNESCO world heritage town and a great place to stop for a drink and bruschetta in the cobbled streets.

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The town had lots of boutique shops, and plenty of wine, cheese and cured meats.

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We explored Montepulciano the next day on our way north, again great town nestled on a hill with lot of character and great views.

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We got there early and it was nice to wander the streets before too many people came out. Of course we had to stop for the obligatory coffee and brioche.

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One thing we weren’t expecting was the parade of porsches through the narrow streets complete with their own police escort.

San Gimignano was our next stop, lovely buildings and beautiful view but pretty busy with lots of tourist buses.

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We had a quick lunch and carried on towards our next campground in Florence.

This turned out to be our most expensive campground, we didn’t quite realise that Florence is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. The high price also included being right next to a massive night club that played until 2.30am – we’re far too old now to even think about joining in!

But we couldn’t complain too much when it was only a half hour stroll to the centre of the city.

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It was great to get out and explore at night with less people around, avoiding the hordes of the day. The cathedrals are so detailed and intricate with lots of mosaic work.

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The Duomo was so impressive, it’s a huge structure that certainly doesn’t look its age (completed in 1436).

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The Baptistry of St. John has an amazing mosaic ceiling that looks more like a painting and cool bronze doors.
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We had a couple of full days wandering around the city.

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Overall Tuscany (especially smaller towns) is one of our favourite areas we’ve visited anywhere so far, if we didn’t want to explore other countries we definitely could have stayed around here a lot longer.

The coffee, food and wine is good and the landscape is beautiful. Probably one of the first places we’d come back to on a future trip to Europe.

Rome if you want to

We had given ourselves a couple of days to explore Rome which turned out to be plenty for what we wanted to achieve there.  

I guess the first stop for most people is the Colosseum so that’s where we headed after we’d devoured our cappuccino and brioche (what we’ve affectionately termed our second breakfast, daily in Italy around 10am) along the way. 

Italy has by far the best coffee of any country we’ve had since leaving NZ, but NZ and Oz coffee is still the best in our opinions.

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It really is an amazing structure. Although with the hordes of tourists would be best enjoyed

A. With only a few of you there so you could yell to each other across the ruins

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B, Packed with 60,000 spectators and some fights to the death going on.

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Next up was the Palatine and Forum.

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The Forum is interesting to wander around looking at the ruins.

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We went to the Trevi fountain and could hardly get close because there were so many people crammed around it.   We had some leftover Kune coins from Croatia so gave them to the fountain for our wish as is tradition.

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Once we’d done that we couldn’t get out of there fast enough, it was getting claustrophobic.

In between sights we managed to track down a shoe repairer to fix Rach’s jandal.  Giuseppe (we came up with the name, could have been his real name?) didn’t speak a word of English but we got across what we wanted and when we came back later he’d done a sterling job of putting it back together and we couldn’t leave without him shaking both our hands.

We found a place slightly off the tourist track for lunch and had a traditional roman dish of carbonara.   Seems so simple but is so tasty.

We passed by the Pantheon, pretty busy around here too.

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The Vatican was the last stop on our list, we enjoyed walking around the square seeing the perfectly kept buildings but the line to get into the Sistine Chapel was so long it didn’t take long for us to decide to skip it.

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We struggled with the crowds in Rome and ended up spending more time at our campsite (which had an excellent pool) than exploring the history, and left a day earlier than planned.

If we’d been fresh out of classics studies, been devout Roman Catholics or if we had more time in the city to explore the different neighbourhoods we may have had a different overall opinion of Rome.  

As it is we’ve come to realise that we don’t enjoy just ticking off the sights and jostling with hundreds of other people in doing so, so we don’t think it’s a city that we would return to.  Because it’s such a huge drawcard we can’t imagine many times of year that would allow you to see it differently in such a short time. Next stop – back to Tuscany.